Although I’ve always felt comfortable correcting oversteer, I’ve realized that I tend to tiptoe toward the limit after jumping into a new car. I can throw it in and trust I’ll sort it out, but I still feel one or two steps behind the car until I’ve studied its habits a little.
Throwing it in feels fast most of the time and is usually exhilarating, but experience has taught me that these feelings don’t necessarily mean I’m driving near the limit. The tires might be sliding, but they could be doing so prematurely or too much.
To seek the limit is something every racer worth his or her salt is willing and able to do. To find it is one thing, but to have an intimate understanding of how much slip angle is beneficial and whether it has been achieved in the right way is another. Taking the car by the scruff of the neck is something Nik Romano has been behind for a while, and his FastSideways car control course is designed to teach people how to understand slip angle, how to overcome their fears, and how to communicate more clearly with their cars.
His approach to instruction is not one that relies excessively on theory, but more on experimentation, analysis and daring. True, the course is built upon a basic theoretical foundation, but the emphasis is always on first-hand experience, repetition, and pushing past what feels comfortable.
The aim, aside from leaving the driver feeling reassured enough to push hard from the outset, is that they will not rely on preconceived notions of what the car can or can’t do. They will know the truth for themselves.
The hands-on instruction starts by rapidly alternating between lower-speed exercises on the skidpad and higher-speed applications on the track. Larger slides are practiced at lower speeds to build a “safety net” of muscle memory that the driver can use to push safely on the track.
With a little seat time and an emphasis on feeling, the student learns precisely what causes the car to slide and at which axle, and how to save these slides. Understanding the basics of breakaway takes place on the skidpad, and the knowledge gleaned there is then taken onto the track, where the aim changes. On track, the objective is to grow comfortable with smaller slides — the kind that are better described as “rotation.” These, once mastered, will help drivers lower their lap times.
I arrived at Thunderhill Raceway Park a little groggy. The broken lights in my hotel bathroom meant I showered in the dark the night before, which was bad enough, but it was the chalky stains all over the carpet and the effect they had on my imagination that kept me from ever sleeping soundly.
I was able to put those horrible images out of my mind once I started my rental car and drove past the unusually green hills outside Thunderhill Raceway Park. The weather was ideal, brisk and breezy, and we had the whole west track to ourselves. I walked into the clubhouse to see three students and four instructors halfway through the introduction. I blamed my tardiness on the stains.
It became clear that my late arrival wouldn’t matter too much because I had the whole day and a dedicated instructor to help me absorb all the concepts the advanced course focuses on. The advanced course is not budget priced at $1,300, but every student who takes it makes leaps forward in their driving ability by the end of the day. In addition to having custom-tailored tutelage and the entire west track to ourselves, we also had a skidpad big enough to accommodate two cars simultaneously.
By forcing students to get comfortable with slip angle, the FastSideways curriculum encourages the improvement of communication between driver and car. Once they’re able to work through the discomfort that comes from pushing past the limit of grip in an assertive fashion, they find that they’re calmer and more confident. The fear never completely leaves, but learning how to handle the challenge and bask in the discomfort helps a driver get up to speed faster, self-diagnose, and understand precisely where they need to adjust their approach.
“We like to think that after a session or so, you’ll start to know when and at what rate to add lock. It’s a matter of watching your internal gyro and processing all the other information you might not have been aware of before,” Nik adds.
Muscle memory will help keep students safe, and it is achieved by becoming cognizant of a couple of things: the reduction in steering effort — because the sliding at the rear is lightening the load on the steering, the yaw sensation through their posterior, and the scrubbing and/or squealing of the tires. With some practice, the student gains the ability to anticipate an impending slide and, with some practice, make the right adjustments to correct it.
Whittling Down Big Angle
Not feeling inundated, we went and put that information to use — first with a trip to the skidpad to understand the basics in action. There, it became clear just how valuable an experienced instructor is sitting beside you. The finer points of breakaway and correction are sometimes lost when the driver is sleep deprived, and having a coach to tell you when you’re just a little behind and out of step helps a lot.
We began our hands-on instruction with CPR, which in FastSideways parlance stands for “Correct, Pause, Recover” and it outlines the basics of slide correction.
