I remember the first time like it was yesterday. I was driving my Subaru in a line of cars on a cold track toward the “turn off in the back.” We were going to a place I had never been before, tucked way into the back of Summit Point Motorsports Park. This place would eventually turn into my Mecca, but right then, I was scared and curious. This auspicious place was the Summit Point skid pad. I had been to the track several times and never knew this place even existed, as it was between the Main and Jefferson circuits, separated by tire walls and trees.
When we arrived, the instructors gave us a safety briefing about a 25mph speed limit, and I scoffed mentally. What was I going to learn only going 25mph? The instructors went from car to car and spoke to the owner about how long they’d been doing High Performance Drivers Education events. When the time came, they looked at the Subaru and told me, “We’ll get her to slide; don’t you worry.” I hadn’t been worried before, but I was now. The only thing was that I had no idea what to be worried about!
I saw car after car slide around the skid pad like it was made of ice, which isn’t far off. This skid pad was coated in a slick paint, and when wetted, the surface provides very little traction. Cars would slide, spin, and twirl in an effortless manner. When they returned, the driver was grinning ear to ear, listening to the instructors coach them as they emerged from their now filthy car. When it was my turn, we slowly drove out onto the surface, and the instructor just told me to keep a constant steering input and increase my speed. Within a moment he looked over and uttered, “Can you feel that?” What was I supposed to be feeling? Was this some test I had to master before I could move on?
A moment later, he lamented “You are understeering.” We were only crawling along at maybe 15 mph. “No way!” I exclaimed, to which he told me to turn the wheel more. When I turned the wheel, my car didn’t respond, but just plowed on like it was possessed. My amazing all-wheel drive Subaru was just reduced to mush by some water and paint. I was a little crushed to be honest. We repeated this drill a few times, and by the end, I could easily tell that when the steering got light and the car felt numb, we were in a front end skid.
From there we moved into rear skid, also known as oversteer. After a few minutes of struggling, the instructor asked me to Scandinavian flick the car and add gas at the end. Within a heartbeat, my car was sliding across the painted surface like a WRC car. It. Was. Awesome. We were only on the skid pad for 30 minutes, but in that time, I learned so much. After that day was over, I looked for other events that had skid pad time, and I started going on an almost monthly basis.
When I changed HPDE cars to a little 944, the skid pad became as much a game as a learning tool. How many laps could I do? I’d lock the steering in one position and do laps. I’d also lock the throttle to a single input and just use the steering to guide the car. Over the next year, I probably spent more time on the skid pad than the actual track. Because of this, I often got skid pad duties as an instructor, where I’d ride shotgun with students. I also learned how to use the sprinkler systems and fix any bugs to make sure things ran smoothly. Because of this, I got tossed keys to some fun cars, such as a new (at the time) M5 and an Aston Martin DBS. From there, I eventually got certified by BSR, who runs Summit Point, to instruct on the skid pad for them. The certification was no small feat, as I had to control the gas pedal from the passenger’s side. It’s a good thing I have long legs.
So what dividends did all of this slow speed hooliganism pay for on track? A lot. I could drive most street cars at the limit of their tires and just let the slip angle work for me. I had no fear about sliding a car around, because I knew I could control slides. Give the car a little steering input or quick lift, and a car would settle down. When the worst did happen, I could remain calm as my race car would spin like top off the track. I knew where it was going, and normally, how hard the impact would be. Thankfully, they were never bad.
It was an awareness of being “out of control” that the skid pad taught me. This skill is often missing in HPDE, as people are taught to be in control at all times. Yes, you should be in control at all times, but you should also be prepared for the worst and have the tools at your disposal to handle it. I believe that the skid pad gives you these tools in a safe environment. Sure, one in a hundred cars may have bent a wheel or tie rod on these skid pads, but I assure you, it’s cheaper than body work.
So where do you find one of these mystical adult carnival rides? That is a very good question! You’ll have to do some research about your local tracks to see if they have skid pads and when they are used. You may be able to contact a drift event and see if they have one. I’ve even set skid pads up in school parking lots to scare the bejesus out of teens. The bottom line is, if you’ve never been on a skid pad, you are missing out.
*Sorry for the pictures, these are the only ones I have, and are a little dated. But you get the idea.