Speed Secrets: Special Edition
By Ross Bentley
April 04, 2017
Heads up... Special Edition ahead, all about moving from HPDE and track day driving to wheel-to-wheel racing.
I was recently asked this question: “I’m looking at making the move from track day events (I’ve been doing them for 6 years) to wheel-to-wheel racing. What advice do you have for me?”
Rather than just answering that question myself, I reached out to Ian Korf, Tom Long, Don Kitch, and Kevin York. You know these guys - they've all written here before. Ian went from HPDE and track days to LeMons racing, and is a coach at Hooked on Driving. Tom moved his way up the racing ladder to where he is today - one of the factory drivers for the Mazda Prototype team in IMSA (and a great driver coach). Don founded and has been running his ProFormance Racing School for over twenty years, and has coached top drivers competing in the IMSA GTD series. Kevin has club raced and competed in the Continental Tire series, as well as being a long-time driver coach at all levels.
So, if you're considering going racing, have recently started, of you've been at it for a while, enjoy the advice these guys share. Green, green, green! - Ross
Contact, Off-Track & Competition
It's not about lap times. Well, of course all racing is about lap times, but there are even more important things to consider. What's the worst case scenario? Having the slowest laps? Not even close. It would be far worse to be at fault for an incident that destroys cars, weekends, and possibly even lives. So my #1 piece of advice is to do your safety homework. By that I don't mean safety equipment in the car or on your person. You can't even get on track without the necessities. I'm talking about safe *driving*. I'll limit this to three important tips.
1. Late braking is the #1 source of car-to-car contact. Trying to out-brake someone into a corner is a bad idea. Easy enough, you say, I just won't do it. Well, that doesn't prevent someone else from doing it. It's not just what you do on track that keeps you safe, but what you prevent others from doing. If you're approaching a corner and the person behind you is closing really fast, it's safer to drive around the inside of the corner. You may have been told to always take the racing line because it's predictable. Or maybe you're a nice person and plan to drive around the outside so that the faster car can get by you easier. Bad idea. What if the driver behind you brakes late and understeers through the corner right into your fragile wheels? That's the end of your race. Alternatively, if they skid into you while you're on the inside of the corner, they will hit your rear bumper, which is designed to take impact. Don't brake late and don't get hit by late brakers.
2. Off-track excursions are the #1 cause of self-inflicted injury. There are a lot of reasons cars drop a wheel or four off the racing surface: fluids on track, misjudged distance, avoiding an accident, etc. In these situations, holding the steering wheel in the same place pretty much guarantees you will spin. It's critical to understand how to leave the racing surface and how to return. In both cases, the wheels have to be running nearly parallel to the track. If you're about to run off track, zero your steering and go off track intentionally and under control. Otherwise you may find yourself spinning uncontrollably. And when you return to the track, do so very gradually *after* making eye contact with nearby corner workers.
3. Drive with people, not against them. Amateur racing is a hobby. It's meant to be enjoyed by all the people *sharing* the race track. Some of the other drivers are just like you, but some are not. Some people will be uncomfortable driving three wide around a corner. It's not a big deal to give them some room. If you see a car spin in front of you, don't try to rush past. Slow down, control traffic, and be the hero that selflessly saves the day. But this is racing right? Yeah, it's amateur racing. If you want to act like a pro, get your sponsors lined up and enter a pro event.
The last thing I want to say is that you can practice all of these things in simulation. If you don't already have a decent computer, a simulator rig could set you back $1,000 (but less if you're frugal). That may seem like a lot of money, but it's cheaper than crashing real cars. Pilots have been using simulators for years. Simulators are a great way of working on your driving mechanics and race craft.
- Ian Korf
Race License, Training & Car Selection
Congratulations! You’ll have a ton of fun learning a whole new set of skills. Being an avid track day enthusiast is fun, too, but adding the element of wheel-to-wheel racing takes it to a whole new level, both physically and mentally.
There are many ways to approach getting your license. Sanctioning bodies such as SCCA, NASA, PCA, and BMW have competition schools in which you can participate with your own approved car. After the school, you receive a novice permit for that particular organization.
Another route to take is attending a private racing school like Bondurant, Skip Barber, or Lucas Oil. You can get professional instruction using the school’s cars and walk away with an accredited novice competition license. All you need for these schools is your own gear, and some schools can even provide that for you. The advantage of this route is you’re not committed to any type of car or racing platform, and you get professional instruction. Another advantage is that most of the club organizations accept these racing schools as an accredited place to get a license, so going to one school can result in a license with several organizations.
Once you’ve obtained your racing license, it’s important to go get some true wheel-to-wheel racing experience. If you have your own racecar, great! Go run it in events.
Another option is to get experience in somebody else’s car! Spec Miata or even Chump Car are incredible opportunities to get quality race experience and more bang for your buck. And if there is a “bang,” it’s inexpensive to fix versus repairing your personal, pricier racecar. Not to mention you can focus on your newfound racing skills, rather than wrenching under your own car. As we know from Speed Secrets, visualization between driving sessions is vital to making progress, and that’s hard to do when you’re fixing something.
I’ve had the pleasure of helping some of my coaching clients through this transition, and I can tell you that the more seat time they get, the more comfortable they get and, in time, the faster they are. If you’re a Porsche or BMW Club racer, that doesn’t mean you can’t jump into a Spec Miata or Chump Car from time to time to gain more racing experience. In fact, with endurance races, the camaraderie with your teammates can make racing that much more fun. It’s also a chance to learn from your fellow racers.
