As a resource to all of our club members, this area is provided to serve as a guide to proper performance driving habits and preparation. Laying the proper foundation is key to a successful and safe experience on the track. The skills described in the following pages are aimed mainly at road racing, but these skills still can apply to many different types of racing, vehicles, and even normal daily driving. Don’t be intimidated, these are best practices, but by knowing them you will be propelled well ahead of most people relative to their knowledge of racing.
An index is provided below to help you navigate the manual easily. Simply click on the topic to jump to that section:
- General Overview
- Trackside Preparation
- Track Protocol
- Driving Techniques Introduction
- Seating Position
- Steering Wheel Grip
- Steering Wheel Control
- Heel-Toe Downshift
- Braking and Accelerating
- Visual Field
- Reference Points
Unlike the “hot rodding” genre of drag racing with its emphasis on acceleration, road course racing is primarily about a car’s handling. The car and driver must work together to corner, brake, and accelerate through a closed course of straights, turns, and even hills in the shortest possible time. The best of drivers are not only fast, but can drive with tremendous consistency lap after lap. It requires a great deal of mental and physical skill to master.
Even if you don’t need to be convinced it’s a fun thing to do, you may need to be convinced to find a way to do your fast driving off the public roads. We’ll spare the moralistic lectures (although they’re probably appropriate), and appeal to your sense of sport and accomplishment.
Driving on a race track is far more demanding on your mental, physical, and driving skills than any amount of street or highway hot rodding. Horsing around on the street does not allow you to drive at the limit of the car’s ability–there just isn’t enough room or time. A race track provides the room and the road design that allows you to push the car to much higher performance levels. This requires more of you as a driver. It’s also a lot more satisfying than short little bursts of speed on the street.
The general public’s perception of racing carries a “dangerous” image, but any racer would argue that high-speed driving is much safer on a track than on the street. Even with the higher speeds, the probability of an accident is lower on the track. On the street, you just don’t know who or when one of the other cars will pull in front of your driving line when you least expect it. This simply isn’t safe. Keep it up, and the probability of a serious accident increases (that’s why insurance rates goes up when you get speeding tickets!). On the track, in a hobbyist car club event, you’ll have the road largely to yourself, and a strictly enforced set of rules aimed at making safety the first priority. The environment is simply more controlled than the unpredictability of multilane public roads.
What keeps most would-be hobbyists off the track is usually the cost. While it isn’t a cheap hobby, club racing can be affordable. If you really enjoy fast driving–you’ll enjoy it ten times more on a race track, and it’ll be worth the preparation and costs required. For the budget racer, the Costs of Racing article will show you how to keep costs to a minimum.
The articles in this Introduction to Racing section is aimed at preparing you for your first time out. The Intro section will answer many of the “before you race” questions beginners commonly have. It will identify types of racing available, things you should be prepared with at the track, what modifications you may want to consider for your first time out, and some of the typical rules of the race track environment.
Once you’ve been to the track for an event, you’ll have a host of people to get ideas from, and the rest of this site will make more sense to you. If you really want to investigate what these events are like, contact a local club or two, and attend an event as a spectator. The club organizers will be more than happy to give the run down on how events are run, and you can talk with the drivers about how they approach the events. You’ll find a few who take their equipment and performance very seriously, and most others who are there to enjoy a day or weekend of fun and friendship.
When you arrive at the track, you’ll need to prepare your car (even a totally stock one), and be equipped for both variety of mechanical mishaps, and your own comfort.
You’ll encounter more situations each time you go, but this list should help prepare you for your first time or two until you get the feel for what you want to bring with you, and what you’ll need to do to your vehicle.
Tools — the amount and type of tools you take with you to the track will depend on how much adjusting or repairing of the vehicle you expect to perform, and how much adjustable race hardware your vehicle has. However, you should have a minimum set of tools with you. Race driving pushes your car much harder than street driving, and you may end up having to repair failing hardware. At a minimum, you should have the following items with you:
- Basic set of hand tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, hammer, etc.) to perform the tightening or replacing of minor service items
- Tools to change a tire, including a tire repair kit, and an adequate jack
- Air pressure gauge with a bleeder valve (preferably an oil-filled one reading no more than 50-60 psi)
- Small 12-volt air pump with a tire adaptor, this is needed to adjust tire pressures up
- A wooden block or other item to stop the car from rolling when parked (do not use the hand brake after driving on the track, it will warp the rear brake rotors)
- A spare set of brake pads, and the tools required to change them (know how to do this before you go!)
- Spare fluids including enough oil to refill the pan, coolant, and brake fluid
- Items that will be handy for emergency repairs such as duct tape, electrical tape, large tie wraps, and bailing wire
- Rubber gloves — they’re a few dollars for 40 or 50 gloves and they save a lot of time and hassle in cleaning up between sessions
There are dozens of other specialty tools or tools of convenience that you may begin to collect as you discover new needs at each event.
Comfort — chances are you’ll run with an organization that will rotate several groups on the track. You’ll have plenty of time between sessions to fill in. You’ll want the typical items you’d take for a day in the park: chairs, drink coolers, snacks (healthy, energy building ones!), etc. You’ll likely spend most of the time socializing between sessions, but just remember you’ll be at the track for a full day or more–take the things you need to be comfortable and enjoy it. A good idea is to take some of the printed pages from this site or the race books you’ve been reading. You may encounter something on the track that you want to refresh what you’ve read before.
Vehicle — any club worth running with will insist on a general safety inspection of the vehicle. Additionally, you’ll want to be sure the vehicle has been properly serviced. For your own safety, and those around you, do not ignore the importance of maintaining your car’s mechanical well being. Find out what the safety inspection will be, and make sure your car will pass ahead of time.
Most safety inspections, at a minimum, include checking the condition of the brakes, tires, and wheel bearings, making sure there’s no fluid leaks, that the battery has a tie-down clamp, that there are no loose body parts, and that all brake lights function properly.
In addition to this, you will want to be sure that your car has been properly maintained. A half-hour of race driving on a track will stress your car far more than any hot rodding around town you’ve ever put your car through. Be sure it’s in good condition. Fresh oil, all fluids in good condition and at the proper levels, lots of brake pad, lug nuts checked, filters all clean, and spark plugs in good condition are all items you need to check before leaving home.
