When I was in high school, pick-up basketball was the preferred after-school activity and Air Jordans were the shoes to ball in. "They'll make you cut faster, stop quicker, and jump a full five inches higher" were the rumors passed around the back of the classroom.
Of course, such reasoning fell upon the deaf ears of my parental units, who, for some reason, couldn't see the logic in ponying up that kind of scratch for a pair of sneakers. My buddy, Mike, was in the same boat, but we didn't care. We still played every day in the summer-or at least he did. I merely passed him the ball and watched as this five-feet, seven-inch Vietnamese kid juked opponents out of their shorts, before throwing down double-pump reverse lay-ups. Though his shoes of choice were low-top, lace-up Vans, more appropriate for skateboarding at the beach, it didn't matter. He might not have had the gear, but he knew how to handle the rock.
Similarly, though you may covet a $3500 set of titanium, 45-way adjustable JDM coilovers for your ride, suspension should not be your first upgrade. It shouldn't be a new turbo kit, cold air intake, or a new set of tires, either.
No, the first modification you make shouldn't even be to your car. It should be to that soft sack of myelinated nerve cells between your ears. Don't upgrade your car, upgrade your driving skills.
Clearly, this is heresy. Every one of the advertisers in this magazine is going to howl. Why do you think I decided to drop this pearl of wisdom only after someone else was in charge? (Gee, thanks -JL) Nevertheless, I believe it must be said.
But let me be clear: I'm not telling you to forget entirely about upgrading your car's performance. I'm just saying it shouldn't be the first thing you do. Only after you have mastered the ability to control your vehicle and wring every iota of performance from it, only once you have reached the car's limit and not your own, should you consider upgrading.
Why? Because the level of performance available in the cars we glorify has advanced to such a degree that many enthusiasts (and I count myself among this group) are seriously kidding themselves if they think the car's ability needs to be upgraded before their own.
And yet I see it all the time: S2000 owners who, despite having a transmission that begs for it, think heel-toeing is some new dance move. Proud 500bhp 350Z owners whose engines have never seen higher than 3500rpm. STI owners who don't know what the DCCD button is for, but can show me with pride a V-mounted intercooler and matching unobtanium bolt-ons.
I'm not above the fray. I get paid to drive and evaluate cars for a living and have many opportunities to push them on closed courses and race circuits. And yet when I recall the countless times I thought I was taking a car to its absolute limits, it only took a few moments beside a professional driver-in the exact same car-to show me that I was only scratching the surface.
Last year, Mitsubishi's test driver-the appropriately named Mr. Evo-showed me, in one long J-turn, the limits of a bone stock Evo IX. How the appropriate input of brake, followed by rapid steering correction and liberally applied throttle, could result in a dramatic enough weight transfer to get the car to slide as gracefully as Ichirio into third.
Two years ago, during a comparison test for another magazine, I asked Rhys Millen to drive a stock E46 BMW M3 for the first time. After stepping over his jaw on his way out of the car, a clearly impressed Millen remarked: "That right there is a competitive drift car-right out of the box. You don't even need to change the tires."
Of course, these guys are pros. What to do if you want to improve your skills? Hit the books. Racing schools like Skip Barber and Bondurant exist for exactly this reason. Yes they're expensive, but you get what you pay for: high-quality instruction, on a closed course, and the opportunity to learn how to master a variety of cars-from sports cars to full-on formula racers.
Interested in extracting the most from your personal car? Then join NASA and take their fine High Performance Driving Experience. For the amount of instruction you get, it's one of the best bargains going.
Got no money? Find an empty parking lot and get on with it. Just don't tell the cops SCC sent you.
Forget about the gear for now. First, learn how to handle the rock.