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"As far as the things that need to be mastered I would think the top three are smoothness, carrying speed in the turns and braking."

Robert Metcalf of Metcalf Racing

Tell us about your business.

metcalfbookWe are a vintage racing prep shop.  There are a number of other vintage racing shops around the country.  Most of them are on the east or west coast.  We are really the only one in the central part of the country.  We deal with mainly open wheel cars from the sixties up to almost the present time.  They are all cars that have passed their prime and are now in the hands of individual owners.  We take care of the cars for those owners and give them support at the race track and driver coaching.  Essentially we are their pit crew. 

Tell us about your new book.

I wrote a book a number of years ago and I thought it was time for another one that was a little bit more focused just on one part of being a successful driver.  The part I picked was just how to drive more successfully. 

What are the skills to be mastered?

As far as the things that need to be mastered I would think the top three are smoothness, carrying speed in the turns and braking.  For smoothness, it is actually pretty easy to be smooth if you are slow, but it is a lot more difficult to be smooth and be fast at the same time.  I work with a lot of drivers who try very hard to be smooth but at the cost of speed.  What you have to do is learn to be very gentle with the controls at a high rate of speed.  In other words, in carrying a lot of speed through the corners you still have to be very careful, very delicate with the controls.  That is not an easy thing to do.  For example, I had a guy that I was helping one time who had all the attributes to be a good driver, but he was very rough inside the cockpit.  He had bent pedals.  I kept trying to work on his smoothness and even followed behind him and I could see that he would just jerk the car into the turns and those kind of things, which don’t do good things for the adhesion of the tires and it is just counterproductive. 

Carrying speed through the turns is another thing that is very important.  A lot of drivers also will charge up to the turn and then mash onto the brakes hard into it, slow down, turn nice and easy and then mash onto the throttle as they come out of the turn.  That is the slow way to do it.  It is much more difficult to carry speed through the turns, but that is what all good drivers have learned to do.  They practice all the time at trying to go through the turn with less lifting, less braking or being able to get on the throttle sooner or harder.  Once you are able to do all of those things, that is being smooth through a corner while you’re fast, and also carry a lot of speed through the corner, you are going to shave a lot of time off your lap time right there. 

The third thing you have to add is learning how to brake.  It seems like it would be really easy, but this is pretty difficult for most drivers.  They’ll sometimes just jab the pedal and they don’t use the feel with all of their foot to be able to sense how much traction that they have while they are braking.  That is something you’ve got to be able to do not only to avoid locking the wheel but also to maintain that speed going through the corners.  You have to be able to feel with your foot how much traction you have available from the tires.  Developing that ability is what leads to a driver being very good at braking.  If you are good at all three of those things, I think you are well on the way to being a very good driver. 

Can you give us examples of how you helped various drivers with those three skills?

One particular turn comes to mind.  A lot of tracks each have a signature turn that is quite difficult for one reason or another.  The one I amlotus 360px thinking about at the moment is at Texas World Speedway in College Station where Texas A & M University is.  The first turn into the infield off of the oval is a very difficult turn.  It is easy to take it slow, but it’s very difficult to take it fast.  It is a big lap time improver if you are able to take that turn fast.  That is a turn that intimidates a lot of people.  I’ve had several people over the years that I have taught to take turn one and the one that comes right after it as one big corner.  Let me describe how most people take it.  You are up on a bank on the oval and once you cross the start/finish line what a lot of people do is drop down low and then they follow just above the apron around the inside of this turn down into the infield.  Right there at the junction between the banking and the infield is a pretty abrupt transition.  When they do it that way they hit that transition at an angle and they hit the left front wheel first that upsets the balance of the car.  Typically they go through there very carefully, very cautiously to make sure they don’t lose it right there because you are still in top gear flat out.  The more difficult way which is much faster is when you cross the start/finish line is to start moving up towards the top of the track and you go in really deep and late and it almost seems like you are going past the turn.  You can see the other guys below you following the apron and it looks like they are driving away from you, but the thing is you are still at high speed up on the banking there and when you dive down into the turn you pick up even more speed from the fact that you are going down the banking.  Your turn in has to be at a particular place so that you almost straighten the turn completely out and you are doing all you turning up on the banking and then it is just a straight shot from up there down to the turn in point of turn two.  I have passed a number of people over the years who took the low line.  When you pass them you are going about ten MPH faster than they are.  You have to be careful that one of those guys doesn’t come up into you.  What they are using as a turn in marker for turn two you are using as a braking marker and that is a gold square that somebody painted there a number of years ago.  They are turning in at that point for turn two which is another left hander and I use that as a braking point and just stab the brake and then right back on the throttle hard again so you are only out of gear for tenths of a second.  You are expanding your lead in turn two.  By the time you get to turn three you have several car lengths on them.  I’ve explained how to do that with several drivers in the past and it is something they have to work on continually before they can get to where they can do it.  It’s a real white knuckle turn when you take it that way but you can pick up two or three seconds right there.  That’s an example of what is possible to do.  A lot of tracks have turns like that where you can make up a lot of time if you can figure out how to do it. 

