Awake from your Car Coma

If you haven’t been sleeping for the last ten years, you are aware that American cars have metamorphized into world-beating cars. What you may have missed is the people who drive them have not kept pace. Specifically, the desire to modify their cars to be faster. To be fair, Americans have customized their cars since the end of World War II. They made them lighter, more powerful and very distinct to their tastes. Some of that has been lost to government regulation and the complexity of the modern automobile, but there is still a myriad of cosmetic and performance parts out there. We are not focusing on the cosmetic changes in a car. Those upgrades are owner subjective and I have always subscribed to the theory that you paid for a car, it’s yours, do what you want with it. But, performance-wise, so much has changed. It’s our approach to that performance that should have changed with each improvement out of Detroit.  My background is road racing but I’m sure those who concentrate on drag racing or rally racing would tell a similar story.

As recently as 2004, if you purchased a Mustang or a Camaro and you wanted to track it, you immediately shopped for a bigger set of brakes. Safety was, and to this day is first and foremost. After a couple of events, you may look at new springs, shocks and sway bars, new wheels and tires of course—as big as you could fit in the stock wheel well. If you were the smart kid on the block, you did this all before thinking of adding extra power. When you had that all done, you had a decent handling car. There were those who added power first. They were the ones who could not understand why their 500-horsepower, slip-sliding, wallowing car, could not keep up with a Mazda Miata. Too many times, poor driving was blamed on the car and not the driver. It’s a Mustang or a Camaro, don’t expect too much. 

Newsflash, if you’re slow, it’s not the car. Walk into a Porsche dealer and ask how to go faster and they are more likely to point out an upcoming PCA event.

Today’s cars are very different. They are more expensive but, no longer is it necessary to replace brakes. Brake fluid is swapped and that system is track-ready. Suspension on a ZL1, an SS, a GT350 or PP are state of the art. There is no urgency to invest there, especially for the new driver. But owners still have the mentality to walk into a Chevrolet or Ford dealer (or internet shop) who sells performance parts and ask them how to make their car faster. Newsflash, if you’re slow, it’s not the car. Walk into a Porsche dealer and ask how to go faster and they are more likely to point out an upcoming PCA event. Set yourself up with a good instructor and drive. Consider an organized race school. Seat time is king. And speaking of seat time, the use of simulators is widespread among professionals. We are not talking about a standard Xbox One or PS4 handheld controller, but a true quality system that provides driver feedback. Driveline will cover simulators in a different article. 

I recently instructed a gentleman who drove a Shelby GT350R. Like most new drivers, he had some very bad habits to be broken and, one weekend of instruction was not going to break all of them. In the week following the event, he called me and told me how he was going to buy a carbon fiber drive shaft. I explained, a thousand dollars plus will pay for a good amount of seat time. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying you should never try to improve on your car. What I am saying is, as good as these cars come from Detroit unless you go all out-race car, you’re not going to see significant improvement. Where significant improvement will come from you, the driver. As you become more skilled at driving, you may look at upgrades. Remember, as a car gets faster, it requires a better driver. But regardless of skill, you will want to consider the cost-benefit of any purchase. Case in point, one of Ford engineers was asked if a base model R was faster due to the removed weight than an R model loaded up. His response was, while weight reduction is always a good thing on a road course, one missed corner will more than makeup for a small reduction in weight.   

Where significant improvement will come from you, the driver. As you become more skilled at driving, you may look at upgrades.

 In reality, it’s more likely that your car is more capable than you are. So, take your money and use it where it makes the most difference: driving. Not only will you go faster, but you’ll also feel better about yourself and, you will have more fun doing it. It’s time for all of us to catch up with what our cars have become.

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