So, you’ve signed up to participate in an open track day or autocross event. First off, congratulations, but perhaps more importantly, are you ready?
Driving on a closed course is, obviously, completely different from plodding along on public roads that are all too frequently congested with commercial vans, the elderly and people trying to eat a breakfast burrito while driving … and reading their news feed.
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If you’ve never ripped around a racetrack or competed in autocross, here are 10 tips to help make you a faster, and perhaps more importantly, safer driver:
10. Proper Posture
Starting things off, it’s important to have proper posture. Make sure the driver’s seat is adjusted correctly. You don’t want to be leaning back like some sort of wannabe gangster. Instead, tuck your rump firmly into the bucket and make sure the backrest is fairly vertical so you can maximize your outward visibility. Also, ensure you can operate the pedals, with enough reach to fully depress the clutch (if applicable).
9. Hands at 9 and 3 o’clock
A lot of motorists think you’re supposed to keep your grubby paws at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. This may be OK while driving on the open road but if you’re heading out on a track, you’ll want to revise the timing of your hands. Putting them at 9 and 3 is better for two reasons. One, it gives you greater range of turning motion, and two, it’s balanced. If your hands are at 10 and 2, this makes the steering wheel top-heavy; it’ll tend to go farther left or right when you crank the tiller off-center. At 9 and 3, it’s balanced.
8. Learn to Heel-and-Toe Shift (If Applicable)
Heel-and-toe downshifting is a critical skill to have if your car is equipped with a manual transmission. While slowing down before entering a corner, it’s necessary to drop down a gear or three so you can power out of the turn. To achieve this, you brake in a straight line with the toes of your right foot, then hit the clutch pedal with your left. While doing all of this, rotate your right heel over to the accelerator pedal so you can raise the engine revs enough so that when you change gears and let the clutch out, the transition is smooth. There’s a lot to do, but it’s a rewarding thing to master.
7. Look Ahead … FAR Ahead
While driving at speed, it’s critically important to look ahead, way ahead. Glancing at the tarmac a few feet in front of your car’s front bumper may be satisfactory on the street, but it doesn’t cut it while racing. You’re moving faster, so you have to look further ahead. And the further ahead you look, the more prepared you will be and the smoother your driving will be. You have to look through the corner you’re negotiating at the track ahead, using your peripheral vision and side windows as necessary. And keep in mind, the place you’re looking is where the vehicle will tend to go, so avoid staring at spectators or the tire wall.
6. Brake Smoothly in a Straight Line
Before entering a corner, you generally need to slow down. Not surprisingly, there’s a right way to decelerate and a wrong way. The wrong way is to stand on the brake pedal at the last possible second, causing the front of the car to dive with such ferocity that its bumper scrapes the pavement. This is a great way to upset the chassis, shifting the vehicle’s weight forward; it’s also ideal for cooking your pads and rotors in short order.
Balance and proper weight distribution are the keys to turning quickly and safely. Instead, what you want to do is brake in a straight line when you have maximum traction, gradually but firmly slowing down as you enter the turn. This keeps the vehicle on an even keel. In many situations, you want your deceleration to be finished before entering the turn, but more experienced drivers can do something known as “trail braking,” which helps improve front-end grip.
5. Maintain Speed Through Corners
Some of the above-mentioned suggestions take practice to master, but this tip is easy. After you’ve slowed down and then entered a corner, transition your right foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator and apply a dab of throttle, just enough for you to maintain momentum through the turn. This keeps the chassis nicely balanced and prepares you to go wide-open once the nose is pointed straight ahead.
4. Apex Late
But before you can mash the gas, you’ve got to finish negotiating the turn, which means nailing the apex, the innermost point of a corner. Hitting this spot as late as possible is generally the fastest way through a turn because it gives you the straightest possible line, which maintains momentum. Keep in mind, this isn’t necessarily the shortest distance through a corner, but it’s the fastest and that’s what matters.
3. Ease on the Throttle
After you’ve apexed, it’s time to start accelerating again. As mentioned several times before, smoothness is key. You want to roll evenly on the throttle as you begin exiting a corner and unwinding the wheel. Doing so will not upset the car’s balance. Please, resist the temptation to mash the gas!
2. Use the Entire Track
And while you’re putting that corner in your rearview mirror, allow the car to drift wide as you exit; don’t be afraid of the shoulder or rumble strips, you want to use as much of the track as possible. At speed, these extra few inches can save a lot of time by, again, giving you the straightest possible line through the turn and allowing you to maintain momentum.
1. Smoothness is Critical
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, the No. 1 tip for driving on a racetrack is the importance of being smooth. Herky-jerky movements and sudden inputs only upset a car’s balance, reducing traction and increasing the likelihood of something bad happening (like smashing into a wall). When driving on a closed course, try to be patient and methodical. Remember, smooth may feel slow, but on a track, it’s actually faster.
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