Are banked turns a challenge for many track day drivers who often do not get a lot of opportunity to practice them? 

Those turns that are uncomfortable typically are the ones where you can make up the most time.  A driver is uncomfortable because he is afraid he is going to make a mistake usually at high speed and under some kind of dubious conditions and he is afraid he is going to make a mistake right there and go into a spin or hit something.  Anytime a driver feels uncomfortable that’s the place I usually try to work on first because if I can get him over that, then anything else on the track is going to be easy. 

Have you ever driven at Sebring?

I have not driven at Sebring.  I have crewed there a lot of times. 

What do you think about turn 17 at Sebring?

metcalfracing3That is an interesting turn.  It has a real long entrance and then tightens up when you’re going onto the front straight there.  I had a car there one time that was leading the race and spun right there on the last lap and actually hit that outside concrete wall.  You can view that turn as a decreasing radius turn since it tightens up at the end and so you have to be very patient and make sure you don’t turn in too early.  If you do, you run out of track at the exit. 

Is that what you were describing with the turn at Texas World Speedway, doing a later apex and getting more exit speed?

To a point.  When you take the low line in that turn the apex becomes an apex area.  The apex could be 40 or 50 feet long because when you take that low line you are following the apron around.  With the later turn in method you actually have more of an apex point and you use the end of the pit exit lane as part of the track so you have to make sure that nobody is coming out of the pits right there.  You’ll actually put your left front tire on the edge of the grass as you hit that apex.  You have more speed all the way through the turn.  The other guys have to lift and you are picking up speed going down the banking and that is where you can pass them going about ten miles per hour faster right there.   You are going faster all the way through the turn and that is where you save all the time. 

How did you get started in motorsports?  You started out karting back in the 1950s?

That’s true.  There was a prime time TV show on when I was a kid.  It was Leave it to Beaver.  When I was seven years old that was my favorite TV show and Wally and Beaver tore up the lawn mower and built a go kart and got in a bunch of trouble when their dad came home.  I called my dad in and said, hey dad look at this, this is cool.  Why don’t you build us one of those?  He had a machine shop so he knew how to do it properly.  He started working on one and about three months later he brought it home and that is what started me in motorsports.  He built several more karts all the way through my school years.  I finally got out of a kart when I was 21 and got into a Formula Ford and it felt like more of the same so I just kept doing it.  I can blame all of this on Leave it to Beaver. 

What are the series and types of cars you have driven?

Most of it is open wheel.  In my early twenties I wanted to be a professional driver.  I learned that I didn’t have the talent or the money I needed.  During the 70s I was running SCCA club races in Formula Ford and Formula Super Vee and Formula Atlantic.  One year I got an opportunity to drive a big block Chevy powered sprint car on half mile asphalt tracks down in the south in Jackson Mississippi and Pensacola, Mobile, Alabama and tracks down there.  Those were all half mile paved tracks.  My car had this big block Chevy and a big wing on top and slicks on it.  That was a big education year for me, because that was the first time I had ever driven anything that had that much power.  So I learned a lot about how to hang on to a car and to take the proper lines, stay on the throttle and get the car to respond to inputs and those kind of things.  After that I went to road racing and wound up with a Formula 5000 car.  With that I was able to use all the same techniques that I had been using in the smaller formula cars, but all of a sudden I had similar power to what I had in the sprint car.  Maximum speed in a sprint car was about 130 or so and that was in third gear in Formula 5000, so I learned a lot that year too.  By the end of the seventies I had a 78 Lola 620 Super Vee and I ran in a series called the Mini Indy series at that time.  It was a support series to the Indy cars and I thought that was where my next big break was going to come, but I lost the sponsor that I had and wound up without enough money to do the job right so I hung up my helmet expecting it to be temporary and started setting up cars of other guys that I had raced with.  That’s what got me into learning how to coach drivers because I was setting up their cars and I had to explain to them how to take advantage of the set up I had just made on the car.  That is how I came to learn how to teach driving. 

