The sharply honed and finely tuned race car driver is the result of countless hours spent practicing and building muscle memory. As you watch your next race, take note the next time you see a cockpit camera view as the driver runs the car through its paces. Every control input, small and precise; every gear shift or switch that is manipulated is done so with a skillful hand that has made that motion a thousand times before. Race car drivers don’t fumble around the cockpit looking for what they want because it’s already ingrained into their head. This is the result of regimented practice and frees drivers up to focus on more important things like driving the car.
The following accumulated bits of information are introduced to give you an idea of some of the driving techniques that the world’s best race car drivers use every time they get behind the wheel; some of them are rally techniques, some of them road racing techniques and some are just principles of driving that racing necessitates a fundamental understanding of.
Race fans please note: Although the content here outlines some ideas briefly, it is NOT a complete guide to performing any of these maneuvers. You are responsible for ensuring that you understand completely any high-performance racing technique before attempting it. You are also responsible for ensuring that anything you try is done so in a safe, controlled environment and in a law-abiding manner. It is not implied or recommended here that you attempt anything other than normal, legal driving on public roadways. Always put your safety and that of others at the top of your priority list like any responsible race car driver would.
26 Front-Wheel Drive
The front-wheel drive configuration is not ideal for racing for many reasons, but if that’s the situation you find yourself in fear not; there are ways to extract performance out of a front-wheel drive. A basic fundamental understanding of the configuration’s strengths and weaknesses is required to exploit the front-wheel drive benefits and use them to your advantage. Obviously, we cannot cover them all here, but a few study points for you are going to be friction circles, good tires, left-footed braking, and understanding your weight distribution.
You’re asking your front tires to literally do all the work and you only have so much available grip, so under-steer is common coming out of corners when you’re turning hard and apply power. Balancing these forces is critical.
You’re going to want the best tires possible because the contact area is a lot smaller than you’d think, so the best chance for success is making that tiny patch of grip count as much as possible. Use the car’s weight distribution to your advantage; all your weight is on the front axle, everything else just "along for the ride" so to speak. The handling characteristics of a front-wheel drive will allow you to treat it differently due to this dynamic between weight and thrust. Exploit it.
25 Rear-Wheel Drive
Don’t think just because you have a rear-wheel drive that you’re in the clear because it’s a good racing configuration fresh out of the box. Rear-wheel drive cars are very good race cars, but they have inherent weaknesses that need to be remembered to avoid pitfalls that await an overzealous driver. Throttle steer under hard acceleration can easily cause a slide out if you’re not careful, especially on loose gravel where traction is limited.
Aggressively sliding around corners in a rear-wheel drive is mostly for show on the pavement and doesn’t gain you anything like it does in other drive configurations. Your advantages are weight transfer on acceleration and the fact that all your steer tires have to do is turn the car and help it stop, the back wheels are all thrust.
24 All-Wheel Drive
All-wheel drive cars are ideal for a lot of racing situations but fundamentally handle like a front-wheel drive machine and you can expect your front-wheel drive experience to transfer over to the all-wheel drive platform to a degree. You can think of this as a front-wheel drive car with rear-wheel power added on. A few differences and exceptions exist like the Nissan GT Rs with their heavy transfer cases and Ferrari FFs with their entirely different drive system.
I doubt you’re reading this article looking for racing tips if you’re an FF owner however, and as this is just meant as a rough outline to get the gears in your brain turning in the right direction you should be doing your homework diligently before doing any racing (in a legal and safe way I hope).
23 Racing Line
Racing lines are absolutely critical to low lap times. Know your braking point and your turning point as they vary from car to car. Once you reach your turning point you’re going to be aiming for the apex of the turn which is usually the geometric center of the turn but not always.
You’re aiming for the shortest line possible through the corner and trying to keep as much speed as your tires will allow you to keep as you power through it.
If you enter a corner too hot, that momentum is going to catch up with you on the exit and force your line wide and possibly off the track. If you don’t enter fast enough you’re just throwing time away for no reason. The perfect racing line for one particular corner may look very different from the line for a similar corner elsewhere in the circuit; depending on the track leading up to and out of the turn, it may affect your line substantially. Thorough track knowledge is critical for setting you up through each turn for the next segment of the track.
Acceleration is almost a topic that doesn't need coverage here, but fundamentally it should be mentioned for the fact that it is half of racing. Whether you’re a straight line racer or a track hound, acceleration is a key factor in race winning. In a drag race you get one shot, if you biff your launch by a split second or fail to hook up, you’re done as quickly as that.
If you’re racing a closed circuit then you have any number of corners and turns to negotiate; every exit from a corner is another chance to gain or lose a fraction of a second.
Racing line plays a big role in when you can start to power out of a turn again; if you are on a good line you should be able to power out relatively quickly and allow it to push your car from the inside of the apex to the outside of the track by the time you’ve reached the exit. In higher performance vehicles throttle usage may need to be applied gingerly to avoid wheel spin and over-steer.