Worried that a Miata or Chump Car is not like your personal racecar? Don’t worry; every car is a momentum car! You can gain experience in anything. One of my coaching clients drove only Porsches for a decade, but he wanted more experience, so he rented a Miata. He became a better driver because of the experience he gained, and now he races both cars. He trains in the Miata for bigger events in the Porsche Cup car.
Whichever path you choose, I know you’ll enjoy it! Good luck and have fun!
- Tom Long
Confidence, Training & Budget
CONGRATULATIONS! You have made the decision to take your high performance driving to the next level. The big next step. That transition from HPD (High Performance Driving) "Sport Driving" to competition driving, "racing." An excellent choice! Trust me, you have a lot to look forward to.
In my years of instructing high performance and competition driving, I have observed and supported many drivers on this journey. I have seen the transition go smoothly and I have seen drivers struggle. Below I have listed some mental and physical approaches that I believe will best support your effort.
Confidence & Respect: You can do this, you need to know that. Inner belief is an important component here. Go With Confidence. You have invested time and money to develop some advanced driving skills on a road racing course. Rely on those skills as you add other challenges to your life on a race track. The challenge ahead will not be easy. You are asking a lot of yourself and you have a lot to learn as you go through the race car driver "seasoning" process. Go With Respect for the path you have chosen.
Racecraft Training and Race License: You will need a racing license issued by an approved race sanctioning body. This will probably be a Novice provisional license. To gain this license, you will need to go through a race training program, a racing school. Be selective in your choice of schools here. Make sure you choose a school and staff that is committed to getting your career off to a positive start - a school that offers a very comprehensive curriculum covering all mental and physical disciplines of driving in competition, i.e. flags, what color, what they mean and what to do when you see them, racing starts, driver safety equipment, car preparation and certainly the most critical---sharing all the asphalt, the entire race track with other cars at speed in close proximity to each other. Things are going to change now for you on the race track. Here is where you must rely on the high performance driving skills you have developed while you adjust to other drivers wanting to take the piece of asphalt you occupy and in that process overtake you, putting you behind them---welcome to racing! A proper school will help you learn the basic skills and race protocol to begin your seasoning and race craft development.
Money and Time Budget: I am sure you are or have given thought to what kind of car you want to race. As a seasoning novice driver, seat time is critical to developing your race craft. You need to be on track in traffic as much as time and money will allow. Set a firm time and financial budget for your racing. Pick a car that affords you maximum time in car on track as possible. Consider your mechanical aptitude. Pick a car you have the skills and tools to work on yourself. Select a car that competes in a large race group. Running around out there by yourself because there are no other cars in the class is not racing and does not develop your race craft. Look for a car that competes in a large class where you are always "in the battle" - a class that you work your way from the back to the middle to the front - learning all the time. I am a big believer in arrive-and-drive, race car rental programs. For the novice, this is a great option. You simply rent a car and crew, then arrive and drive! This approach gives you the opportunity to focus totally on your driving, figure the sanctioning body and race weekend out, meet some other people, gather more information on car selection and last but not least, help you be sure you like this racing thing.
One more thing now that you are a race car driver. Should you decide to come back out to the track returning to your HPD "Sport Driving " days as a participant, expect to find this transition back to non-competition challenging. You now walk the earth differently - you race. However, please remember - if you came to this event to race, you are certainly at the right place, just here on the wrong day!
- Don Kitch
“No, no, after you, I insist…”
In my experience coaching drivers who are transitioning from high-performance driver education (HPDE) or “lapping” days to actual competitive motorsport, I’ve encountered many roadblocks to performance.
One of the most prevalent ones that cropped up time and again was a certain lack of assertiveness by the driver.
What exactly does that mean? Well, let’s tease it out a bit.
Most drivers who are doing HPDE days at a track are focused primarily on driving the car and the track. Passing cars while on track is strictly regulated by the administering clubs and organizations.
I discovered that some drivers who were moving into competitive driving from lapping were not thinking about the “aggressive” side of auto racing. For so long they’d had their on-track time be processional. It didn’t even occur to them that they needed to plan, manage, and execute getting around and in front of other cars on track.
I recall the first time I came across an aspiring racer in this situation - I was quietly dumbfounded! The entire reason to race was to be number one and finish first, right?! If there were other competitors in front of me, I needed to sort out how to get around them! However, as I came to learn, not all high-performance drivers have that mentality naturally.
Therein, I discovered yet another facet that would require attention with focused instruction and coaching.
There are numerous racing techniques books, articles, and resources for “how to pass.” These are all great to consider and use to create an understanding of the rules of engagement, from both a sanctioning body’s regulatory perspective, as well as the more nuanced and unwritten rules and ethics between competitors themselves.
However, I found that a bit deeper issue sometimes was present in the drivers I worked with… a need to actually increase the level of desire or ‘arousal’ to go along with the rote skills of driving a racing car.
Let me stick in here the following quote from a book by Robert M. Nideffer, PhD.:
"Optimal performance and total concentration can only occur when your level of physical arousal matches the demands of the competitive situation. For each of us, there is a very fine line between being too aroused and not being aroused enough. Because controlling arousal is such an important part of your mental training, you need to fully understand what is meant by this concept.”
With this statement, we now have suddenly stepped right into one part of the mental game of motorsport!
I have used this concept with the drivers I’ve worked with to springboard into various sport psychology-based tools to manage performance: Things like visualization, triggers, neuro-linguistic programming, breathing exercises - the list is long.
As in many (if not all!) sports, I found that the ability to amp up (and down) when necessary is a very valuable skill.
While this article is not meant to provide answers per se, I’m hopeful it has illuminated a subject you may not have previously considered. Perhaps then you can start the process of discovering more about yourself as a motorsport athlete.
- Kevin York