GHIT extra: racing lines

I was recently interviewed on the Garage Heroes in Training podcast and they asked me a lot of really interesting questions. I want to follow that up in a series of posts on YSAR where I get into a little more depth on a few topics.

The Racing Line vs. the line you drive while racing

Several of the questions were either directly or indirectly related to the racing line. When most of us think of the line we imagine the path we take through a corner that optimizes our lap time, and in the typical 90° corner this would be the standard outside-inside-outside late apex line that we all know and love. However, in an amateur endurance race, this is almost never the line you want to take. When there are 100 cars on track, there are much more important things to think about than optimizing your lap time.

Grip, line, awareness: pick two

When I’m racing, awareness is always at the top of the list. The only time I’ll let that go is if I look behind me and I can’t see any cars at all. But as soon as I’m in any kind of traffic, my mind set is “how do I position myself in case the drivers around me do something unexpected?” If I’m optimizing awareness, it means I generally can’t drive the typical racing line as I’m positioning the car to avoid potential disaster. But wherever that line happens to be, I’m driving near the limit of grip. Ultimately, when racing, I almost always throw away the line and optimize the other two.

Does the angle at the apex matter?

Another question I was asked was if I thought the angle at the apex was important or was it just good enough to be at the apex. The angle is critical. In the picture below, both cars have reached the apex. Car #1 is going to have to do a lot of steering in order to finish the corner. Car #2 may have to make some steering corrections to prevent itself from spinning. In other words, Car #1 is understeering and Car #2 is oversteering. The angle you arrive at the apex determines how much throttle and steering you can use in the 2nd half of the corner.

If Car #2 doesn’t spin, it will win the race down the following straight. Car #2 is ready to go to full throttle very soon. Car #1 will have to wait a bit. If Car #1 gets impatient and adds throttle too soon, it runs the risk of understeering off the exit.

Most novice and intermediate drivers position themselves like Car #1. Why? Because in order to position yourself like Car #2, you must have oversteer in the first half of the corner. Not throttle-on oversteer, but throttle-off oversteer. Most novice and intermediate drivers spin under such conditions. Because spinning will earn you a black flag and the humiliation/penalties that go along with it, intermediate drivers may find themselves perfecting a driving style that prevents the rear from stepping out. You can be a pretty fast and safe intermediate driver but unless you learn to drive with oversteer, you won’t be as fast or safe as the advanced drivers.

It’s easy to see why driving with oversteer can make you faster, but why safer? Because shit happens on a race track. Shit you can’t foresee, like being forced off track, having a tire blow out, getting hit, or driving through oil. When shit happens, your car control skills save you, not your work-arounds. If you’ve learned how to drive a sliding car, your muscle memory and experience will help you navigate a perilous situation. However, if you’ve learned how to avoid sliding at all costs…

Bad driving tip #2: drive impatiently

One of the things that makes racing so challenging is that there’s a constant conflict between being aggressive and being careful. Finding the appropriate balance depends on a lot of variables that are constantly changing. When should you push hard and when should you hold back? If you’re being held up by the car in front for what feels like too long, you may get impatient and do something unwise. The most common form of impatience is trying to steal the apex of the car in front. Let’s see what that looks like.

Another area where people get impatient is when a car spins in front of them. It looks like a great opportunity to gain a position, but spinning cars have a way of changing directions and crossing the track multiple times.

There’s almost always time to brake and come to a complete stop if necessary. But the urge to get past is strong, and driving around the trouble should be faster, right?

Cars reacting to spinning cars can be just as dangerous as the spinning car.

Patience grasshopper.

J is for Jeet Kune Doh

Jeet Kune Do is an eclectic and hybrid style fighting art heavily influenced by the philosophy of martial artist Bruce Lee, who founded the system in 1967, referred it as “non-classical”, suggesting that JKD is a form of Chinese Kung Fu, yet without form.

To ensure the block, trap, and strike motions are performed with circular motions, JKD practitioners are encouraged to imagine tracing the outline of a wheel in front of them. Practicing JKD while driving is possible but not recommended.