Before going onto the track itself, be sure to remove everything that is not a permanent fixture in the car. Take out all loose items you keep on or in the dash, under the seats, in the trunk, and even in the glove box. Remove the spare tire and tools, and remove the floor mats. If your car’s wheels have hub caps, even the small center bolt cover plates, remove those too. Absolutely everything should be out of the car. This is a safety issue. If you end up off the track, in a spin, or if you are hit or roll, loose items that normally seem harmless can cause significant injury.
The other thing most tracks and organizations will ask you to do is tape up the lenses of all lights or other plastic trim items like that. Loose stones, tire chunks, or other track debris can get tossed up and break light lenses which just adds more debris to the track. You’ll want to use a tape that has enough stick to do the job, but not one that will gum up your car, so don’t use common duct tape, masking tape, or electrical tape. From your car’s perspective, the more you cover, the less will get scratched or cracked.
Tires — one of the common “mysteries” and subjects of paddock chatter in club time trialing is tire pressure. There’s two parts to the “what pressure to use” question. First, racing will dramatically heat up your tires–much more than driving on the street. The starting pressure of the tires when they’re cold is going to be several pounds lower than you’re used to using. Second, tire pressure is often one of the very few things you’ll have available to tune your car’s handling, and you may need to fine tune the pressure of each tire for the best performance. Read the Tire Notes article in the Practice Sessions tab for a lot more detail about this subject.
There are several standard flags used in auto racing, and for the most part they are used consistently. However, some organizations use them with slight variations. Below are the typical uses of each flag, and some varied uses.
- Green — starts, or restarts, the session. It may also be shown at the end of a caution zone to indicate it is OK to return to full speed.
- Blue or Blue with Yellow Strip — give way, faster cars approaching. This will not be used during a battle for position, but will be given to cars much slower, or several positions behind. It is typically not a command, but a suggestion (that should be heeded as soon as safely possible).
- Yellow — “standing” (not waving) means a local cautionary condition, no passing. Used at all stations during warm up laps, cool down lap, or at affected stations when a car is stopped or off course, and is considered not to be in an imminently dangerous position.
- Yellow — “waving” usually means a car is in trouble, and may be in an imminently dangerous position to other cars. Proceed with caution, slow your speed until past the hazard, or the next flag station either displaying a green flag, or is not displaying the yellow.
- Yellow with Red stripe(s) — danger, the track surface is compromised (oil, fluids, dirt, car debris or other contaminant on the track)
- Black Flag – displayed and pointed at your car, or shown with your car number, means return to the pits immediately, you’ve done something bad. The black flag shown at all stations means the session has been stopped, slow down, no passing, and return to the pits.
- Black Flag with Orange Circle — mechanical black flag displayed and pointed at your car, or shown with your car number, means return to the pits immediately, your car has a mechanical problem.
- White — extreme caution, service vehicle or ambulance on the track, or extremely slow car ahead.
- Red — imminently dangerous conditions that cannot be fixed while cars remain on the track, the race or session has been stopped. If this is shown at a corner station, slow to a stop on the track. Wait for the flag worker to motion you to proceed, at which time drive slowly back to the pits or as directed. Some organizations show the red only at the start/finish and display the black flag at all the corner stations. In this case, do not stop on the track, just continue with caution, no passing, and return to the pits.
- Checkered — the session or race is complete. Enter the pits on the next time by the pit entrance.
One very important point about flags — pay attention to all flag stations! It is very easy to ignore them as you get accustomed to the track environment. However, you must make it a mental point to know where each station is, and to remain aware of every station on every lap. This doesn’t mean staring at each one as you approach it, but there is typically enough time for a glance at each station. You’ll also need to develop the skill of keeping aware of them from your peripheral vision.
The flag workers are there for you and your safety. Pay attention to them as they may be communicating something that will save you and your car from serious harm.
Communication between drivers on the track is critical for maintaining safety. There’s a few things about general protocol and courtesy that you must be aware of and use while time trial or hot lap driving on a track. Don’t hold up a faster car. Time trialing club rules will invariably include no passing in corners, and depending on the track, faster cars will not necessarily be able to easily pass you on the straights. If a car catches up to you in the corners, but you can pull away on the straights, then the other car is still faster overall. Slow down on the straight (yes, that means let up on the gas), and let the other car pass.
Raise your arm to communicate significant slowing in an unsual spot. If you are slowing more than usual or in an unusual place for any reason (trouble with your car, you see debris, or a car in trouble ahead, or you’re planning on pulling into the pits), raise your right arm so your hand and forearm are visible through the rear window. If you’re just letting off the gas to slow down in an unusual place, touch the brake pedal so the lights show. Clubs with a majority of street cars often prefer drivers raise their left arm out the window. It is more visible, but under race conditions the window would have a net, so get in the habit of using and looking for the right arm inside the car if you plan to move up to a racing class.
Get off the racing line if your car has problems. If you’re having trouble with the car, or are going to pull into the pits, drive the car off the racing line. That is, do not stay driving on the normal path you would use when racing. Stay out of the way of other cars by driving where they are not likely to be.
Let faster cars know its OK to pass. As time trial driving typically does not allow passing in the corners, it is important to communicate with other drivers that you are aware of their presence and need to pass. Even when there is no passing in corners you should develop the habit of checking your mirrors. Someone may have brake troubles, or may simply get in over their head thinking they could have passed you before the corner. If you see someone needing to pass, wave your hand and point the driver behind to the side of the car you want to be passed on.
Whether passing is done on the left or the right can depend on a few factors. The club you run with should have very clear rules about this. Usually the safest rule is to have the car doing the overtaking make the pass off the racing line. The slower car stays on the racing line. In club time trialing, with many driver’s not having much track experience, the slower car may not even be aware of the faster car, and this rule helps to avoid accidents due to miscommunication.
