The Guide to Road Racing, Part 8: Passing Etiquette

By Tom Martin

September 22, 2020


Like many sports, racing has written and unwritten rules. And, just like other sports, it is the unwritten rules that can often get you in the most trouble or lead to the biggest misunderstandings.


The problem with unwritten rules in racing, especially for new drivers, is that they are unwritten and thus are more difficult to learn. This article is designed to correct that issue, at least partially, by writing down some of the commonly encountered passing situations where unwritten rules apply.


Why Passing Is The Hotbed Of Unwritten Rules


Having a safe car is essential. Having a car that meets the rules is important. Knowing what flags mean and watching for them is critical. But most of those important areas are the home of written rules. There isn’t a lot of interpretation and so the problems are mostly avoidable. The key issue is paying attention.


But passing is a situation where unwritten rules are common. And it is the situation where unwritten rules are most problematic.


Passing maneuvers can lead to position changes, and drivers are sensitive to whether those position changes are fair. Passing is also where wheel-wheel action occurs and thus is the place where contact can easily happen. Contact can result in spins and broken cars, and drivers are, at times, understandably unhappy about spins and damage and risks to their well-being. And passing is where trust is built or destroyed, and trust makes racing more fun as well as supporting the camaraderie of the paddock that many drivers and crew enjoy.


When Pro Racing Is A Bad Source Of Teaching


The rules of passing are also rendered problematic by professional racing. Almost every amateur driver watches some form of professional racing, whether it is F1 or Indycar or NASCAR. It is natural to assume that pro racing is a higher and better form of amateur racing. But that logic is misleading.


One issue is that the rules in pro racing are often different from the rules in amateur racing. And the rules in pro series differ from each other. That’s potentially confusing.


Another problem is that amateur drivers, especially new ones, internalize some of the unwritten rules from the commentary on TV broadcasts and much of that commentary is inconsistent and inappropriate. One is example is this commonly heard sequence:


. “The important thing is for the slower driver always to stick to his normal line. If he does that, he’ll be consistent and predictable for the driver behind who is setting up a pass.”


. “Joe did a really nice job there of moving off line to let Jim by so that he could pursue his battle for second place.”


Really, logically, both of those statements can’t be true. The same inconsistencies happen in post-crash analysis. Driver A thinks the crash was the overtaking driver’s fault, Driver B thinks the overtaken driver made an error. They have their reasons, but they aren’t coming from a consistent set of principles. Of course, announcers have to do this in real time with limited data. The point isn’t to criticize the media, but that the media is a lousy place to learn the rules.


One other factor makes professional racing a bad source of rules instruction. Pro racing is often paid big-money racing, which changes the context a bit. That is, pro racers are paid, to some degree, to take risks in pursuit of results and sponsor brand impressions that are not acceptable risks in amateur racing. The pro teams can afford to repair the cars. The pro drivers accept that injuries occur. You will, therefore, see behavior in pro racing that is not acceptable in amateur racing. And you will see behavior condoned in pro racing that is not or should not be condoned in amateur racing.


One simple unwritten rule: don’t model your driving behavior on what pro drivers do or what announcers say about what pro drivers do.Your fellow competitors don't have that kind of money and they and their significant others don't accept that crushed bones and brain injuries "are part of the deal".


The Rules: SCCA


Now, let’s get down to some specifics.


We start with the written rules of road racing passes. From the SCCA:


A. Drivers are responsible to avoid physical contact between cars on the race track.


B. Each competitor has a right to racing room, which is generally defined as sufficient space on the marked racing surface that under racing conditions, a driver can maintain control of his car in close quarters.


C. Drivers must respect the right of other competitors to racing room. Abrupt changes in direction that impede or affect the path of another car attempting to overtake or pass may be interpreted as an effort to deprive a fellow competitor of the right to racing room.


D. The overtaking driver is responsible for the decision to pass another car and to accomplish it safely. The overtaken driver is responsible to be aware that he is being passed and not to impede or block the overtaking car. A driver who does not use his rear view mirror or who appears to be blocking another car attempting to pass may be black flagged and/or penalized, as specified in Section 7.


