Sunday, June 22, 2008

NASA and HPDE, Acronyms and Initialisms

I spent most of this weekend at a high-performance driver's education class run by NASA. No, not that NASA; this NASA, the National Auto Sport Association. The HPDE Group 1 (novice) class I attended took place at my not-so-local motorsports park, Summit Point, and it consisted of 4 classroom sessions and 6 on-track sessions on Summit Point's main circuit.

The indoor classes were frankly disappointing. Although the in-class instructor was a former professional racer, he spent most of the time telling us that other drivers on the highway are trying to kill us and reminiscing about various collisions he'd been in or barely avoided. I was hoping for a lot more information on the physics of driving. You know: weight transfer, the traction circle, slip angle, and so on. I've been told we'll discuss those topics in detail in more advanced classes. I hope so.

The on-track instruction was another story entirely. During the first session, I felt overwhelmed, not just by driving the course, but also by watching the other drivers and paying attention to the flag stations. I didn't drive very well, and I didn't have much fun. My in-car instructor, Vince, was both patient and encouraging, offering feedback throughout each lap. With each session, I learned a little, relaxed a bit,* and had a lot more fun. By the last session, I was more-or-less consistently hitting the same brake points, turn-in points, apexes, and track-out points on each lap. And I was pushing my little Miata harder than I would have thought possible. I reached over 105 miles per hour in the main straight before braking for Turn 1, but that wasn't my favorite part of the circuit. My favorite section was working through Turns 6** through 10 at an ever-increasing speed, shifting from third, to fourth, to fifth in the process.

This event was an educational class, not a race, so there was no reason to be competitive; instead, we were encouraged to cooperate with each other, and not to let our egos lead us to chase the cars in front or try to hold off the cars behind. Thus, I let faster cars behind me pass immediately. Still, I must say that I'm quite proud that, although I was passed by seemingly everyone during the first session, during the last session, I passed numerous cars, including a 350Z and a stripped-out Mustang GT, both of which should be much faster cars than mine. Additionally, I was only passed by, I believe, a WRX and some late-model 911 variant.

Vince let me ride along in his Corvette (C5) Z06 during one of his track sessions. Certainly, he's a much better driver than I am, and his car is much faster than mine. The combination was impressive, to say the least. I actually began to feel nauseated by the end of the session.

I certainly learned a great deal from the class. Paramount among what I learned were number of driving skills, obviously---I won't trouble you by itemizing them---but I also came to a couple of conclusions not directly related to driving technique. The first conclusion, which I also reached after my first autocross class, is that there's no point in buying a higher-performance car until you've learned to push your current car to, or at least near, its limits. The second, which is really a corollary to the first, is that it's foolish to own a high-performance vehicle unless you take it to a track, an autocross course, or someplace else where you can explore its performance envelope. That's my opinion, of course; your mileage may vary.

HPDE classes were not the only events going on at the main circuit this weekend. There were also several races, as well as the qualifying and practice sessions associated therewith. I noticed some trends among the cars in the paddock. You're probably not interested in my observations, but here they are anyway:
  • First- and second-generation Miatas (NAs and NBs) were by far the most numerous cars present. Many of these were Spec Miata racers, but there were also oodles of non-spec Miatas in attendance; 4 of them were in my HPDE 1 class of 25 students.
  • There were a lot of Porsche 944s, too. They all seemed to be part of some Spec 944 race series; outside of that series, I didn't see any.
  • The third most numerous cars in the paddock were various BMW 3-series, mostly E46 M3s.
  • Corvettes, mostly C5s, were also present in force.

Overall, I felt the HPDE course was both educational and fun. If you are interested in learning to drive your car at its limits, you should certainly look into an HPDE course, whether offered by NASA or some other organization. However, I'd suggest you attend an autocross class or autocross competition first; autocross is less dangerous, less expensive, and probably more convenient for you.

Update: NAautoxer, a member of the forum whose wife, Carrie,*** was in my class, has posted some photos from this weekend to Flickr, and I've included some of the images of my group's sessions in this post. A few of the photos happened to feature me and my car, which is all dolled up with tape protecting the headlights and spelling out the number 144 on the door. One of these photos was taken, I think, when I was about to pass Carrie, in her white number-16 Miata with an unpainted aluminum hood.

* Probably every sports instructor I've ever had---from martial arts to Olympic weightlifting to inline skating---has told me I needed to relax. Tension is clearly an ongoing problem for me.

** Turns 6 and 7 can be combined into a single semi-circular corner by holding the wheel at a fixed angle and fine-tuning the direction of travel with the throttle.

*** This spelling is a guess.

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