both as a racer and a coach has shown me that it takes
the novice driver at least 6 races, on average, to really
get something resembling a grip on the complexities,
strategies, and nuances of racing competitively. For
better or for worse most of us learn from experience.
Some of us are lucky enough in this process that we
only damage our egos. Other times the damage is more,
sometimes considerably more, serious. In any case once
we have fallen on our face and really embarrassed ourselves
a few times we generally start paying more attention
to how well we are driving and less attention to winning
or to what other drivers around us are doing. This,
in my opinion, is mentally where you want to be. I call
it “driving your own race”. At this point
a drivers approach to high performance driving changes
forever and the process of becoming truly and consistently
competitive begins. Driving becomes less about “going
fast” and more about “driving well”.
The point being this; you may be able to turn one or
two laps that are faster than your competition but if
you often find yourself sitting in the weeds with your
nose in the wall or your car frequently breaks down
during a race because you are “over driving”
the car you need to ask yourself “how fast was
that?” Of course the goal is to win and to do
that you need to really hustle the car. I won’t
argue that. But if your focus is on winning and not
on your performance as a driver, i.e. how well are you
driving (?), your chances of winning, let alone finishing,
are greatly reduced.
Once a driver told me in all seriousness
that he was faster than another driver and that he would
have beaten him if he hadn’t crashed his car on
the third lap of the race. This is a “coulda,
woulda, shoulda” story and at the end of the day
is the kind of strategy that does not win races.
So let’s take a look at what I think
are the most common mistakes a novice driver can make
in their attempt to be competitive.
Trying to win your first race.
The goal for your first race, even your
first few races is to survive and learn. If you happen
to win in the process so much the better but don’t
count on it. Depending on the size of the grid it can
often take a long time to work your way to the front.
Most novice drivers tend to be over confident early
on about how fast they are. Their first race can be
a very humbling experience. For the most part you will
be racing against people who have been at it for a while.
Even some of the slowest drivers out there are going
to be pretty fast and possess a great deal more track
savvy and traffic management skills than you will likely
possess. Pay attention! You’re still in school.
Observe. Learn. Survive.
Trying to win in the
Actually this mistake follows many drivers
throughout their career. Some people never learn that
to win a race you have to finish a race. While a good
race start can be a thing of great beauty and satisfaction
all of that can evaporate quickly if you overcook the
first turn because your brakes, tires, brains weren’t
quite warmed up yet.
Focusing on the car
in front of you.
Anybody who has raced for any amount of
time has seen a situation like this. Two cars are heading
into a brake zone when the car in front over cooks his
brake zone and goes agricultural into the tire wall.
The car behind him follows him right off track and into
the wall. This is because the driver of the second car
was so intently focused on the car in front that they
never noticed, until it was too late, they were being
led to disaster.
Put your eyes in front of the car(s) in front of you.
That’s where you want to be isn’t it? If
your eyes are in front of the car in front of you then
you stand a much better chance of ending up there and
not duplicating his or her errors. If your eyes are
on your competitors tail lights that is likely the position
in which you will remain. Your car will always follow
Focusing on the car
It’s called driving with your rear
view mirror. The only thing you need to know about the
car behind you is that it is there; beyond that forget
about it. After all, if the car is behind you, that’s
right where you want them isn’t it? If you want
to keep it that way your business is in front of you.
Period! End of discussion! If this driver is going to
pass you the best thing you can do to ensure that it
will happen is to keep looking behind you. Again, your
car will follow your eyes. If you are looking behind
you what direction do you think you will end up going
in the grid; forward or back?
Failing to adapt to
It’s a simple fact! If you make
a change to how you drive one section of a race track
it will change whatever happens next. For example, let’s
say that there is a medium speed sweeper (we’ll
call this turn “A”) leading on to a long
front strait which, in turn, leads to a high speed sweeper
(we’ll call this turn “B”). Let’s
assume that you have found brake markers that you are
comfortable with for turn B but you are still working
on your line through turn A. Finally after much trial
and error you find a line through A that really works
for you. You are suddenly able to come to back to full
throttle a car length earlier than you had previously
been able to before. You glance down at your speed and
see that you have carried 5 mph more exit speed than
you were previously able to carry. Great right!?! Well
maybe, maybe not. In this scenario that extra five mph
will build upon itself all the way down the strait so
that by the time you reach your usual brake markers
for turn B you are carrying 10, 15, 20 mph more speed
than you were previously carrying and guess what..?;
your carefully worked out brake markers no longer apply
to the situation and you find yourself in the wall on
the outside of turn B watching all your hard earned
gains, as well as a large chunk of your racing budget
for the season, evaporate.
Missing your marks.
To carry the concept of adapting to changing
circumstances a little further: It is very easy to be
so intent on passing a competitor in a brake zone that
you completely miss your own brake markers, completely
blow the brake zone and lose several positions in the
process, or worse. This is the most common example but
it would be easy to find others. Keep in mind that during
a race you will often not be on the “ideal”
line. In fact your line may be far from ideal. During
a race your ideal line becomes a matter of assessing
where you are on the track, where you want to go, and
what is the most effective way to do this while trying
to get in front of the person in front of you and keep
that person behind you, behind you. Again, if you are
focused on the position of the car(s) around you instead
of your own position the end result can be embarrassing
at best and disastrous at worst. Drive your own race!
