quattro Magazine: The Gift of Inexperience

words: Carey McNeal, photos: Gene Sparks, Mark Lew

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2022 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

One is never too old to be a rookie. I learned this after driving 675 miles alone for a weekend to be with members of Audi Club Southern California (SoCal) for which I had no knowledge of customs, etiquette, nor expectations. A “first timer” move.

There is a common axiom; you do not know what you do not know. Most of us cannot explain the workings of everyday things we think we understand. But even experts can be clueless as to what they do not know. According to Art Markman, PhD of the University of Texas in an article written for The Harvard Business Review a decade ago, this is called a knowledge gap. Find an object you use daily (a zipper, a toilet, a stereo speaker, a combustion engine) and try to describe the particulars of how it works. You are likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. In psychology, he calls this cognitive barrier the illusion of explanatory depth. It means you think you fully understand something that you do not.

In my practice as a registered investment advisor, our company philosophy is to invest in what we understand and to avoid what we do not understand. We strive to close our professional knowledge gaps before investing on our client’s behalf. Often, the gaps get wider the more we learn which leads us to pass on the prospective opportunity. We would rather miss an unbelievable opportunity than lose our clients’ money in something we could not explain. Warren Buffet once said, “The first rule of an investment is, do not lose money. And the second rule of an investment is do not forget the first rule.” An example of an upsetting instance of knowledge gaps Markman brought up in his 2012 HBR article was the profound misunderstanding of complex financial products that contributed to the market collapse of 2007. Investment banks were unable to protect themselves from exposure to these products because only a few people (either buyers or sellers) understood exactly what was being sold. We may be experiencing a newly misunderstood investment phenomenon today; digital currency commonly referred to as Bitcoin. The concept of peer-to-peer transactions without central control or oversight is understandable but dig deeper and the knowledge gaps begin to widen.

What does Bitcoin, financial engineering, and investment discipline have to do with a 675-mile drive From Boise, Idaho, through the Mojave Desert to a town called Pahrump, sixty-two miles west of Las Vegas, Nevada? Knowledge gaps. There is so much to know about a car and a driver but there is a lot more to be known. What are the limits? There is a significant difference between driving fast on a mountain road and safely executed high-performance driving. I was on my way to shrinking my knowledge gap.

This story begins with an earnest question from Daphne, my wife and parenting partner of five kids ranging in age from 31 to 18 and one grandchild newly born. One day last December when I unexpectedly came home from Audi Boise with a faster, higher-performing new car traded for another perfectly working performance car, she asked; “Why does anyone need a high-performance car when it is against the law to use the full capability of this performance?” Our 2019 Audi RS 5 Sportback seemed more than adequate as a high-performance car, she said. She knew driving on a track was on my bucket list but it was not high enough on the list to make it happen. Is it because the 2021 Audi RS 7 twin turbo 4.0 L V8 power plant produces 591 horsepower and 590-pound feet of torque? Isn’t that obvious? The common denominator in all our vehicles was the growling sound and ample horsepower. But what is horsepower? Horsepower refers to the power an engine produces. Calculated through the power needed to move 550 pounds one foot in one second or by the power needed to move 33,000 pounds one foot in one minute. And foot pounds of torque? A foot-pound of torque is one pound of force applied at a distance of one foot. Try to explain this to your partner. Knowledge gap. My answer: “It’s not what it is, I can’t explain it but how it feels,” that drove my decision to go back to a V8. Do I need to go 0 to 60mph in 3.0 seconds? What is launch control? Would it be more fun to drive the one hundred miles of pine forested twisting turns and meadow lined straight-aways between Boise to McCall, Idaho in an RS 7? Could this larger, four door, family hatchback full of luggage safely pass a line of cars held up by a convoy of weekend campers? Would this car be fun on a track? I believed the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, yes, yes. How does it do it and could I do it safely; these questions drove my desire to close my own knowledge gaps.

Driving cars for forty years and with passion for the last twenty-five, culminated in a gradual fulfillment of an uninformed quest for more horsepower. It is something of an obsession and Daphne knows it. She has heard me long for the unlikely opportunity for the Audi Driving Experience at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, discontinued years ago. I first heard about this experience from Nathan Lloyd, an RS 3 owner/enthusiast and brand ambassador at Audi Boise who helped me so graciously into both the RS 5 and the RS 7, and Tony Astley, the service manager at Audi Boise who takes care of the people who maintain these vehicles for us. Each of them beamed as they described their own Audi Driving Experiences years ago.

So, Daphne gave me the gift of a High-Performance Driving Education (HPDE) experience to fill my knowledge gaps and a membership in Audi Club for Christmas 2021. In my stocking, under the lump of coal, for buying a new car for myself in December, was a printed webpage for membership to Audi Club SoCal and registration for the event hosted by the club at Spring Mountain Motor Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, held March 22-24, 2022.

