Walter Irvine is going on his 13th year as a racing instructor at the Skip Barber Racing School in Lakeville, Conn. He has driven numerous types of racecars, from ice-racing vehicles, to open-wheel cars, to formula cars, to showroom stock sedans. In addition to his coaching duties, he is setting up driving and racing schools.
LCT: Racecar driving, in most people’s minds, means speed, not necessarily safety. How can racecar driver training help limousine chauffeurs?
Irvine: The most important thing to a racecar driver isn’t necessarily the speed as much as it’s his ability to manage himself and the car. Using the eyes is something that’s extremely important in driving, looking as far ahead as you possibly can. That works on the street as well as on the track.
In terms of limo driving, the farther the limo driver looks ahead the more options he has if something happens. The one thing that we always hear people say when they’ve had an accident is “All of the sudden,” “All of the sudden the deer jumped out” or “All of the sudden the car cut in front of me.” Using the eyes is paramount. Managing the car is another important aspect of driving; how to keep the car balanced, how to actually get the most out of the car.
In racing we’re obviously going for speed. In road driving we go for what’s called mechanical sympathy, driving a car quickly and efficiently, keeping it balanced and getting the most out it. A good driver will minimize the amount of wear and tear on a vehicle and the road.
LCT: What are some techniques practiced on the racetrack that chauffeurs should be practice?
Irvine: I can’t stress enough how important it is to use the eyes. Driving nowadays is something that gets in the way of talking on a cell phone and doing other things inside the car. We teach people to break those bad habits, to be not only good at driving, but to be excited about it.
We’re trying to get people to be aware of how cars are set up, how easy they are to drive and how to limit their fatigue and still maximize the enjoyment behind the wheel. Basic techniques as simple as how you actually physically sit in the car are extremely important to a racecar driver. And that should be very important to someone [like a chauffeur] who spends a tremendous amount of the day behind the wheel. Something as simple as getting in the car, adjusting the mirrors and putting on their [seat] belt is very, very important.
LCT: What’s the proper seating position?
Irvine: Most people sit way too close to the steering wheel. I’m from New Jersey and people there generally set their seats right up against the steering wheel with their wrist right at 12 o’ clock on the steering wheel. Most cars are now set up so that you can sit farther away from the wheel, letting you manipulate the wheel and all the controls, and letting you view all the gages. Some people will never adjust their seat, making it difficult to manipulate and view all the controls and making it very easy to become fatigued. It’s also very dangerous because nine out of 10 times somebody will try to adjust their seat while they’re driving. Obviously their mind is not on driving and that leads to some pretty uncomfortable situations.
LCT: Limousines and racecars are both modified regular cars. Are there some issues or concerns that drivers of modified cars share that regular car drivers don’t?
Irvine: Regardless of whether it’s a race car, a limousine, a regular road car, an SUV or a rental car, the laws of physics are going to apply.
The [classes and programs at the racing school] always start out with an explanation of vehicle dynamics, where we talk about the correlation between what you ask a car to do and what it actually does do, when to ask a car to do certain things, and how you can get a car to do something better.
One real-world example is how you brake. We use the expression “limousine stop” because a good limousine driver will start braking by pushing the pedal harder. As the car slows down and loses momentum, less and less brake is required to physically stop the car. By the time the car comes to a rest the limousine driver, if he’s good, has virtually no pressure on the pedal, which gives you a nice controlled and smooth stop.
LCT: How often are racecar drivers retrained?
Irvine: A driver has to keep keen by not developing bad habits and by following a physical and mental regiment. And every time you’re on the track, every time you encounter something – whether it’s accelerating, braking or turning – it’s always a learning process. Successful drivers are always evolving, always training.
LCT: What is the No. 1 mistake that drivers make, whatever their vehicle?
Irvine: We don’t believe that people are intrinsically bad drivers. People have the ability to be excellent drivers, but when they stop respecting the act of driving – when they begin to get involved in other things or don’t look ahead – that’s when they end up being a bad driver.
Veteran drivers often have all the bad habits that they picked up over the years. You have to show them the proper form of driving. It’s a very rewarding kind of a situation when you can get a driver to either drop bad habits or develop correct new habits.
LCT: Looking at the limousine rides you’ve taken, was there anything you believed was missing or that the chauffeur should have done better?
Irvine: All of my experiences in a limousine have been very pleasurable. I’ve never had to pay attention or felt the need to monitor what was going on in the limo. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the people that I’ve been chauffeured by, the limousine drivers.