Racing 101: Learning New Courses

I decided to write some instructional articles for the all aluminum tour. Most of them will be mechanical stuff, but this first one is about driving, testing, and learning new courses. It’s particularly relevant here because I’m going to be doing a lot of that soon.

A typical disclaimer–Iím not an expert driver. I donít have the focus required to be great at anything. I do a lot of things and Iím easily distracted (oh look…a butterfly) so the best I ever expect to be is intermediate.

What Iím good at is getting to the heart of things quickly: The 80 percent that makes the difference between lousy and decent. I never get to the 20 percent required to go from decent to good.

So hereís my take on learning new courses.
First of all, walking a course is a nice bit of exercise to do the night before, right at sunset, with a cigar and a little Pinot. How that applies to driving I have no idea. I do all my learning laps in a race car. You do need a track map to learn a course though. Spend some time studying it and ask questions of drivers who have mastered the course. You want to know where the apexes are, where any tricky, rough, off camber, or otherwise unsettling spots are.

If you have a test day then you can probably get your times at the track down to the limits of your car and skill level. If all you have is one or two practices then a lot of your work will be on paper.

Once you are on the track, get your tires warm and then start off with late apexes at each turn.

Pick the turns that seem the most challenging and work on slightly earlier apexes each lap. Hereís how: Pick a braking point for a turn and brake hard. Trail the brake lightly as you start to turn in to keep the car settled and minimize understeer. Hit your chosen apex and roll on some throttle once you start to ease off your steering, get to full throttle and see where you come out on the track. If you have lots of track left you should brake a little later, turn in a little earlier, roll your throttle on sooner (because youíve hit the earlier apex) and use up a little more track on the exit. Within a few laps you should have a decent idea of what to do for that corner.

If youíre not completely clear where your trouble areas are, do a freehand map of the entire course, and then compare it to the actual map. The corners you are drawing wrong are probably the ones youíre having trouble with.

Late apexes are safe but slow. You need to find the brake point, apex, and throttle that gives you the highest speed as you exit the corner which generally means you use up all the track at the exit. If you are not using all the track, or are able to roll throttle on before you start to ease your steering, then the car isnít going fast enough and your apex is too late. To refine your approach to any corner first get the entry speed right, then get the apex about right, then increase exit speed, then increase mid corner speed. Proper entry speed can gain a one or two tenths of a second, proper exit speed can gain much more because you carry the difference down whatever straight follows the corner. Mid corner speed sets up exit speed, but doesnít gain much by itself. Road racing is all about managing exit speed.

Of course each component affects the others, so youíll be tweaking constantly, but this approach will get you close quickly.
If youíre practicing you need to be learning something every lap. When you come in, take care of the car if you need to (whereís my crew chief!?! Oh yeah, its me) perhaps get the wheels up in the air so the rubber heat cycles more evenly, and then sit down with a track map and a pad of paper to go over what youíve learned.

Youíre doing the same thing at every corner on every lap: Brake, balance up, apex, accelerate. You should be able to draw a map for each corner that details what the car is doing at the entrance, what itís doing during the transition, when you are releasing the car and getting on the throttle, and where you are winding up at the end of the cycle.

Write down the worst problems first, and try to determine if the problem is you or the car. Make all your big changes early so you can refine them. The closer you get to the race, the smaller the changes need to be.

To be competitive you need to hustle your car. If you have more than just one or two practices you need to go through the process above, find the limits at the exit, then work backwards. Vintage racing places great value on 8/10ths racing, polite passing and odd concepts like pointing people by. But thereís a world of difference between racing for position and lapping slower cars. If youíre in 23rd the person in 22nd is unlikely to simply concede a position. You can find several balanced sets of brake point, brake release. and apex for corners at the end of long(ish) straights that will give you some flexibility in passing. Late brake-late apex combinations are particularly good for passing since youíre in front at the exit. But if the car youíre passing has much better acceleration than yours, then the lower exit speed means youíll be passed in the chute. When youíre passing a more powerful car itís very important to maintain exit speed and that means an early apex and early throttle. Smooth, fast and relaxed. You canít maintain a pass on quicker cars without taking full advantage of superior car balance, handling and driving.

If youíre doing all that well youíll be safer for yourself and those around you than someone thatís distracted by trying to play ďafter you, AlphonseĒ or driving a ďlineĒ thatís dictated by some notion of the proper way around the track, rather than the physical limitations of the car and tires. Hint: If you can get around the corner driving to the inside or the outside of your “line” then it isn’t a line, it’s a simulation of a line.

Smoothness is extremely important, and itís something you want to practice. If you scare yourself, slow down more than you think you need to, and work your way back up. If you donít, your smoothness will suffer. The faster you go the smoother you have to be. If youíre nervous you canít do that.

A good friend of mine rolled his car two years ago. He spent all of last year pushing his car and himself hard, and going five or more seconds per lap slower. He wasn’t going slow enough to get his confidence back. He did a test and tune day at his own speed and now he’s back in the groove.

The next installment in this series will be about using data acquisition to improve your driving. Iíve taken a lot of heat about data acquisition in vintage cars. I suspect some people imagine instrumentation all over the car. In fact itís just me, my laptop and a relatively cheap GPS/accelerometer system from MSD. Compared to the cost of racing schools, track time and racing in general, a tool to dramatically improve your driving and car handling for less than $1000 seems like a bargain.

Posted in:

5 thoughts on “Racing 101: Learning New Courses”

  1. Hi Bill!

    Having just subscribed to your sight on Saturday I have both been entertainded ( some good laughs) and learned some stuff from your latest entry on learning new courses. It will be fun to live viciariously through your experiences on your summer journey.