The day after registration confirmation, the emails began to roll in. The first  was a pleasant communication from Kevin Duscha of Audi Club SoCal, confirming that all registrants were members of Audi Club. The next email came from Chris Olariu, one of the First Timer’s Advocates at Audi Club SoCal. His welcoming message expressed his excitement to have me join the upcoming HPDE. He sent an attachment full of information including a required “Speed Secrets” online training and a link to a Zoom meeting the week before the event especially for first timers. I could see the knowledge gaps widening but felt the resources and people were already in place for me and the event was still a month out. More emails with more details found their way to my inbox. A week before the event, Alex Whitney, a long-time member of Audi Club SoCal and the designated Chief Instructor for the upcoming event called to introduce himself. We had a pleasant conversation about the club, the event, my expectations, and experience. Just days later, another call, this time from Bill Vogel, the Event Master. Like Alex, he gauged my motivation, set expectations, and informed me that he would be my instructor.

These calls and the resulting conversations eased tensions about the event and sparked excitement in me to meet all these friendly people. Frankly, I had shared with Daphne that I was apprehensive about the event, the distance to travel, going alone, and being a novice driver relative to those I saw on the entry list. The most important understanding for me was a sense of the culture of Audi Club SoCal consistently shared with me by Bill and Alex, and the tone of all the emails received to date. Safety First! This event is not racing, a racing school, or practice for racing! It is organized training and practice which they believe will make you a better everyday driver. Bill and Alex describe it as driving “seven tenths” and shared a funny quote. “Driving fast on a track does not scare me. What scares me is when I drive on the highway, and I get passed by some idiot who thinks he’s Fangio.” – Juan Manuel Fangio, world champion.

It is a long and lonely road from Boise to Pahrump. It is about the length of a good 10 hour  audio book. The book helped pass the time and there were opportunities to safely pass the occasional slower vehicle on the impeccably straight and flat highway though the barren desert. Bill and Alex encouraged me to arrive to the track on the Friday before the event to familiarize myself with the facilities and ride along with the experienced drivers who would be instructors over the weekend. My late Thursday night arrival and after-hours check-in to a comfortable cottage at Wine Ridge RV Resort and Cottages allowed for a restful night’s sleep to be ready for the knowledge gaps on Friday.

The combined surface area representing the contact points between the four tires on your car and the road fits on one 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. This frightening fact was disseminated in a breakout session with Erin Vogel, a performance driving instructor who would teach twelve “first timers” in class between driving sessions over the weekend. The day before, the same Erin Vogel, aspiring professional racer, gave me a ride in her Audi TT on the track for the experienced drivers before the weekend event for all drivers. Erin negotiated the Andretti 4.0 mi track with exhilarating precision. Admittedly lightheaded from the g-force out of the “chicane” and into “roller coaster,” this ride along was a glimpse of the weekend to come. There were ride-along thrills with instructors: Nick Kuilema in his 2016 Porsche Cayman S, Chris Olariu in his 2018 Audi RS 3, Matt Nichols in his 2008 Audi RS 4, Jason Billiot in his 2020 BMW M240i, and Bill Vogel, my instructor for the weekend, in his 2012 Audi R8 GT. After this day, I would have been satisfied to just ride along all weekend. Bill took me under his wing, sharing his previous HPDEs including his own first timer experience more than ten years prior. Experiencing the track, the people, and the atmosphere was satisfying enough. At this point, I did not know what I did not know.

The Friday evening registration and welcome reception was an opportunity to meet more like-minded enthusiasts teeming with anticipation for a weekend of learning, driving and friendship. We all received a 9×12 envelope with our race numbers, meal tickets, carabiner with name tag/schedule and more useful instructions on what to expect for the weekend in exchange for our safety inspection checklist or “tech-check” from our Audi dealer or other appropriately licensed mechanics. There were seventy-nine entries for the weekend ranging from first time drivers the age of 16 in a 2019 Audi S4, with her mother in a 2022 Audi RS 6, to seasoned veterans who have been enjoying high-performance driving for decades.

Saturday morning began with a group photo at 8 AM sharp… and I do mean sharp. As I walked leisurely from the paddock to the breakout rooms about one hundred yards up a sloping driveway where the students, instructors, and staff had gathered, we stragglers witnessed the snap of the lens without us. There was a tight schedule to keep, and it was evident no one was going to get us behind schedule. The first timers sat in a classroom with Erin for instruction while the experienced drivers hit the track. Something to note about the Audi Club SoCal culture; the first timers are marked by Audi Club SoCal letter “A” to represent their group for instruction and track time. Other drivers are branded letters “B,” “C,” “D,” “X,” and “Y” to indicate their group and experience level. It is no accident that this club wants the first-time drivers to feel like a priority, and “A” priority, we did feel.

