During a recent visit to Cooper Tires'
1,000-acre testing facility in Pearsall, Texas, I came ready to learn the ins and outs of handling high-performance vehicles from the best, including IndyCar legend Johnny Unser
. Instead, I came away with a face full of rubber and a serious case of motion sickness. (And, yes, I also learned a thing or two about driving along the way.)
Lesson 1: Drifting (Don't Try This at Home)
While riding shotgun in Unser's 435-horsepower Roush Mustang
through a dry-handling course, we seemed to be in fifth gear from the start, rocketing through the straightaways at around 90 mph and 60 mph into the turns. By the time I got my bearings we were suddenly traveling sideways, seemingly spinning out of control, especially to my stomach. But it was actually a "drift" (think of that Japanese "Fast and the Furious
" movie no one saw), a death-defying maneuver where the driver over-steers the car into a turn, causing it slide around as if on ice. During the next run, with Cooper test driver Ali Aljibouri, I asked him how long it takes to get this stunt down. "20 years. 15 if you're good," he said. It took him 15.
Keep reading for the three other top lessons I took away from the track and some of the grooming challenges that come with burning rubber.
Lesson 2: Embrace the Rubber Facial
No, it's not the website that got you fired from your last job, it's what happens when you go into a drift. The tires are literally melting, giving off clouds of acrid smoke and a deafening squeal as they do. Professional drivers seem to have something against air conditioning, so while my head was being bounced around like a lottery ball, the car windows were also open, allowing a fine spray of liquid rubber to remind me that I was, in fact, still alive. Later, I would spend a portion of the evening scrubbing bits of tire out of my beard before dinner.
Lesson 3: Check Your Tires
Since this was Cooper Tires' show, I got more tire-safety tips than I got in Driver's Ed. To prove a point, we took turns on the wet pad, an 800-by-800-foot concrete square kept constantly flooded by an adjacent reservoir. A course of orange cones had been set up for us to navigate as quickly as we could in our Mustang GTs
, one of which was equipped with a new set of tires and the other, just to make it interesting, a bald set.
Gunning it into the first turn (on the bad tires), I felt the steering column shake as my back end started to slip away from me. Recovering, I navigated the remaining twists with only one other moment of crisis and barreled back through the timing area. My numbers weren't so hot, but I managed not to massacre any cones (which bring a one-second penalty each).
Next up was the Mustang with the good set, and the difference was immediately noticeable. I wove through the course without incident, the tires sticking every turn like a champ. I roared out of the finish to find my cone-preservation record intact, and that I shouldn't quit my day job.
Lesson 4: Play in the Mud
At the end of the day, we hit the off-road course in some Jeep Wranglers, which gave the whole thing a very "Jurassic Park" feel. Our Jeeps climbed up and down mud traction areas, a 30-degree slope and a rock crawl. We completed the back woods adventure with some Texas-style muddin', splashing them through what looked like an old quarry. Remember that in these parts it's not getting your car dirty, it's just called breaking it in. A little mud is also great for helping to get those chunks of tire out of facial hair.
Michael B. Dougherty is an Asylum contributor.