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Doug Quara has been a track driver for twenty years and is an experienced instructor.  Here are some beginning pointers on what to work on....

Keys to Initial HPDE Learning

by Doug Quara

 

FIRST TRACK DAY EVENT

 

Keys to Initial Learning

 

Numerous skills are required to master track driving.  These skills are as fundamental as where to look and as subtle as how to ease off brakes in a braking zone.  There are literally hundreds of nuanced things a driver new to tracking needs to know.  But we don’t expect to know all of them right away.  Here are some things an instructor can and should be focusing on early in a track driver’s experience.

 

Line

 

The “line” is often mentioned by instructors.  They usually drill that the line is very important and they are right.  What do we mean by the “line?”

 

There are infinite ways to position a car on a racetrack but only one way to maximize speed on the course.  The wider the track, the more choices we have with respect to car position.  Additionally, the fewer restrictions (such as bumps, slippery sections due to pavement changes, road camber changes, and where water is pooling on rainy days), the more choice we have.  And let’s not forget about the car:  the narrower and more nimble the car, again, the more choice we have.

 

In general, the line maximizes the width of the track to carve the highest radius arc through a corner.  For purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume a basic understanding of turn-in, apex, and track-out.  Maximizing the width of the turn positions the car at the outermost point of the track at turn-in point, which is the innermost point at the apex, rather than the outermost point at track-out.  But this is not true for all turns as it depends on what precedes and follows a particular turn.  There are times, for instance, when a “cut the distance” line is faster than the classic racing line.  And it differs depending on the power a particular car has, its ability to change directions, and other factors.

 

A novice will work with his or her instructor to find the best line throughout a particular course.  But here are some basics for a newbie to consider and work toward mastering:

 

Late turn-in point, late apex: there is a track driving adage “Turn in too soon, run out of room.  Turn in late, much better fate.”  Think about the line through a turn.  Turning very early as the corner is approached, drawing the “outside-inside-outside” arc through the turn, would have the car pointed more toward the outside of the turn at track out, compared with turning later.  So, turn-in and apex markers are typically placed and taught by HPDE organizations “late”, i.e., a few feet further down the track than might be optimal for pure speed.  And novices should abide by that until a critical mass of other HPDE skills have been mastered, such as consistency.  Late = safe.

 

After being able to consistently hit these conservative markers, start moving the turn-in point back only a few feet at a time.  This does not mean moving to an earlier apex, just an earlier turn-in point.  This has the effect of slowing down the hands and making the lateral (side-to-side) weight transfer happen more smoothly.  Turn in sooner but more slowly with the hands.  Keep moving the turn-in point back until the apex is not achievable.  Adjust to the point where the apex was achievable, and that, then, becomes a good turn-in point.

 

Then, after that is mastered, start moving the apex back (moving the turn-in point back even more as needed) until beginning to risk running out of track at the corner exit, or when the line is killing the exit speed and the ability to accelerate are compromised.  This is some of the black art of driving the perfect lap, and probably won’t be measurable without data acquisition.  But seat-of-the-pants metric is easy by selecting a point just after track out and seeing if engine speed is higher or lower at that point by 50-10-200 RPMs.  In this way, you will know where your optimal turn-in and apex points for your car are.

 

In summary:  The Line: 1) First be able to hit the marks consistently; 2) Slowly move turn-in point back, a few feet at a time; and 3) Slowly move the apex back a few feet at a time.

 

Vision

 

Arguably, this  is the single most important skill one can learn, can be applied to ALL tracks, and can be applied to street driving to make us better drivers whether on or off the track.

 

It is incredibly easy to look only dead ahead.  Sometimes, we get mesmerized, or fall into habits from street driving, watching the pavement only a few feet in front of the car, or watching the car in front.  It is imperative that the eyes are always way ahead of the car.  Try practicing looking ahead almost to the point of it being uncomfortable.  It is amazing how much “slower” things unfold in front of us and how much more consistent we can be when we are looking in the right places.

 

When exiting a corner, eyes should be way down the track, looking for the next initial brake marker.  At that brake marker, or even before, eyes should be looking for the turn-in point.  Well before the turn-in point, eyes should have found the apex, even if it means looking out the side window on 180-degree turns.  Well before the apex, eyes should be on the track-out point.