Misjudging closing speeds.
The ability to sense the speed of your
own car is an essential skill. Without it you cannot
consistently judge braking distances, entry speeds,
etc. Being able to accurately judge the speed of the
car in front of you is equally essential. It’s
pretty easy to be chasing someone down only to realize
too late that you haven’t left enough space to
brake before the front of your car merges with the rear
of the other. Anticipate! Err on the side of caution
until you are confident with your skills in this regard.
Again, keep your eyes on your own marks. Drive your
Defending a line in order to make a recently
completed pass stick is a legitimate and often necessary
strategy. However it is important to keep in mind that
a defensive line is not necessarily the fastest line.
If you find yourself defending your line turn after
turn you need to understand a couple of things. First
you are slowing yourself down and anybody you are chasing
is likely walking, if not running, away from you. Secondly,
and perhaps most importantly, if you find yourself needing
to take a defensive line into every turn the driver
you are defending against is likely faster than you.
They will get around you eventually. There is a good
chance that you should go ahead and allow the pass.
There are a couple of advantages to this. The first
advantage is that you can go to school on this driver.
This is especially true if you are running in a “spec”
class. If that driver can carry X amount of entry speed
into a given turn, chances are you could learn to as
well. Since, for most people, it is easier to chase
than be chased this may not take as long as you might
think. Secondly you can use the draft from this driver
to help you track down the driver that was in front
of you before the pass from behind occurred.
Trying too hard. Focus
on your performance not your goal.
“You’re trying too hard!”
This is one of the most valuable pieces of feedback
that I ever got from a coach when I was learning to
drive a car at the limit. It was at Laguna Seca in a
spec class and I was driving my heart out, trying to
go as fast as I could. Unfortunately I was also getting
passed left and right by 80% of the grid. When I came
in to discuss things with my coach he didn’t talk
to me about line, smoothness, vision, or anything else
he just said “you’re trying too hard”
and walked away.
The truth of the matter is that you can’t
really “try” to go fast. Either you are
fast or you are not. Of course everyone’s goal
is to go fast but simply wanting to go fast, or trying
to go fast, will not generally do the trick. If you
focus on your performance as a driver, i.e. how well
are you driving the speed will generally take care of
itself. If you are focused on going fast you will likely
not be focused on the things you need to be focused
on to actually go fast. By trying to go fast you are
generally inviting the car to get ahead of you, the
driver. This never ends with a good result. The driver
must be constantly ahead of the car.
Not having crew.
Your first few race weekends can be a
pretty overwhelming experience. You have a lot of information
coming at you and it can be hard to keep track of it
all. Having someone, preferably with race experience,
who can help out can make all the difference in the
world. It is easy to miss some very important details.
Did you remember to torque your wheels down, show up
for the drivers meeting, buckle your helmet, put up
your window net, put fuel in your car, etc? Sure, I
know these all sound like obvious things but you will
be surprised how easy it is to miss these details in
all the excitement. If nothing else pit next to your
friend, you know, the one that talked you into going
racing in the first place, or bring your significant
other. Make a check list the night before of everything
you need to do the next day as well as a shorter list
of everything that needs to be done before you head
out on to the track for any given session. Then give
this list to your crew and let them double check it
for you. You can show up to the track alone to go racing
but why would you want too? You need to be focused on
driving and surviving. Let someone else whom you trust
help you with the details.
Not being properly
prepared for the weekend.
At the race track in any given weekend
it is generally Murphy’s Law x 10 (unfortunately
for all of us Murphy was a “glass half empty”
kind of guy). Plan on it! Try to have everything ready
well before you have to show up at the track. Don’t
leave anything undone thinking that you can deal with
it once you get there. If you do this you will likely
be scrambling the whole weekend. You have simply added
to the work load you will inevitably have in any given
weekend at the track. Not only will you not have much
fun but you are not giving yourself the proper space
necessary to succeed.
Not staying properly
This item is pretty self explanatory.
Stay hydrated! Drink a lot more than you think you need
too and then some more and that will probably be the
right amount. Water or a 50/50 combination of Gatorade
and water is your best choice. Sugar free fruit or vegetable
juices are also a good choice. Soda pop is a last resort
and the least desirable choice.
Staying properly hydrated will keep you
alert, awake and focused.
Not getting enough
rest the night before.
It can be hard to sleep the night before
a track event but it is important that you develop a
strategy for doing so. The reason for this should be
Not keeping ahead of
the day's schedule.
There are a lot of things to keep track
of on any given day at any given race weekend. By a
BIG clock at your local Fred Myer and get in the habit
of posting the weekends schedule under it with times
pertaining to you highlighted. If you are working with
a crew, coach, and/or significant other, have them remind
you 15 to 20 minutes (or more) before things are actually
supposed to happen. You really don’t want to get
out to pre-grid 3 minutes before the start of your race,
or worse yet, miss pre-grid completely. Give yourself
the time and space necessary to be ready. Keep your
eyes and brain ahead of the day’s schedule.