Dyer Consequences: My two left feet

If you read enough car magazines, you eventually come to a sentence that says something like, “The pedals on the Daihatsu Feely Man are perfectly placed for heel-and-toeing.” And then, if you’re like me, you continue to read car magazines for many more years, encountering the phrase “heel-and-toe” about 600 more times before it finally occurs to you to wonder what that term means. At which point you discover that “heel-and-toeing” involves neither your heel nor your toes.

Interestingly, the term is a corruption derived from the technique’s originator, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century suffragette and racing driver named Helen Toad. Ms. Toad invented the throttle blip, as well as the power can opener and the crew cut. When a driver executed a nice rev-matched downshift, a passenger might say, “Way to Helen Toad it.” Historians may argue that I made that up, but my version doesn’t make much less sense than the real explanation—that we still reference a skill developed back when cars had the gas pedal to the left of the brake.

Way back when, you’d depress the brake pedal with the ball of your right foot, then blip the throttle—which was mounted somewhat lower than the brake—with your heel. Voilà, a rev-matched downshift. Eventually, automakers standardized the current pedal arrangement, meaning that you could brake and blip the throttle with your right forefoot, obviating the need to use your heel. Drivers of the era, however, persisted in using the term “heel-and-toe,” both out of habit and because of the high concentration of tetraethyl lead in their brains.

I’ve never been very good at heel-and-toeing. So recently, I decided to confront my deficiency and try to learn how to heel-and-toe before there’s nothing left to heel or toe. Given the proliferation of excellent dual-clutch gearboxes, along with the arrival of electric cars (which barely need multiple gear ratios, let alone a clutch), it’s kind of like I’ve decided to learn how to separate cotton seeds from fibers just as Eli Whitney is firing up the cotton gin. Or I’ve gotten into the aqueduct-construction business just as the Visigoths come storming into Rome. Or I’ve decided to start Tweeting a year from now.

My original plan was to practice heel-and-toeing every time I drove a manual-transmission car. But I quickly discovered that practicing rev-matched downshifts on the street is about as safe as opening a burlesque revue in Kandahar. When each side of your foot is trying to simultaneously accomplish a discrete task, it’s easy to botch at least half of that routine. And if the botched half involves the brake, that could have fairly unhappy consequences. So I modified my goal: Every time I schemed my way onto a track, I’d work on heel-and-toeing. As long as there were no cars in front of me. And plenty of runoff room.

This year’s All-Stars testing provided a perfect venue for me to work my heel/toe magic—a day at GingerMan Raceway with a fine cast of manual transmissions. As I lapped, I tried to make the magic happen. I imagined onlookers watching the Porsche 911 GT3 RS diving for the corner at the end of the back straight, its turn-in preceded by a sharp bark from the flat six going down to third gear, and asking, “So, did Automobile hire Michael Schumacher to give instruction today?”

That is, they might say that, if I ever got it right. Unfortunately, my downshift sequence would typically go: brake, throttle blip, pause, fumble for correct gear, more braking, swear at shifter, correct ugly lift-throttle oversteer after missing turn-in while swearing at shifter, finally change gear midcorner, and plow through with power understeer. Just like they teach you in racing school.

According to my oft-discouraging reference, Going Faster! Mastering the Art of Race Driving (from the Skip Barber school), I need more practice to attain competence. The section on heel-and-toeing asserts that, “If you drove an hour a day, every day of the year, and did three downshifts for every minute on the road, you’d do 60,000 a year. That would do it.”

So, I need to spend the equivalent of nine work weeks doing 60,000 downshifts? On second thought, you know what car has really great, well-placed pedals? The Ferrari 458 Italia. And, yes, I know it has only two.