The Track Experience 4: Improving Your Technique
by Graham Chandler
Photos by the Author
Diagrams by Chris Amatulli
In my last article, I reviewed the various experiences you may have had at your first track day. In addition, I passed along some tips to help you drive smoothly and optimize your driving line and technique around the track. This article’s goal is to make you even better while maintaining our safety goals.
I’ll use the same step-at-a-time style to examine the following topics:
• Driver seating position
Driver Seating Position
During your track day your instructor should have shown you the correct way to sit and operate the controls. On the street, many people sit either too close or too far away from the wheel. Every driver is different in stature, but the optimum position for proper control on the track is to have the arms loosely bent at the elbows. Too close to the wheel and your arms are bent to 90 degrees, too far away and the arms are almost straight. Try to get a 135 degree angle at the elbows. A little more or a little less is OK if you need to adjust for your legs to be comfortable. You also should be sitting fairly upright rather than laying back.
Operating a car on the track is accomplished partly by feel. Of course you are also using some of your other senses so that you can see, hear and even smell how the car is operating. The way we feel the car is through our hands, our back, our seat, and our feet. That’s why seating is so important. Ideally, your shoulders should be back against the seat and your head level, not “banked” into the turn. This way your sense of balance works the best to determine such things as weight transference, body roll, yaw, etc.
Your technique for operating the steering wheel should now mean that you have both hands on the wheel at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions and that you feed the wheel through your hands in the turns. This technique is superior to the hand-over-hand technique you may have used on the street. The hand-over-hand technique would leave you wide open to steering error if the car were to slide sideways in a turn. With the correct technique with hands at the 9 and 3 positions, your steering correction can be immediate and effective.
In the previous article, Your First Track Day, I pointed out the marker boards at the end of the straightaways that help you judge where to begin braking. If your track has these, and some tracks don’t, you can start to leave your braking later and use the marker boards as a guide.
You will experience three effects by leaving your braking later. First, because the available distance between the last turn and the new braking point is increased, you will have accelerated to a higher speed down the straightaway. Second, you must remember to brake harder because the speed is higher and the braking zone is reduced. Third, your brakes are going to get hotter; there’s not a lot you can do about that, be sure to get into the habit of judging the state of your brakes.
While practicing your braking, you should also become familiar with braking using just the ball of your foot on the brake pedal. The outside of your right foot has a special purpose as you will understand in the next section.
The purpose of downshifting the transmission is twofold. One, you always must be in the correct gear for the speed you are traveling because, at some point, you will need maximum acceleration and you can’t achieve that if the gear is too high. So it follows that if you brake and slow down, you must select progressively lower gears. Second, downshifting adds engine braking that assists with slowing the car.
With downshifting, comes a complication of a rather technical nature. When you select a lower gear, the transmission and therefore the clutch will spin faster. Of course at this point the clutch is depressed. Only when you raise the clutch pedal do you feel a lurch as the clutch speeds the engine to the new lower gear speed. Because the lurch unsettles the car, we must intervene and speed the engine ourselves. That’s what the outside of our right foot does. It “blips” the throttle while the ball of the foot maintains brake pressure.
Heel-toe shifting, as it is called, is a misnomer with most sports cars. The pedals are usually arranged so that the old heel-toe technique of using your
heel for the throttle is not used. Instead we use the outside of our brake foot and roll the foot to the right to operate the throttle. As I mentioned, this is a technique that synchronizes the speed of the engine flywheel with the higher speed of the clutch when downshifting. You continue braking with the ball of your foot and blip the throttle when the clutch is depressed.
Done properly the engine speed will closely match the speed of the clutch when the clutch is raised. This technique also reduces clutch wear and avoids unsettling the car that would otherwise occur with sudden, unnecessary engine braking. The gearshifts are also much quicker because the clutch can be raised with zero delay.
Video demonstrating Heel-Toe technique courtesy of Paul Santos - s0ggyrice
I covered most of the turning technique in the last article. But there are some improvements that can be made now that you have built some consistency in your technique. Ideally, we want to compress the time that we are not on the throttle. When we are not on the throttle we are losing time. At the end of the straight, we will have already compressed our braking
zone and arrived at our target entry speed into the turn. Here, we want a smooth but rapid change of direction toward the apex. Then an immediate, smooth and linear depression of the gas pedal to propel us through the turn toward whatever is next.
As you go faster, you will find yourself approaching the limit of what your car will do. If you have applied technique changes gradually and you have tried to “feel” your way to faster lap times, there will be no major surprises. For example, you cannot delay your braking any further into the braking zone without feeling the car squirm under heavy braking load. Or, maybe you will feel the tires begin to give up in one of your favorite turns. Maybe it’s a turn where you had the most confidence to experiment.
Whatever it is, it’s just a sign that your stock car as it came from the factory may need some tweaks. I don’t recommend doing any of these until we have done everything to improve driver technique. Only then will you be ready for track tires, suspension changes, extra power, etc. These items and more will be addressed in future articles. For now, let’s make a note of what causes you to reach certain limitations. So go back to the track with your instructor and review any or all of the points I have mentioned to date. Then practice. That’s it! Quality seat time with your instructor will help you improve so that you can graduate to the next level.
Graduation – The Next Level
Now that you have some quality track time behind you, it’s time for an assessment. Every track and instructor is different but typically your instructor has probably already decided that you’re ready to graduate to the next level. By demonstrating accuracy, smoothness, safety, and yes, the necessary speed to operate in the next highest run group, you’ll be asked if you want to move up.
