Anyone who’s ever browsed the internet has probably come across a video in which someone spins out somewhere and crashes into something. Sure, the drivers of these cars are usually being idiots, but I also want to point out that it’s really easy to lose control of a car travelling at speed. Too easy.
I experienced a couple of embarrassing incidents back when I owned a Ford Mustang where the back end slid out when taking a sharp turn. Luckily I didn’t hit anything. Since my swerving 'Stang days, I’ve always wanted to learn how to properly control a car in those kinds of situations. So when I came across a skid control class that my local track was offering, I signed up immediately.
It was a bright, sunny day along with 30 mph gusts of wind when I showed up to the track. Perfect for sliding around in a car and learning how not to crash it. At my local track, they use old Ford Crown Victorias to teach us newbies how to do this.
Why Crown Vics? Because they also use these cars to train local US law enforcement on techniques like reverse driving and how to properly chase down a dude in a Toyota Tundra who just stole a sweater from Dillard’s.
To prepare the car for the class, Scott, my instructor, replaced the Crown Vic’s rear wheels with donuts covered with some sort of hard plastic material. He did that to reduce the grip in the rear wheels to almost nothing and make the car feel like we were driving around on ice. This was going to be fun, or so I thought.
With the car ready to go, Scott gave Justin (another student) and myself some initial classroom instructions on how to handle a skidding car around their track. It’s all very simple in theory, but of course much harder to implement in practice. Here’s what you need to do.
- Step 1: As soon as the car starts to slide, let off the gas completely and don’t brake.
- Step 2: Target fixate. In other words, look exactly in the direction you want to be going.
- Step 3: Steer towards the direction that you’re staring at
- Step 4: Hope that you don’t lose control and die (not Scott’s instruction, this is my own)
You could be so confident in your abilities that the fourth step for you might be, “Oh yeah, I got this.” In my case, I needed lots of hope and self-pep talk, “You can do this!”
Once we received our instructions, Scott set up cones on the track for us to “fixate” on. That way we could just focus on the cone and steer the car towards it. What usually happens with people like me is that as soon as the car starts veering, we look in the direction the car is careening towards—like, for example, a parked Prius. And guess what happens when you do that? You freak out and have a panic attack. And then you hit the Prius.
Luckily there were no parked Prii around us so I was free to spin around as much as I wanted to. Which I did in copious amounts. The first few laps for me were a nightmare. I thought I was following Scott’s instructions, but I just couldn’t seem to get the car back under control no matter what I tried.
Being in the backseat while I was driving was like being on the worst amusement park ride ever. You’re bouncing around on a couch that’s rotating wildly. There’s a flimsy seatbelt that’s trying to hold you in place but isn’t really doing the job. And you’re right on the cusp of hurling chunks. Justin, the unfortunate soul sitting in the back, was subjected to this torture.
Fortunately things changed as soon as Scott switched from giving me guidance to telling me exactly what to do and when. This is what ultimately helped me advance from complete incompetence to well below average.
Critical Lesson #1: You Must Detect The Exact Moment When You Lose Traction
This might sound obvious but it wasn’t for me, at least in the Crown Vic. I just couldn’t tell that I was skidding until it was too late. There is a point beyond which you can’t recover. The plastic wheels were losing grip much sooner than I realized and I wasn’t getting off the accelerator quickly enough.
But when Scott started yelling “Off, Off, Off!” (indicating that I should take my foot off the gas pedal), I was able to control the skid by lifting off the throttle immediately.
Critical Lesson #2: Don’t Forget To Fixate
I needed to unlearn my natural tendency to look in the direction in which I was sliding. It helped that Scott kept hammering home the importance of looking at the cone until I got it. When I finally started doing that by ignoring my natural response, I made some headway. Scott must have viewed me as a preschooler who was taking forever to learn that one plus one equals two and not three.
Critical Lesson #3: Stick To #2 And Don’t Worry About The Rest
What’s crazy is that once you start staring intently at the cone, it actually works! This is by far the most important lesson I learned. I thought that I’d have to think about what I was doing with the steering wheel, but I didn’t. As long as I stayed focused on the cone, my hands instinctively knew how to counter-steer and keep the car correctly oriented. Here’s a clip of Justin in action who was doing a much better job than I was.
Criticial Lesson #4: React Quickly
You must move swiftly. If not, there’s no hope in stopping the car from spinning out. There’s no time to waste. As I worked on responding with more urgency, I was finally able to gain traction and move forward more or less consistently. When I was getting it right, I felt like Michael Phelps winning his first Olympic gold medal.
Of course, a single two hour session will not turn me into an expert, but at least I know the basics now. I just need to practice. Makes me wish I still owned the Mustang so I could get better at this. That way I can create a video about how to avoid becoming a future Mustang Mishap YouTube phenomenon.
This story originally appeared on Jalopnik.