A New Way To Drive
“You’re going to learn something that only about a hundred people in the whole world know how to do” .. said Bill Buff of Driving Dynamics. “I’m going to teach you how to see properly”.
So began our classroom session at the Rennsport Region Instructor’s Day. Rennsport invited Bill and his partner Marv Ungarman to teach us their remarkable techniques because several of our members met them at Watkins Glen while getting check rides. They were so impressed that they suggested we ask them to help us with our own teaching program. Seven instructors were chosen by lottery and I was one of the fortunate few. Our mission was to learn everything we could and prepare to teach other instructors (and our students) next year.
Our compressed (can’t say crash) program consisted of a classroom session Friday night and driving exercises on the track and skidpad Saturday. In the classroom, Bill casually told us something about his background. Notwithstanding his modesty, we were very impressed when he said that he was racing for the Porsche factory back in the 50’s and that none other than Wolfgang Von Tripps had showed him the ropes. While racing, Bill trained on the technical side too, and graduated as a Porsche Automotive Engineer in 1956.
Doing the math, I concluded that Bill was a lot older than he looked. I’d give him early fifties at most. Maybe they started them younger in those days? After racing extensively in Europe, Bill returned to the USA to take of driver training for Porsche.
Today, his firm, -Driving Dynamics- teaches correct driving techniques to racers and non racers, with a lot of emphasis on corporate programs for Fortune 500 companies. Bill and Marv are also famous for being the meanest-toughest sign off instructors at Watkins Glen. Bill told us that two of our group who checked out with him at the Glen, called him a son-of-a-gun (I’m being polite here). The same two were really enthusiastic about getting Bill to teach us!
Bill told us that he and Marv had come because he values enthusiasm and dedication. Since we were willing to give up a free track day to work hard, he felt we were worthy. That vote of confidence set the scene for a very rewarding experience.
Having established his credentials, Bill gave us a very extensive class in how to instruct driving. From his crisp and clear style it was obvious that he’d done this many times. I can’t cover everything he taught us in this column so I’ll focus on the biggie, vision.
The Fourth Input. We all know about the other three, steering, braking and acceleration. Bill opened our eyes to seeing!
“Your eyes are a high percentage of your sensory input when driving a car. We often say we have a seat-of-the-pants feeling, but really it’s our eyes and our inner ear telling us what’s going on.
When we were kids, our parents told us “watch where you’re going!”. As adults we tend to do that still. It’s wrong. If your car is headed towards a cliff, do you want to watch where you’re going, or, do you want to go someplace else? The fact is the car will go where you are looking so why not look where you’d like to go?
At one time or another, everyone has been told to look further ahead. We’ve wondered what it meant exactly. How far ahead do I look? Bill gave us the answer. “Look a minimum of three seconds ahead, be looking where your car will be in three seconds from now.” Look farther ahead if it’s appropriate but don’t look farther ahead than you need too. Don’t try and process information you don’t need.”
On the track, most of us tend to look at things sequentially, focusing on:
the braking point then,
the turn in point then,
the apex then,
the exit and so on.
In reality, we make straightish lines connecting specific points on the track or roadway. Sort of like “connect the dots”. Bill taught us how to make smooth curves through a corner instead. The secret is to look where you want to go and count on peripheral vision. By now you’re probably thinking “yeah sure, I’ve heard this before…”; don’t give up on me yet, there’s more. Bill taught us how to look ahead and all of us who had the program agree that it works! It is a lot more than just words I assure you.
Here’s the secret, POINT YOUR NOSE WHERE YOU WANT THE CAR TO GO! No big deal right? Wrong! Every one of us thought that we were doing that already. A session on the skid pad proved just how mistaken we were.
Before I get to the exercises (which made believers out of us) here are the main points you need to keep in mind:
Your head should be level when turning. Don’t tilt it, that confuses your inner ear.
Your seat position should be adjusted so you can turn
the wheel without moving your shoulders off the back rest If your shoulders move, your head tilts.
Your hands must be at the 10 and 3 o’clock position. Turn the wheel without moving your hands and never go hand over hand. Bill says “if you have to go hand over hand on the track you are already in trouble”. If you must move a hand, keep the thumb of one hand on the spoke of the wheel and slide the other one around towards it. That way you will always know which way your wheels are pointed.
Look ahead, see the big picture (the entire turn) and not the close up view directly in front of your car. Look a minimum of 3 seconds ahead of the car at all times.
