Know Your Limits

I think all of us start everything with a little hope that we are destined to become the best at it. We’ve seen enough movies with prodigies and victims of circumstance rising to the occasion that we all have hope that our purpose in life will just be brought out of us when the moment calls for it. When I first started driving, I was sure that was it. Things like signaling, chauffeur stops, and following the lines on the road perfectly felt natural to me, as they should have, and after seeing other people struggle to do the same, younger me was feeling pretty smug. I assumed I was better than most and without a real perspective of my skill level I doomed myself to failure. Know your limits, and never put yourself in a situation where testing them could put the lives of your passengers, fellow drivers, and yourself at risk.

My opportunity to learn this lesson came along when I did what any stupid kid in a reasonably fast car would when he pulls up next to another stupid kid in a reasonably fast car. We raced.

I had done my fair share of roll races at that point so I felt pretty confident that I knew what I was doing. We went to some tucked away spot I’d never been to before and set off. Needless to say, this is where our story takes a hard left turn down fuck-up street.

We did our roll from 20mph and after a few brief seconds, my little WRX had come out on top. Unfortunately, I was too focused on the car to my left and I missed the turn coming up ahead. I slammed on the brakes, but when it was clear I wasn’t going to slow down quick enough to make the turn I panicked. Rather than doing any number of things that could have kept the car planted, I Turned in, over corrected when I tried to countersteer, didn't apply an ounce of throttle to the correction, and the car started to oversteer into the oncoming lane.

A few seconds later, I found myself in a dirt lot on the opposite side of the road, flustered and frustrated, but unharmed. To this day I am a little convinced that there might be a god because no more than 10 feet in front of me was a forest full of trees and 15 feet behind me was a stoplight. I came out of the incident with bent wheel, a bumper scuff, and mildly bruised pride. I could have left the situation with a lot less, or not left it at all. My street racing career started and came to an end that night. I still keep a piece of the curb I broke off on my desk as a little reminder of what could have happened that night.

After my crash, I was a different person behind the wheel. At the time I didn’t really understand what lift oversteer was so, to me, every corner seemed a bit more treacherous. I took turns with half the confidence that I once did, I stopped doing much of anything other than commuting back and forth with the occasional on-ramp pull, and I was pretty anxious when traveling down any road with a speed limit higher than 40mph. Fast forward a few months and, driven by an impulse, I was the proud owner of an S2000, a car known for its tendency to “snap oversteer”.

At the DealershipMy stock s2k the day I got him.

Driving the S2000 around for a few months doing burnouts, donuts, and having to wrestle with the rear end in the rain helped me overcome my anxiety towards oversteer. By the time AutoX season rolled around I was finally feeling confident behind the wheel again. At my first event of the year, I rolled up into a lot filled with Civics, Miatas, early gen Camaros, and various other random cars that had me confident I’d be placing well my first autocross.

Grid Lineup

.........I didn’t.

I spun out, DNF’d, and had the finesse of a drunken ostrich in the corners. By the end of the event, I had been beaten by a Kia Rio, a gaggle of Miatas, an old Chevy Nova, and even an old ‘86 Accord snagged a time a whole 2 seconds better than mine. I wasn’t the slowest on the track, but I was far from the fastest. I blamed my “shitty” all season tires for it, but over time I found that it was less my “shitty” all seasons and more my shitty technique. I’ve gotten better bit by bit; I played Forza in a replica of my car, watched footage from my events, gotten lessons from instructors, and through all of that I have improved my technique significantly, but I’m still just a hair short of being above average.

Goin sideways through the finish line

Learning what I have at track days and AutoX events has given me a better sense of what my limits are, what my cars’ limits are, and has given me a much greater appreciation for the people who are at the top of their racing game. People we all love to criticize and vilify for their mistakes on the track, but most of us have no right to have anything less than the utmost respect for anyone racing at the pro level. I also now know that I don’t need more than the 240 and 285 horsepower I have now. While it would be nice to be able to do pulls that make me shit myself, I’m not a good enough driver to really put cars like that to their paces, at least not yet. I look forward to the day when I have the confidence to say that I can truly handle more than 300 horsepower, but for now, I’ll leave the 500+hp monsters to people with much more skill. Likewise, thanks to my experiences, every car I’ve tried and reviewed, I’ve taken with an extra grain of salt. One car may be faster than another when a seasoned driver is behind the wheel, but it doesn't mean it's the better car and it doesn't mean it's the right car for me.

We all like to talk about what cars set the fastest lap times and claim that it's what makes one car better than the other, but can you set those lap times yourself? Sometimes the best car might be too much for where you’re at or the car you are in has a few more seconds you could squeeze out of it with better technique. While you can grow into any car with time, it might be easier to start small and work your way up. My next car will likely be something in the 400hp range and I have no interest in owning anything with more than that right now. I know it’s going to take me a few months before I can really wring out every ounce of performance out of something in that power range and it could be up to a year before I actually max it out.

I highly recommend the following to everyone: before you buy a faster car, take yours to the track and push it to its limits. See if that’s what’s really holding you back. If it is and you do get a new car, push it at an AutoX or track day and really get to know what the strengths and weaknesses are before you start to stretch its legs on the street, so that you don’t end up in another mustang crowd eating video.