Driving a race car: dos and don’ts
For most runners, short-track racing on Saturday nights is a sport of trial and error. Most runners lack big budgets and free time during the week to try out new ideas. Knowledge therefore generally comes from two sources: advice from more experienced runners, and trying new things for yourself on race night. If you’re lucky, you can confirm whether or not a new setup works during the limited practice you get before qualifying. But then you can’t be sure until you try that setup in the heat of the competition.
Like testing, many drivers learn to drive a race car simply by going out and doing it. Driving a race car is a technique that only you, the driver, have to develop on your own. If you’re having a good night, take what you’ve learned from that event and try to duplicate it in the next week. But mistakes can be very costly. A mistake on the track can mean bent sheet metal, broken parts, a raging temper, hurt feelings, and spending hours late at the shop with a chance of not making it to the track next week. That is why it is much easier to avoid bad driving clothes before you start. After all, learning from your mistakes on the track may sound like a good theory, but it’s not the best idea when those mistakes can cost you cash.
To avoid mistakes on the track, pay close attention to what is happening in front of and behind you at all times. Don’t take chances. Races are never won on the first lap. To earn the respect of more experienced drivers, you must show respect. Always drive other drivers the way you want to be driven. Remember, racing is an expensive sport.
You must always lead your line and only your line
The most important thing I try not to do is follow the boy in front of me. In other words, when you chase the car in front of you and do what he’s doing, you’re going to make the same mistakes as him. This may seem like a pretty simple thing not to do, but it’s easier to fall into this habit than you might think. When you are following a car, you are always looking for a way to avoid it, and it is easy to start driving along the same lines as it. In order for you to avoid it, you must change your driving line to confuse and avoid it. So try a different line, change your apex or do something to get him to make the mistake, then take advantage of it.
Along those same lines, I think a lot of riders stick with old habits for too long, and that’s because what got most of us to where we are as race drivers is driving really, really hard. Most racers want to push their cars over the limit and put too much engine on than the car and tires can handle. People have the equipment in every heat to run really hard for a few laps. But the next thing you know is that the tires start to wear off, but the engine is still there and all of a sudden everything changes with the way the car is driven. In that situation, you are overloading the car. You should set the car to last the entire race and not overload it at the beginning. You have to find out how he likes to drive the car with a full tank of fuel, a partial fuel load, and with a nearly empty fuel cell. How do you need to adjust your driving style when the tires are worn compared to when they are new? Being able to do this is the difference between winning or losing.
Don’t overload your car
It is important not to develop the habit of overloading the race car. Overloading means when you are pushing the car beyond its potential. As a general rule, it is not a good idea to press the brake and the accelerator at the same time. That rarely works well.
When you hit the brakes and accelerate at the same time, the brakes quickly overheat. It is also difficult to make a car go round and round if you are braking. It is always best to brake before entering the curves and let the car roll. That allows the suspension to set so the car can turn. It may seem slower, but it will turn better, be easier to drive, and generally faster.
Never abuse your tires
One of the biggest problems I see with inexperienced drivers is that they tend to hit the gas when exiting corners. This is what separates men from boys. With the power available from these engines, it is easy to over-throttle the engine and spin the tires. This is especially easy to do on short tracks or flat tracks with tight bends. When you do that, you end up doing what we call “frying” the rear tires. This puts excessive heat on the tire and also burns what we call the “benefit” of the tire. Your best laps are when the good is still in the tire.
The tires last a while, but once you start turning them, the maximum traction wears off pretty quickly. Tires are the first thing abused in a racing car. If you can maintain the momentum of the race car in the corner and accelerate more smoothly, you will increase your speed. It takes a lot of touch to be able to give all the throttle the car can handle without spinning the tires, but once you can, it will be faster for more laps.
It gets really tricky when your car starts to loosen up. At this point you have less grip available and the car wants to turn. When you are loose, it is very difficult not to spin the tires. Accelerate a little earlier and use engine power to control wheel spin. The idea is to prevent the engine from blowing up the tires by accelerating even more than before.
Have an observer
Having a good observer working with you is very important, especially on reboots. When everyone is lined up in one or two rows, it can be difficult to see what happens with three or five cars in front of you. That’s when you need a good observer to let you know if the lead car is taking the green flag cleanly or is checking at the last minute to stack the field before taking off. If your helper is alert, you can tell him if the good lane is the outside or if you need to avoid problems to line up in front of you.
Lastly, I think one of the most important things to remember is that you have to compete with people the way you want them to. Show respect for other people and your team. If you don’t, then those kinds of things will come back to you later. It can be difficult to see what is happening with three or five cars lined up in front of you. That’s when you need a good observer to know what is happening in front of and behind you. It’s also your extra pair of eyes so you don’t have to multitask and stop focusing on what’s ahead. If your observer is alert, it will inform you of your surroundings and keep you out of trouble.