The politics of wrecking

When you drive in a budget amateur racing series like ChumpCar, LeMons, WRL, etc., you are surrounded by cars and people that radiate bad judgement. Although the cars have to pass a rigorous safety inspection, the drivers do not, and few have actual racing licenses. When the car in front of you starts to spin, do you really expect them to make a graceful recovery?

Ouch. That accident was 100% avoidable. Slow down and make sure the incident is definitely over before proceeding. Sure, you may lose a few seconds, but the alternative could mean going home early. Are we blaming the victim here? Yes. When you’re in an avoidable car wreck, it’s not about who started it, it’s about the wreck. Racecars, even cheap ones, are too expensive not to protect. Oh, and then there’s your life too. Pitch that donut and get a proper neck brace. You don’t want your head separating from your neck in a sudden stop.

If you didn’t see this one coming from a long way off, try some simulation racing (see the How To page linked above). It’s an endless source of suspect driving that will train the mind without breaking the bank.

oversteer: handle it

Oversteer probably accounts for more crashes than anything else in the world of amateur racing. Oversteer occurs in a corner when the front tires have more grip than the rear tires. It’s easy to make this happen. Applying your brakes or suddenly lifting off the throttle will shift the weight and traction forward, which can cause the rear tires to slide out. You can also induce oversteer by hammering on the throttle in a rear wheel drive car because a spinning tire has very little traction.

Most cars come from the factory with understeer. That is, the front wheels start sliding before the rears. The knee-jerk reaction to a skidding tire is to slow down, and this is exactly the recovery action for understeer because it transfers the weight forward, to the skidding tires. Recovery from oversteer is totally different. You can’t release the throttle or you will only transfer more weight to the front and oversteer more. You have to OPEN THE WHEEL and either maintain throttle or increase it.

In this video, the unfortunate driver has a car with natural oversteer. The car wants to turn in all by itself. You can hear the tires squeal a bit as the rear begins to step out. The driver then lifts off the throttle very gently, but it’s still too much. By the time the driver is doing his hand-over-hand parking lot maneuvers, it’s way too late.

2 wheels off

Whether it’s traffic, debris, exuberance, or incompetence, sometimes you may end up with two wheels off the track. This is a dangerous situation if you don’t know how to handle it. The knee-jerk reaction is to turn the wheel more to stay on track. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

At 0:31, the driver could have solved this gracefully by straightening out the wheel in preparation going for 2 wheels off. This lowers the side-loading on the car. The outside tires have most of the grip, and once in the dirt, they have almost no grip. It’s impossible to make a 0.9 G turn when you have 0.2 G grip. By 0:32 the car is entering a spin. At this point, the driver could have locked up the brakes and the car would have spun in the original direction. But the driver tries to save it with a countersteer. By the time he realizes it’s not going to work and locks the brakes at 0:33, the car is headed towards the wall and the inevitable misery that follows.

I can drive a manual, really I can

One hand on the wheel? Check. One hand on the automatic shifter? Check. Shifting an automatic transmission? Check. Downshifting in the highest speed corner of the track, locking the rear wheels, and spinning? Check. At least you’re wearing your HANS device. Oh wait, you’re not even wearing a donut. How the hell did they let you on track?

You have to admire the controlled skid that was executed without the use of the brake pedal. It must have been the martial arts cross-block on the steering wheel. Thankfully, no crapcans were injured in the making of this clip.

the spin cycle

One of the most common crashes in crapcan road racing is a chain reaction from oversteer to spin to twisted metal. There’s a saying “when in a spin, two feet in”. It’s a nice rhyme that helps you recall what you were supposed to have done after you crashed your car and took out other people in the process. Locking all 4 wheels makes your car travel in a predictable path. The “two feet in” is one foot on the brake, one foot on the clutch. Lots of older cars have a third pedal that operates the clutch. If you’re in an automatic, I guess you should stomp on the brake with both feet. The pedal is wide enough.

If you think all the fault lies with the driver of the blue MR2 (like the driver in the video), you’re wrong. You’ve gotta know that the idiot spinning in front of you is going to try to recover from the spin and ricochet across the track a few times. Here’s another rhyme you can use after a failed attempt at dodging the spinning car front of you: “don’t be a hero, slow down to zero”.