So you think you’re a pretty good driver? You think you hit the apexes and accelerate out of turns? You’re confident that if ever plucked from a crowd and dropped into a race that you could hold your own? The fact is, performance driving is a learned skill, and until you enter in some form of racing school, you will never know just how little you know about driving. Through this school, you may learn how to win races, but the same physics and fundamentals can help save your behind on the open road.
I’ve been an automotive journalist for going on the better part of a decade, and have been turning wrenches for longer than that. I have had the understanding in taking a certain line through a bend in the road, but I had no idea how little I knew about the physics of the automobile, and what certain inputs do to the handling characteristics of your car.
Don’t know what all that means? Well don’t worry; we’re going to explain. Last week, I completed one of the most prestigious racing schools in the country — the Skip Barber 3 Day Open Wheel Racing School. Next week, we’ll get into the finer points of how I did from a racing standpoint, but today, we are going to look at the lessons taught at Skip Barber and how they play into daily driving.
The car we used was the Formula Skip Barber car, an open wheel racer developed specifically for the school. It might weigh just 1,400 pounds and have a seat for one right in the middle, but the physics in play are still the same as your daily driver.
Bruce MacInnes has raced for more years and in more series than most would care to count. He has been with Skib Barber since 1977, and for him, the fundamentals never change.
“Every car,” explains Bruce, “whether it’s your street car or a racecar has four tires and only does three things — brakes, turns, and accelerates. The same principals apply to all cars, such as doing things like braking a little earlier, and turning a little later than you think you might have to.”
Bruce explained early on that one of the biggest sins a racer can make is to apex (arrive at the geometric center of the turn) early. Rather than turning and braking all at once, you do most of your braking before the turn, and then execute the turn, but if you wait just a little bit later than you might expect, you give yourself more room to work with on the other side of the turn.
The apex is the middle of a turn, and though common thought is to bisect that apex perfectly, if you brake sooner, and turn later, you end up closer to the middle of the road on exiting the turn. You may think you are being clever by turning with a lot of speed, but once you feel how less violent a properly executed turn feels, you will be apexing late, too (where you should be).
But say you can’t pull that maneuver, or have made a right hand turn in the rain, and you feel the back end coming around, you must perform CPR. No, not Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, but Correction, Pause, and Recovery… So the spin starts to occur, you have made a right turn, but the car has over steered (spinning too far to the right, given your steering inputs). That’s when you…
Correct: Don’t panic, but rather turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction (in this case, to the left). You don’t cut it so hard that the car spins out in the other direction, but you also don’t cut it so little that it has no effect. A deliberate, controlled counter steer will begin to right the car, that is when you …
Pause: Let that steering input take effect. Not every car responds to steering inputs the same, and it may actually take a second for the car to begin to right itself. Don’t be overcome by this correction, and try to right the a second time, but also don’t wait too long, because the last part is…
Recovery: If you keep the wheel counter-steered too long, the shocks are pre-loaded for that reaction, and the car could jerk violently in the opposite direction. As the car begins to right itself, you can start to unwind the wheel so that the car begins to straighten.
If a skid grows into a full on, uncontrolled rotation, and the world starts passing you by way to fast, there is also a recovery for that too. “If you spin, two feet in,” says Bruce, referring to planting your left foot into the clutch pedal (where applicable), and your right foot into the brake. This will bring on the brakes and take the power from the wheels. It is the only way to correct yourself if a spin is occurring.
For snow driving, you don’t cut off the angle of the turn quite the way you would in dry weather. You do all of your braking pre-turn, execute a slower, but sharper turn, and then accelerate only once you are in a straight line again.
But when it is dry, you should be able to apply brake and throttle in certain segments of a turn to put the car where you want it. Many racers will tell you that when a turn happens, you set your hands at a certain degree turn, and you use the throttle and brake to modulate how fast or slow that turn is executed.
Mario Andretti once said that “Slow turns are modulated with the brake, and fast turns are adjusted with the throttle.” That means that when a tight turn comes up, you punch into the brakes hard, but not so hard they lock up, and then ease off them while simultaneously starting the turn. If you perform this right, you should be hard on the brakes, and then be easing off them incrementally, so that you are completely off the brakes at the apex of the turn. Once you round the bend, you can start to get into the throttle. That exercise of braking near the lockup limit is called “Threshold braking.”
CPR, Threshold Braking, Heel-toe downshifting — they are all skills taught to those looking to become racecar drivers, but in reality, they are valuable driving skills that prepare you for when the unthinkable happens. Airbags and traction control have made us lazy in our approach to car control, but when traction control fails, or you hit an unexpected patch of ice, the skills taught at schools like Skip Barber could one day save your life.
- Skip Barber