I once drove in a Lemons race where the car builder put a Ford 5.0L in a Toyota Celica. It was a fun car on the straights but a nightmare in the corners. Sadly, he used OEM brake pads, and they were fading on me before the end of the first lap. Buttonwillow has 7 braking zones, and in order to keep them cool I had to limit myself to braking twice per lap. In the other zones I had to coast, downshift the automatic transmission, and scrub speed with excessive steering. After getting over how much I hated the car, I actually had fun solving the puzzle of how to drive it fast.
At a more recent Lemons race at Sonoma I was nearly in a similar situation. We were working on the car before the race and the car owner brought out some $12 brake pads. No fucking way was I driving with those. Luckily, he also had some EBC Yellowstuff from the previous owner. When novices think about track driving, they focus on acceleration, not deceleration. That’s why when random people you meet ask about your racing activities, the first question they ask is “how fast do you go?” More important is how fast you stop. And more important than that (eventually) is how little you turn the steering wheel. Stopping and turning are the domain of the brake pedal. If you didn’t know that the brake pedal is the turn pedal, you had better keep reading. So let’s talk about the braking progression from novice to alien.
Level 1 – Novice
Description: If there’s one word to describe how novices brake, it would be tentative. Novices often exhibit a lot of coasting before applying the brake pedal. When they finally press it, they do so softly and then gradually increase the pressure. By the time they release the brake, they are going quite slow and the technique of the release hardly matters.
How to improve: The key to graduating out of this stage is just confidence. For some, that happens in 1 track day. For others, it may be years. If fear was easy to get over, it wouldn’t be fear.
Level 2 – Low Intermediate
Description: Intermediate braking is firm braking, but inconsistent. Gone are the fears of high G-forces. Intermediates can stop so fast their sunglasses fly off their faces. What they lack is any kind of finesse. They may brake too late and overshoot the corner. Or brake so early that they are confused about when to add throttle. Or brake in the middle of a corner and spin. Seeing how much better they are than novices makes them think they are fast, but this is just a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
How to improve: Braking becomes less of a panic, and more consistent the more you do it. So this is mostly a matter of training. To snap someone out of the D-K effect, compare lap times in the same car.
Level 3 – Intermediate
Description: The hallmark of the intermediate driver is “in slow out fast” with an emphasis on slow. That comes from very aggressive braking. This is usually followed by very quickly jumping off the brake and onto the throttle. The car tends to pitch fore and aft with this driving style, and the car is often understeering as the weight gets thrown to the rear. In a high power car with nannies, this level of driving can be pretty quick, even if it’s not very skillful.
How to improve: This driver needs to work on being smoother because their style is reducing the grip available in the corner. Until they see lap times or telemetry traces from another driver in the same car, they may believe they are driving correctly.
Level 4 – High Intermediate
Description: The high intermediate has learned to used trail-braking to extend the braking zone into the corner. Not only does this lengthen the straight, it also keeps the suspension quiet on turn in. This is a relatively fast and safe way to drive, and lots of HPDE regulars and coaches drive like this.
How to improve: The next stage isn’t so easy because it requires both oversteer recovery skills and the confidence to use them. Lots of people get stuck here and may require some coaching to move on.
Level 5 – Advanced
Description: The advanced driver confidently uses the brakes to rotate the car at the entry. After all, the faster driver is the one who turns less. Steering with the rear wheels is the key to speed, but the key pedal is the brake, not the throttle. Some people understand this. Few actually do it.
How to improve: What holds the advanced driver back from progressing further is precision. All the skills are there, but the edges are rough. Like in any other sport, improving technique requires many hours of deliberate practice. There is no shortcut to expertise.
Level 6 – Expert
Description: The expert is able to balance the grip of the car to such a fine degree that all laps fall within a couple tenths of a second. They have worked very hard to attain this level of mastery and may not recall how difficult it was, leading to the other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
How to improve: Be born with unnatural ability and work harder than everyone else.
Level 7 – Alien
Description: They seemingly break the laws of physics and human ability. It would be easier to accept if they were cheating, but they aren’t. We all just suck in comparison.