YRAR: straight off track

You Rock at Racing continues this week with another near disaster averted by an astute driver. In the following clip, the POV driver follows a tail happy car through a series of corners. The car ahead spins. The POV driver slows and thinks he can get by, but then the car changes direction…

Had the POV driver slowed more, he wouldn’t have had to take evasive action. But in the heat of the moment, you can’t always make the right decision. But what he did next was great: zeroed the steering and went off track straight with the car completely under control. After slowing down a little, he eased the car back on track. Excessive turning in grass or dirt often leads to a spin that sends you careening across the track. Props to this driver who made the exit and entry look easy.

If you ever find yourself about to leave the asphalt, try to remember two things: (1) ZERO the steering (2) be PATIENT coming back on track.

A few times per year at Thunderhill they hold a teen driving clinic. It’s the only place I’ve seen where they purposefully instruct drivers to drop 2 wheels in the dirt and then ease the car back on the pavement. I wish that was a standard part of the HPDE curriculum. Unfortunately, I don’t know a safe way to practice this skill in reality. Some simulators handle off-track excursions well enough to be useful, but it’s track dependent, and some tracks are highly unrealistic. My advice is to find a sim/track combination that punishes you severely and then train on that until “ZERO the steering” and “be PATIENT coming back on track” are automatic responses.

Oversteer overanalyzed: hands & feet

Last week we talked about weight transfer and the somewhat paradoxical notion that braking causes oversteer (by transferring weight and grip to the front of the car). So once the car is an oversteer stance (i.e. pointed into the corner more than necessary), what next? Well, if you do nothing, you will spin. The something you absolutely have to do is to open the wheel, which is often called counter-steering. Simply holding the steering wheel in the same place for too long will lead to a spin. In the following clip, the driver waits too long to open the wheel and spins.

How far do you turn the wheel in the other direction and for how long? It depends on how much you are oversteering and how much you are accelerating (or braking). Controlling oversteer requires a delicate balance between hands and feet. I’m sure I could come up with an equation for that, but it wouldn’t help anyone. Once you are in an oversteer stance, you have to control it with muscle memory. Thinking takes way too long. It’s got to be a habit born from hours and hours of repetitive training. In the next clip, the driver steps on the gas too hard and starts to oversteer. His lack of training is evident.

In both videos, the car ends up fish-tailing. In motorcycling, that’s called a tankslapper (because the handlebars slap both sides of the fuel tank). It’s such a great term that even car people also use it. What causes tankslappers? It’s a combination of extreme oversteer and late reactions. Even experienced drivers sometimes get into tankslappers when caught unawares, but the oscillations get smaller each side. Inexperienced drivers sometimes end up making matters worse as they try to recover.

So what can you do to prevent oversteer spins, tankslappers, and mass carnage? You could drive purposefully well under the limit of the car. That way it won’t oversteer. But what happens if there’s dirt, water, or oil on the track? What happens if you drop a wheel or 4 off track? It would be far better to learn how to control oversteer, right? Unfortunately, the only way to get that wired into your nervous system is by experiencing a lot of oversteer. There’s no amount of listening, reading, or watching that will make your reactions automatic. Talk about fun homework! I suggest simulation. I’d say it’s 90% as good as the real thing and virtual cars are a lot cheaper when you wreck.

Post 99: you done fucked up

Amazingly (to me) this is YSAR post #99. Starting with #100, I will be making room for some new content aside from the usual crash analysis. At this landmark, I thought it would be useful to provide some kind of synthesis. Simply put, what advice would I give someone about to go wheel-to-wheel racing for the first time. I’m calling these rules the YSAR YDFU.

  1. I didn’t see = dangerous driver
  2. I didn’t expect = irresponsible driver
  3. Late braking is the #1 cause of car-to-car contact
  4. Off-track excursions are the #1 cause of self-inflicted injury
  5. Drive with people, not against them

Rule #1: I didn’t see = dangerous driver

You might think that driving the limit is your #1 job… It isn’t. Your highest priority on track is being safe, and that starts with seeing everything around you. First off, flags and flag stations. It’s not enough to know where they are and what the colors mean. You have to actively look for them. Judge Steve of Lemons has a phrase worth quoting: “corner, unwind, look for the next flag station”. If you miss a flag station, you may end up ruining the weekend for yourself and someone else.

If you ever find yourself in car-to-car contact and explain yourself by saying “I didn’t see” then you really have no business being on a race track. That’s your #1 job. It doesn’t matter if you have right of way. You should never be surprised by the presence of another car. If this happens, you need to work on your situational awareness in a safer environment (HPDE, simulation).

Rule #2: I didn’t expect = irresponsible driver

In some ways “I didn’t expect” is an even worse response than “I didn’t see” because it shows a lack of judgement. It’s like saying “I could have avoided the incident but I chose not to”. You have to expect other people to suck at racing and drive accordingly. You also have to know your own abilities and not drive beyond them. Everyone has lapses of judgement. Try not to let the excitement of the moment ruin the weekend.

Rule #3: Late braking is the #1 cause of car-to-car contact

The most common cause of car-to-car contact occurs when a driver tries to improve time or position by aggressively braking. With all of the grip going to slowing, there’s none left for turning. If this concept is unfamiliar to you, go buy any racing book and look at the friction circle. Locking your wheels pretty much guarantees you’ll be ending someone’s weekend. Let’s see a couple examples.

A less common type of late braking occurs when a driver hits their brakes mid-corner. This results in sudden oversteer. The situation is exacerbated in front-wheel drive cars and in downhill corners where the weight is already biased towards the front of the car.

