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SKIING... Whistler Blackcomb Snow School

Braking Skills
Zamboni Braking

The crosswalk light at Blackcomb Way in Whistler had turned green, but I waited. An oncoming vehicle didnít look likely to stop in time, and there seemed little sense in being a test dummy for an SUVís bumper. The Explorer was going quite fast, and its driver committed that cardinal braking sin of braking too lightly early in the stop. Instead, pressure was added progressively so the highest brake level was at the end of the stop. Whether on racing slicks on the track or in a street situation, braking harder earlier takes advantage of load transfer, kinetic energy and all that good stuff to bring a vehicle to a halt in a significantly shorter distance. This is best done not with a slam, but rather a quick, positive press on the brake pedal. Good anti-lock brakes do permit the slam, penalty free unless the driver then tries to pump the brakes, which sabotages the systemís work.

From the side it was easy to see the Fordís anti-lock brakes kick-in, but if there is little traction, even advanced electronics canít do much. By this point the SUV had entered the Zamboni area, those few metres at stopsigns and lights that have been polished slick by late braking and wheelspin from drivers accelerating too hard. The driverís death grip on the wheel and Ďoh noí expression were visible as the Explorer slid past, eventually halting in the middle of the intersection. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic.

Footwork in general is one of the things we work on a lot in racing and advanced driving schools. Given how far the feet are from the driver's brain, they tend to be prone to random acts unless instructed otherwise. Think of proper braking as a graph that spikes relatively early then trails off, versus one that starts low and climbs to a peak. The result should be a chauffeur stop, with brake pressure gradually reducing so there is no final lurch to spill the passengerís double espresso. Skilled truck drivers know this and demonstrate it, though now and then someone in a car will decide to cut in front of them before a red light, spoiling the whole effort.

The fellow in the Explorer had one other option, which went unused. He stayed on the most slippery part of the road, which appeared clear but was covered by a thin film of ice. Just to the sides were snow covered patches, with gravel on them, which would have provided more braking grip.

Last time I wrote about proper braking I received a couple of letters from people who were concerned that if they braked hard, they would be hit from behind by someone with a different game plan. The simple answer is that overall awareness and frequent mirror scans will let you know who is around, beside or behind you. If there is someone on your back bumper, you are effectively driving two cars. Slow earlier to compensate for the other motoristís lack of judgement.

In much of Europe, people take their life in their hands even if using a crosswalk. Few dawdle, since the mass times velocity equation of a fast approaching car is quite evident.We have a lot of seemingly suicidal pedestrians in Canada and the States who seem to believe in divine intervention when they step out onto the road. Among other things, improved braking skills mean you are less likely to punt them into the emergency ward.

The Miniskirt

I have long been in favour of letting people wear what they want, pimply-faced youths in baggy pants included. If freedom to choose simply brings conformity, so be it. What I want to talk about today is miniskirts and driving skills. For those of you who donít know, Mary Quant, an Englishwoman, is credited with creating the first modern miniskirt, in the 1960ís. She had opened a small boutique in London, and instantly became a celebrity designer.

Young women in London loved her stuff, though not everyone was as enthusiastic. The Vatican immediately banned the short skirts, and in Greece, women caught wearing one could be jailed. Girls were sent home from school in many areas if the hemline was above a certain length. Thankfully, we have truly come a long way and today, at least away from some of the more conservative workplaces, men and women are free to wear, within reason, what they wish.

Look, Iím not embarrassed to say that I like to see an attractive woman, well dressed. Now given that Iím not usually considered a fashion plate, I readily confess to something of a double standard. Of course, here in the mountains we favour our practical clothes. For us, Gore-Tex is at least as big a fashion name as Armani. In our local gym, the reading racks are stacked with Outside, Ski Canada, Powder Magazine, Mountain Bike, National Geographic, and so on. There are a few issues of Cosmo and the like scattered around, in case anyone wants to get the latest from New York, but in general Mary Quantís revolution is only of academic interest.

By this point youíre probably wondering what this has to do with driving. Simple, really. In my work as an advanced driving instructor, Iíve noticed that women in snug fitting skirts often have an easier time learning emergency braking than men do. This is because they tend to sit with their knees together. This is important. In racing cars, we also drive with our knees virtually together. One reason is that brake and throttle are much closer together than in a road car. Getting the two pedals simultaneously is a bad combination but a classic rookie mistake. This also occurs quite often in advanced driving schools, especially in sportier cars where there is less of a gap between gas and brake. In this case the knees together position facilitates heel-and-toe downshifting, which is a technique that allows maximum braking while still being able to give the car a few revs to smooth the downshifts. (Manual gearbox only, of course.) The biggest single reason, though, for keeping the knees together, is that it allows the driver to apply forces to the brake pedal in a straight line, versus at an angle. This allows fine adjustment with the ankle, as opposed to the less refined large muscles of the leg.

Car racing, like a lot of sports, is a game of subtle improvements. An advantage in accurate braking is the kind of edge drivers love to have. Iím not about to tell you all to buy miniskirts. However, assuming that you and your car are a good fit, get that right knee over and become a better braker.

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