Point your nose in the direction you want to go. That means turn your head and look out the side window if you have to. It doesn’t mean keep your head pointed straight and look out of the corners of your eyes. Your car will go in the direction you are looking. —-
Freeze your hands on the wheel until you have the big picture, then let it turn.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is, actually. Our biggest stumbling block was overcoming the notion that we were already doing all this. Doing it consistently will take practice though.
On Saturday morning we hit the skid pad bright and early. Bill and Marv had set up a tight figure eight course. Their instructions to us were simple: Drive slowly through the figure eight, look ahead to the next turn and point your nose where you want the car to go. The course was set up to be deliberately tight. To point our noses where we wanted the car to go, we were forced to look out the side window. We were told that people have an tendency not to look past the windshield post. That proved to be true.
Our group was split into two, four were driving and four were set up as observers. We learned as much from watching the others as by doing the exercise. Even though the instructions were simple, we all flunked on the first time around. The observers thought this was pretty funny, as the driver went around thinking that he was doing it right. ——–
We noticed that the driver was looking down (not ahead) and watching the cone near the car instead of looking ahead to the next turn.
After some coaching from Bill and Marv, (and encouragement from the observers) we started doing it right. We noticed that after the driver began pointing his nose where he wanted to go, the car began tracing smooth arcs around the course and the speed increased.
Without exception we all saw and felt the same thing. Neat! I wished I had brought a video camera, the tape would make converts out of any one who saw it.
By the end of the skidpad session we were starting to trust our peripheral vision to tell us if we were running down a cone while concentrating on looking ahead to the next turn, where we wanted to be going. Incidentally, we didn’t hit a single one.
We also did another interesting exercise on the pad. Bill and Marv used cones to build a simple turn, roughly 90 degrees constant radius. We were instructed to drive into the curve at a moderate speed (30 MPH or 50 KPH) and Bill would yell “brake!” as some point in the turn. When we heard him, we were to brake hard.
The first group of drivers charged in and we watched where they were looking. It was raining and the pad was slippery. We were told to use maximum threshold braking. As we applied the brakes our cars understeered and we ended up looking where we were going as opposed to where we wanted to go. It was hard to control the natural tendency to look where the understeering/sliding car was going.
The big revelation was when we finally overcame our natural instincts and even with the car going sideways (we had increased the speed by now) we kept looking where we wanted to go and sure enough the car ended up there as opposed to being way off course. As a side lesson we learned how useful ABS is under those circumstances.
VISION ON THE TRACK
So far so good. The Vision Technique worked well on the skid pad where all we risked was assassinating harmless cones. Could we do it on the track with real walls and Armco?
We headed to the track for a lapping session with the goal of applying what we had learned earlier that morning. We doubled up, two to a car. One driver and one “watcher”. It was disconcerting at first to have someone in the passenger seat staring fixedly at your face. The observer’s job was to see where the driver was looking and pointing his face. Encouraged by our ever vigilant passengers, we forced ourselves to look up, ahead and point our noses across the turn. After a few fairly uncomfortable laps started to trust our peripheral vision while we pointed our noses where we wanted the car to go.
As we got the hang of it, we discovered a tendency to turn in too soon. The car really does go where you point your nose and if you’re looking way ahead, you’ll turn in too early, unless you freeze your hands. I bet you forgot that part of the technique? I did. You look ahead but freeze your hands until you see the entire corner.
Since turning in early is pretty scary, it took us no time to correct that tendency and remember to freeze our hands until we could see the entire corner, exit and all. The idea is to look ahead, point your nose where you want the car to go but not turn until you see the whole turn. It’s a lot like the old adage “when in doubt stay out”. It works amazingly well as a later exercise was to prove.
As we became more comfortable, we all noticed that we were carrying a lot more speed into corners yet neither the car nor the driver was working hard. Since we were experimenting with a new technique, nobody was trying to go fast and if anything we were driving more slowly than usual.
Secondly, I noticed that my lines were subtly different and better. Looking ahead in this new way, I wasn’t concentrating on the line at all. Yet, my car was following a smoother line than before. It felt as if there was a linkage between my cheek bones and my hands. Face where I wanted the car to go and magically the car followed in a smooth arc.
My theory is that our cars were tracking in clean arcs instead of a series of more or less straight lines joining the entry, apex, and exit points. Instead of a series of larger steering inputs we were making one smooth and continuous input. The smooth arc scrubs off less speed and is and safer because a continuous small steering input has the car better balanced. What is uncanny is that we all thought we were making very smooth arcs prior to learning this technique.
After the first track session, we reviewed our observations with Bill and Marv. They chuckled knowingly. I guess they’ve seen it all before. Bill then put on a simple but convincing demonstration of “looking ahead” and its benefits.