Almost everyone knows the adage “in slow, out fast” but knowing doesn’t equate with doing. The key to going faster isn’t braking later, but getting on throttle sooner. That means moving the braking and turning earlier in the cornering process, not later. The only people who benefit from braking later are rank novices dealing with the initial fears of high G-forces. If you’re a rank novice, you don’t have any business racing yet. And if you’re not, late braking isn’t going to get you anything but trouble.

Rule #4: Off-track excursions are the #1 cause of self-inflicted injury

As soon as a car puts even part of a tire off track, it loses grip. In these situations, holding the steering wheel in the same place pretty much guarantees you will spin. It’s critical that all drivers understand how to leave the racing surface and how to return. In both cases, the wheels have to be running nearly parallel to the track. If you’re about to run off track, zero your steering and go off track intentionally and under control. Otherwise you may find yourself spinning uncontrollably.

Other people who go off track are some of the greatest dangers you will face. They often collect other cars in their attempt to regain control.

If you see another car kick up dirt, expect something bad to happen. Hopefully, trouble doesn’t come looking for you.

And when you’re ready to come back on track, make eye contact with a flag station to make sure it’s okay. When it’s safe to proceed, do so gently. Tires don’t turn so well on dirt/grass, and a common mistake is to steer too much. Racecars don’t like going off track, and often break something when they do. It’s easy to tell if your suspension is crooked, but torn brake lines or radiator hoses are not so obvious. Try to evaluate if something is wrong before going full speed.

Rule #5: Drive with people, not against them

Hey, this is amateur racing we’re talking about. If you have professional aspirations, what are you doing slumming on this blog? There are no cash prizes or racing contracts in your future. Take a fucking chill pill. Don’t endanger other drivers, protect them. Damage to cars and drivers is unacceptable. If you see someone spin in front of you, don’t try to rush past. Make sure that you and those behind you aren’t going to make a bad situation worse. Slow down, control your car, and position yourself to maximize safety. It’s a lot better having someone come over to your pit and say “thanks, you totally saved me” rather than “fuck you asshole”.

If you’re a fast driver in a fast car, your closing speeds with less capable cars can be really high. Less experienced drivers might not see you. Don’t assume they will. Make yourself as visible as possible and get around them with minimal fuss. Yes, it can be frustrating to follow a slow and oblivious novice for a couple corners. Please, don’t be a jerk who tries to teach them a lesson unless that lesson is how to drive with courtesy.

How To: hope for the best

Ah yes, we’re talking about how to suck at racing. Well, one method that has proved very useful is to hope for the best (rather than plan for the worst). The most common situation is this: you’re running wide in a corner and there’s a chance you might go off track. What started it? Debris, traffic, missed brake point, etc. It doesn’t really matter. You’re getting close to the edge of the track and aren’t sure what to do. Keep your steering lock (or even increase it) and hope for the best. You just might make it.

Then again, you might not. As an alternative to hoping there’s enough traction to save your bacon, you can go off track intentionally, with the steering wheel straight and the vehicle under control. The video won’t be nearly as exciting though.


If you’ve been following this blog, you should see this incident coming from a mile away…

Racers of all levels sometimes find themselves four wheels off (FWO). When this happens, the proper response is to gently ease the car back onto track. Novices have a tendency to wrestle the steering wheel in an attempt to turn the car. Here’s a tip: don’t. Driving on dirt is very different from asphalt. The car will respond sluggishly, and you must be patient for the car to catch up with the steering.

Intermediate drivers generally have good car control skills, but they lack good judgement. The POV car doesn’t expect the off-track car to come shooting across the track. But he should have. Going back to the pits with an IDX (I didn’t expect) excuse doesn’t change the fact that the car is now damaged. One way to gain experience in dangerous situations is to train with a simulator against real people (for more information on that, click the Simulation link above). iRacing is my favorite, but Assetto Corsa or rFactor would also be appropriate. It’s important to play against real people because real people make authentic errors.

X is for eXuberance

Late post this week because I was racing with ChumpCar at Thunderhill. Lots of fun. The clips this week come from the race. In the first clip, the action picks up after several laps of full course yellow (in order to deliver lunch to the corner workers). Upon the release of that yellow, the exuberant RX-7 driver is so excited that he drives off course. I’m sure it didn’t help that his tires had cooled. I decided to keep my distance until he sorted things out.

That E36 and RX-7 that passed me? We finished above them in 3rd place. The next day, I encountered them again…

L is for Lawnmower

Once a racecar leaves the track, horrible things can happen. I mean really, really horrible. Look at those beautiful E30s turning themselves into twisted metal. And all because of a little off track incident. Apparently no off track incident is very little. If you turn your racecar into a lawnmower, be patient coming back onto track and ease it back on.

Might as well make it a Spec E30 double feature. Oh, the humanity.

Off-track betting

I don’t know how many times I’ve received a fortune cookie that says “In Chinese, the word for crisis is represented by two characters: danger and opportunity.” Here’s what those sigils look like 危机. A car going 4 wheels off track creates a crisis. There’s danger in the form of dust reducing visibility, debris making the racing surface slippery, and cars suddenly changing direction as they deal with the situation. There is also an opportunity to overtake a competitor, but this opportunity comes bundled with danger just like 危机.

If a car in front of you goes 4 wheels off, be ready for the worst case scenario. Assume they will ricochet across the track a few times and defy the laws of physics in the pursuit of your car. The safest course of action is to slow down. The riskiest is to rush past. Both trailing cars could have avoided the incident by applying their brakes. That doesn’t excuse the driving of car #128. Nothing excuses that. But a bucket of apologies and two checks for damages would be an appropriate response.

If you find yourself 4 wheels off track, roll to a STOP. Then WAIT for a flagger to wave you back on. If the racing rules give black flags for 4 off situations, immediately leave the track and talk the the race stewards. Don’t wait for them to throw the flag at you. Take responsibility proactively.