What’s wrong with heel-toe?

YSAR reader Tyler asked me to talk a little more about why heel-toe shifting is a waste and why most people do it wrong. This answer will take a bit longer than a simple reply in the comment section.

If you look up heel-and-toe shifting in Wikipedia, you’ll find a very good description of the technique and why it’s used. Key points of this article are the following:

  • The history of the term comes from way back when the accelerator was the middle pedal in the car. Back then, the heel was on the brake and the toe was on the accelerator.
  • In order to do the technique, the pedals have to be positioned properly.
  • The brake is actuated with the ball of the foot and the throttle is actuated by the side of the foot using a rocking motion at the ankle. The wikipedia article doesn’t say what the heel is doing, but it’s firmly planted on the floor. I like putting a bar of aluminum in the floor to anchor my heel on.
  • Downshifting abruptly in a corner can cause loss of control. The purpose of heel-toe shifting is to prevent any jolts by spinning up the transmission to same speed as the road speed.

What’s wrong with heel-toe

The number one problem with heel-toe is that people practice it on the street. In order to get better at a skill, of course you have to practice it. But if you practice it incorrectly, you ingrain doing it the wrong way in your muscle memory. Imagine you want to get better at serving in tennis, so you practice every day in your bedroom. The ceiling isn’t very high, so you can’t toss the ball very high or hit it with full extension. While you may initially get more balls in the court with your abbreviated stroke, your serve will eventually become your greatest weakness and will be very difficult to fix.

People who heel-toe shift on the street aren’t learning in a proper environment. Heel-toe shifting happens during threshold braking. Who does threshold braking from 100 mph to 50 mph on the street? Nobody. Well, I hope nobody.

When driving on track, your engine RPM is usually above 4k the whole time. People on the street are generally under 4k the whole time. Lots of street drivers blip as soon as they apply the brake. There’s no problem doing that at 4k because your revs just jump to 6k. But try yanking the car out of gear at 6k and blipping at the same time. Now your engine is at 8k if your rev limiter doesn’t cut in. But it gets worse. The engine and transmission revolutions are dropping precipitously without load. And you’re still slowing for the upcoming corner. By the time you’re done braking and want to start accelerating, you’re having to feed out the clutch gradually from the bottom of the tach. If you have to feed the clutch out gradually, you didn’t match revs.

I like making up new terms, so let me indulge myself.

Heel-faux shifting: feeding the clutch out gradually due to an early application of clutch and throttle

Note that I’m not claiming that everyone who does heel-toe on the street is doing it wrong. I’m saying there’s a danger in learning to do it the wrong way, and that it can become a bad habit that’s hard to break.

But wait, there’s more

Heel-toe shifting is a complex technique that takes a lot of attention if it’s not an automatic reflex. Using your attention for heel-toe means you have less attention for sensing speed, sensing grip, listening, observing, etc. With the exception of very slow corners, it’s almost always faster to stay in 3rd gear rather than shift to 2nd. Blip-shifting and trail-braking at the same time are really difficult to coordinate. Trail-braking is a lot more important than blip-shifting, so give it all the attention it deserves.

Another reason not to blip shift is because it puts your focus on the engine when your focus should be on grip. People who focus on the engine tend to enter corners 5-10 mph too slow. Having entered the corner so far below the limit, and with the car in the optimal power band, they can’t help but to mash the throttle. Which leads to understeer and running out of room at the exit. If your car is understeering, it might be your fault. Because you are braking too much. Because you are focused on the engine rather than entry speed.

Highlights at 11

Simultaneously blip-shifting and trail-braking through a corner and having the car seamlessly transition from deceleration to cornering to acceleration is a glorious thing. It’s like ripping a topspin backhand and cleaning the line for set point. However, there’s another way to make the highlight show… bloopers. Watching people heel-toe on YouTube is usually more sports blooper than sports highlight.

Instead of heel-toe

So let’s say you don’t want to heel-faux your way to infamy. What do you do instead? Drive the entire track in high gear? Well, that does happen to be an excellent training exercise, but no. Just keep the car in gear until that last moment and then downshift smartly. By smartly I mean both quickly and intelligently. Don’t shift so quickly that you upset the car or risk damaging the transmission.

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