Keep your cool and use the race steward to mediate if you need to. Time trial racing, like anything else, will have its hot-dogs that don’t believe the rules apply to them. If a driver obviously ignores the rules, and is compromising his and your safety with his driving, you owe it to both of you to complain about it. You have two choices: you can complain directly to the driver, or do it through an event official, typically the race steward. Which you do depends on you. If you can engage in a conversation politely reminding the driver of the rules that perhaps he wasn’t aware of, then by all means, you’ll probably make a friend out of it. Sometimes what appeared to you as an aggressive move, was due to misunderstanding or maybe even car trouble. If, however, you suspect that either you or the other driver is likely to get a little heated over the discussion, then it’s better to use an official as your liaison until cooler heads can prevail.
The nearest visible corner worker is your commnication point when you go off the track. If you spin off the track, once you have stopped, give a “thumbs up” to the nearest corner worker to indicate you’re not hurt. If you do not move the car, and if you do not motion to a corner worker, the track officials will assume you need assistance. If your car is not damaged, and you’re OK, position the car so you can see the nearest corner worker, and he can see you. The corner worker will let you know when it is clear to enter the track. If he holds up a few fingers, he’s telling you how many cars will pass before you can go. Enter the track slowly, and off the racing line if possible. Do not spin the tires — this will just spray debris all over the track and cause delays to get it cleaned up.
On or off the track, never drive against traffic. When you spin off the track, and want to get back to the pits, never drive against the flow of traffic on the track or even off the track. Even if the nearest exit is just a few yards back, drive with the flow of traffic to the next exit — even if it is all the way around the track. If your car is damaged, stay put until the session is stopped. You don’t want to end up in a worse position, and you don’t want to be dropping car parts or fluids on the track, or increasing the damage by driving the car.
Never back up in the hot pit unless directed to do so by a track official. The hot pit is part of the track, and part of the one-way flow of traffic.
Driving Techniques Introduction
It is very easy to get caught up in the showmanship and prestige of expensive parts for your car, but the best investment you’ll ever make in road racing is the time you spend tuning your driving skills.
In this section, our goal is to introduce you to many of the basic driving techniques used in race car driving. There are numerous details to be conscious of while racing on a track, and it will be difficult and overwhelming to remember them all the first few times out. Focus on one or two techniques each time you go out on the track. As each technique becomes second-nature, you can work on a new one.
No matter how much country- or mountain-road hot rodding you may have done, or how good a driver you think you are, driving on a race track is an entirely new level of driving that requires very specific skills if you want to be good at it. Good drivers, like all good athletes, have a natural skill, and yet are also smart and/or humble enough to know that there are known techniques they must practice if they are to be proficient. Even if you have natural talent, don’t make the mistake of thinking all you need is a better car to improve your performance. Your driving skills can always be improved. Even the Gordon’s, Andretti’s, and Schumacher’s of the pro-driving world continually analyse their driving so they can improve.
Many of the race driving techniques explained here can be practiced on the street, others simply cannot be. Where appropriate (meaning safe and useful), we will point out how to practice these skills during everyday street driving. As with any skill, “knowing” what to do is not the same as “doing” it. Practice, practice, practice. Time in the car, on the track, repetitively performing these techniques is the only thing that will make you good at using them. Often you’ll find yourself thinking you’re doing something right, only to recognize several months later, that you could do it even better. Because there are so many things to rememeber and practice, be sure to read these sections often–you will forget a lot of its content.
One of the first things to prepare before you even turn the key, is a proper seating position. This is often overlooked, or improperly immitated, resulting in poorer car control and premature fatigue.
If you look at a variety of race cars, you will see a variety of seating positions. In the open-wheel CART and Formula cars, it appears that the driver is almost laying down with arms fully oustretched (they are not). In a full-bodied NASCAR-type car, you see the driver more erect and almost cramped against the steering wheel. Neither position is the correct one for your street car in road racing.
The body of the open-wheel car is very shallow in height, and the cockpit is very narrow. This shape determines much of the driver’s position. The driver’s legs are relatively straight out with a slight bend in the knee, and the feet just barely below the hips. The pedals in many of these cars are almost touching each other. The pedals also require little more than a flexing of the ankle to go from 0-100% depression. The driver’s arms have little room for movement, but the steering requires extremely little turning input by the driver. In the open-wheel car, function (driver’s seating position and controls operation) follows form (the shallow and narrow cockpit).
In a NASCAR type car, many things are completely opposite. The driver sits very erect, and is very close to the steering wheel. In fact, the driver can almost lay his whole forearm on the steering wheel. Why the big difference? The cars themselves are larger, heavier, and have large front tires. Additionally, on even the large speedway tri-ovals, the percentage of time spent turning is much higher than on a road course. All this adds up, and means the driver’s right arm and shoulder is going to get tired much sooner. Sitting erect and close to the steering wheel allows the driver to utilize more of the shoulder and back muscles.
In driving a street car on a road course, whether the car is stock or fully race-prepared, neither of the above described seating positions is correct. The seat should not be “layed down” to make you look like a formula driver, and neither should sit as close as the NASCAR driver.
There are three main aspects to setting the correct seating position. In a street car, it is possible that some balanced compromise of these three parameters is needed as the fixed position of the pedals and steering wheel may not be perfectly matched to your arm and leg lengths. In a race car, or a street car you spend the money on, the pedal arms can be modified, and a steering wheel with a specific dish dimension (the depth of the mounting plane to the face of the handling ring) can be selected to allow a perfect match to your needs.
The steering wheel is where you will get most of your feedback of the track surface from the front tires, suspension, and brakes. As simple as steering may seem to be, for maximum control and smoothness, there are definately some techniques you should be aware of.
Your hands will spend a great deal of time on the steering wheel, so for both sensory input and comfort, how the steering wheel feels in your hand is important. Depending on the size of your hand, you may want a wheel that is thicker or thinner. The exact style, size, and construction is up to you. If you’re thinking of changing from the stock steering wheel, choose one that is comfortable gripping the wheel with your driving gloves on.
Steering Wheel Grip
The proper grip of the steering wheel starts with the hands at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions. Contrary to the 10 and 2 o’clock positions you probably learned in driver’s school, you have greater range of motion and control with your hands in the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. The palms should be cupping the outer diameter of the wheel, with the thumbs wrapped around the ring and resting on top of the cross brace. The heel of the palm should be positioned to apply a slight pressure on the front of the wheel for stabilizing your arm movements–don’t make your thumbs do all the stabilizing. Most stock steering wheels in sports cars, and even sedans, today are properly designed for the 9 and 3 positions with padded thumb detents.
