Hagerty Driving Academy 2019: Confidence Can Be Learned

It’s Jennifer Graham’s birthday, and she’s spending it at the Hagerty Driving Academy, held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. I’m sitting next to her at the introductory classroom session, and she looks a bit nervous. And who wouldn’t be? This is her first advanced driver training experience, and in this class of fourteen, she’s the only woman. Yet I see an underlying sense of determination. Jennifer is peppering the instructors with questions, and that already means she's in the right mindset.

Hagerty is the premier insurer of classic and specialty cars in North America, so it only makes sense they’d have an interest in promoting driver safety. As the company is largely floated by automotive enthusiasm, Hagerty introduced a driving program in 2011 that, among other things, teaches the art of operating a manual transmission – tantamount to an anti-theft device these days.

This year Hagerty has kicked the program up several notches by partnering with the Skip Barber Racing School. It’s a pretty slick operation that traverses the US, with four stops in Canada this year – three of them at CTMP. The cost for the full day is $995, and as would be expected with Skip Barber, the level of instruction is top-shelf.

No, this is not a racing school. It’s a day of exercises that introduce or, for more experienced drivers, hone car-control skills that are so essential for safe driving. The menu is pretty typical of this type of introductory course – emergency braking, accident avoidance manoeuvres, skid (oversteer) correction, and at the end of the day, a chance to put it all together on an autocross course.

But you can see how all this could seem somewhat daunting, especially to a newbie like Jennifer as we sit all bleary-eyed at 8:30 in the morning while the affable Dan Donza runs through the basics of car control.

Soon, the class is split into two groups, and we are out on the tarmac learning how to control oversteer, or in more simple terms, correcting a skid when the back end of the car breaks loose and tries to swing around. For this exercise, Skip Barber travels with a current-generation Toyota RAV4 that has been set up to oversteer like a rear-drive muscle car on a frozen lake. How do they get a modern four-wheel drive crossover to act like that?

First, completely disable all the driver aids – traction control, stability control, and anti-lock braking. Not easy to do, requiring some trickery and fuse pulling. That done, the most important key here is a hard-plastic right rear tire that offers essentially zero grip.

As we increase speed while circling the skid pad counter-clockwise, the back end of the RAV4 gracefully breaks away, giving us the chance to practice counter-steering. All under the excellent tutelage of pro racer Mike Stillwagon, who’s riding shotgun. Too much speed and too slow with the hands, and the RAV4 spins out.

Jennifer approaches the idling RAV4 with all the trepidation of a cat sneaking up on a sleeping pit bull. Her first few times around the skid pad are just above a crawl, and the Toyota stays resolutely in its path. But then things started happening: More speed, some tail-sliding, some good recoveries, and a few spin-outs (which we all did). By the end of her session, Jennifer was getting the hang of it. And let it be known, there aren’t many things you can do in a car that are more fun than sliding out the rear-end and holding it in a bit of a drift.

A different Jennifer emerges from the little SUV. She’s grinning from ear to ear. “That was fun! I could do that all day.”

As I followed Jennifer around for the day, co-driving with her on the braking and accident-avoidance exercises, I saw her confidence grow in leaps and bounds. No longer the timid student afraid of wrecking someone else’s car (all but impossible at these events)’ she learned what foot-to-the-floor emergency braking felt like, how much and how fast one can twist a steering wheel to avoid a hazard, and – with the short autocross section they had set up on part of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park’s technical Driver Development Track – what it’s like to have a car on a race track. By this time, she was flogging the front-drive Chevy Impala quite nicely, thank you very much.

Hagerty also had a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro four-speed along with a Skip Barber five-speed Mustang for participants to hone their shifting skills. Great fun, and Jennifer had a pretty fab birthday. “It was a great experience, I learned so much and got to experience the thrill of track driving. And my confidence has shot way up.” For the Hagerty Driving Academy, that’s mission accomplished.

Skids and skid control 9/24/2019 10:00:00 AM