Speed Secrets: Mastering Your Footwork

By Ross Bentley

March 21, 2016

At the most basic, you have three controls to get your car around a track as quickly as possible: the steering wheel, and the throttle and brake pedals. What you do with the steering wheel is obviously critical. Why else would we talk and write about driving the line if the direction you steer your car wasn’t important. But for this issue, I’m taking on the other two controls – your throttle and brake pedals – and specifically what you do with your feet. –Ross
When I played tennis seriously, years ago, and when I coached it, we spent a lot of time doing practice drills: serves, overheads, volleys, forehands, backhands… all broken down and focused. One drill was solely focused on footwork. We set a tennis ball on the court, at the intersection of each line – one where the sideline and backline met in each corner, one where the service court lines met the sidelines and each other (the “T”), and so on so there were nine balls sitting there. Starting from the middle of the backline, we’d run and pick up each ball in order, having to go cross court each time, and then reset them. We’d time this with a stopwatch, and you know what the goal was: Yes, to get the fastest “lap time.” But the real goal was to improve our footwork, making us move around the court and change directions faster.
When I ride with drivers on the track, one of the biggest differences I notice between an okay driver and a great one is their footwork. Were the great drivers born with some special ability to move and coordinate their feet? Okay, some babies come out kicking, but I don’t think that means they’re going to be any faster braking, downshifting, and transitioning back to throttle entering Turn 17 at Sebring or the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The difference? What they’ve practiced, and how they’ve practiced. See the pattern? It’s all in the practice.
Probably my best strength on the tennis court was my speed – my ability to get to any ball. But I hadn’t always been that way. No, that became a strength after a particularly tiring summer of training with a great tennis coach who made me do the footwork exercise every single day (actually, he didn’t need to “make me” do it; after sharing other players’ times with me, and comparing to my own personal best, I couldn’t wait to get back on the court the next day to prove that I could do it even faster. My coach had turned the exercise into a game).
I suspect you know where I’m gong with this: Practice your footwork. You don’t need to be driving on a track to do this any more than I needed to be playing a game to improve my tennis footwork. So if not on the track, where?
The obvious answer is on the street – at legal speeds. I look at street driving as simply a practice drill for when I drive on the track. Pay attention to how you apply and release the brakes and throttle, and how you move your feet in between (whether you left-foot-brake or right-foot-brake, which I’ll talk about in a minute). Be aware of the rate you apply them, and release them. You can apply them quickly and hard, quickly and softly, slowly and hard, slowly and softly, and all sorts of combinations of these. Which one is best? Yes. They all are, in the right situation. The best drivers are able to adapt, and use the right rate and pressure at the right time.
Do your feet need to move quickly on the pedals? Yes, at times. Do they need to move precisely? Yes (I can’t think of a time when they shouldn’t). If you right-foot-brake, what about the transition from the throttle to the brake and back to the throttle? It needs to be seamless, doesn’t it? In other words, one should not be able to tell where the use of the throttle ends and the start of braking begins, and vice versa. Of course, you will feel the g-forces change from acceleration to deceleration, and back again, but that’s all you should feel. You shouldn’t feel the actual use of the pedals, just the resulting forces (it’s a very subtle thing – one that you can identify when you experience it). How long should the gap between coming off the throttle and application of the brakes be? In practically every situation, as short as possible. Ideally, it wouldn’t exist – you would begin braking at the same time as you fully release the throttle. Of course, there is a finite amount of time it takes for your right foot to move from the throttle to the brake pedal. And that’s a benefit of left-foot-braking.
If you left-foot-brake, the gap between throttle should be non-existent. In some cases, there could even be a slight overlap or blending of the pedals. But not always. And that’s where having the extremely refined, accurate, precise and deliberate control of your feet comes in. I’ve noticed many left-foot-brakers who always blend the pedals; others never blend the pedals. It should depend on the situation. That’s why I said it must be a deliberate act. When the car needs blending of the pedals, do that; when the car doesn’t need blending of the pedals, don’t do it.