The grip itself should be relaxed–just tight enough to maintain control and good contact for sensory input. A tight grip on the wheel will tire your hands and arms quickly, and more importantly will significantly reduce the sensitivity to the vibrations needed to sense the control limits of the vehicle. While it is a natural tendency to grip the wheel tightly while corning, no amount of squeezing on that wheel will increase the traction of your tires! However, the more relaxed the grip (without losing contact with the wheel), the more of that traction you will be aware of. It is a learned response to relax your hands (in fact, your entire body) during high g-force cornering, but it is something that you must force yourself to learn as quickly as possible. It will increase your sensitivity to the car’s traction limits, and improve your awareness of the car’s handling.
Something to practice to ensure your hands, arms and shoulders are relaxed before entering a corner, is to take a deep breath during the straight beforehand. Breath deep, relax your muscles, and exhale. Another thing to do when you’re in a long enough straight and clear of other cars, is to relax one hand at a time and wiggle the fingers (leaving the palm and thumb on the wheel). Doing this often will keep the muscles in the hand, wrist, and forearm from cramping.
Steering Wheel Control
When turning a corner, lead into the turn by “pushing” the wheel with the hand opposite the turn (left hand for a right turn), and stabilizing the wheel with the other hand. Push the steering wheel through the 12:00 position rather than pulling it towards the 6:00 position when turning. For large steering inputs like a turn, the pushing arm has more control because the wrist stays in a firm position. The opposite wrist becomes quite bent and will not provide smooth control. “Pulling” the wheel is effective for small steering inputs such as moving across the track width where the action is really limited to a movement of the wrist, and not the whole arm. If you’re a puller right now, it will take a little re-training to make this comfortable, but in the long run it will make you a smoother driver.
One of the critical keys to maximizing speed through corners is smooth car control which comes from smooth steering. If the car is to travel on a smooth consistent arc, then the steering input must also be a smooth consistent turn. The purpose of this smoothness is to maximize the traction of the tires. To understand this, take a sheet of paper, place it on a table, and place a book on the paper. Pull the paper slowly across the table gradually increasing the speed. The book stays on the paper. Now, start to drag the paper again, but at some point suddenly jerk the paper. The book loses traction and slides across the paper. We’ll talk more about the tire’s perspective of this later, but for now the motion of dragging the paper is like your steering input. The traction of the tire is significantly influenced by your ability to provide smooth turning. Sudden jerks in the wheel will be like sudden jerks on the paper, and the tire will slide. The smoother driver will have more traction, and will have higher corner speeds.
It is common to think you are turning smoothly, when in fact you are turning on a smaller, tighter, and jerkier radius than you need to. In car video can be a great help to wtaching yourself, and recognizing where you need to be smoother. A typical tip off to a driver that needs to be smoother is when a car tends to understeer during the first half of a turn. More often than not this is caused by the driver’s lack of steering smoothness than by car setup problems.
You may think shifting is a no-brainer function, but in a sport where the difference of winning may be 1/100th of a second, every detail counts. This discussion is to point out how to use the shifter, and we’re assuming the use of a typical H-box shifter in a street car for this.
Many people fall into two bad habits on the street when shifting. First, “Hollywood” has taught everyone that it looks cool to always leave your right hand on the shift knob. Wrong! You may as well tie your hand behind your back as leave it on the shift knob. Your hand belongs on the steering wheel–always. When you need to shift–shift, and get your hand back on the wheel. Don’t even rest it on the shifter for a few seconds a head of time to “get ready.” Every time your hand leaves the steering wheel you’ve given up 50% of the tactile feedback you have from your hands, and 50% of your capability to control the car. If you’re racing with other cars around you, you never know when you may get tapped. Even when racing alone, mechanical failure may cause handling trouble. You’ll want both hands on the wheel when that happens.
The second bad habit some people have is shifting with excessive force. Too tight a grip, and slamming from one gear to another will actually slow your shifting down, and cause excessive mechanical wear. Proper shifting uses an open palm grip on the top of the shift knob, and a gentle but fast guide from one gear to another. We repeat—all shifting is properly done with the hand open and cupped over the top of the knob, not wrapped around it like a fighter plane control stick.
To shift from the top of the H to the bottom, start by forming a cup with your palm and fingers. Place the palm of the hand over the top of the shift knob. Using the underside of your fingers and your palm against the knob, use a smooth straight-line motion to guide the lever to the next gear. Assuming the shift lever has a fairly short travel, the action involves your wrist for the majority of the movement. Do not attempt to slam it or force it faster than it wants to go. If you are locking your wrist and moving your whole arm at the shoulder, you are using too much force.
To shift from the bottom of the H to the top, again start by forming a cup with your palm and fingers. This time when you place the hand over the shift knob, the emphasis of contact is on the heel of the palm. Start with the wrist slightly bent up. Push the lever using the palm heel in a straight line using your wrist to extend the position of the palm heel while following through with a gentle push of the arm. This shift is more arm motion than wrist.
When shifting across the H such as between 2nd and 3rd gears, do not try to make a conscious jog in your hand movements. The linkage needs very little input to make the diagonal path across neutral. Your shift should almost look like a straight diagonal line. Making a distinctive zig zag through neutral is strong-arming the shifter and will slow the shift down.
Using smooth, soft control of the lever does not imply doing it slowly. A gentle force of the lever will allow the shift linkage to move freely through its natural motions. If you strong-arm the motion you will end up forcing the linkage through lines that have more resistance. This will slow the shifting down. Use as much wrist movement as possible in place of moving the whole arm.
Some of you may be tempted to learn the techniques of “speed shifting”–shifting without using the clutch–in the interest of saving time. Many schools and professional racers have shown over and over that there is no speed or lap time advantage to this, and it carries a much higher risk of gear box damage.
