SEM PCA Driver’s Education School

DSC04218_jpgBy: Leo Wanstreet SEM/PCA Region
President 2002-2004

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drive your Porsche at speed on a racetrack? I did too, but prior to joining PCA I didn’t know where to go. I originally joined Porsche Club of America to take advantage of an insurance program for limited use vehicles which required PCA membership. Prior to that I had never been involved with a well-organized car club and did not have a full understanding of all the benefits of PCA membership. All I wanted was my insurance discount. After I joined and started receiving Panorama and the P4 newsletter, I became interested in the Driver’s Education program and wondered what it would be like to drive my 911 on the racetrack under the conditions of an organized PCA event. After that initial interest, it was still a few years before I actually got around to sending in my registration.

Once I attended my First Driver’s Ed and got comfortable with the program, I was disappointed that I had not started years earlier. Now, I will be the first to admit that driving a Porsche at speed on a racetrack is not for everybody, especially when it is your own Porsche. But if you have had similar interest in exploring the performance capabilities of your car, you may want to investigate this exciting club activity.

What should you expect at your first PCA Driver’s Ed?

First, there will be a few details to take care of before you arrive at the track, but I will go into that later. On the day of the event, everybody shows up at the track early. You will want to check in upon arrival and sign the appropriate waivers. After all, this is a racetrack. At check in, you will receive a schedule of the day’s events and you will be assigned an instructor and a “run group.” After a couple of minutes of paperwork, you will want to remove any loose items from your vehicle and move your car into the grid area for Grid Inspection.You will pull your car into line with all the other attendees while some volunteers from the club come by to check things out. This procedure provides for a final inspection of things like wheel torque, tire pressure, valid driver’s license, proper helmet (more on this later) and appropriate clothing.

Once your car is checked out, you can now pull off the grid, relax and enjoy a continental breakfast provided by the Club. This is also a good opportunity to check out all the cars and talk to some of the others participants. Most of the people you will meet started at their first DE with no experience and a stock Porsche. As a result, everybody relates to the novices in the group. As you look around the paddock you will find a variety of cars from bone stock street machines to fully prepped race cars and a myriad of everything in between. Next, the drivers’ meeting will be held. At this meeting, the chief instructor will review the rules of the day, discuss any safety concerns and familiarize everybody with the standard information flags. We all know that a yellow flag means caution, but you will be expected to learn a few more flags so the corner workers can communicate with you while you are on the track. Of course initially, you will have an instructor in the car to make sure there is no confusion.

If you are a beginner, you will attend a classroom session to review the track layout and some basic fundamentals of automobile dynamics and car control. This class will help you understand what happens with your Porsche as you get closer to the limit, and more important, what driver inputs can improve or deteriorate the situation. The objective is for the correct response to become second nature so that when you encounter these situations on the highway or the track you make the right move. Now, what about those run groups and instructor assignments? This is the way the Club keeps the fun factor high. The DE program is set up to accommodate all levels of experience, so you can always operate within your comfort zone. In fact, you are expected to operate well within your ability and the capability of your vehicle. Anybody that fails to do this may be politely asked to go home and see if their dog needs to be taken out. When you send in your registration the chief instructor assigns you to a group based on your past experience and your car. The nice thing about this is that once you are out on the track, drivers around you are at or near the same level you are.

Cars are spaced out on the 1.4 mile track as they are released one at a time from the pits. As a beginner, you may get an opportunity to lap the track with a group in a van, but at the very least you will do a few parade laps with helmets off so you and your instructor can talk about the race track and what will be happening a little later as things heat up. SEM conducts most of its Driver’s Education sessions at Waterford Hills Racetrack. Like most road courses, Waterford provides a nice variety of technical maneuvers for you once on the track. You have on-camber and off-camber turns, increasing and decreasing radius corners, sweepers and a couple of straits where you can let it all hang out. And at the end of that longest back strait, a ninety-degree turn of course. Porsche brakes are potent and you can test them here. All of this gets covered at the classroom session.

On a typical day, each run group will have four sessions on the track. Each session runs for approximately 20 minutes. Twenty minutes does not seem like a long time, but most participants agree that the breaks are welcome. It allows you a chance to mentally review what you did well and what you want to work on next time out. Your instructor will give you input on this. Otherwise, you are just out there flying around getting closer to that next set of new tires. That is still fun, but you may not improve rapidly as a driver. Depending upon conditions at the track and how well you and others in your run group are doing, your instructor may “sign you off” at some point in the day which allows you to go out on the track solo. It will not be like it was for me at a racing school I once attended (not a PCA Drivers Ed, which is NOT a racing school).

