Skidpads Are Excellent Places to Learn Car Control – Here’s Why
We're losing traction, but gaining control.
The skidpad can take what we’ve learned in conventional driver’s education and flip it upside-down. We’re often taught that losing traction on the rear-end of the car is a time to panic and revert to knee-jerk reactions to panic scenarios: stomp the brake pedal. This is very counter-intuitive, as the best way to gain control of the situation is, pun-intended, counter-steering.
Disclaimers, disclosures: Lexus USA invited me to take part in the Lexus Performance Driving School at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca. The company covered the program cost, expenses, transportation up to Monterey and back, and lodging for the weekend. For more information on its high performance driving programming, check out the website.
A skidpad in its, purest definition, is simply “a flat place to do skids.” The way Lexus set up it all up in their program, was: take one part flat pit area at Laguna Seca, add a lot of water, toss in some orange cones, and fold it all together with an angry, rear-wheel drive RC F. Then, the coaching aspect was via walkie talkie with an instructor keeping an eye on you while you slide your way around in a circle, giving pointers to help you try and hold a sick drift for as long as possible.
It was a fun thing to do on someone else’s tires for sure.
The concept of a skidpad is to teach real car control in a safe environment. Turn off traction and stability control, drive into the boxed-by-cones area, drive around the tight circle, stab the gas to lose the rear-end, and then try to hold it and drift around in a circle.
By stabbing the gas pedal and kicking the rear-end out, we’re doing something that’s unconventional in American driver’s ed (also frowned upon by Johnny Law). We’re losing traction, but gaining control. Familiarizing yourself with what exactly happens in a skid is a great way to upgrade your driving abilities. And the more you practice it, the less you’ll freak out if it happens on the road. Or, you’ll take control of the situation and have a blast.
I must admit that I was awfully rusty at it when I gave it a shot in the RC F myself. I was able to get just about one whole rotation around the cones before I lost the rear-end and completely 180’d. I got a little better in the afternoon session, but I’m by no means a drift star. I’m more of a “dip the nose of the car in, stab the gas pedal, and power out of it” kinda guy.
I think the skidpad is one of the few things in learning car control where there’s a well-earned participation trophy – just the bare minimum of experiencing what the car does under these circumstances will be of some help to people. Feeling what happens, seeing what happens, learning that different inputs create different outcomes; the more they play around, the more prepared they’ll be on the street.
They don’t need to rip around in circles all-session-long like some kind of Space Boy, it’s just good for any and everyone to experience.
But refining one’s inputs, looking ahead, and figuring out to rip some sick drifts is one of the most rewarding safe experiences ever.
Going A Step Further
Feeling what happens when the rear-end loses traction is one thing, making good use of it is another. It’s a testament to several important cornerstones of high-performance driving: looking ahead, varying degrees of inputs, and balancing the steering wheel and throttle.
Looking ahead is absolutely crucial. Looking where you want to go will create more smoothness and control than looking at the cones, or right in front of the car. I’ve blabbered about this before, but looking ahead is a concept I still battle with from time to time. The one time on the skidpad where I held the drift for more than one go-around, it was wild how my line of sight was straight-out the driver door window, and nowhere near the windshield.
Once a drift is initiated and held: if the revs are up high enough, and the right angle is found, not a whole lot of steering input is required.
On the other hand, if the revs aren’t high enough, a lot of steering input with be needed to counter and hold the drift. Being too “busy” with the steering wheel never amounts to anything substantial.
Feathering the throttle is also crucial, and ties in with steering inputs. The higher the revs the more steering input is required, but how quickly the ratio between the two changes frequently throughout just one rotation around the cones.
I’m talking skid pad work in street cars here, obviously Formula D is a whole ‘nother ballgame.
This was a fun and useful exercise. I wish it was USDOT law to integrate skidpad learning into each and every driver’s education course in this country. Until that day comes (it probably never will), Lexus’ program was a great version, and the RC F was very fun to get the tail out in without a stern talking-to from the fuzz.
The skidpad portion of the Lexus Performance Driving School is featured between the beginning and 2:36-minute marks in the video below.