That’s why your footwork needs deliberate practice.
I’m not going to go into the right-foot-braking versus left-foot-braking discussion in this issue, as I did in depth in Speed Secrets Weekly issue #26. But a couple of quick points from that issue:
  • There are pros and cons to left-foot-braking.
  • There are pros and cons to right-foot-braking.
  • All things being equal, usually left-foot-braking is an advantage.
  • A good right-foot-braker will be faster than a mediocre left-foot-braker (and progressing beyond being a mediocre left-foot-braker takes time).
  • Think about the reasons for switching to left-foot-braking before you do, because it will take a commitment to get good at it.
Do you use a simulator? Great, that’s another place where you can practice your footwork. You can set up your smartphone or a video camera to record your footwork so you can review it later to see if it's as good as you think it is, and to look for areas of improvement.
Most sims have less feel through the pedals, which makes it an even better place to practice. Do you think that if you spent a week wearing glasses that restricted your vision to about fifty percent of what you normally see, that after you took them off you’d be more aware of what’s around you? You bet. A period of sensory deprivation heightens your sensitivity, and a simulator does just that. In fact, driving on the street at legal speeds does the same thing, to some extent. Most drivers claim that it’s easier to heel & toe downshift on the track because the brake pedal is more firm (from harder braking) than when driving on the street. And that’s exactly why practicing it on the street is so valuable – if you can do it on the street, it’s even better on the track.
Speaking of heel & toe downshifting, if you really want to be the best driver that you can be, you need to use it when driving a car that requires the use of the clutch on downshifts. I hear drivers make excuses for not using it, but that’s all they are: excuses. Sure, there will likely be a time in our future when you won't need to use a clutch (okay, I know some of you just had major heart palpitations… it’s okay, we’ll find some “old” cars for you to drive!), but until that time comes along (and I believe that will still be a ways into our future, as there are – barely – enough of us enthusiasts around that the car makers know they can sell stuff to), learn and use heel & toe. I’ve covered that topic in a recent YouTube video tip here, I’ve written about it in my Speed Secrets books, and I demonstrate it in my Performance Driving 101 eCourse – so I’m not going to go into the details here. My point is that if you want to be a truly great driver, you need to know how to heel & toe – and you need to be good at it, as it’s a part of the footwork package.
When you’re driving a car at the limit, an interesting thing happens: The steering wheel becomes more of a brake (the less you turn the steering wheel, the less scrub, and the faster you will be), and the pedals become more of the steering devices. When you use your feet in just the right way, managing the weight transfer, you change the direction of the car.
Imagine driving through a long, fast corner with the car at its limit, and your foot on the throttle, but in a “maintenance mode” (not accelerating, not decelerating). If you suddenly lifted your foot off the throttle, the car would rotate more, as it oversteered some amount from the forward weight transfer. You’d have changed the direction – turning the car more – by what you did with the throttle. Or, if you suddenly added a lot of throttle at that same point, weight would have transferred to the rear, and the car’s path would get larger – it would be understeering some amount. Of course, how you release the brakes as you enter a corner – the timing and rate of release – will also affect the direction of the car. Therefore, you’re steering the car with your feet. Cool!
And that’s why your footwork is so important.
Call me weird if you want (you won’t be the first), but I’ve spent time sitting in my car in the driveway or garage with the engine turned off, just moving my feet on the pedals. I’ve sat at my simulator doing the same thing. I’ve practiced moving my feet from the throttle to the brakes, from the brakes to the throttle; I’ve practiced left-foot-braking; I’ve practiced heel & toe; I’ve practiced my footwork… without moving the car, without turning my sim on.
When other tennis players showed up at the courts at 8am and saw me doing my footwork drill that I’d been doing for half an hour, they called me weird. I don’t know what they called me after they lost to me later in the day or during a tournament the following weekend. I’ll take weird any day, if great footwork comes along with it.
- Ross Bentley