Slamming through your gears while mashing on the gas pedal is one way to do it, and an extremely satisfying way to jump off the line just for kicks, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to extract all the performance from your car as you possibly can. To do this you must understand your torque curve and gear ratios. The ideal shifting point varies per car per situation, but you want to essentially put the maximum amount of torque through the rear wheels as possible at all times.
You could break this down into a complex mathematical equation to figure out the torque at the wheels multiplied by the radius of the tire and fill an entire whiteboard with numbers and ratios to figure it all out, but keep in mind that you want to stay in your power band to maximize output.
20 Rev Matching
Rev matching is a downshifting technique used to smooth the transition between gears. This prevents shock loads through the transmission, undesirable forward weight transfer while downshifting and reduces the chance of wheel lockup due to engine braking. You never want to rely on engine braking as it’s not an efficient way to quickly slow down and if you are using it then you’re not driving as fast as you can be.
To rev match is essentially to give the engine a bit of throttle while the clutch is depressed in a downshift to increase engine RPM to the speed the transmission input shaft will turn in that gear. It’s not a complicated principle, but a million words could be used to describe the proper technique. Basically, if you can downshift and not feel the transition between gears, you’re doing it alright. Other passengers should only know you’ve downshifted save for audibly hearing the engine speed increase, it should not be felt.
19 Heel-Toe Shifting
The heel-toe shift piggybacks on the rev matching technique and will take more time to master. A fully synchronized and properly executed heel-toe, rev-matched downshift is like watching a tightly choreographed performance; the driver uses the muscle memory of a master guitarist to time his movements in what seemingly looks so simple on YouTube until you try it in the field.
To combine rev matching with heel-toe downshifts, you’re going to rev match while double clutching, and maintain pressure on the brake pedal to maximize braking during the downshift.
This combines the best of both elements of driving into the most efficient way to slow down your car for the next corner; you lose no braking efficiency due to momentary releases of the brake pedal, and it’s a controlled downshift that should be as smooth as butter. It definitely takes some practice but if you want to up your driving game, you must master it.
Grip is what everything you do ultimately comes down to. Any old buffoon can rocket down a straightaway with the pedal through the floorboard, but the mastery of braking, downshifting, running the line through corners and subsequently accelerating again can make or break a race. To perform most all the techniques listed here understanding your car’s relationship with the road is imperative. Your contact area may be no larger than the size of your palm per tire. Multiply that by four and that’s all you get to pull you through corners and cling to the road as you brake heavily.
There is only so much traction that contact area can offer you, and once it’s broken you have to slow down past the point of breaking the traction to recover. For example, when you have to apply the brakes halfway through a sharp turn, if your tires are already at the edge of their grip limits, you won’t be able to maintain the same rate of turn and apply much braking force before you break traction. Anticipating events like this will help you set up your entry speed and adjust your racing line accordingly. Get to know the grip limits of your tires on your car and learn just how far you can push them under all circumstances. The key is to ride that edge as closely as possible without overshooting it.
Downforce is an aerodynamic principle that may not apply to your Honda Civic; some would argue that you can start to benefit from the effects of downforce and aerodynamics at speeds as low as 40mph, but unless you’re talking about minuscule gains measured in 0.0001” second range it’s safe to assume you’ll need to be going closer to 60mph-plus at the minimum to see any kind of benefit.
Real race cars use advanced aerodynamic principles to achieve downforce at every possible location. Most people attribute the bulk of downforce to the reaction of the car body when wind comes in contact with it, but it goes much deeper.
Low pressure zones are created adjacent to high pressure zones to actually use the reverse principal that airplanes use to fly. The high pressure zone above the car pushes it down into the low pressure zone; this is how front splitters work.
If you’ve ever heard the term "threshold braking," it’s basically just maximum braking power applied to the wheels, usually used more in racing than in the common world. The idea behind it is to slow the car down as fast as possible while maintaining positive control, i.e. not breaking traction. The limit of the braking threshold is the point at which the tires just barely begin to slip.
Knowing this threshold like the back of your hand will allow you to safely enter corners at maximum speed confidently. This should be done in the brake zone just before a turn and brake pressure should be eased up during entry to allow some of the tire’s grip to grab the corner.
15 Left-Foot Braking
Left-footed braking is generally for racing only, and during normal driving there’s no need for it; in fact, it scares me when I see people do it. In racing however, left-footed braking frees up your right foot for more important things, like punching the accelerator at the exact moment you want it, and not a tenth of a second later. It may not sound like a lot of time, but it’s less about time and more about inertia.
When you are done braking you should be ready to accelerate immediately. Rather than having that hang time without control inputs the engine could already be winding up ready to pull away.