The CPR training isolates the steering component to simplify matters and build a foundation of muscle memory. Once the driver catches the initial slide, they must wait a moment — the duration differs on the tire, the car, and the conditions — until the car starts to center itself, when they must bring the steering back in line with the centering rear and the intended direction of travel. Crucially, we would lift off the gas and not try to maintain the slide with the throttle. We only wanted to work on our steering precision and arrest the drift as neatly as possible.
With two circles of cones to slide around, we began the CPR training in Nik’s S197 Mustang GT. With 500TW tires on its factory rear wheels, all it took was a little prod of the throttle and the rear would let go.
I started adding more and more throttle progressively until reaching the limit of adhesion. Then, as instructed, I loosened the rear with a stab of the throttle and immediately counter-steered to arrest the slide. At first, my collection of the slide was a little slow, but after a few more tries, my center-steering was right on time.
Once my hand timing had been assessed and improved, I was asked to try and keep the car drifting around a cone circle without any interruption. My initial approach used a staccato throttle technique, dipping and releasing the throttle to keep the rear agitated while adding and subtracting steering lock in a similarly jerky fashion. This enabled the Mustang to draw a long donut, but Nik suggested I try something else. Rather than constantly tap the throttle and readjust my steering with every see-saw movement caused by the abrupt weight transfer, I was told to keep my throttle application constant and try to maintain a constant slide.
My foot stuck at 30 percent, I would turn in to unbalance the car momentarily and increase the drift angle, then countersteer gently to remain on the intended line. In other words, I was keeping the longitudinal weight transfer constant and maintaining the slide with subtle lateral agitations made through steering. More importantly, I was keeping the car sliding more consistently within a narrower window, just as you would want to when trying to go quickly. Achieving big angle is not the aim here. Developing a feel for how to maintain a consistent degree of oversteer is.
Drift in Straight Lines
Following that exercise, we moved onto weight transfer and trail-braking. The first order of business was identifying the late apex I’d be using, as well as the wide arc necessary to ensure a long, slow, deliberate rotation. Before we set off, Nik told me: “You’d be surprised at how many people try to drive a V-line into the corner. The V-line forces a late turn-in and a late rotation, which usually means it’s sloppy and slow, and it usually results in a spin.”
Even with the preface, that was precisely what I did. The resulting spin made me realize I’d compounded a slide with rapid deceleration and an abrupt direction change. I was asking too much from the rubber band rear tires and I could not keep the car moving ahead cleanly.
The trick was to widen my arc on approach and ask less of the sliding rears, which meant that they wouldn’t be subjected to as harsh a direction change. By widening the radius, I noticed I was able to start the slide much earlier and maintain momentum. The slide was now progressive and I felt control over where I was able to gather the slide. “You notice how much more time you have to pause and recover?” he asked. Eureka!
Buckling down, I backed up my braking and moved my clipping point further past the geometric center. Carry some speed in, release the brake smoothly, then neatly blend the steering input. If I didn’t carry enough speed in or I hopped off the brake too fast, I could resort to a mild flick of the steering to initiate the slide.
Playing with the throttle at the action point — the point at which I could determine the way the car would drive off the corner — was surprisingly challenging. If I waited a microsecond longer and applied the throttle progressively, I could generate real propulsion and drive off the corner in a mostly straight line, or if I got a little greedy with the gas, I could indulge in a big, satisfying slide. The S197 Mustang is happy to play the hooligan.
I began by experimenting with throttle application in that narrow window between grip and slip, waiting until I felt the car mostly straighten, but not before the momentum was lost. Feeling the rear squirm under acceleration, I found myself trying to measure how much grip I had available and how much power I could use at that given moment. With Nik’s expert timing, I was able to find a way to put the power down in a way that resulted in a drift that generated propulsion.
Getting the right line and the right timing, as well as a tidy exit, trimmed my times down by a half second—a significant improvement on a twelve-second lap.
Walking a Knife Edge
After breaking for lunch, we returned to the skidpad for a few advanced exercises. Now driving a Honda S2000, a car less forgiving than the Ford, I had to perfect my inputs. I found that sliding the car around on the same rubber band rears — an S197 and an S2000 have the same bolt pattern — was trickier to sustain. As if that weren’t hard enough, Nik wanted me to throw the car into a figure-eight drift.