The race track had a long straight where I would hit fifth out of five gears in my 911 racecar. At the end of the straight was a hard right-hand turn. After two sessions my instructor told me “Leo, you’re doing great but you could go a lot faster through that turn at the end of the straight. I want you to start going in there hotter and hotter until you find out what this thing will do. And by the way, I’m not going with you.” At some point during the day you will also spend some time at one of the corner stations while other groups conduct their sessions. While at the corner, you will work with another participant to make sure cars on the track have safe operating conditions. It’s fun to take a stopwatch out with you so you can pick out a couple of cars you like and follow how they are doing, as long as you do not lose track of the primary reason for being there, safety.

Earlier I said we would discuss some of the things that needed to be taken care of prior to event day. These are primarily safety related and need to be taken seriously. First, you need to have a helmet. Do you remember the scene from Easy Rider where Jack Nicholson decides he is going to take off with Peter Fonda on the back of his Harley? When asked if he had a helmet, Nicholson pulled out an old football helmet from the glory days, dusted it off and said ”sure.” That won’t work here. Your helmet has got to be rated Snell 1995 (SA95) or newer. If you sign up for an event under SEM’s Novice Program, a qualified helmet will be provided for you. Confirm your eligibility for the free rental with the event registrar. If you purchase a new Snell rated helmet today, it should exceed those requirements. What type of helmet to purchase and how much to spend is a personal decision. You can get a good helmet without spending a ton of money and you can drop four figures if you want. The first helmet I purchased, thinking I would use it for years, was a full face extended protection Kevlar helmet that fell in the middle of the price range. After I got it and studied the literature that was shipped with it, I found that these things have a shelf life. According to the manufacturer’s recommendation, you do not use them indefinitely. So when you do you ROI calculation on your helmet, assume a short depreciation schedule and act accordingly. One more thing on helmets, it does not have to be difficult to acquire a quality helmet.

There are many online providers that make it convenient to purchase this safety item. I have had good experience with OG Racing (1-800-934-9112 or www.ogracing.com) and Pegasus (1- 800-688-6946 or www.pegasusautoracing.com) There are many others. Purchase your helmet in plenty of time before the event and you should be able to easily exchange it if you miss on the sizing. The other thing you need to do is have your car inspected by an approved tech inspector or repair facility. The inspection is designed to uncover any mechanical deficiencies that might cause you a problem on the track. You need to be sure that your wheel bearings are properly adjusted and that you have adequate brake linings, good tires, working brake lights etc. Most Porsche dealers will do this for no charge if you have your car in for other service like an oil change or tune up. If you do not have plans to take your car into the dealership or other repair facility, you can choose an inspector near you from a list of qualified tech inspectors which you will receive when you register. These people are great guys and will work with your schedule. If the inspection uncovers a problem, you have time to get it rectified prior to track day. The good thing about this is that if you have a problem you want to know about it sooner rather than later anyway. The inspection may save you a tow to the dealer. Another very good option is to call the people at Munk’s Motors. Munk’s has scheduled complimentary Tech Inspections at its facility in Waterford. These dates are all on Saturdays, correspond with the Waterford track dates and represent a great opportunity to get your car checked as you watch, while enjoying a cup of coffee with Porschephiles.

All of this at no cost. Munk’s has a beautiful and modern import repair facility conveniently located on M59 near Telegraph in Waterford. If you want to use Munk’s, check out their ad in the P4 or call them at 248-681 -8081.

Southeast Michigan Region typically has four Drivers’ Education sessions planned at Waterford Hills through the summer. In addition to that, there will be a session at the Club Race at GingerMan Raceway in July. Drivers with enough experience to take to the track without an instructor can participate at the GingerMan DE. Waterford Hills has other groups that do events at its track and typically they are available to Porsche owners that want to join in.

These can be fun, but you will find very few, if any, that run a track session as well as PCA. So this summer, instead of risking a ticket on public roads, sign up for a Drivers’ Ed event and have some fun with your fellow Porsche enthusiasts exploring the limits on one of the most challenging racetracks around. Check the P4 or this web site for dates and other information.



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