This is also a very useful technique to rally racers and drifters to control yaw though turns and, once mastered, will take your corner game to a new level, especially in front and all-wheel drive cars.
14 HandBrake Technique
Handbrakes should be used as the name "emergency brake" implies, in an emergency. In rear-wheel drive cars, they act to destabilize the car, which is bad. Some rally drivers hesitate to use it because it initiates a slide without shifting much weight to the front tires; this can make the car unpredictable in a high-speed drift.
In many all-wheel drive cars handbrake application may even lock up center differential where you’d be slowing everything down, not just the rears, and not very much either. Handbrakes are good to use when you’re about to go off the road and need to quickly adjust, or don’t have enough space to perform a pendulum turn (more on that technique shortly) for a really tight corner.
Steering a racing line takes you more or less down the shortest path through a race track while positioning your car for maximum speed through the circuit features. Rally cars do this at an angle while road cars grip corners.
Either way, precision entry and follow through are imperative to the disciplined driver if he is to get the maximum performance out of his machine. Understanding understeer and oversteer, and how to correct for it, is also critical. The type of driveline your car has plays a large role in determining the style at which it will perform best.
12 Trail Braking
To even consider using this technique you must be very in-tune with your car’s performance limits and be able to ride that thin line like a rodeo cowboy. It’s a motorcycle technique that cars also use to maximize downforce to the front wheels by virtue of weight transfer; as the driver maintains his brake application well into the turn, he continues to transfer weight to the front tires helping to reduce understeer. The brakes should be released before the apex of the turn, and power applied as soon as you have the grip to accommodate it.
Entry speed should be sufficient enough and brake application light enough that you don’t have to abort the braking prematurely as doing so would shift weight off the front tires and possibly cause understeer before you can get out of the turn.
You should know what oversteer is. If not, Google it. Some racers aim for a little oversteer in their driving technique to help them speed through turns. Whether it’s intentional or not, constantly living at the edge of the performance envelope allows drivers enough experience to predict traction loss and oversteer conditions before they happen. Advanced oversteer technique involved intentionally over-rotating the car into the turn after a fast entry that would normally force you into an understeering situation. You must enter with a balanced weight distribution.
As you’re cornering, apply a bit of throttle to transfer some weight to the back and as the front wheels get lighter, you should start to understeer (uncorrected for, this will limit your exit speed so follow through is essential).
Lifting off the throttle will transfer some weight back up front, the front tires can bite into the curve as the rear wheels get light enough to break traction and rotate the car around the corner to align itself with the exit of the turn. Your exit line will be very similar to the line of an equal car with a traditional racing line but you were able to enter at a higher rate of speed having not made such a tight turn into the corner.
Drifting serves a very important purpose aside from helping rally cars through dirt corners; it’s really cool to do! This is no beginner technique as the traction will be broken throughout most the maneuver and the car will be in a very unstable state of motion. There are multiple different ways to initiate the drift; the handbrake drift is one of the easiest (and by default, least respected) forms of initiating a drift. Hard braking from a fast rate of speed will transfer a large amount of weight to the front tires as you enter a turn; the steer tires will bite into it while the rear wheels will be very light and can swing around very quickly if not done carefully. Inertia drifting involves steering toward the outside of a turn and then into it at the last second. The inertia from the weight transferring back to the outside of the turn will carry the rear end into a drift around the corner. (This also happens very quickly, so use caution.) You can clutch-kick it into a drift by oscillating clutch disengagements or even just lift off the accelerator to allow weight to transfer to the front end to allow the rear wheels to break traction.
9 Static vs. Dynamic Friction
Drifting relies heavily on the amount of friction generated at the tires of your race car. Static and dynamic friction are both your friends in racing, but dynamic friction is a little bit harder to make friends with.
Static friction is the resistive force preventing two objects from sliding against each other and exists between two objects with no relative motion. Dynamic friction on the other had involves two objects that are moving in relationship to one another. This being said, you are transitioning from a state of static friction to a semi-dynamic state as you drift your car through corners.
8 Pendulum Turns
The winter-logged and icy Scandinavian rally drivers of the 60s developed many driving techniques to compensate for low-traction conditions. One of these advanced techniques is the Pendulum or Scandinavian flick.
Essentially it’s the same thing as the inertia drift mentioned above, and used to negotiate sharp turns quickly, fast entries with less braking application and allows lower horsepower vehicles perform it easily.
The pendulum is classified as a weight-transfer drift and requires more lateral space than other drifting techniques to allow the angular momentum to do its job. A key part to note is the importance of throttle steering and its relationship with weight transfer in this maneuver as well as many others.
7 Weight Transfer
Probably one of the lesser-considered factors by many casual race fans, the principle of weight transfer is rooted in just about every aspect of the car's performance; it doesn’t matter how powerful your engine is if you can’t apply that power effectively when and how you want it. Whether transferring forward, rearward, to the side or a combination thereof, weight transfer affects the amount of grip each tire will offer you.