The Rules: NASA


25.4 Rules for Overtaking


25.4.1 Passing General


The responsibility for the decision to pass another car, and to do it safely, rests with the overtaking driver. The overtaken driver should be aware that he/she is being passed and must not impede the pass by blocking. A driver who does not watch his/her mirrors or who appears to be blocking another car seeking a pass may be black-flagged and/or penalized. The act of passing is initiated when the trailing car’s (Car A) front bumper overlaps with the lead car’s (Car B) rear bumper. The act of passing is complete when Car A’s rear bumper is ahead of Car B’s front bumper. “NO PASSING” means a pass cannot even be initiated. Any overlap in a NO PASSING area is considered illegal.



25.4.2 Punting


The term “punting” is defined as nose to tail (or side-of-the-nose to side-of-the-tail) contact, where the leading car is significantly knocked off of the racing line. Once the trailing car has its front wheel next to the driver of the other vehicle, it is considered that the trailing car has a right to be there. And, that the leading driver must leave the trailing driver enough “racing room.” In most cases, “racing room” is defined as “at least three quarters of one car width.” If adequate racing room is left for the trailing car, and there is incidental contact made between the cars, the contact will be considered “side-to-side.” In most cases, incidental side-to-side contact is considered to be “just a racing incident.” If, in the case of side-to-side contact, one of the two cars leaves the racing surface (involuntarily) then it may still be considered “a racing incident.”


Note: See specific class rules for variations in this rule.


25.4.3 Right to the Line


The driver in front has the right to choose any line, as long as they are not considered to be blocking. The driver in front loses the right to choose his or her line when the overtaking driver has their front wheel next to the driver.


25.4.4 Blocking


A driver may choose to protect his or her line so long as it is not considered blocking. Blocking is defined as two (2) consecutive line changes to “protect his/her line,” and in doing so, impedes the vehicle that is trying to pass with each of the two (2) consecutive movements. Drivers are encouraged to check with the Race Director for a full explanation before the start of the race.


The 13/13 Rule


Some sanctioning bodies, particularly in vintage racing, run something called the "13/13 Rule". Basically, the idea is that if you have an incident your license is on probation for 13 months. If you have a second incident during that time, you are banned from competition for 13 months.


The unwritten version of 13/13 is:


. You wreck, you go home

. You put a dent in the car, you go home

. You dent someone else's car, you go home

. You do it twice, and you stay at home for 13 months


This seems harsh at first. But if you've been around humans much, you might realize that without tough rules, behavior gets rather squirelly. And, now imagine that you're running a $150,000 GT3 Cup car or a $400,000 Can-Am car or a $700,000 vintage F1 car. That "dent" could involve, say, $40,000 of repairs and months of time with a car out of commission.


The 13/13 Rule, like all rules, somewhat difficult to enforce. In the groups that run it, that isn't really the point. The 13/13 rule is a code of honor. It is like the rules of golf, where you police yourself rather than asking "who's going to catch me?" Those with a real interest in the latter question probably won't enjoy running with sanctioning bodies that use 13/13.


Another unwritten rule: novices would do well to drive as if the 13/13 rule were in play, even when it isn't. Consider yourself a novice until you podium in a competitive class regularly.


Common Situations Requiring Unwritten Rules


The written rules are only moderately complicated. The difficulty we have seen is that they are very basic principles that require application and interpretation. In some ways, that is ideal for sanctioning bodies, because race officials can provide the application and interpretation. But you can’t form a racing approach by running to the sanctioning body mid-race. And not every action is worthy of sanctioning body time after the race. This leads to unwritten rules which many drivers will want to master. Here is a brief summary of some of them.


1. The straight-line pass


Seemingly the easiest situation to imagine is the case where driver B attempts to pass driver A on a long straight. This one is more fraught with difficulty than you might think.


