Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: James Deakin | posted August 26, 2014 18:00
Most of us have at least one person we can honestly call a mentor; someone who has shaped the way we are or do certain things.
Personally-speaking, I feel honored to be able to call the late great Kookie Ramirez a mentor, as do my fellow junior writers and editors during my three-year stint then-young (or are we still?) C! Magazine team from 2006 to 2009.
To those who don't know, Kookie was part of the Ramirez family of race car drivers that at its peak included his father Pocholo, brothers Georges, Louis and Miguel, his wife Menchie and now his son, Stefan.
To those who were fortunate enough to meet, talk or even drive with him in the Philippine Touring Car Championship or Run What Ya Brung events, Kookie was that friendly gray-haired race car driver that everyone liked to talk to. He was that guy you approached to if you wanted to learn how to heel-and-toe and attack corners to shave a few tenths or even whole seconds from your time. He was the guy you talked to if you wanted to get into and, more importantly, enjoy racing. He was even the guy you talked to if a part on your car (usually a Honda Civic) broke and you needed to borrow a spare; a part he'll gladly lend you even if you're his competitor.
To us “kids” back then at the 21st floor of 88 Corporate Center, however, Kookie was the grumpy old man; El Viejo, so to speak. And being one of the most experienced drivers behind the wheel in the company, Kookie became our de facto master of driver training.
It sounds fun to have a race car driver as the main man training all of you, but unlike his persona on the racetrack as the friendly guy who gave advice to those who asked, Kookie was as strict and as rigid as a teacher came with regards to educating us behind the wheel and weeding out all our Fast-and-Furious-inspired driving habits from our early twenties.
It would be normal to think that an experienced race car pilot would have taught us how to drive hard and make a car dance on the limit at a race track, but no; that part came much later after he was confident that we all drove properly and responsibly on the road.
Training began the very first time I was handed a keys to a test drive car with El Viejo in the passenger seat. Read on and perhaps you can put these lessons to good use.
Lesson 1: Bring up that backrest
The very first time Kookie sat next to me in a car was probably one of the most nervous days ever, and immediately he pointed out one simple but major flaw: my seat position.
Thanks to movies and music videos, it was common to see guys my age back then driving with the seat pushed back and with the backrests reclined significantly; in our minds, that was seen as “cool”.
Kookie explained the three main problems with driving that way whether you're on the racetrack or driving casually on the road. The first is that you don't have much control, as your arms and legs will typically be stretched out by driving like that; you can't turn the wheel fully without extending your arms out neither can you fully apply the clutch (if driving a manual) nor can you actually reach full throttle because your legs are also stretched out. The second reason is that you can't see as much beyond the wheel as your head will be low with the seat leaned back. Lastly, your back tends to hurt by driving like that after a while and yes, I can attest to that.
As a general rule, your seat is supposed to be at a sufficient distance from the wheel and pedals while the driver's backrest is upright but with a slight angle for comfort. The best way to measure that is when you have a slight bend at the knees when you touch the pedals and you can put your wrist on top of the steering wheel without moving your body forward.
The moment Kookie saw me lean the seat a wee bit too much, he switched the ignition off, pulled out the key and wouldn't let me move the car unless I brought up the backrest and moved the seat forward a bit to meet the proper driver position.
To this day, I still haven't deviated from the proper position that I was so strictly taught by El Viejo.
Lesson 2: Always drive 9-3 and never steer underhand
With my seating position sorted out, I began to pull out of the parking slot; yes, we still haven't moved an inch. The moment I touched the steering wheel with my hand and was about to step on the accelerator, Kookie immediately yanked the parking brake, slapped my wrist and had a stern look on his face.
The reason why he did that was simple but again, major: I had made the classic mistake of putting one hand inside the wheel and steering underhand-style out of the parking slot.
Kookie strongly advocated the 9 and 3 o'clock hand positions on the wheel. He also made it a point to never allow any of us to steer the car one handed or underhanded.
The logic behind having two hands on the wheel is easy to understand: two hands on the rim of the wheel affords you 100% control of the steering. Steer with one hand and you've got 50% of the steering control possible. That's the reason why real race car drivers (circuit, rally, drift, drag, basically all) keep two hands on the wheel unless they're shifting.
By putting your hands on the outside of the rim when you steer, you're actually pushing with the outer hand and helping it along by pulling with the inner hand. Basic physics: pushing is better than pulling. If you steer underhand, you're just pulling the wheel.
It sounds silly to experienced drivers to have to always put two hands on the wheel when driving, but it's all about having more control especially in emergency situations.
Over here it's common for something or someone to suddenly cross the street, nowhere near the zebra stripes and at night. Sometimes they even wear all black. It's common for another another car cut to into your lane at speed using their signals or even mirrors. Hell, it's even common for a wayward ball from a roadside basketball game to suddenly bounce onto a road with a kid chasing after it, oblivious to oncoming traffic (i.e. You).
Moments like these are the reasons why I no longer steer underhanded or with one hand on top of the steering wheel, and the fact that I didn't want my hands to be slapped anymore by the grumpy schoolmaster.
Lesson 3: Manage suspension and weight through pedal control
Once we actually got underway, El Viejo then proceeded to evaluate how smoothly or, more accurately, how roughly I worked the car in the city and in traffic, particularly the pedals.
