The Track Experience 5: End of Season Wrap-Up
by Graham Chandler
Diagram by Chris Amatulli
When this series of articles started you were a complete track experience rookie. So, how do you feel now? I can tell you how I felt some years ago. At that time I had experienced only the usual 15,000 miles a year driving on the street for a total of around a half million miles.
Nothing about those half million miles can compare to driving on the track. After being signed off by my instructor for solo I can tell you that I was totally recalibrated. My reaction times and automated response to any wayward behavior of the car were instantaneous and correct. My transformation of visual inputs into car control inputs through my feet and hands was becoming instinctive.
So what does all of this mean? I thought about the transformation I went through and came to the conclusion that track driving as practiced at an HPDE (High Performance Driving Event) is the purest form of driving you can experience. Here, as I have said before, we are not racing against others but driving the track. We are treating the track as our challenge. Racing involves others and that can compromise the lines we drive. Track driving is a pure form of driving; you and your car vs the track. There are no potholes, manhole covers, side streets or other distractions that could prevent you from perfecting your driving line around the track.
I’ve guided you through the steps from how to get signed up for your first track day to the day you graduated from the “greenies” group. This puts you in the next run group with more experienced drivers. So, now that the season has drawn to a close for the upcoming winter weather, what do you do now?
It’s time for a review and then a look ahead to the next season to see what other improvements can be made. First the review:
The First Track Day
Looking back, the first track day was fairly easy wasn’t it? After all the apprehension about other drivers, lack of confidence, and the worry that too much speed would cause a crash, everything worked out OK didn’t it?
You learned how to sit properly with hands near 9 and 3 and arms loosely bent at around 135 degrees to achieve proper steering control. You also found out that your instructor used an electronic communications device so you could hear the instructions softly spoken in your helmet for clarity and understanding.
Then you learned how to find the correct line around the track. Remember that experience and how weird it felt at first? You left your turn into the corner so late that it felt impossible. Ah! The late apex! The secret to the fastest speed through the turn’s apex, the safest exit, and the most speed carried through to the next straightaway. Turning so late into the corner also allowed you to get the maximum effect from the previous straightaway.
You learned that braking in a straight line is paramount to safety because you don’t want to share turning grip with braking grip. There’s a definite budget for grip and you don’t want to overdrive that budget, especially when turning.
You also learned that you need to monitor how your car feels, and you began that process; learning how the brakes and other systems felt so you could plan for any future changes to the car.
Subsequent Track Days
With the basics under your belt and more confidence to move forward, you spent the rest of your first season with your instructor fine-tuning your technique. Your instructor helped you compress the time you were not on the throttle because any early or unnecessary braking or being late on the gas pedal loses you time. With a perfect late braking application on the straightaway and a perfect turn in towards the apex, what else is there to do but squeeze the gas? You can do this because the trajectory out of the turn is relatively flat through the apex with only open track in front of you.
How do you make sure you have the right view out the windshield while approaching the apex? Aim for the latter part of the turn apex rather than the early part.
Your instructor also made sure you could downshift properly without upsetting the car’s balance. Raising the engine’s RPMs to the level required for the lower gear by operating the gas pedal while braking is vital to good technique.
By now you’ve probably experienced brake fade, and learned what understeer or oversteer feels like. Maybe you even have some traction issues resulting from the way you car is set up.
Remember, understeer is a lack of front wheel grip relative to the rear and oversteer is a lack of rear wheel grip relative to the front. Traction issues arise if the driven wheels can’t grip the track during acceleration. Think of these otherwise negative characteristics as opportunities to make positive changes to the way your car behaves.
For now though, we’re focused on getting the most out of the existing driver and car combination. Let’s make sure you, the driver, can get the most out of your car as it is. That way you’ll have a good understanding of how you want the car to behave and a performance baseline to help you decide how to go about making changes.
After several track days with your instructor, you’re beginning to do a good job at precision driving, with little need for correction. At the end of one of your track days, your instructor told you it was time to move into the next run group. You’d watched the higher run groups from the fence line and noticed that everyone seemed to be quicker than the “greenie” group that you were in. The news that you were to move up left you with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension. “Cool! But what if I can’t keep up?” Thoughts like these are common, but they pass quickly. So, you started driving in the new group.
You noticed that the car in front of you was being driven consistently. There were no surprises like there were in the other group with slow cars, inconsistent braking, missed apexes, etc. You could really focus on technique. Without even realizing it, you began to go faster simply by virtue of being among other consistent drivers. A little at a time, you began to go faster at several locations on the track.
I told you to try harder, later braking before turning and then squeezing the gas as soon as possible as you head for the apex. I also told you that by perfecting just one straightaway and turn combination you could make dramatic improvements in lap times. Then, by learning to optimize the entire track in this way you could outdrive many of the other members of your group. No racing tactics, just pure execution.
Then came the magic moment when you got your first point-by in your new group. You had arrived! Of course, unless you’re a previously undiscovered driving prodigy, you can’t pass everyone; odds are there will be a few more capable cars or drivers in your group and you must look out for them and let them by at the designated passing areas.
As an instructor it’s my job to keep everything safe while letting you feel your way to faster lap times. Unless I need to correct something in your technique I usually stay quiet and watch. At other times I use a particularly well-executed section of the track to mix in some enthusiasm and a compliment like “wow that was fantastic!” Instructing is all about building confidence and solid technique. To that end I never let an error, no matter how small, pass without at least mentioning it; maybe “too early with that one.” Then I immediately find something done well and compliment that.
The instructor and student become a team. “Let’s at least try to catch that car ahead of us” I might say. The student then enters a period of concentrated effort. To assist with the goal, I start calling the braking points and call for the gas pedal as soon as possible. Together, we begin shortening the distance. The student, you in this case, learns more quickly how to consistently drive at 8 or 9 tenths to catch the car ahead.
Having reeled in your target, you’ve earned the right to a point-by, but once past, you have to continue applying your best technique to earn the right to stay ahead. Don’t worry if you get tired because this is intense driving. Just give the point-by, slow down, and spend a lap practicing and reinforcing the lessons you learned during the encounter. Pull into the pits if you want to, after all, this is fun; there’s no checkered flag on the line!
Next season, I’ll have more articles on performance driving techniques to help you progress toward that all-important solo status. In the meantime begin thinking about your wish list for your car. What are some characteristics about your car in a track environment that you would like to improve? I’ll address many of these during the off-season.