First, notice that SCCA does not allow blocking at all, while NASA allows one blocking move. Other sanctioning bodies may have other subtle variations. Many drivers run with multiple sanctioning bodies and it isn’t realistic to re-program your sub-conscious mind based on which group is sanctioning the race you’re in. So, what to do?


The unwritten rules that have come out of this situation are roughly:


You can block me once, as long as you make your move early enough that there is essentially zero risk that you punt me or that I have to lift/brake.


A second move to block, even if it is a feint, is frowned upon for safety reasons – especially if it is late, abrupt and if the consequences are dire (a trip into the trees or eating the wall at high speed). For obvious reasons, dire consequences are bad. Similarly, high speeds make major damage ($) more likely. Racing is expensive enough already, and I don’t like damage.


Your fellow drivers are often sensitive to this situation because of the speeds involved on straights. Intuition and physics both tell you that a problem created at 120 mph is generally a bigger safety issue than a problem created at 40 mph. So, while this passing situation often unfolds in a relatively manageable way, emotions can run high, since the consequences are big. We note that those drivers who haven’t been in a high-speed wreck can view the consequences as small because the wrecks they’ve experienced are cosmetic “bumps”. But once you’ve been through a big one, been to the hospital and written off $20,000 or $50,000, you tend to take it more seriously. Our recommendation is to take it seriously from the start.


This leads to another point of sensitivity with the straight-line pass: because the situation evolves when the cars are not at the limit of adhesion (usually), it is pretty clear that whatever is being done is intentional and pre-meditated, not a mistake in the forecasting of car control. Unwritten rule:


You get more forgiveness when your actions are viewed as a racing mistake resulting from super-quick decisions at the edge of car control. Your competitors will therefore view a late and abrupt block or a double blocking move as “unsportsmanlike”.


In other words, you’re managing your reputation as well as the safety and costs of others.


2. Cars side-by-side at corner entry


Not every straight is long enough that passes, when done cleanly, are completed by the time cars reach the next corner. In fact, this is probably the most common type of passing situation in lower-powered classes. The result is that you have two cars side-by-side coming up to corner entry and at corner entry. This leads to unwritten corollaries to the standard rulebook statements:


. At corner entry, if the overtaking car does not have its front axle past the leading car’s cockpit (A pillar on production cars, driver on formula cars and sports racers for easy visual reference), the overtaking car should adjust its speed to tuck in behind the leading car with minimal interruption to the leading car’s line.




. At corner entry, when the overtaking car has its front axle past the cockpit of the leading car but its rear axle is behind the cockpit, the cars are considered side-by-side. Both cars should adjust their lines to avoid contact and provide room on the racing surface for the other car.




. At corner entry, when the overtaken car has its front axle behind the cockpit of the overtaking car, the overtaken car should adjust his speed and tuck in behind the overtaking car.


In short, when the passer isn’t ahead, he gives up the corner. When you’re side by side, continue racing until one car is clearly ahead (often at a subsequent corner). When the passer is ahead on corner entry, the formerly leading car accepts the pass.


One very, very important point unwritten rule is:


. You are expected to anticipate what your car is doing and what the other car is doing. That is, you don’t decide if you’re going to make the pass when you car is at the points described in the written and unwritten rules, but based on what will happen a second or two down the road when you get to (or don’t get to) those points. This is the only way you can adjust your speed or line or both in time to avoid problems. A racer who can't or doesn't anticipate well needs to be cautious and practice his or her observational skills. A racer who repeatedy doesn't anticipate well and drives aggressively is an idiot, and shouldn't be out there.



3. The Dive Bomb


Now we deal with a common passing problem that occurs in the same situation described above. But we’ll look at two wrong ways of doing a pass into a corner.


First, you can try to overtake a car ahead by late braking. The written and unwritten rules above apply. It goes wrong when you mis-judge your position. Your front axle is behind the car you are attempting to pass, but you are threshold braking as the leading driver turns in. By the unwritten rules, you should adjust your speed, but you can’t because you are at the limit of braking. You also can’t adjust your line because you are at the limit of adhesion.


