Speed Secrets: Learning From Experience

By Ross Bentley

May 30, 2014

I have been very lucky in my career to not only have a chance to drive SO many different kinds of cars (Grand-Am DP, Grand-AM GT, ALMS GTLM, ALMS PC, ALMS LMP2, Porsche Cup cars, World Challenge, Continental GS, Continental ST, NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide, NASCAR Trucks, Late Models, Midgets, Formula Atlantic, Pro Mazda, IMSA Lites, Radicals, Formula Renault, karts, etc.), but I have also been very lucky to have been raised by a professional race engineer my entire life. I guess where I am going with all of this is that I may only be 25 years old, but I feel like I have seen quite a bit and experienced a lot in my racing career.  I want to talk this week about a few things I think club racers can learn that are easy to execute and will deliver results right away. These are things I have seen and continue to see over my career. I do quite a bit of driver coaching alongside my pro racing, so I have worked with drivers of all different experience levels. Here are some things I think we all can learn from:
There is no magic. All too often I think club racers are looking for that "magic" change or "magic" line. I can tell you that finding speed is nothing about magic and all about hard work. Just because you see your fellow competitor with a fancy new widget on his car doesn't mean that when he out-qualifies you by 0.5 seconds, you just got out widget-ed. I see so many people self-implode because they are way more concerned with finding that magic thing, rather then working on their own driving and their own car. While driving lines are very important, missing an apex by one foot (yes, one foot) isn't a cause for being one second slower! You have to drive the car on the ragged edge before you get too concerned with your line!

Don't lie to yourself. There are many times, even at the pro level of racing, that we make changes on our cars or try different lines and we cannot tell a difference. Maybe you have a friend helping you or maybe it is just you alone, but throwing out some big words and trying to "convince" yourself you felt some car change or a positive line change is no good - you will just end up further down the wrong road.  I can tell you from experience - it is hard to get back on the right road when you get too far down the wrong one. Be honest - we can't tell our race engineers that we felt a difference EVERY time we've made a change to our race cars. You have to be honest with yourself and/or your crew. You have to focus on making "quality" changes to your car and driving - not just guessing and making up fancy-sounding words. This racing thing is very simple IF you keep it that way and approach it that way. Focus on what you actually feel and not what you think it should feel like or do.

On-track tips. When I'm coaching a driver, I tend to go out and do a few laps to sort of set a baseline lap for data and lap time to work off during the day. I want to touch on a few things I see specifically with the driving techniques of club racers vs. my style (now this isn't to say you do or don't fall into any of these categories, but I see these tendencies quite often): 
  • The classic carry-too-much-minimum-speed driver. This driver will brake fairly late (which is good), but then quickly release the brakes and rolls a lot of "min" speed through the corner, thus delaying the point of acceleration dramatically. If he compounds this program by a quick brake release (that "popping off" the brake pedal), it sets him up for a big understeer all the way to the apex. I see this more times than not, compared to my driving technique. I always use this example: Would you rather be 3 MPH quicker in the center of the corner (for maybe 30 feet) or would you rather be 2 to 3 MPH quicker down the entire straightaway from corner exit to the next corner entry? Sure, there's a balance here, but most of the time I am rolling a bit less min speed, and getting back to the throttle pedal SO much earlier, that I carry a lot more MPH down the straightaway. Then I come in and the driver I'm coaching says to me, "You went 2 seconds quicker than I have ever gone. There is NO way I can go 2 seconds faster." Which is probably true! They would slide off the race track carrying more min speed - but that isn't how I am making up lap time on them. Sebastian Vettel could not carry enough min corner speed to make up for the fact they get to the gas pedal 100 feet later than I do. I carry so much more "free" straight-line speed by getting to the throttle pedal sooner! Yes, you get to the point eventually in your driving career where carrying a bit more min speed is important, but we are talking the nitty-gritty stuff, here.
  • Being smooth with the brake pedal, plus very sensitive to release and how you release the brake pedal. I think most drivers don't give the brakes enough thought. It blows me away how much car control you have just using the brake pedal. But to do this successfully, you have to really raise your awareness of your brake pedal foot (whether you left- or right-foot brake in your specific car - it applies to both). Having a smooth brake pedal release can really change the balance of your car on corner entry. Are you having trouble with a little bit of understeer on corner entry? Well, how are you releasing the brakes? Are you popping off them? Are you carrying too much brake pedal and using up too much of the grip available for braking?  Different cars are sensitive to the things you can do with the brake pedal: some turn better by trailing more brake to the apex; some turn better by getting of the brake completely and not trailing at all. Find what works best for your car, but be aware of this.
  • It isn't how early you touch the gas pedal, but how soon you can get to full throttle. Yes, as Ross talks about in his books, the "Schumacher throttle trace" is great and really helps squeeze out that last little bit of lap time. Touching the gas pedal at 20% really early in the corner is good, but it CANNOT delay the point you get to full throttle. Getting that little bit of early throttle at the expense of delaying full throttle is bad!  It's so easy to think you are doing a great job because you're getting to the gas pedal really early, but you really need to focus on getting to FULL throttle really early.
I hope you find this helpful and interesting. I really enjoy helping people understand this sport and learn. I am still learning to this very day, so it never ends. Don't get frustrated - racing isn't easy but that also makes it fun. As one of my favorite NASCAR crew chiefs, Mike Beam, always told me, "Racing is a humbling sport." Make the learning process fun and enjoy the process. A bad day at the track still beats a good day anywhere else.
- Colin Braun
Web: http://colinbraun.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/DriverColinBraun
Twitter: @colinbraun

Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe

Also be sure to check out Ross Bentley's book, Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving.
+ Speed Secrets: Objective: Learning