Open Road

Are you faster with traction control on or off?

You, I’m sure, are a good driver. You know to apply the throttle, brakes, and steering progressively; you know not to try to brake and steer at the same time; you know to steer into a skid. But do you know how to brake one wheel at a time to change the yaw of a car? Do you know how to cut ignition to the engine to prevent wheelspin? Do you know how to modulate your brakes right at the threshold of traction a thousand times a second?

Of course you don’t. You can’t. But if you have a modern car, it does. The things I just described are, respectively, electronic stability control (ESC), traction control (TC), and anti-lock braking (ABS). They are miracles of modern engineering.

These systems are so effective and the impact so significant that they have become the law. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has done a study that shows that ten thousand fatal crashes would be avoided annually if all cars on the road had ESC, and has mandated that all new cars sold in the US from 2012 on must have ESC.

If you do what I do – drive race cars and stunt cars in film and television – you become very concerned with how to disable the anti-lock braking systems, traction control, and electronic stability control. When we want to make a bad guy’s Dodge Charger do a smoky burnout and a long drift for the cameras then slide sideways to a stop in front of a roadblock, well, we have to turn those systems off, don’t we? I mean, it’d look stupid if the TC modulated the burnout, the ESC controlled the drift, and the ABS made for a smooth, controlled stop…

So we pull fuses, extract relays, unplug sensors, put vice-grips on brake lines, and a bunch of other things you should not try at home. Unless home is Hollywood.

But what about on the racetrack? Can you go faster around a track with all these electronic devices disabled? This is what we wanted to find out.

In a way, I knew the answer. Traction control and electronic stability control definitely make you faster. I know this because they are (mostly) banned in every major racing league: NASCAR, Formula 1, ALMS, Le Mans, and my preferred racing arena: Pro Rally. I’ve driven race cars with forms of active controls and they are sensational, as long as the programming is right. It really is like cheating, and the systems are banned because these series are supposed to reward great driving, or at least reward great driving more than great programming by rooms of engineers back in North Carolina, or Ingolstadt Germany, or Banbury England.

And therein lies the rub. Computers have to be programmed for a purpose. And to have a single program in the computer to infer what you want the car to do, it has to presume you more or less drive like everyone else. And if you drive a street car, the guys with big brains back at your chosen automaker have programmed it to behave like a street car.

More or less. Bugattis have different programs than Buicks. And some cars, like the new SRT Viper, remain “fully disable-able” – you can turn off all the controls, and you’re on your own. And trust me, in a Viper, you really are on your own, with big gnarly fangs poised over you.

But there’s another car that can shut off all its electric nannies – the awesomely fun Scion FR-S. In fact, it has two modes of ESC – or Vehicle Stability Control in Scion-speak: Normal and Sport, and a full off.

So the test was simple: run three laps at the Willow Springs track in California, and see how the car behaved in each of those three modes, and in which I could be fastest.

I’ll leave you to watch the video to see the outcome. I will tell you that full “off” is the most fun. The car will drift like a Dakota snowfall, and all day long, too. But I did spin it out once. And I used to compete in the professional drifting series, Formula D…

But despite all the hooliganism of driving around the track all day, when the sun went down and we had to drive a slew of test cars back to Los Angeles on a darkening interstate, I left all the electronic stability controls on. Because even as a pro driver, if a wooden pallet comes loose from the pickup in front of me while I’m listening to a good stereo and thinking of what’s on for dinner at home, I want to be working with a car capable of braking one wheel at a time.

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