This section covers a few basics about the use, and the design and layout of the foot pedals, and prepares for the discussion of the heel-toe downshift. How many pedals are there? Did you guess four? In a manual transmission car there should be four pedals:
- Accelerator (gas)
- Rest (or “dead” pedal)
The rest pedal is a permanently positioned pedal pad at the far left to rest the left foot on. It provides a place to stabilize the leg when not using the clutch. In a street car without a racing seat or racing seat belts, the rest pedal is effective for bracing yourself around corners, but if you have a proper seat and belts, don’t get into the habit of pushing hard against the rest pedal–relax and let the seat and belts do their job.
The first thing to get straight about using the pedals is that they are operated with the ball of the foot (the bony part just behind the toes), and not the toes. Secondly, you must be able to depress the pedals all the way with the ball of the foot while still having some bend in the knee. You cannot have the needed control and sensitivity in operating the pedals if the leg is completely outstretched.
Every pedal must be used smoothly. Stabbing at the accelerator or brake pedal in particular will cause sudden shifts in weight distribution on the car’s suspension and will unsettle the car. Do this at the wrong time, and a loss of control is inevitable.
When applying either the brake or gas pedals, ease into it allowing a smooth transition to the full pressure needed. “Easing” does not necessarily imply being overly slow about it. A rapid but smooth and controlled transition is what is wanted. Avoid sudden jerky movements in either braking or accelerating.
One of the pedal control techniques used in racing is the heel-toe downshift. To maximize the speed and smoothness through a corner, it becomes necessary to do some cockpit acrobatics and operate the steering wheel, shifter, clutch, brake, and accelerator all at the same time. The problem is that there is five functions to perform and only four limbs to do it with. Something has to do double duty, and it turns out to be the right foot.
Refer to the Heel-Toe Downshift article for details of the technique itself, but the short of it is that prior to the entry of a corner, the right foot will need to operate the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time.
Chances are the pedals in your street car are not going to allow you to properly do the heel-toe down shift as it will be too difficult to operate the brake and gas pedals at the same time, and you will need to have the pedals changed. After-market pedal kits are used to replace the stock rubber covers on the pedals. The clutch and brake pedals will be bigger to give you more sensory feedback. The gas pedal will be larger, but will also have an extension on the lower left corner allowing it to be more easily reached during the downshift. Some after market pedals intended for the fashion conscious will have simple bend tabs to hold them in place over the stock pedal pad. This has no place in a car used for racing. Be sure to get quality pedals designed to be bolted onto the steel pedal plate in place of the rubber pads.
Also, you may need to use shims to raise either the brake pedal or gas pedal to allow comfortable reach when operating both pedals. The brake and gas pedals should be close to the same height at the time you need to operate both simultaneously. When the brake pedal is fully depressed, it’s height should be roughly equal to the height of the gas pedal when it is not pressed. This allows for more comfortable and controllable heel-toe maneuvers.
The heel-toe downshift is a fundamental technique to driving fast through corners. During a heel-toe downshift, you’ll be steering with the left hand, shifting with the right hand, clutching with the left foot, and working both the brake and gas pedals with the right foot — all at exactly the same time. It takes some getting used to, and it takes repetitive practice to become smooth, and have it be second nature. At first it takes a lot of concentration. You’re doing a lot of things at the same time. Besides working on all the controls, you also need to be sensitive to the tire grip during braking, you have to be watching your reference points heading into a corner, and to make matters worse, if you’re racing, you might have to be looking for traffic. However, after a couple of weekends of practice, you’ll get the hang of it, and in no time you’ll be able forget about your hands and feet, and concentrate on the track.
On the street when you approach a corner, you were probably taught to complete your braking before the corner, coast through the turn, then as you straighten out from the turn downshift, and start accelerating again. This works on the street, but it is entirely too slow a process for the race track. For racing, the time spent transitioning from braking to accelerating must be absolutely minimized. You’re racing! You don’t want to be wasting a bunch of time coasting while you’re switching between pedals (even if it is only 1/2 of a second). To maximize the speed and smoothness through a corner, it becomes necessary to do some cockpit acrobatics and operate the steering wheel, shifter, clutch, brake, and accelerator all at the same time.
On the race track, as you approach a corner, your right foot comes off the gas pedal and presses the brake with the ball of the foot. Before the braking is done, you need to shift gears so when the braking is done you can immediately be back on the gas. When the braking is almost done, your left foot pushes the clutch pedal in, and your right hand downshifts. However, while you’ve been slowing down, the engine speed has dropped. If you let the clutch out now, the car will jerk severely as the engine works like a huge brake. If you’re at the edge of traction limits (which you should be), you’ll lose control of the car. To prevent this, something needs to rev the engine back up to the right speed before the clutch is released. The right foot is closest, so it is elected to tap the gas pedal. Even though the right foot is busy braking, you swing your right heel over the gas pedal and give it a short push (a “blip” as it is called) to rev the engine while the left foot also lets out the clutch (the ball of the right foot is still on the brake). The amount of blip, and the clutch release timing need to be perfected so there is a perfectly smooth transition when the clutch engages the engine.
Meanwhile, the heel is rotated back off the gas, the ball of the right foot has still been braking, and has been easing off as the car approaches the turn-in point. The downshift should be completed before the braking is complete, and before the turn-in. As the engine and transmission are engaged, the braking reduced, and the turn-in begun as the foot makes a smooth transition back to the gas pedal. At first only enough gas is applied to sustain the initial corner speed, and then you gradually accelerate out of the corner.
The above description is the “what” and the “why” all mixed together, so let’s look at the just the steps involved in the “what” part again:
- Lift the right foot from the gas pedal and press the brake pedal
- Just before the braking is done, the left foot depresses the clutch pedal
- The right hand downshifts (the left is still on the steering wheel)
- The right foot is still applying, but easing up on the brake pressure, then rotates so the heel is above the corner of the gas pedal
- The right heel gives a quick push of the gas pedal to rev the engine quickly (the ball of the foot is still on the brake easing up even more)
- The left foot releases the clutch, the right foot rotate off the gas
- The right foot completes the braking
- The right foot slides over to the gas pedal to assume the normal position only to maintain some pressure to sustain the vehicle speed through the first part of the corner. Then accelerating out of the turn.