Did you have a mentor or someone who guided or inspired you?

The biggest inspiration was the guys in front of me that were faster.  I was always trying to find out how they were doing it.  Two drivers Imetcalfracing8 360px admired a lot were Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna.  They were just exceptional at their driving styles.  They had two completely different driving styles.  I am not sure that I would recommend the style that Gilles Villeneuve used because it got him in trouble a lot but he was very fast doing it.  I’ve taken a lot of interest in how they went about their driving and tried to figure out how they were accomplishing what they were accomplishing so that I could reproduce it in my own driving. 

How would you describe Gilles Villeneuve’s driving style?

He had the idea that his lap times were going to be better if he never lifted.  That generated a real tail out driving style and massive oversteer in a lot of turns.  That’s usually not the fastest way around because of all the tire drag it generates.  He was able to go fast anyway because he was keeping the throttle open longer than everyone else was.  That generated some spectacular results not only in photographs but also in really good lap times.  He set several track records and won a lot of races, but he also had more than his share of spins and crashes too. 

What was Senna’s driving style?

Senna was much smoother.  He was a master at maintaining speed through the turns.  Senna did it by extreme sensitivity in feeling the car and feeling what it was doing and processing the feedback it was giving him.  He could drive right on the edge at 99.9%.  He was that close all the time.  He was making constant little revisions with steering or throttle and brake pressure.  He was smooth because he really felt what the car was doing. 

I’ve read that what makes a driver effective is the ability to sense a loss of grip quickly and make a quick and subtle correction.  That sounds like what you are talking about with Senna?

I would agree with that 100%.  You have to use every intuition about that car that you’ve got.  It’s the vibration you feel in the steering wheel, it’s the resistance to turning the wheel, it’s how the brake pedal feels, how the throttle feels, the vibration through the seat, you process all of that and every bit of it is information you can use to determine where the limit is.  If you are a tiny bit over the limit you back off a little bit and regain it and go on.  You may be doing that in tiny increments a dozen times through a turn. 

Drivers focus too much on the line and not enough on how much grip they have in their tires.  Do they need to focus on feeling loss of grip and responding to that?

metcalfracing4Most of beginning drivers display that.  You only have a certain amount of attention that you can pay and in the beginning you are going to be paying all of your attention to following the line and doing all the things that are proper so you have very little attention left over for determining how much grip you have.  As you gain experience you have more attention left over for feeling the car, sensitivity to how you are using the brake pedal and those kinds of things.  My book, The Successful Race Driver, has one chapter on driving, laying out the basics of how to choose a line and the timing of events.  Once you are past that point then it is time to start increasing your sensitivity and learning how to maintain speed through a turn.  If you don’t slow down going into a turn that is speed you don’t have to regain coming back out of it.  The driving schools are great for what they do in teaching the basics of getting out on the track and handling a race car.  After the basics you need some one on one coaching.  Learning what is important to lap times and getting over the fright you may have going in to some turns.  Getting past the point of being afraid you are going to lose it in the turn. 

Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?

I don’t know if you are a musician or not, but becoming a good driver is a lot like learning to play guitar.  When you first start to play you’re trying to figure out where to put your fingers and which string to pluck.  It sounds terrible and you get frustrated and you can’t make it sound like you want it to and you’re thinking you’re never going to be able to learn all of this.  You have to force yourself to practice.  At some point you cross a threshold and it becomes easier.  When you get good you find out you’ve been at it for 5 hours and you don’t want to stop.  Learning to drive is kind of the same thing.  It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do.  You are trying to push the limits of what a human can do.  It’s beyond what the mind can comprehend.  We need to train our mind and not be afraid.  The more you practice the better you get and you do end up enjoying what you are doing out on the track. 

What is the title of your new book and how can people get it?

I have the text finished and there is a DVD that is going to accompany it that will show drivers in action doing what I am talking about in the text.  We still have to shoot the video.  It will be a little while before it comes out, but the title of the first book was The Successful Race Car Driver.  The Society of Automotive Engineers was the publisher and they came up with that title.  Building on that, the title of this next book is going to be The Really Quick Race Car Driver.  It is intended not as a beginner’s book, but for somebody that has a couple of years of experience to help them get to the next level and be really quick.  

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