Learning to drive the Porsche 944

(with apologies to George Carlin)

Are you a good driver? Iíve never met a man who said otherwise. What I donít understand is where are all the average, mediocre drivers? If everyone says "Yes, Iím a good driver," then where are all the bad drivers? The crazed drivers? The lost-in-time-and-space drivers? The inconsiderate drivers? The careless drivers?

I know the answer. You know the answer. Theyíre all around us. They are us. J

So you want to improve? Good. Iíve been trying to improve my driving for almost 15 years now. By driving, I mean, "performance driving." Performance driving to me is driving a vehicle as close to its limits as I am able to in a smooth, controlled manner while retaining bowel control. Even though I never come close to these limits in regular driving on public roads, what I learn when driving on a track or course is directly applicable and directly improves my street driving.

What Iím going to describe now is how I wished I started, knowing what I know now. I am not an expert. Iím still learning. I still have a lot to learn. What is written below may or may not suit you. Your mileage may vary. I never said I was right. Apply the usual legal disclaimers. I have received contingency funds/items from firms and brands mentioned below. I don't work for an insurance company. Address any comments to [email protected] No flames, please.

Start by buying one book. At this early stage more books are interesting reading, but optional. One canít learn driving from a book, so spend the money elsewhere. Besides, the fundamentals are the same in every book. Piero Taruffi published his ideas back in 1958 and all performance driving instruction has been based on Mr. Taruffiís work since. The book to buy is "Secrets of Solo Racing," written by Hank Watts (a Porschelist member). It is a book worth keeping and re-reading every year.

The book is full of content and various sections appeal to various levels of experience. The main thing to learn from the book to start with is all the jargon. Every specialised activity has its own lingo that makes absolutely no sense. Autocross, driver's education, etc., terms can be just as confusing as the doctorís or the lawyerís or the <insert your choices here>ís dialect. "Autocross" itself means different things in the U.S. than Canada (officially) or Britain (in reality). The kind of autocross Iím talking about involves pylons in a paved area and a bunch of folk who use "cone" as a verb.

Look for local autocross events. They could be run by the local SCCA (or functional regional equivalent) club. It could be a marque club, like the Porsche club or the Miata club. (Marque clubs often have "open" events where any manufacturerís cars are allowed.) It could be a company or recreation association club. Find out when they hold events, whether you have to be a member/drive a certain marque (ugh) to attend and go. Inquire about subscribing to a series - it may be quite a bit cheaper than pay as you play. Many clubs have autocross schools. Find out when one is and attend. Reading Mr. Wattís book is excellent preparation for autocross at any level.

Do as much autocross as you can stand. Note some people get pretty tired of autocross pretty quick. Some last a few years. Some will do it all their lives. At the risk of being flamed, Iíd say it autocross is an acquired taste. However, it works. It will make you a better driver.

Autocross (and performance driving generally) require some skills not commonly used in commuting to work. Get familiar with heel-toe downshifting, double clutching, left-foot braking, and shifting without a clutch. Heel-toe is the important one. Double clutch is no longer the necessity it once was, but it is a good skill to have. Many people never left foot brake, some do it rarely, and others swear by it. Right now I do it rarely. Shifting without a clutch is something only done in a 944 under duress. The great thing is these skills are easy to learn "at home" with the help of videotape. I recommend the older video production, "Drive to Win, with Mario Andretti." This video explains the dance step that is downshifting in a clear, easy-to-understand manner. No text will ever be as clear. (I chose "Drive to Win" over a number of other better-organized videos because of its re-play value. Much of the video takes years to understand.)

As all these things done with my usual lack of finesse can stress the car, so I practice on a winter beater. Everybody has a winter beater, right? J A regular practice time (usually *really* early in the morning) on a rarely used parking lot/road is the way to do it. Practice during oneís commute is not recommended. There are too many distractions already. You will soon learn driving means waking up at ungodly hours. Get used to it.