You should have seen this coming and backed off or braked earlier.


You can see Ryan Hunter-Reay make a version of this mistake in IndyCar here:



Now watch it from the onboard camera, just as a reminder of how hard the timing is:



The second dive bomb problem situation arises under late braking. The problem occurs when the passer has too much speed at the apex and loses control mid-corner. This usually results in the passer sliding into the car being passed. The impact can be mild or wild, but often the passer gets some advantage because in effect he has used the overtaken car as a brake.


I expect people passing me to have their cars under control. If you don’t have it under control then I don’t consider it to be your corner even if your front axle was ahead of my cockpit because you didn’t get there in a fair and safe way. It is clearly your mistake and one other drivers don’t condone because it is unsportsmanlike and you probably damaged my car. You need to work on your judgment and anticipation skills.


Here is an example of trying to make a pass under late braking and losing control, resulting in a punt of the overtaken car:


Note that the consequence of an out of control dive bomb is not always as benign as in this video. We saw a dive bomb where the bomber barely scratched his car, but punted another car off the track resulting in a complete write-off:

4. The Kink


You may come out of a corner side-by-side and find that the next corner is a kink (a gentle bend in the middle of a longish straight). Or you may catch a car on a straight before a kink occurs. For some cars, the kink may not involve cornering at the limit and these kinks are generally not problematic. But if a near-the-limit corner is involved for one or more of the cars, it can create problems. This is especially true if the straight on the run-up to the kink is long enough that competitors are traveling at high speed.


If our cars are similar or are in the same class, the common situation is that we’re running into the kink side-by-side with little relative velocity.


I expect the inside car to enter and track out in a way that leaves a lane of room on the racetrack for the outside car. If you punt me, I’m going to protest because high-speed offs are dangerous and you have to be a moron not to know that kinks involve high speed. Bumping may be “just a racing incident”, but I don’t like it. I especially don’t like it because almost no one has car control skills that allow them to consistently bump but not punt. On top of that, if your car control skills are so good, then you wouldn’t bump me in the first place.


Here is a short clip of a gentlemanly pass in a kink, where the overtaking driver leaves the driver being passed plenty of room (and vice-versa).



If multiple classes are racing, it is common for one class to be somewhat faster than another.


If I’m in a faster car in a faster class, I should place my car at least partly on the inside of your slower car before the kink (initiate a pass). But then I expect you to adjust your line a bit so I have room even though I don’t technically “own” the corner. If I can’t initiate the pass (get partly beside you), then you are free to run your normal line and apex as usual.


5. The Start


The start of a race gives racers many opportunities for metal-metal contact. The cars are in close quarters, visibility can be obstructed, and your competitors sometimes come off the power or get on the brakes in a way that will never happen mid-race. There is also the fact that the officials can’t see everything and a mid-pack or back of the pack jumped start will almost never get penalized. This can lead to big speed differentials in classes that don’t normally have them.


In general, drivers accept that stuff happens on most starts and that sometimes this is out of your control. You will notice that the SCCA and NASA rules act as if the start is just another case of the general passing rules. This omission leads to two basic unwritten rules for the start:


If you make an abrupt lane change to get around a slower car or improve your line and you hit my car, that’s bad. I don’t really care whether you are technically in front of me or behind me or beside me. The domino effect on starts makes it too risky a place for this kind of passing.


If you think the domino effect on starts isn’t real in amateur racing, check this out and note the damage and the ambulances:




An example of how these wrecks occur is shown in this clip:


There is no big crash in that one after the initial impact, but you can see that if the driver were a little less lucky getting it under control he could easily stuff it into the wall, and with 20 more cars behind him the consequences could be big.


Another unwritten rule especially applicable to starts:


If you leave the racing surface to get ahead and then lose control and hit me or hit other cars that hit me, that’s bad. You put yourself in a position where a crash was likely and you willingly endangered all of us.