I could start the slide easily, but when loading up the rear and waiting for the right moment to lift off the throttle to change direction, I choked repeatedly. The violent way this car would transition from one direction to the other meant, if I wanted to keep the car from spinning, the throttle lift had to be delicate and my countersteer had to be near-instantaneous.
I improved these two to the point where I would only seldom spin, but something still felt wrong. Nik noticed I was reverting to old habits taking the V-line. He was right — again, my limited bandwidth kept me from realizing that. By widening my lines and fattening up my figure-eight, I could sustain the slide for more of the time. Why? I’d taken that rapid deceleration element out of the equation, imparted less lateral loading on the car, and given a very edgy car a little more time to settle.
Only after watching Nik take the car and execute the most graceful slide did it all start to click. Even though he wasn’t breaking a sweat, keeping this car in a constant slide without spinning required a very detailed line of communication between hands, feet, and posterior. He made it look easy. Easily one of the best displays of car control I’ve seen in some time.
It was time to take these experiences onto the track and use them to find time, not angle. We began by implementing this rotation in low-speed hairpins. Much like the exercises on the cone oval, we tried to find the right point to rotate the car into the corner so that I could enjoy a strong drive off the corner. Simple enough, but with the increased speeds and limited real estate, I needed to be somewhat more precise.
Since I’d demonstrated some competency in catching slides at higher speeds, Nik felt comfortable encouraging me to push the car in a quicker corner. “This is something I only do if the student is ready to handle the car at higher speeds. I don’t want them to deal with a snap they’re not prepared for,” he said.
We used the long, cambered, constant-radius Turn 2. There’s pronounced camber in that corner, which lures some drivers to ask too much of the car at the first and second phases of the corner and find the car uncooperative at the exit.
This bowl’s effectiveness as a teaching instrument lies in its length. The driver has more time to assess whether he’s actually driving to the car’s limit the whole way through. Nik asked me to ponder these questions on my next lap: ‘Am I getting the car to push? Am I getting yaw? The right amount of yaw? Am I feeling these things throughout the entire corner? Can I anticipate them all?”
We used the answers to these aforementioned queries to determine if the car was loaded at the right points in the corner. Though turn-in to apex felt fine, the car began over-rotating in the middle of the corner. Now, I was having to lift and spend too much time gathering up the slide when I should’ve been trying to point the car straight.
To reiterate, I tried asking less of the car where it was over-rotating and spreading that spike of energy more evenly throughout the whole corner. To do this, I used the lesson gleaned from the figure-eight exercises. I decided to take a wider line on entry and get more of the direction adjustment done earlier in the corner.
This way, I had kept the platform better balanced throughout the corner, yawed neatly through the middle, and pointed the car straighter at the corner exit. The result was a higher minimum speed and two tenths saved in that sector alone, a wide smile across my face, near-idyllic weather, and a lasting feeling that, going forward, I could diagnose and amend my driving faster and more accurately.
It dawned on me the next day that that last takeaway — the ability to self-assess — is what separates the amateurs from the pros. Having that special arrow in my quiver, as well as having an absolute hoot roasting cheap rubber, was well worth the price of admission.
For more information on this course, visit FastSideways.
Fast Sideways’ Coming Events
April 30, Willow Springs Intl. Raceway
July 16, Thunderhill Raceway
Nov. 5, Thunderhill Raceway
Comments From Other Students
“It was useful constantly switching between the skidpad and the track to put things into practice. Most importantly, Nik taught me how to analyze my own slides and look for opportunities to do better.” — Svilen Kanev
“The opportunity is unparalleled. The seat time you need to get things to stick is considerable. Plus, you’re able to use the lessons learned on the skidpad out on the track. In my experience, what I’ve learned on a wet skidpad does not translate as well as what we learned in the dry.” — Eric Schmitt
“Taking an exercise on the skidpad and applying it to the actual track really works. My confidence grew when I started seeing apexes on the track the same way I’d seen cones on the skidpad course.” — Alan Tartowski