Understanding how to manipulate this will assist your proficiency with other maneuvers and allow you to manipulate the car’s rotation with throttle and brake inputs. Although it may be less exciting than other concepts, it’s essential for maintaining positive vehicle control and driving to the limit.
6 Smooth Driving
Speaking of the importance of weight transfer, smooth driving plays a role in it as well; in essence, if weight transfer affects most of your maneuvers including something as simple as straight-line braking, it can be said that smooth driving affects your overall ability to drive.
Now, the first time we ever got behind the wheel of something very powerful, smooth driving was probably the last thing on our minds (or the last thing on my 16 year old mind anyway). All I wanted to do was slam through all the gears and make as much noise as possible. Smooth driving as it pertains to racing, however, should be one of the most important areas of improvement for you before trying to get all crazy, there will be plenty of time for that.
This doesn’t work on the freeway in rush hour traffic, but driving L.A.’s freeway system in the afternoon would make you think otherwise by how frequently your bumper will get ridden. There’s not much need for you to worry so much about drafting unless you get into professional racing where "hooking up" is a normal day at the track for you, but to give you an idea of how dramatic the effects can be, take a semi and a car for example.
Drafting in the low pressure zone behind a box trailer has the potential to reduce drag by up to 40% at 55mph 100’ apart, and up to 93% at the same speed two feet off the truck’s bumper.
Test drivers achieved just about a 20% increase in gas mileage at 100’ and up to 45% increase at 10’. Not only does drafting assist the rear car by reducing drag at the front, it assists the lead car by reducing the drag generated at the low pressure zone near the rear of his car, thereby benefiting both cars in the draft.
4 Wet Weather Racing
Driving in the rain is fun; I have friends with light pole dents in their quarter panels from overzealous parking lot romps to prove this. Racing in the rain, however, may be another story. If you’re racing with other cars on a circuit, as unfortunate as rain may seem, keep in mind you’re not the only one here; every car has to deal with the wet conditions and the playing field is just as level as it was before. Wet racing comes down more to a driver’s proficiency level at this point, and one of the most critical elements of wet track racing is finesse. Try to work with the car rather than fight it, use gentle control inputs. Some corners will be taken better with a wet line rather than the traditional one you’d take in dry conditions. Racing a wet line is more or less squaring off the corners of your line, and not cutting to the inside at the apex. You want to position your car so that you can get back on the throttle sooner rather than staying at the edge of your traction throughout the entire turn. Squaring off corners is not good for every turn, but may be ideal for others.
3 The Art of Passing
Depending on the organization of your race, there may be different rules governing overtaking other vehicles (and being overtaken by them). The SCCA has rules defining each driver’s right to adequate racing room which is defined as sufficient space on the marked racing surface that drivers are entitled to under race conditions to safely operate. It is against the rules to deprive another driver of that right, and blocking an overtaking car can be considered a violation of sufficient racing space.
Furthermore, a leading driver may be entitled to his racing line up until a point at which an overtaking car’s wheels are at the lead driver’s seat position. These are examples and rules will vary, but know they exist and not for no reason. When non-professional racers come to the track to race their $250,000 race car, they don’t come to trash it like a NASCAR. Amateur racers don’t have big corporate sponsors and multi-million dollar cars at their disposal. Be respectful and leave the mantra "rubbin’ is racin’" to NASCAR.
2 Double Clutching
Double clutching is a technique used to match up engine speed with clutch speed between downshifts for smoother transitions. The technical description of how this takes place and why is very dry and without illustrations, difficult to convey; a good technical understanding of the way the engine interfaces with the transmission through the clutch is helpful, but rather than theory we’ll focus on technique.
This takes a lot of practice to master, and proficiency comes only after you can do it second nature, without thinking about it.
For every lower gear you drop, you’ll simply release the clutch in-between shifts (when the gear selector is in neutral) to match up transmission input shaft and clutch speeds before selecting the lower gear. This will make shifts smoother and can be used to rev match with heel-toe shifting which adds considerable difficulty.
1 Using the Road
Some racetracks are really flat; some are older, more decrepit and haggard. Some racetracks aren’t paved in the first place. Rather than let rough track features be a nuisance, let them be an ally by utilizing them to help you position the car. For example, the descending s-turn at Laguna Seca needs to be entered much more slowly than if it was a flat track but can be exited quickly as the transition from descent to flat naturally gives the car a lot of downforce.
If the race were running in reverse, the opposite would be true for entry/exit speeds; you can enter very quickly as the car starts to climb up the s-turn but toward the summit that right hand turn had better be calculated as you crest the hill.
Sources: driver61.com, drivingfast.net, hotrod.com, engineswapdepot.com, topspeed.com, roadandtrack.com.