For example, one activity that demands early rising are driverís education events. These are a favourite of many Ė I even know people who have made whole vacations of driving across the country, going from track to track, attending Porsche club driverís education events on the weekends. Note there are a lot of very wise people who believe you should do quite a bit of autocross before heading out to the track. Theyíre right, but letís face it, driving on the track is fun. I do think you should have heel-toe downshifting down pat, and know what to do in various emergencies. Many regions put on ground schools for the inexperienced. Some clubs will put on a skid-pad school or a special for-first-timer driver's education event. Why not go to all of them? The important things to remember are to go at your own pace, check your ego at the door, and be aware. I find autocross and driverís education complement each other.

Autocross and driverís ed. events also share some common equipment requirements. A current Snell-approved motorcycle or motorsports helmet is usually required (check your rules and regulations to make sure). You will often hear advice to buy the best helmet you can afford, a $100 head rates a $100 helmet, etc. At the beginning, I donít think this advice holds. I know a lot of track junkies. I also know a lot of people who did a couple of events, enjoyed them, but thatís all they needed. Thatís fine too, but why buy a $700 helmet to find out? Buying a used helmet is, well, I wouldnít. Helmets do not have a resale value. Motorcycle helmets are cheaper than motorsports helmets in a large part due to demand, not because of quality or inferior materials (for beginner driverís ed. use). High-end motorcycle helmets often have features that cost and can not be used in a closed car Ė for example high-tech venting and wind tunnel shell design. Buy the basic Snell M-approved full-face model from a reputable manufacturer and drive with the visor cocked partway open.

A helmet is all you need for an autocross. I wear a pair of driving gloves just because I like the feel. I also wear them on the track. At the track I also wear a neck collar. A neck injury is very dangerous, very painful, and very annoying. Go-kart racers know where to get a good collar. If you plan on long-term participation, get gloves and a collar that meet sanctioning body requirements.

All this adds up to a big expense. The trick to saving money is this: With one exception, do not spend a dime on making the car faster or handle better unless existing parts have to be replaced. The 944 is exceedingly capable. Modifications are something to consider later. Once you're hooked, fine. When learning to drive, spend the money on seat time. The payback is higher. Of course the car should be in absolute top shape, especially the tires and brakes. Running out of brake pads at the track is very embarrassing, not to mention potentially disruptive. Be very anal about brakes. Learn how to service your brakes, even if you don't normally do-it-yourself. Inspect the brakes daily at the track. Do not run an event on brand new brakes or brand new tires.

Get a height adjustment and an alignment. Replace tires first (if necessary). When the car is on the alignment rack, have the mechanic check that the car is level. On many 944's the rear is raised. There is an eccentric that offers a limited range of rear height adjustment. Get as close as possible to horizontal using only the eccentric (evenly on both sides, use the bottom edge of the door opening as a guide). Unless things are really bad it is best to put off indexing the torsion bars until replacement/upgrade. For alignment specifications of a 944 family car with factory suspension I would start with (NOT WITHIN FACTORY TOLERANCES) -1 degree camber front, -1.5 rear. 0 toe all around. Set front caster at 3 degrees 45' with 17" rims, 3 degrees even for 16" or less. Find a good mechanic (ask around at club meetings) and expect to pay. This is not a $39.95 four-wheel alignment. Expect to pay for two to four hours at the going hourly rate (and occasionally a surcharge. Good high-performance alignment mechanics are relatively rare and are compensated for it.)

No doubt I would want to replace tires. Some candidates include Firehawk SZ50, Yokohama AVS-S1Z, Bridgestone S-02, or Yokohama A032R. Find a good performance tire dealer, one that handles a number of brands, one that you see trackside at local events, tell him/her exactly what you plan to do and when, and go with their recommendation (and buy from them). Yes, there is 'net wisdom, and a lot of it - and the local shop may be a bit more expensive than a mail-order house. In the long run, good service is worth it. I have bought tires from the same place (Talon Tire in Montreal) for over 10 years now and am very happy with both their price and service. A mail-order place doesn't call around the country looking for that last set of R-compounds for you.

So, that about covers the first season - say 10 autocross, a ground school, and two driver's education events. Why not enter a rally or two for good measure? I myself find rallies incredibly stressful and relationship-straining, but some love them. I can understand why. At this point too, some will say, fine, that's enough. Been there, done that. Got a t-shirt at the Goodie Store. J And that's great. Please excuse the rest of us, who are hooked.


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