    Hey, how about we connect either Tuesday or Wednesday evenings? It would be great to catch up with both You and Diane prior to Le Grand Tour.

    It’s off to a full day of meetings in town , which used to be normal and now is kind of surreal given that they don’t happen as oftern anymore. This is a week where I take care of a lot of catchup business stuff and board meetings so I can go off and be a flake for the next few weeks.


  2. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for this concise document that recaps about half of some racing books!

    I am going to get “back in the groove” (as if I ever had one) this Friday at PIR in a test and tune day. Am renting a spec Miata for 4 races so I can get my ICSSC regional license in hopes of doing th TR races at Miller. Will do my maiden novice race this Saturday. This article will help me re-learn PIR.

  3. Hi Bill: How about a couple of tracks:
    1. What hints can you give about driving PIR (Poetland, not Phoenix)? The first race, this weekend, is non-chicane], the second with chicane
    2. What hits for Mission in BC?
    Thanks — know it will take more time than you might have.

  4. PIR is a relatively simple track to learn, and that makes it technically difficult. Most drivers will learn the basics of the track quickly, the difference between first and tenth is all in the details.

    One of the most difficult things about PIR is talking intelligently about the turns. Most old timers still refer to turns 1 through 9 though in theory there are 12 turns. We used to refer to the chicane without a number, so the turn at the end of the straight after the chicane was turn 1. Oddly enough, the track map on the PIR website still uses that numbering.

    One thing you should do is go to the PIR website and watch the videos of lapping at the track. They won’t give you all the details but they help a little.

    Naturally the most important turns are the ones that lead onto the straights, though you can lose a lot of time in the chicane and in turn 3.

    Here’s a basic lap the way I do it:

    We start flat out in the straight. First few laps you want to get slowed for the chicane very early so you know you can trust your brakes. The gravel trap in the chicane is gone, so if you can be a bit braver. I like to shift straight down to the gear I’m going to use going through the chicane–in Peyote’s case that’s second. Brake hard in a straight line and stay to the right of the track. A lot of instructors will have you go far to the left so you can arc into the turn, but I like the sneaky line on the right. Now that the chicane is a bit flatter it works very well. Get your braking done, turn in right, when the suspension waggles back to the left, unwind the steering and follow it, taking a very early apex turning left. Roll on the throttle as you start to unwind the steering but hold some left pressure in as the car accelerates. When you’re ready to turn right out of the turn relax the steering, full throttle and turn right. That all sounds kind of ugly, but once you get the timing right a lot of the turning is done in cooperation with the car’s natural movements.

    Turn one is hardly a turn, especially when the chicane is in. Brake a little and turn in, roll on a little throttle to stabilize the car and roll in more as the car drifts out. Let it come all the way to the left edge of the track, full throttle, then brake and downshift for 1a. I don’t generally downshipf for 1.

    As you start to apex 1a you’ll see the turn open up in front of you. That’s when you unwind the steering and get to full throttle. If the car is understeering on you you might need a little braking as you turn in to transfer weight forward.

    The pavement between 1a and two has a big patch in it. Straddle the right edge of the patch. At the end of the chute brake hard and downshift (perhaps all the way to second) and do a late apex for turn 4. You want to be acclerating as soon as possible after 4 because the next straight is longer than it seems and there’s a second to be had there. If you do 4 just right you’ll drift out to the rumble bumps and just graze them with the car pointed straight. You’ll know when you get it right–feels mighty good.

    Turn 5 is critical because if you get it right then 5a isn’t really a turn, just part of the straight. This is good turn to overcook a little bit. Your car will probably understeer if you do. A quick tap on the brakes will drop the nose and make the car turn in quickly. Let the car drift to the right, line up the straight through turn 5a and floor it.

    6 is just a kink in the back straight, but don’t get too close to the wall on the right. I like to be in the crown of the road, but if you need to pass, make it on the outside. There’s a couple of dips along the wall and they can pull the car towards the wall. I’ve never seen anyone hit it, but a lot of people needed new linen after a wobble, and it will definitely slow you down.

    Work on a reasonable brake point for your car at the end of the back straight. You don’t need to brake much for turn 7, just start on the right side of the track, run right over the apron and straighten out the turn. Turn 8 needs a little more finesse . There’s a dip at the entrance and a lot of people spin there. Take the turn wide and set yourself up for turn nine.

    Turn nine is a bugger, because you need to get it right. You want to get as early an apex as you can manage and not clip the tires at the exit of the corner. If you do there’s a good chance it will kick the back of your car out and send you into the wall. Not good. Be careful there. You want a smooth arc from the apex to the left wall, and as soon as you get past the apex you should be rolling to full throttle. This is the biggest time advantage on the track for any car with limited horsepower. Smooth. Also try to get into the right gear before the apex so you can have good acceleration. I have a nasty gearing problem in turn 9–I have to shift just as the car approaches the wall.

    That’s it, have fun, be safe. Start slow, and if you scare yourself, slow way down and build back up.

    As far as mission goes, I’ve only been there a few times and have to learn it new every time. It’s a short, tight track with a lot of off camber corners. A real bugger, but fun.

  5. Thanks for that great description. I am going to copy in sections of the map and add some comments based on this coming weekend to come up with my own “how to” Watched the bike video [would scare me!], the Miata one, one with a BMW that gets passed on the right at the entry to the chicane [if you see it, tell me how he did not loose it!], and then the 5 minute one of an ICSSC novice race with two BMWs. One with the camera was not a novice. The novice was on his 4th race, and they are really just playing around with positions and the field. Saw the “author” present this tape at the BMW end of the year party.

    Your text agains the videos will be a good mental start.

Leave a Reply