This week’s feature author, Peter Krause is simply one of the best driver coaches there is. Although he’s been around for a while (that’s not a reference to his or anyone else’s age!) and he works with a lot of vintage car racers, he’s as up to date technology-wise as anyone. In fact, Peter’s approach to using data acquisition, video and simulators is a big part of why he’s so successful.
The other thing I like about Peter’s approach to coaching, and what he writes for us, is his practical process. He breaks things down to the simplest factors and focuses on what’s most important. I guess you could say that’s what makes a great coach great. It’s not how fast they can drive, how many championships they’ve won, or anything else. Well, nothing but the results of their coaching.
There’s one universal truth in racing: The car can always be driven faster by somebody else.
How can that be? Sometimes the difference between two drivers comes down to experience. Or maybe it’s the confidence born of that experience. Either way, the more you do it, the better you get, generally.
If you’re smart, you’ve realized early on that there’s room for improvement. You begin to find out how the quicker folks do it. You resolve to learn. You resolve to do better. Most people get on track just a few times a year, and many enthusiasts don’t begin until later in life. It’s not a bad thing, or even something that consigns them perennially to the back of the pack, but it does mean that they will have to work harder to go faster.
How can you go quicker? Due to the myriad of variables a driver deals with regularly – tasks undertaken in the car, countless distractions – our investigation and dissection could easily span volumes. What should you work on first, then? Here are five of some of the most common tips that I’ve used over the last two decades to help drivers raise their game.
1. Get Back to Basics
What separates the amateur driver from the professional racer? The one major difference is practice, practice and more practice. The more you drive, the better you get, but you have to start with solid fundamentals. It’s remarkable how many “advanced” drivers aren’t advanced at all. Even pros… Many are not particularly good at executing such fundamental skills as trail braking or comfortable with heel- and-toe downshifting. Are these particular skills necessary to do well or even win? Not necessarily, but familiarity with them is essential to building a firm foundation.
In this day and age, there is no shortage of good books and reference articles on how to practice and master not only basic drills but also more advanced techniques. One of my favorites is the Carl Lopez-authored Skip Barber Racing School book Going Faster. Another favorite is the last of the wonderful series written by prep guru Carroll Smith, Drive to Win. Every driver’s library should have a copy of Alan Johnson’s Driving in Competition. Last but not least is a six- volume series written by coach and instructor extraordinaire, Ross Bentley, titled Speed Secrets. For online information, Track Pro Advisors is a good aggregation site.
2. Fit Your Car to You
The most effective driver is one who is comfortable and confident in the car. Invariably, the occasional driver will have the seat base too far away to properly work the pedals and the seat back reclined so much that they have to stretch forward to turn the wheel. Here’s how the car should fit: With your back flat against the seat back, you need to be able to hold your right arm straight out, palm down, and have your wrist touch the top of the wheel. Same with the shift lever. As for your feet, you should be able to plant them comfortably on the pedals. If you have to stretch or strain to reach any of the controls, you’ll be preoccupied with what’s going on inside the car rather than focused on the action on track.
In a production car or sedan, pedal placement dictates seat base placement, while steering wheel placement dictates seat back rake. In purpose-built race cars, the pedals, steering wheel and even the rest position of the shifter can usually be adjusted. Make certain you also have adequate shoulder support. Adding fiberglass or sheet metal “wings” to the seat to help stabilize your upper body, especially in a sports racer, can keep you from using the steering wheel to hold yourself up. Make sure your harness fits, too. Precious time can be saved by fitting the car to you.
3. Know the Course
It’s not good enough to pound around pointlessly on test days, accumulating costly wear and tear on that precious engine and burning through tires. If you want to go quicker, you need a plan.
It’s vital to do your homework on the geography you’ll be seeing over and over again during the weekend. The driver who knows what lies on the other side of that blind brow has a huge advantage over a driver who doesn’t. What is the best way to study the course? Walking, of course! Like many of you, I started out in Solo competition, also known as autocross. It was mandatory to walk the course so it would not dissemble into a sea of cones once leaving the start line. The same concepts apply at the race track, only on a bigger scale. The obligatory end-of-day track walks are now fixtures in my study of a course, even if I’ve been coming to that same facility for two decades. You can never learn or observe too much about the track you’re visiting. It’s gratifying to have experienced racers join me on track walks and exclaim the discovery of some new dip or camber they hadn’t noticed before. Walking and studying the track is the only way to really know which way the road goes, where the topography will help you, and where it will not.
4. Build Over the Weekend
Most drivers are consumed with anticipation for weeks, even months, before a race weekend. If it’s a big event with a large field on an unfamiliar course, that anticipation can bloom into anxiety. Too often, as a result, people go out
during first practice and try too hard to go as fast as they possibly can, bound and determined to land their name at the top of the time sheet – only to fall off the track or zing an engine. The best racers are those who make the least mistakes while forming and following a global plan for the entire weekend. Each session has its own goals. Always go gently on the first day. It’s impossible to make a detailed study of the course or the car when you are millimeters from disaster, and that’s the case when you’re really trying hard. Build speed over the course of the weekend, with the ultimate goal of peaking your performance on Sunday afternoon. It’s always easier to add speed than to take it off. Easy does it.
5. Make Every Lap Count
Now that you’re on course, don’t be lazy! Don’t just lollygag around, waiting for tires, engine oil or your brain to come up to temperature. The mechanical warm-up should have occurred in your paddock. The driver warm-up should have taken place during the course walk. Laps and track time are a very precious commodity. At tracks like Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen, emergency service policies that call for frequent Black Flag All commands plus a lack of any real run-off areas can make it very difficult to get a full session in the crowded race groups. A car might lose an oil line going into the Bus Stop at Daytona or the Kink at Road America and compromise the condition of the race track. In the race, the best drivers are trying not only to judge the starting flag well, but to put in absolutely the quickest opening laps they can. They drive a little beyond their comfort level while the tires come up to temperature, putting a gap on the rest of their competitors.
The best time to practice what this feels like is, well, during practice. Try to come up to speed quickly on your out lap and realize that the car will get better as both you and the tires rise to the occasion. On the cool-down laps during a practice session, keep up your speed, especially when you are planning to take tire temps.
Keep a notebook and record data. You never know when what my friend and colleague, Bruce MacInnes, calls “Flowing Brilliance” will strike! Hopefully, by following these tips, that will occur MORE often! Good luck.
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ALSO IN ISSUE #7
- Quote from Mario Andretti.
- An interview with David Brabham about how he prepares for the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
- And more…