 

The progression should be brake marker, turn-in point, apex, and track-out and the eyes should be constantly scanning back and forth between the marker immediately in front, seeking the next marker, and even the marker after that.  One of the exercises I perform with students is to drive a few consecutive laps while I am telling the student where to look and when.  And it is usually a surprise to the driver that I am suggesting looking that far ahead.  After a few laps of this, I have the student narrate to me where he or she is looking.  This reinforces the practice of actively looking ahead.  Do that for a few laps.  Do it even if you don’t have an instructor riding with  forgotten.

 

Forgotten?  Yes.  Even after years of track driving I still find myself having what my son calls “tunnel vision.”  It is so, so easy, after having driven so many laps at a track and being very familiar with it, to start looking straight down the braking zone, forgetting to look at the turn-in and apex points.  Noticing that you can’t figure out why you can’t match that fastest lap you set two events or two sessions ago?  Hmm, might be that you forgot to keep looking ahead.

 

Another aspect of eye control is when traffic is involved.  While it is important to look at the car ahead, it’s also equally important to scan so as to pick up your own markers.  There is an expression called “driving the car ahead.”  This refers to a driver being so intent on staring at the bumper on the car ahead, that if that driver misses the brake point, turn-in or apex, the driver behind will follow that car into the same mistake.  So, don’t forget when in traffic to keep the eyes scanning, and drive YOUR line.

 

When exiting corners that lead onto straightaways, check your mirrors frequently.  That little blip in the rear-view mirror way back there as you enter the braking zone or the acceleration zone after track-out might become a really large mirror-filling thing, and no, that car wasn’t beamed there by the Enterprise.  So, in addition to scanning for everything else mentioned in this section, do check mirrors.  And use the opportunity on straights to check gauges (including the gas tank – many a session has been forfeited from either running out of gas or realizing the tank is almost empty, having to end a session prematurely).

 

Weight Transfer

 

The term “smooth” is probably over-used.  What does this mean?  It has to do with weight transfer.  A “smooth” driver is one who manages longitudinal (front-back) and lateral (side-side) weight transfer very well.  The idea here is to be judicious with a car’s controls:  gas, brakes, and steering.

 

Trying not to duplicate what numerous other articles have already documented (Google “friction circle”), let’s just state that slow, gradual transitions of weight, in both longitudinal and lateral directions, are the hallmarks to a settled, easy-to-balance-at-the-limit, and fast car.

 

Attitude

 

Stay relaxed and open to suggestions.  The best students are those who eliminate their preconceived notions and really listen to their instructor.  Yes, everything an instructor advises is subject to debate, so if there is something that is not clear or does not sound right, it is perfectly fine to ask questions and have it explained.  But an open mind is very important.  Most instructors sitting in the right seat are there because they have something to offer, so be open to suggestions.

 

Make incremental improvements throughout the day.  Big jumps in speed can result in big problems of “offs.”  Don’t try to absorb too much at once.  Apply one or two concepts at a time and move on to new topics when a topic is almost second nature.  Your instructor should be evaluating your progress throughout the day to know when it is appropriate to introduce new things to focus on.

 

Traffic and Situational Awareness

 

More than likely, you won’t be the fastest on the track so it’s important to have situational awareness and check mirrors often.

 

Remember that first session of the day where you learned where the corner workers are?  Corner workers are your friends.  They can be the difference between a great day and a really bad day.  Remember the discussion above about eyes?  Include ensuring you are aware of the location of the corner stands so you can pick up that waving flag in your periphery, or look at the corner worker overtly.

 

Here’s another tip:  I only recently tried polarized lenses.  For track driving, try them.  The sheen of oil or antifreeze being dropped on the track in front of you is more easily visible as a “rainbow” through polarized lenses, so don’t always rely solely on a corner worker waving a yellow or debris flag.

 

And of course, be aware that if there was a yellow on a corner the prior lap, there still might be a yellow your next time through.  To say nothing of watching the weather.  It could be raining on one section of a track while another section of the track is bathed in sunlight.  So, be aware.

 

Summary

 

Learn the line, be aware, keep eyes up and scanning, be smooth,promise yourself to be open-minded and have fun, and bring it home safe and sound.

 

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