The whole sequence above from the second bullet to the last takes less about half a second. This takes quite a bit of practice to get right. The whole idea is to transition between braking and accelerating with absolutely no delay, and with perfect smoothness. Done correctly, there should be no jerking of the car during the downshift and transition back to acceleration.
One other note about the above description. We have assumed the use of a street car, and a street transmission with synchros. If you’re using a true race transmission without synchros, then you need to modify the above shifting with a double-clutch procedure. To do this, the clutch is pressed in, the shifter moved to neutral, and the clutch released. Then the accelerator is blipped, while the shifter is in neutral (again with the heel, while the ball of the foot continues to brake), the clutch pressed back in, the shifter placed in the lower gear, and the clutch released. This is required for maximum longevity of the transmission. If you expect to get in a race car some day that is likely to have such a transmission, it’s a good idea to practice this shfting technique with your street car as well, even though it technically is not necessary.
Braking and Accelerating
One of the keys to good race driving is smoothness, and this most certainly applies to the use of the brake and accelerator pedals.
On the street, braking and accelerating are done at relatively low levels compared to the vehicle’s capability. The tire’s traction limits are rarely maxed out. Sure, you can romp on the gas and spin the tires at a light, or slam on the brakes and slide the car a little, but its very easy to bring the car back under control.
In the rain, or especially the snow, you know you have to be much gentler and smoother with the brakes and with the accelerator. If you lose control on a wet or snowy surface, it can be much harder to regain control. There is much less traction to work with.
Braking and accelerating when racing on a road race course, even when dry, is treated something like driving on a wet surface–gently and smoothly. Braking and accelerating are used in conjunction with the corners–you brake going into them and accelerate coming out of them. Because the objective is to have the car moving as fast as possible through the corner, the tires will be utilizing most of the available traction (done right they should be using 100% of the available traction). The driver must be very smooth with the use of the brakes going into the corner and the accelerator coming out of the corner. A sharp change in braking or power at these points will upset the car’s traction balance just as quickly as if you were driving on ice. Working within the last 1% of traction means there is no reserve to call upon to gain control of the car back. Even the pros very rarely recover a car that has lost control. It’s not because they don’t know how, it’s because there’s no traction left to work with. It is imperative to learn how to be consistently smooth in braking and accelerating on a road course.
There are three phases in braking. First, braking begins with a rapid, but not instant, application of as much braking force as possible. How rapid the brakes can be applied will depend on the the suspension in the car. The stiffer the springs and shocks, the more rapidly maximum braking can be applied. Soft springs will have significant forward roll which will require a little longer and smoother ramp-up of braking to keep the car stable. Second, once the car settles onto the front tires, you’ll be trying to minimize the length of the braking zone, so it will require taking the tires to the edge of locking up. You’ll need to be very aware of the vibrations in your foot from the pedal and in your hands from the steering wheel to feel that small difference (therefore racing shoes are highly recommended. You just won’t feel much from the pedals in Air Jordans). The car will travel some distance using a fairly constant brake pedal pressure.
The third phase is towards the end of the braking zone when the vehicle has been slowed to near its final speed. Gradually release pressure off the pedal making the transition from full to zero braking force as smooth as possible. During braking, the front tires are under heavy load which increases the available traction. A sudden release of the brakes will abruptly reduce the load and reduce the traction potential of the front tires which at this point is needed for turning into the corner.
The turn-in is one of the points where the car will be the most sensitive to sudden weight transfer transitions as though it were being driven on ice. Indecisive braking resulting in a last second extra tap, or a sudden release of the brake pedal will unsettle the car’s handling and force the driver to slow down to gain control and hopefully avoid a spin.
As the braking zone completes, and you ease off the brake pedal, you will have to apply some throttle to reach a steady state of neither acceleration or deceleration. Depending on the shape of the turn, the steady throttle zone will vary, but with a typical late-apex corner, it will be from the turn-in to just before the apex.
From this point to the turn’s exit point, the use of the accelerator must be equally smooth for the same reasons they were for braking. Through the turn, the car will have settled with a certain loading of each tire. A sudden change in that with the accelerator can also upset the available traction on one or more tires and cause a loss of control. Controlled use of the accelerator is a matter of depressing and releasing it in smooth motions. Don’t make sudden jerks in pedal position.
In a typical street car, applying the accelerator smoothly isn’t as difficult to master as smooth braking. Once a car is moving fairly fast, most street cars just don’t have enough horsepower to really cause trouble under most acceleration circumstances. Even the factory exotics and highly modified street cars rarely have more than 400 horsepower, and in a car weighing 2500 to 3200 pounds, that just isn’t an overabundance of power to learn to control. The typical professional open wheel cars weigh 1500-1800 lbs, and have 700-900 horsepower. That’s about 5x the power to weight ratio of your typical street sports car.
Nevertheless, whether its relatively easy to control or not, the introduction of 5 hp too much at the right point, and you may as well have an extra 900. Coming out of a turn, as soon as the car begins to straighten out, gradually apply more power the straighter the car gets. Use smooth consistent pedal pressure–indecisive on and off stabs will end up being slower than a smooth increase.
Because most street cars aren’t overly sensitive to rough throttle control (although there are definately some exceptions), it’s easy to develop bad habits with the accelerator. Even though you may not have to be ultrasmooth to maintain control, having the discipline to develop smooth control will still improve lap times, and should you have the opportunity to drive a higher horsepower car, you’ll have the skills to keep the car pointed in the right direction.
In the end, road racing comes down to cornering. Assuming equal cars, the driver able to sustain the highest speeds through the turns will have the lowest lap times.
To get terminology cleared up first, every corner is made of three parts. We’ll call them the entry, the apex, and the exit. The entry is where turning begins. The apex is the point where the car reaches the furthest point on the inside of the turn. The exit is where the car is driving straight again.
The objective in driving through a corner, or a series of corners, is to have the fastest possible speed at the exit of corner, or the last corner of a series. It is not necessarily to have the fastest speed going into the corner, nor even the fastest speed in the middle of the corner. The last corner exit before a straight is the most important segment. The speed of the exit determines the speed during and at the end of the straight. If you can increase the average speed of an entire straight, that will have greater impact that a faster average over the shorter distance of the entry to the turn, or through the turn itself.