In racing, drivers (especially the really good ones) have mastered the art of managing how much and how smoothly the weight transfers all around the car.
For instance, when you brake at speed, the weight of the car shifts forward and provides more grip to the front tires for a better turn-in and reduced understeer. At the same time it unloads the rear, making the car more prone to oversteer. When you're cornering, the weight shifts to the two outer wheels while the inside goes light. When you're accelerating, the weight goes to the back which is good news for rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive cars, but bad for front wheelers.
While we are not racing at that moment in traffic, the same principles are applicable for smooth and comfortable driving through the smarter use of the brake and accelerator pedals.
For instance, he began how I should work on the application of the throttle instead of the clutch pedal in order to accelerate more smoothly from a standstill. Kookie noticed that, like many other drivers out there, I had a tendency to be a clutch driver in order to be smoother. Instead of keeping the clutch depressed a bit longer, he advised that I should use the throttle pedal more progressively, something I still practice today.
More importantly, he taught me how to use the brakes more smoothly with regards to stop and go or stoplight-to-stoplight traffic, particularly with manipulating the suspension. In a nutshell I was taught to bleed off a little brake pedal pressure right a the instant just before coming to a complete stop.
I know it sounds tricky, especially since a driver's natural tendency is to depress the brakes even more just before coming to a full stop, typically resulting in a see-saw motion (read: rocking) that can be quite nauseating for passengers (in this case, Kookie) if you have to do it 100 or more times during rush hour traffic.
All your really need to do is just gradually lift maybe about 20-40% of the brake as the car stops to purposely bring the suspension back to its decompressed state, and then reapplying the brake when it does come to a halt. By doing so, you're actually controlling the speed in which the front suspension rebounds and purposely settling the car back.
This one took a bit of time to practice and become second nature. If your passengers don't feel a thing, then you know you're doing it right.
About a year later Kookie checked if I had improved my footwork in a car via the “Limo Test” aboard a 2006 Jaguar XJ. I was in the driver's seat chauffeur-style while he and fellow C! alumnus James Deakin were in the back seat. The Limo Test was simple: place a set of keys on the center console lid between the two front seats and see if you can drive around town without them falling to the floor.
If the keys stayed on top, that means you've got it. If it fell, that means the boss spilled his Scotch and yes, you're probably fired.
Lesson 4: Alertness is everything
During the course of that first drive with Kookie beside me, I can honestly say it was a bit nerve racking. I was already a little nervous and a bit unsettled with a guy who slaps your wrists from passenger seat whenever your hands deviate from the 9 and 3 position, and a ringing phone in my pocket didn't exactly help.
I went to reach for it and you guessed it: he slapped my hand again.
Of course we all know that distracted driving is one of the most dangerous things you can do on the road, and the main culprit nowadays for that is your phone.
It's actually getting harder and harder to stay focused behind the wheel recently, given the highly distracting nature of our roads. Take one drive along any major thoroughfare and you'll realize why; billboards (especially those bright LED billboards) are everywhere and all of them are vying for your your eyeballs and attention. If you were merely a passenger that's fine to check out the latest poster girl in lingerie on that billboard, but if you were driving, you'd know that it's difficult enough to monitor a couple hundred cars, buses, motorcycles, taxis, jeepneys and pedestrians (and jaywalkers) all moving around you at any given time.
So the lesson is simple: stay alert and be aware of your surroundings. In this day and age it's hard to resist the temptation every time a message chimes in or a Facebook notification pops up, but we really should avoid pulling out that phone while behind the wheel.
Lesson 5: Never push the limits on the street
A few days later it was my turn to hitch a ride with the master, and I was keen to observe all that he taught in that first drive as demonstrated by him. Needless to say, it was one of the most boring rides ever.
Strange, isn't it? There I was riding shotgun with one of the country's best pro race car drivers and I'm bored... and that's exactly how it's supposed to be.
I have personally ridden with Kookie on numerous occasions on a race track (usually at the now-defunct Subic International Raceway, sometimes the Batangas Racing Circuit) and he can push every car he is handed the keys to, let it dance on its limits for a few laps and bring it back in one piece. That's why we call him “laglag susi” (Tagalog for key-drop) because people would literally hand the keys to their cars onto his hands ranging from modified Japanese sedans to exotics like Ferraris or Porsches.
Every time I walked out of a car he drove on a racetrack I usually come out a bit more pale and with whiter knuckles from holding on to that grab handle for far too tight and for far too long. Yet there he was driving very sedately and very casually on public highways and roads. He would rarely touch, let alone breach, 100 km/h on the expressway. What gives?
The real reason is that the pros (generally) don't feel that need for speed on the streets anymore; they have the racetracks to push the limits of the machinery and their skills.
That, in a nutshell, is probably the real lesson that El Viejo wanted to inculcate in us at the time. Our youth makes us do things like show off a brand new car (or new modifications to an existing ride) and demonstrate our newly-learned “driving skills” in front of our friends on public streets and on winding mountain roads. He wanted to get rid of that in us and only race on the circuit and not on the street.
Sadly, Kookie succumbed to the hardest challenge of his life almost four years ago against the big C. Nevertheless, Kookie's legacy lives on in any of us who drove with him, talked with him, chatted with him, worked with him and learned with him both on and off the race track.
He was tough and extremely critical of the driving of those who worked with him (us), but we're all the better for it.
Thank you, El Viejo.