6. The Chop Block


If you are in a slower car one of the ways to upset your fellow (faster) drivers is the chop block. You enter a corner mid-track, leaving a little more than one car width of room on the inside. Then as a faster car approaches and gets near your rear bumper, you move down to the apex. Slower cars can do this because they aren’t at the limit. But the unwritten rules inveigh against doing so:


If I have a significant speed differential to you and your are tracking off line mid-corner, I will assume that you are leaving the door open and letting me by. It is dangerous and pointless for you to chop me at the last second. You aren’t going to stop me from passing you eventually, and I may hit you with bad results for both of us.


Note a few subleties here. First, a significant speed differential means a speed difference established over a lap or two, not a speed difference that shows up suddenly in one corner because a driver misses a shift or braking point. These speed differentials commonly show up between front runners and backmarkers. They also show up in some race groups where faster and slower cars are mixed together. You should have an idea of who is who.


The other sublety is that chopping is really a mid-corner thing. If you are wide on corner entry, that's usually on line or there abouts. If you then track to the apex, that's also normal and is not a chop. A chop happens when you are a car width off the apex just as you are getting there and then you suddenly come down.


Handling Unwritten Rules Violations


If someone violates the rules above, you also have choices about how you handle the violation. There are many aspects to this, but from experience we suggest the following:


. The One Hour Rule. Wait for an hour before you do anything. This gives your body time to get adrenaline levels back to normal, making a reasoned and communicable point of view much more likely. It also gives the offending driver a chance to realize the error of his/her ways and make an appropriate apology. We recommend watching your in-car video during this period. Sometimes the video clarifies whether what seemed a big deal was really a big deal.


. Get Advice. If you know other drivers at the event, ask them what to do before you do something. This helps you gauge whether the offense is big or small. As an alternative, you can talk to sanctioning officials. They are there to help, and can often help sort out mountains from molehills as well as advise on appropriate action.


We have not always followed these rules, and we’ve regretted it. We have also seen drivers just be too cool and calm, letting bad drivers get away with dangerous behavior and possibly putting others at risk. The key is to figure out the right action that can be understood and have a beneficial effect.


Philosophy 101


Finally, we need to consider why we are on track in the first place. Competitors have choices about how they conduct themselves, and those choices affect the social contract they implicitly have and the experience they explicitly have with each other.


Basically, drivers seem to choose how to conduct themselves based on one of two principles:


. Empiricism. The empirical driver does whatever it takes to get ahead. Rules matter, but only in the sense that they are enforced and therefore may affect results.


. Code of Ethics. The ethical driver views written and unwritten rules as important because, in this view, winning can only be judged in the context of how it was achieved. That is, achieving a finishing place via a violation of the rules is no different than achieving that place with a car that violates the rules: it is unfair and unacceptable.


We’ve created this article for Code of Ethics drivers since unwritten rules will matter far more to those drivers. Within the Code of Ethics philosophy, there appear to be three reasonable behaviors and we observe that drivers seem to have more fun if they adopt the right approach for their skills and personalities:


. Drive For Position: you follow the rules as best you can, but you fight every pass to the degree allowable by law and you make aggressive passes at the first opportunity. The fun of racing is winning or finishing in a high position.


. Make Sure They’re Real: you leave passers ample room, but you run an appropriate racing line as long as you can to be sure that you really have to give up a position. You pass primarily when there is a clear opportunity. The fun of racing is in the car control skill demonstrated during passing in close quarters.


. Trade Places: when someone attempts a legitimate pass, you give up the position willingly to maintain momentum and then attempt a re-pass. The fun of racing comes from the strategy of choosing passing points and capturing opportunities.


Of course, you can do all three at different times. But the unwritten rules here are:


. Driving For Position is generally unpleasant or annoying when you are running in something like 8th or 14th place.


. The Make Sure They’re Real Style is best applied when you know the driver(s) right around you.


In a nutshell: in any event be safe, compete well and have fun.



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