Let’s assume that you say yes. What does moving up mean? It means you’ll no longer have “greenies” on the track with you. That means no first timers struggling with technique, less time traveling in “trains” around the track, and yes, some faster drivers than you are at the moment.
So let’s go out on track with your instructor and try to put everything you’ve learned into practice. What follows is meant to be a progressive learning experience spread over several track days with your instructor. Following the customary reconnaissance laps under the yellow flag, you will begin to get into your stride. This is really no different to the beginner group but as I said, everyone should know what they are doing. Right away you’ll notice more consistency in the drivers’ style by watching the car in front of you.
The important thing right now is to focus on accuracy. The driver behind you will appreciate that. Try to nail every apex, launch the car onto each straightaway, and brake consistently. Achieving these goals will mean that there are no surprises for those behind you. If you have a car behind you that is faster than you, yield with a point by at the next passing zone. Maybe you can learn something by following a faster car. I still wouldn’t copy the lead driver’s line because it may be different to what you have learned and what is right for your car.
For now, just observe and discuss with your instructor when you get a break. Some students at this phase of driver development just want to go faster to improve lap times. This can lead to driving the “ragged edge”—running wide and missing apexes, putting wheels on the grass, etc. Don’t be tempted to just drive faster. Keep driving the way you know how. Keep everything tight with accurate braking and downshifts, crisp turn-ins, earliest pressure on the gas pedal and wheels tight to the apex. You’ll learn some driving tips to help you go faster a little later.
If you stay with the disciplines your instructor has taught you, they will become natural and automatic. Just this alone may be enough to eclipse half the drivers in your group. While many are making little mistakes, you can have a faster lap time by just being consistent and accurate. Let’s assume you are able to maintain a high level of accuracy. How then do you improve?
One thing that worked for me was to always ensure I wasn’t worried about the brakes. I would show up with ample brake pad material. I would then ensure my overall track performance was as good as I could make it and then start working on my braking. I would follow other cars and study what they were doing by watching their brake lights. I would then extend my time before braking so that I was braking just a little bit later.
You can try this too! It doesn’t take much to make a difference. Each half second that the car in front is braking and you aren’t can mean 25-50 yards gained depending on the speed of the 2 cars. The trick is to follow through with an impeccable turn so you retain the distance gained. After a few laps of doing this at the end of just one of the straightaways you may well be right behind the lead car. My experience was that I just wore the lead driver down until I received a point by. No racing tactics, nothing dramatic, just proper execution.
After practicing this at one point on the track, you can try it elsewhere. Just remember that braking later will mean braking harder, hence the need for ample brake pad material. If you happen to be driving a car that has exceptional handling in the turns, it’s easy to see how you could outperform many if not most of the cars on the track.
Here’s another thing you can try that works great for me. First of all, the technique involves drifting the car while under full power and total control. Needless to say I have to encourage you to do this in stages so you can learn in a safe environment. I recommend that you talk to your instructor to get some first hand input as well. This scenario is based on my track so you will have to adapt it for yours. The following diagram shows the general layout of the track and the intended path of the car.
The car enters the complex by making the left turn at turn 1 and the driver begins to apply full power while applying consistent steering input that will carry the car to the turn-in point for turn 4.
Here is a series of photographs showing the scenario at my home track, Beaverun, near Pittsburgh, PA.
Here, turn one is a slow left-hander followed in quick succession by 3 right-handers (turns 2, 3 and 4). My car is shown at the exit from turn 2 in the photo above.
Following the exit from turn 1 and with the apex to turn 2 in sight I go to wide-open throttle through 2 and aim for the apex of turn 3. With the car remaining at wide-open throttle, the car begins to drift across the track even though I set it up to apex turn 3.
Without effort or further steering input, the car arrives at the braking point and at the outside edge of the track for turn 4. Just a tap of the brakes and I turn the car into the turn 4 apex. What has happened here is a controlled drift under full power.
If you can find a place at your track for this technique, you can save a second or two on your lap time. The way for you to approach this is to gradually increase your throttle opening beginning with a small increase each lap. Remember, in this case you are sharing the tire grip between both cornering (lateral) grip and acceleration (traction) grip. Eventually the lateral grip will lessen as the car goes faster and the centrifugal force builds. With street tires, you will be able to feel this begin to happen because that’s the way street tires behave. Street tires have a very progressive and predictable behavior when they are loaded up with higher and higher lateral force.
Street tires will begin giving you audible feedback. Track drivers call this “singing.” The tires will continue to sing as you go faster, then you will feel them begin to slide. You can feel this sliding via steering wheel feedback. At this point, notice how the car behaves. The chances are that the car will not behave in a neutral fashion, that is with the front and rear tires having equal slippage. Either the front will tend to slide first (understeer) or the rear will tend to slide first (oversteer). Later in another article you will learn how to correct either of these tendencies by modifying the suspension slightly. For now, just become acquainted with the technique and don’t push so hard that the car might break entirely free and spin.
For now, that’s all I’m going to cover. You’ve come a long way from the first time you ventured out on the track. In the next article, we are going to wrap up and review all that we have learned in the series to date. Upcoming articles will be discussing track preparation of the car for the next season, advanced braking technique and suspension setup.