After classroom instruction, our next scheduled activity was on the upper paddock at this sprawling Spring Mountain Motor Ranch facility. This space was reserved by staff for Saturday morning exercises which included acceleration to braking and slalom. Instructors coached each first timer who lined up around the paddock taking turns to get a feel for the stopping distances after accelerating into a “garage” of cones with the intent to stop before braking through the back wall. The turning rhythm at speed in a slalom course took finesse which most did not grasp right away. Cones were abused until the entire group partially filled our knowledge gaps. The “A” group of first timers went back to class for debriefing and further instruction before lunch. After lunch it would be our turn to take our turns on the track.

In the classroom, we got to know Erin Vogel. She taught us about vehicle dynamics; weight transfer, smooth is fast, understeer, oversteer, power oversteer and how to determine our limits. She took questions, was patient, and made a connection with each of us. We learned that Erin was first introduced to the thrill of speed by taking her street car to track events in her local region just like we first timers. Fast forward ten years and she is now a performance driving instructor and an aspiring professional racing driver for DXDT Racing. She has progressed her way up the ladder racing a variety of cars from Subraru BRZs to Porsche Boxsters. In 2019 Erin got her first taste of a factory-built race car piloting a Gen 1 Porsche Cayman GT4 in the Porsche Trophy West Series (More on Erin: https://www.erinvogelracing.com/ – ed.).

On the track it was my fortune to get to know Bill Vogel, Erin’s father, and a Certified High Performance Driving Instructor II with Automobile Racing Competition Licenses SCCA, POC, PCA, & Inde. We adorned our helmets, communication devices, buckled in, rolled down the windows, disabled the Audi Pre-sense active avoidance system, and engaged the RS1 mode. The suspension lowered and the exhaust growled a little deeper and we left the paddock to the start line with Bill at the wheel. He drove my Sebring Black Crystal Effect Audi RS 7 for the first lap pointing out the references we learned about in class. At Spring Mountain Motor Ranch, the communication with drivers is controlled remotely from the tower, along with a few traditional corner marshals with flags. As Bill used the words awareness, wide vision, and smooth is fast, he navigated the course effortlessly. We waived at each corner marshal and light stand. We entered the pit after the first lap and exchanged seats. It was my turn. Just as we did when Bill drove, we buckled in with the driver’s and passenger windows open, helmets on, communicators operating, disabled the Audi Pre-sense active avoidance system, enabled RS1 mode and idled to the start line. The butterflies in my stomach were multiplying exponentially. The nervous excitement was something I have never really felt before.

Once on the track and picking up speed it was immediately evident that these nerves and the intense focus as a former Division I collegiate golfer had no place in the left seat of a 591 horsepower, 5,000-pound machine. Bill calmly coached me to notice the lights system, the corner marshals, the track ahead of me, through the corners rather than on the hood. When I was not “driving” the hood, the cones were in focus. These cones are placed on the track to aid drivers to identify where to head the car to find the line. The cones were not for me to focus on and drive toward. It was a divergence from the golf mantra “keep your eye on the ball.” Bill noticed this in our conversation and it helped me recognize this knowledge gap. With each lap, I gained more confidence but had much to work on. Bill took the time to debrief after the track sessions to give me something to analyze. In getting to know each other over three days he found the path to my knowledge gap. He, Erin, and others helped me through not knowing what I do not know (unconscious incompetence) to knowing what I do not know (conscious incompetence). The first couple stages of competence according to management trainer Martin M. Broadwell. It sounds harsh but it is true. My level stalled at the third stage; understanding how to do it but having to have heavy conscious involvement to execute. Bill, Erin, the other instructors, and the “D” “X” and “Y” drivers have had so much practice that it has become second nature. They are unconsciously competent.

The Spring Mountain HPDE put on by Audi Club North America’s Southern California Chapter ended on Sunday evening at about 5 PM. The hospitable folks at Wine Ridge RV Resorts & Cottages allowed me to book an extra night to rest before my 10-hour journey back to Boise. Alex and Bill invited me to dinner with them and other staff and instructors at Mountain Falls Golf Club just three miles down the road. The experience was a gift, a thoughtful way for my wife Daphne to help me indulge in the performance of my new car. It was a gift of better driving skills, to have wider vision, to be smooth and to anticipate obstacles, and to make the street my classroom. It was a gift of inexperience, of knowing what I did not know but closing the gap a little bit. There is more to know and more to experience, therefore, my next event is Saturday, June 18 – Sunday, June 19, 2022, Audi Club NA – Northwest Chapter – Ver Loren Gehen ’22. And it is only a 5 hour and 43-minute drive from Boise.