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Fast cars are plentiful; fast drivers - not so much

The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, equipped with the

The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, equipped with the available Z51 Performance Package, is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, braking from 60 to 0 in 107 feet, and sustaining 1.03 g in cornering. Credit: General Motors

There is nobody in the world who has more of the “need for speed” than yours truly. I grew up on Long Island in the 60s and 70s - a time when Friday evenings were spent as a spectator at Freeport Raceway and Sundays were spent as a participant at National Speedway.

As a youth it seemed perfectly rational to me that manufacturers should offer virtually the same street cars to the public as those cars that were racing on tracks and drag strips all over the country. It never occurred to me that there might be something unwise about selling a 400+ horsepower car to any 18-year-old who had cut enough lawns and shoveled enough snow to scrape together $4,000. 

Things aren’t much different today. Any 17-year-old can walk into a showroom and buy a car that has 650HP, but prices start at about ten times what they were back then. One fortunate difference is that today’s performance cars can actually turn and stop (even at the same time) as opposed to the cars I grew up with.

As an adult I find it fascinating that manufacturers sell these cars to the public at all, especially in today’s litigious society. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t, and I’m not saying that I’m unhappy that they do. I’m just surprised. As an adult, I also spend a fair amount of time appraising these high-performance cars that have been wrecked. Based on my purely un-scientific observations, most are late model Corvettes and Vipers, and most are wrecked by drivers under 20 years old.

So you think “That could never happen to me. I’ve been driving high-performance cars all my life, and I’m a great driver.” Think again. I’ve also been driving high-performance cars all my life, including driving schools in open wheel race cars and NASCAR cars. But I had an experience that really opened my eyes. No, I didn’t crash. Remember, I’m a great driver. What opened my eyes was experiencing the difference between someone who perceived himself to be a great driver (me), and someone who really is a great driver.

About ten years ago my wife gave me the gift of the Skip Barber Racing School at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. I was given the opportunity to take a brutal 10-cylinder Dodge Viper out on the track. I would be following an instructor in a puny 4-cylinder Dodge Neon. I asked him if I was allowed to pass him and he simply stated “Oh, don’t worry about that.” I assumed that meant “Yes.” I spent the next ten laps simply trying to keep up with him as he pulled farther away with each lap. This was nothing short of an epiphany. It turns out that I was merely a good driver. He was a great driver, and I wanted to know what he knew. Had I not taken those 10 laps, I don’t think that I would have been nearly as receptive to what this instructor would teach us later in the day. He knew that.

It made me wonder: If I were merely a “good driver,” what were the rest of the drivers that I was sharing the road with? Average? Poor? And yet these drivers could go into a showroom and walk out with a weapons-grade performance car. It gave new meaning to the term “defensive driving.”

The class that I attended that day was composed of drivers of all ages and skill levels. We each started out in Dodge Neons, the theory being that with their lower level of performance, if something was going to go wrong it would happen at a lower rate of speed. Conversely, if you were going to go faster in a Neon, it was because your skill level was improving. We worked our way up to the Vipers, and by the end of the day everyone had become a significantly better driver. To demonstrate just how much better we had become, the instructors had planned a fun exercise.

They split us up into two teams of ten drivers. Each driver would take two laps of the track, pull into the pits, re-set the seat for the next driver, jump out of the car, and the next driver would take two laps and repeat the process. When the last driver of a team finished, the total time that all ten drivers had spent on the track would be summed up, and that would be the teams total time. Miraculously, the total time of each team was within one second of each other! We all had become much better drivers in the short span of one day.

The lesson learned that day is that there are plenty of fast cars on the road, but not that many fast drivers. Remember, a high performance car is capable of going fast and handling well. But because of those very same attributes, when things go wrong they tend to happen at a much higher rate of speed. Unless you’re a great driver, there’s a good chance that I’ll end up appraising your car.  

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