The path, or “line” you drive through a corner will determine the exit speed. In general, the fastest line through a corner is the one that allows the greatest radius, or straightest path. As a car can go faster around a large corner than it can around a tight corner, the shortest path around a corner is rarely the fastest.
To illustrate these concepts so far, the classic teaching aid is to look at a 90-degree bend. In the illustration below, the dotted line follows the path of the road. The solid line indicates a path which maximizes the radius of the turn, or attempts to make the turn as straight as possible. As you can see there is significant difference in the tightness of the turn which follows the even the outside of the road compared to one the which utilizes the whole width of the road surface.
As mentioned, the objective in any corner is to have the highest exit speed. In addition to increasing the corner radius, this also involves taking a line which allows the earliest possible point of getting back into the throttle. To do this, the car must be straightening back out on the corner exit path as early as possible. We can modify the above corner line further to allow this.
The illustration below now shows the previously noted large radius path in the dotted line. The solid colored line shows a path known as the “late apex.” This path moves forward the point at which the car reaches the corner apex. The late apex straightens out the exit path of the car, and therefore allows the driver to apply the accelerator earlier. This increases the exit speed, and in effect lengthens the straight which allows for higher speed at the end of the straight.
While the geometric racing line is faster than the natural line of the road, there is still a faster technique for most corners. The technique is called using a late apex. By delaying the turn-in point, and beginning the turn with a slightly sharper bend, the car can be aimed to apex later than the geometric apex point. This straightens out the second part of the turn, allowing the driver to apply the accelerator earlier. The car will have to slow down a little more at the turn in phase, but exit speed will be higher. That exit speed gives the driver that much more speed on the straight which will result in lower lap times overall.
This approach works for corners which require hard accelerating cornering out of them, which will be most of them. However, there are many types of corners, and combinations of corners which require some analysis to understand the best approach.
One of the first things you were probably taught when learning to drive, was the simple principle of “look where you want to go.” You were told, “don’t look at on coming traffic, look at the cars in your lane in front of you.” “Don’t stare at the dividing lines, look at the road between them.” “Don’t look at the wall beside you, look at the lane in front of you.” All sound, practical advice, and the same goes for racing.
If you’ve played, or even watched, just about any sport, you’ll notice that the player is constantly looking forward, and not at what he’s doing. In basketball, soccer, or hockey a player does not watch himself handle the ball or puck. Rather, he looks down the playing field at where he wants to go or pass. The player’s field of vision is not the few feet in front of him, but the whole field before him and beside him. The more of the field area the player can see and keep track of, the greater are his abilities to avoid opponents, plan a path through the field, and anticipate the movements of others.
The distance and amount of territory the player can keep track of is called his visual field. This requires the combination of two distinct skills. First, the player must look farther ahead than his immediate surroundings. He has to look where he wants to be, not where he is. Second, even though the human eye has a narrow field of focus (only a small portion of what the eye sees is in focus), the player must be able to distinguish activities in those areas that are not currently in focus.
These skills are critical to race driving as well. It should be apparent how they would apply to road full of cars driving for position, but they are equally important for a single car to navigate an empty track at maximum possible speed.
There is a tendency by inexperienced drivers to focus with a tunnel vision right in front of the car. It’s a natural reaction. The amount of information the driver is thinking about can be overwhelming, and it is easy to become visually fixated on what is happening right in front of the car. Looking farther ahead requires taking in even more input. At first, it can be very difficult, but as the driver develops shifting, braking, and traction sampling skills into “second nature” habits, he can spend more conscious time expanding his visual field. An every day example of these skills at work can be drawn from the scenario of trying to walk faster than everyone else through a crowded sidewalk. Think of how you do this. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your brain tries to anticipate the movements of those in front of you. By gauging the rhythm and timing of your speed along with the speed and position of others on the sidewalk, your brain calculates when and where “openings” should appear that you can walk through. In order to make these calculations in time to be useful, you must look a certain distance ahead of where you are. The faster you want to go, the farther ahead you need to look. If you were to look at the ground, or only a couple feet in front of you, you would frequently bump into people. You achieve a certain level of fluid movement through the crowd by looking ahead and anticipating your environment’s changing conditions, while keeping tabs on your immediate surroundings through peripheral vision. Your body responds automatically by adjusting speed, and your side to side position as you “dodge” the people around you.
This same technique applies to driving on the track. A driver cannot be focused on where he is on the track. He has to be focused on where he wants to be next on the track. To drive the smoothest and fastest line through a corner, or a series of corners, your brain must get input from far enough down the track to calculate the smoothest lines, and anticipate the amount of steering and pedal input to use.
Driving through a corner consists of four phases, and requires that the driver be looking ahead at least one, if not two, phases at a time. The first phase is the braking zone before the turn. The second is the turn-in, the third is the apex, and the fourth is the exit. If the driver is focused only on the current phase where the car is, he will not be driving smoothly or as fast as is possible through the corner. Each phase will seem like a surprise and will be driven as a jerky sequence of four lines rather than as one fluid path.
To describe the use of an expanded visual field through the corner sequence, we’ll describe a typical turn after a long straight. As you approach a corner, your focal point will be the braking reference point. A few car lengths before you reach the braking point, your eyes must focus on the turn-in point. From your peripheral vision, you will notice the braking reference point and apply the brakes. Your eyes are still focused on the turn-in point, and as you approach and get within a few car lengths, your eyes must now look to the corner apex. Keeping the eyes focused on the apex reference point, use your peripheral vision to notice the turn-in reference point and begin the turn-in. Now, as you are approaching the apex, stay focused on the reference point until a few car lengths away, where you will once again shift focus to the next point which is the exit reference point. You will drive through the apex looking at the exit point, not the apex marker. As you approach the exit point, your focus should now shift to looking down the straight, and you will use your peripheral vision again to drive out to the actual exit point as you reach it.
In some situations such as tight chicanes or esses, you may need to be looking through several corner reference points, and driving through them almost entirely with your peripheral vision.