He lined us up along pit road about 15 feet away for him and asked us to focus on him. He called our attention to an object about 150 feet behind him. Did we notice it? Yes. Could we see it clearly? No.
Then he asked us to look way beyond him. Again he asked if we could see the distant object. Yes, very clearly. While talking to us he moved his arm. Did we see it? Yes, easily and quite clearly. By looking farther ahead we still see things in the foreground without any difficulty. He had made his point.
There is good science behind this technique. It’s a function of how our eyes work. Our increased ability to perceive a change using peripheral vision is called “the eye of the hunter”. This was a useful survival trait back in pre-history and Bill reminded us of how useful it is today in a very different environment.
Bill stressed the value of anticipating the track. After only 3 laps of our circuit, Bill already had a mental image of the entire layout. I guess racing at the “Ring” with 160 turns can do that for you.
After stressing the importance of anticipating the road ahead of us, we were sent out with a very unusual mission. Lap the track but, don’t-use-brakes. Again we doubled up with the passenger providing incentive to follow the instructions and NOT USE THE BRAKES. We switched drivers half way through the session.
We took off very cautiously. After the fact, it was clear that Bill had sent us out to prove to ourselves the fact that we didn’t anticipate enough even though we thought we did. He made his point.
After a couple of hair rasing moments and the occasional poke at the brakes, we really got into it. By thinking far ahead we could actually drive the track rather quickly without touching the brake pedal. After the first ten minutes or so, this turned into a friendly contest to see who could lap fastest without using brakes.
By thinking ahead we quickly figured out that we could accelerate less hard through the kink and reduce speed by coasting up the hill into Namerow. Then hard on the gas ’til pit out, coast down the hill into One. Constant through One and reduce speed by coasting up the hill and down into Diable. You get the idea I’m sure.
One interesting thing was the fact that we were lapping surprisingly fast…. with-no-brakes. While we couldn’t carry as much speed as far down the straights, we carried more momentum through the turns. The continuous subtle steering input we learned in the previous exercise had our cars better balanced.
THE NEW TRACK
During the theory section on Friday evening, Bill told us that the “point your nose – freeze the hands” technique would allow us to drive any road or track quickly and safely even if we’d never been there before. Saturday afternoon, we were able to prove it.
They set us up to run Carrousel and Turn Seven backwards. I cannot begin to describe how foreign Mt-Tremblant became. Until you try it, you probably won’t believe me, so I won’t even attempt to explain it. I will say that taking Seven backwards I noticed that there is a pretty good hill there, I must have turned a thousand laps and never noticed it before.
We were instructed to drive the Carrousel slowly at first and every time around, we’d increase the speed. No helpfulturn in and apex cones, by the way. Marv, Bill, and a few assistants were standing around the corners to observe us. Since we’d never seen this track before we had no option but to try and trust this new technique.
On my first attempt, I lapsed into a bad habit and forgot to freeze my hands. On the second lap, I got a not bad late apex but still a little early. On the third lap (speeds were increasing every time) I screwed up my courage and did it exactly as I had been taught. I drove in, looking across the 180 degree Carrousel with the wheel frozen. All of a sudden I saw the exit and let my hands follow my vision.
To my delight, the car automatically found the way and carved a very pretty line. It takes getting used to. I had a high pucker factor driving into the corner not watching where the car was going but looking across it for the big picture.
Since I know there is an embankment and more than a few trees, this took an act of faith and putting more trust in my peripheral vision that I was willing the first time. Still, any doubts I had about the technique were erased.
At the wrap up session everyone who took the course was enthusiastic. I’ve been to various driving schools before but I’ve never seen this much excitement. Consider too that the students were all very experienced drivers, most from a racing background. This should help you get some idea of how revolutionary the techniques we learned really are.
It will take some practicing before we’re all comfortable with these new skills. The good news is that like heel and toe, you can and should do it on the street. Leaving the track, I saw a number of drivers making hard left turns with their noses pointed out the side window looking off to the horizon. I’ll be practicing this stuff all winter and by the time I get to the Glen next summer, I’ll be ready to take my check ride with one of the “son-of-a-guns”.
For you trackies out there, we’ll be incorporating these lessons into our standard teaching program starting next spring. You might want to start practicing it now on the street. For non trackies, consider that Bill and Marv told us that the Vision Technique has proved to reduce traffic accidents by up to 90 percent based on statistics supplied by their corporate clients.
I had a great time, learned exciting new stuff and I’d like to thank Bill and Marv for sharing their skills with us.
Bob Rouleau, written in 2003