Of all the questions I get asked, the most common is "How can I go faster?" Usually, these go-fast wannabes look for a simple solution such as buying horsepower, bolting on suspension goodness, or stickier rubber, but to get quicker times, the best advice I have is to invest in yourself. Unlike other sports where being athletic is key, driving a car at speed and doing it well is more than just throwing "Benjamins" at the beast hoping they'll stick!
Fortunately, there are experts who can teach you behind-the-wheel skills, and while there’s no guarantee you’ll end up like Mark, Mary, or Mikey, you’ll leave a better driver than when you arrived. How do you get these Über-driving skills, you ask? Easy … get your bad self to a performance driving school.
I look at these schools as an adventure where I always come away with much more than I brought with me. I pick my schools with two basic things in mind: the quality of the instruction and, if not my own, the type of car I'll be taking my instruction in. Why is this last part important? That's easy. I drive a relatively high-powered and well-suspended Camaro. Putting me in a Formula Ford wouldn't get me as far as it would driving a Z06 Vette, right? Cost factors in at a very distant third. There are tons of courses out there, too. Hooked On Driving (hookedondriving.com) and NASA (nasaproracing.com) are nationwide and are two venues that allow students to use their own cars or arrange an "arrive and drive" rental. Both offer one-on-one instruction and focus on track safety and basic driving skills that will help you gain a better understanding and appreciation of your car. And knowing what the car can, and more importantly, cannot, do is the first step to driver improvement. Other options are the pre-Pro Touring event schools that are routinely being offered the day before the actual event. What's beneficial about these is you drive the track you'll be competing on and are learning from some of the best. Another option is getting "edumacated" at an autocross school, and one that comes to mind is Evolution Performance Driving Schools (evoschool.com). They're offered throughout the U.S. and are an excellent way to get your feet wet.
Fast forward. You’ve picked your school and paid your $$$. Before you arrive all wide-eyed and full of wow, remember that you’re a student. Check your ego at the door, or better yet, leave it locked up in the car in their parking lot. No one cares a whit that you kick butt on Gran Turismo, have a Malibu Grand Prix license, or got squirrelly in your friend’s Porsche once. You’re there to learn … plain and simple. Sporting an Olympic quality “I’m the next Stig” chest-puff will also put a bull’s-eye smack dab on the front of your fire suit and every mistake you make (and you will make them) will be talked about; usually, behind your back.
As for what equipment to bring, get your own helmet and shoes. I’ve got a “Bell” head and if I put on a Simpson, after a minute I want to rip it off and set it on fire. My racing shoes are strictly for track use and rarely see the pavement. Yours should be the same. Having your own basic equipment also tells your school that you’re more serious than the guys who use school stuff. Having your own fire suit raises this up a notch and if your name’s on it, you are walking tall on the respect-o-meter.
Listen to your instructors as they have driven this track. They know every inch, every tree that lines the course, all the sight objects you'll ever need to view to get around that track fast. Instructors come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Just because yours isn't 20-years old or last year's Rolex Daytona 24-Hour class winner, do not discount their knowledge. Old guys (and gals) are plenty quick. Also, listen as if there's only so much time allotted to you. If you spend time talking about why you took a different line than what was recommended, they'll listen, but wouldn't it be better spent driving the preferred one in the first place and knowing first-hand why it was faster? Getting into a lengthy discussion about silly nuisance stuff won't impress your instructor, but doing what you're told and improving your times will. One lengthy discussion I had went like this. Instructor: "Mary, you can take Turn 4 almost flat out." Mary: "No, I can't." "Yes, you can!" "Nope can't." "Why not?" "I didn't buy crash insurance!" Which produced mass laughter. At your school, you'll be given a crash course (hopefully, not a literal one) in all things racing and there's much to absorb. At my "Skippy School" (skipbarber.com), I made copious notes in my class Track Book and before I drive a track day at Laguna Seca, I refer to it as a refresher. You should do the same with your book(s).
And remember, your school is neither a track day nor a race! The one, two, or three days spent in the classroom, on track watching other drivers, and then behind the wheel are to help you gain skills and be safer to those that share your company at a future event. Until then, go fast, be safe, and have fun … and buy the insurance!