Speed Secrets: Why You Should Walk the Track
By Ross Bentley
March 10, 2015
Driver coach, E. Paul Dickinson (who has been around and knows his stuff) writes this week about a technique you can always count on to help you drive faster and safer: walking the track. But E. Paul talks about more than just walking the track as a social event, and that's what I like so much about his article. - Ross
Racetracks create challenging situations. Hairpins, “S” turns, different radius changes within the same corner, unfamiliar lines, uncommon camber combinations – all multiply difficulty as speeds increase.
Piloting a car is a dynamic exercise, which is not limited to the physics controlling simple motions. The accomplished driver is in touch with his machine. Like long-standing friends, communication flows naturally. When unexpected peril ensues, man and machine instinctively work together to evade threats.
What the car needs from you to perform up to its capability is high quality inputs, properly-timed. It is a way of communicating with your machine, and it will allow you to appreciate the finer points of its response. The car always follows your lead…even if you are wrong.
Trouble comes when driver input is contrary to physics. You can miss something on your side of the conversation that denies your car the ability to perform to its full capability: something that hinders the conversation; something the car needs from you to perform up to its capability; something to make it a duet, not a wrestling match.
Achieving The Expert’s Technique
Road-holding capability decreases as speed increases because the physics of motion are disadvantageously loading and unloading the suspension. The amount of loading on each tire determines how much traction it can produce. More loading produces greater traction. Less loading reduces traction. At racing speeds, driver inputs coupled with even minimal changes in track surface, have road-holding consequences. Cars at speed ignore nothing.
Changes in track nuance and on-track factors assume different levels of importance as drivers mature. Fact is, absent track knowledge may just be the reason in some corners you are unable to “hit-your-mark.” The inability to consistently hit a mark is often the car’s way of communicating that the driver is not holding up his end of the conversation.
You must be asking yourself: “How do I have time, driving around the track, to become aware of all the subtleties on a track?” You don’t. That knowledge is gained by walking the track. Yes, you read that right. Walk the track. Not just once. And not just the first time at a new track - every time.
Ask for permission to walk the track early in the morning before cars go out, at lunch break, or in the evening after racing activities are suspended. Track walks provide different details of speed and vision/perspective unavailable from inside a vehicle at speed.
Becoming As Good As Your Car
As you walk, take the time needed to view each corner as if behind the wheel. Full standing height is not in-car perspective. Stoop down frequently, particularly in turns, consider the perspective you have in the car. Looking into approaching turns watch for the track to “open up” visually from the outside entry through outside exit. Visualizing a clear path, as the turn opens, establishes reference points for turn-in and track-out.
This establishes an apex – the closest inside point along the line connecting turn-in to track-out. Apexes anchor the line. They are viewfinders through which you look for perspective to the next turn. If the sight-picture through the apex to the exit is not right, move the apex. At the actual apex, not a perceived one, stoop down and look back and reevaluate the turn-in point. From track-out exit, look back through the apex to the turn-in point, and again reevaluate as needed.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Now is the time to use it. It refines your line. Re-walk the corner until you are satisfied. Frequently turn and look where you have been. Consider the upcoming turn and adjust the line to accommodate its entry. Keep your focal point in the distance. Take in the whole trajectory picture.
Walk the line you choose and be sensitive to track subtleties. Follow your instincts. When something you had not previously seen “sticks out,” do not ignore it. More than likely it is important or it would not have stuck out. It is your intuition saying, “I was unaware of that!”
Become expert at reading the road. Pavement changes, camber, elevation changes, curbing height, bumps, corner station locations, useful reference points, and much more all tend to be missed or disappear at racing speed.
Racing lines change with track surface conditions. Often a “rain-line” is quite different from a line in the dry. Explore where you might move off the polished surface of the normal line to increase grip in the wet. Pavement textures, and areas where water can stand or puddle during or after a rain, need to be noted.
Walking a track is very introspective. Sometimes it is helpful to walk with a group or a more experienced driver and discuss various options. Take a track map with you, or draw one, and annotate this worksheet as you go. A worksheet is essential perspective to remember your marks.
After walking the track, use your worksheet to visualize the entire track in detail. Project how your line versus another might flow into and out of corners. Mentally massage corner lines into a seamless flow pattern around the entire track. Small changes manufacture meaningful performance advantages.
Following on-track sessions or additional track walks, continue to annotate a permanent map to keep for future reference. Braking points, turn-ins, apexes, corner exit positions and references will all require adjustment as your driving skills mature.
Here is a self-test to summarize where improvement can be realized.
With your eyes closed, mentally replay the course exactly as you intend to drive it. At any point be prepared to rework your plan. When you are satisfied…
Play the course back in full detail in less than five seconds.
The compression factor, created by intellectually running the course in under five seconds, highlights the stumbles. The mental stutters and hesitations locate the high-yield improvement opportunities.
“NOW, you know what you don’t know.” Extra effort provides results.
As you refine your skills, you will notice your car also seems more refined. It is said, “Only an accomplished driver can truly appreciate the work of another accomplished driver.”
Your driver (car) awaits your conversation.
- E. Paul Dickinson