Using your peripheral vision while also focusing in the center of your vision takes some practice–especially at the speeds involved of race driving. If you have already been track driving for a while, at first, this technique may slow you down due to the uncertainty of using your peripheral vision. However, once you get used to it, you will notice that you’ll hit your reference points more consistently, and you’ll carry a couple more miles per hour through turns you thought you were already maxing out. Developing these skills can takes a few weekends on the track. However, stick to it. Develop the skill first, then bring up your speed. In the end you’ll go much faster.
To practice looking ahead, make sure that you are looking through the center of the height of the front windshield. Several school instructors will even suggest that you put a thin tape line on the windshield as a reminder to be looking above it farther down the track until you fully develop this as a habit. These skills can also be practiced during street driving. Around street corners or on windy roads, practice keeping your focal point well ahead of where you are driving, and “seeing” with your peripheral vision.
In the cornering article, we discussed the three phases of the turn. We also discussed that there is an optimium line through every corner. For consistency, the driver will need a set of fixed reference points to mark the phases of the corner, so the line can be driven identically every lap.
Upon approaching a corner, the driver needs a fixed point to use as a reference for starting the turn-in. Guessing each time or “going by the feel” will guarantee that the driver will turn in too soon sometimes, and too late other times. Inconsistent and slower than perfect lap times will result, and give a more consistent competitor an advantage. To prevent this, in the practice sessions the driver must quickly determine the correct starting point for the turn-in and find a permanent visual landmark to use for reference.
Next, is the apex point. This is the target point that the inside tire of the car should touch as it reaches the maximum inside point of the driving line. Again, without a fixed point to target, inconsistency and slower times will result.
Last, is the exit point. This is the target point after the apex that the car tracks out to on the opposite side of the track and is completely pointed straight again, or is otherwise pointed properly for the next corner.
In each case, the reference point should be a permanent land mark. A tire skid on the track is no good. Other skids later on could obscure the original one. Likewise, a particular rock, weed, or grass tuft on the side may be questionable if they are in danger of being driven over if a car goes off course. You should look for unique features in the road itself if possible. Some tracks have permanent signs in the braking zones, or have bump markers such as those that separate lanes on the highway. You might start braking exactly at one of the markers, or a car length before or after.
At the corner apex, most permanent road course tracks will have the white or red & white cement corner markers. When you find the right apex point, note whether it is half way, three-quarters, or wherever, and aim for that spot each time.
The corner exit reference point can be the toughest to find. Many tracks have exit markers just like the apex which can be used, but not all. You may have to search for other fixed landmarks off the track that the car exit path lines up with such as telephone poles, trees, or signs.
What about a reference point for the start of braking? There is some debate about this. Some people suggest that there should not be a reference point for the start of braking. The argument is that the turn-in point is the focus, and the driver must learn to sense when to start the braking to achieve the proper speed at the turn-in point. It is assumed that some laps will be faster than others because traffic is involved, and with all these variables, the focus must be placed on the turn-in point, not in looking for the braking point which may be to soon for slower speeds. This is a valid theory.
Nevertheless, one of the key attributes of skilled driving is consistency, and one of the keys to consistency is reference points. In practice, qualifying, or time trialing, a braking reference point is just as effective for marking the capabilities of the car’s performance (for braking) as is the turn-in point (for corner entry grip), and acceleration point (for corner exit grip).
An example of where a braking reference point is a must, is a blind corner. A corner at the top of, or just below, the crest of a hill will not be visible to the driver during braking.
The debate of whether there is or should be a reference point for braking is largely semantics. Physiologically, your mind and body needs some reference to know when to start braking, and how to make that action consistent. For braking, the term “reference point” itself describes the purpose. It is a point of reference, and will not be so much a “target” as it is for the turn-in, apex, and exit points. If the driver is at maximum speed before the turn, he’s going to need to know when to start braking. If another lap is slower, he’ll know he can start braking a little later. Regardless of how it is used and whether you call it a “reference point” or not, having a point or reference for the maximum braking performance of the car for each turn avoids guessing.
Most club racing of the hot lapping or time trialing variety will not allow passing in corners. Autocrossing doesn’t involve passing at all. However, should you venture into racing which involves passing, or you get in a situation where passing in a corner is inevitable, here’s some things to know.
Passing is typically achieved under three circumstances: you utilize your car’s greater horsepower or momentum exiting a corner to pass on a straight, you pass under braking by controlling the preferred driving line entering a corner, or you take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes.
First Rule – it is the responsibility of the driver initiating the pass to ensure that it is done safely. Where you pass, and how you pass must be done in a manner that your “opponent” is aware of.
Second Rule – blocking is illegal. Swerving, whether it’s six inches or six feet, to keep another car from getting beside you is blocking. Most organizations will allow you one move to protect your position. Repeated left-right moves is blocking.
Third Rule – if another driver has legitimately placed his car beside yours, leave room for the other car to carry a line through the corner. You don’t necessarily have to give him the optimum line, but cutting a car off that results in forcing it off course is poor racing, and if the officials see it as deliberate, you’re subject to penalty. Racing is not a roller derby. Eliminating your competition is not one of the objectives.
Passing under braking or on a straight close to a corner requires a little more planning than a simple pass on in the middle of a long straight. The object of passing in the braking zone is to control the inside line to the upcoming corner. By placing your car between the other car and the corner apex, the other car must yield to give you room to continue your driving line through the corner. In this manner you have essentially “controlled” the preferred line into the corner.
The potential downside to making this move is that your car will not be taking the turn on the optimum line. You may control the corner entry, but if you have to slow down too much, or make too early an apex, the car you’ve just passed may carry more speed or a better exit line, and pass you right back coming out of the corner.
During practice sessions, you will need to not only practice the optimum racing line for fast laps when you’re clear of traffic, but you will want to practice some passing lines. Move in from the edge of the track where you’d normally drive, brake a little farther and turn in a little later. Practice taking a line that puts your car in the middle of track coming out of the corner, or a least far enough over from the edge so as not to leave enough room to be passed on the exit. (Hogging the road so there’s not enough room to pass, but still avoiding the swerving, is not blocking). By practicing these passing driving lines, you’ll be ready to use them, and there’s less chance that you’ll cause an accident when attempting a pass.