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Story by Jack Baruth, photograph by Sideline Sports Photography
Nearly two decades ago, I had the unique privilege of attending Dr. John Romano’s ENG 131 class at Miami University. I say “privilege” because Dr. Romano taught me two important things. The second thing he taught me was that standards matter. Although I had received an “A” on every paper I had submitted in his class, he gave me a “B” at the end of the semester. Why? It was simple: he’d indicated that it was unacceptable to miss more than two classes, and I had missed three. Why had I missed three, you ask? I was in the hospital with some grotesque cycling-related injury. When I explained this to him, he explained to me that his expectations did not come with pre-printed excuse notes for “hospitals, sniffles, and unrepentant laziness”. This “B”, one of two I would receive during my time at the English Department at Miami, served as a harsh introduction to the real world, where nobody wants to hear your excuses.
The first important thing Romano taught me came during his lecture on the opening of The Canterbury Tales. “Ah, spring,” he sighed, “it promises so much, and delivers so little. Not unlike, I would say, many of you young ladies in this audience.” The reaction in the lecture hall was closely akin to what I suppose it would have been had Romano produced a Labrador puppy from one of the folds of his voluminous tweed overcoat, held it up to the sky, and snapped its neck. The shocked silence lasted for what seemed hours before the bespectacled, bewhiskered old professor smiled and resumed reading Chaucer in his ragged, creaking baritone. It would take me several dinner dates and a long “study session” with one of my distaff ENG 132 classmates before I realized that Romano had it exactly right. The payoff rarely meets the promise; the juice usually isn’t worth the squeeze.
Not so today, dear readers. I’ve promised you something simple: that if you read, comprehend, and implement the suggestions in this column you will, I repeat, absolutely will go faster. For many of you, the resultant benefits will exceed anything you could gain by spending thousands of dollars tuning your car; thus the photo above of a beautiful, fully-prepared, track-dominating 350Z being snuggled-up to by an absolutely bone-stock fifty-two-hundred-pound luxury sedan in VIR’s infamous Climbing Esses. I intend to deliver on this promise, so take a moment, clear your mind of your losses in the stock market, the pressures of work, and the burning question of whether or not Vanessa Hudgens was actually just fifteen years old when she took that camera-phone photo, and let us continue as Dr. Romano would wish: slowly, carefully, and with attention to detail.
Let’s start with a basic fact: Most passes take place either at the end of a straight, for wheel-to-wheel racing and time trial competition, or in the middle section of a straight (for HPDE “championships” or fast back-road driving). Therefore, the most critical thing we can do in order to pass more cars is to make sure we exit the corner at the maximum possible velocity. It’s more important than corner entry speed, it’s more important than late braking (in most cases), and it’s more important than speed through a particular corner. We can demonstrate this mathematically. One mile per hour equals about 1.47 feet per second. A car which is traveling at an average 60mph will require 2.3 seconds to complete a corner which is two hundred feet long. If the car behind that car is traveling at 62mph, it will gain just about six feet through the corner. Keep in mind that on many tracks, the difference between 60 and 62 is enough to put you at serious risk of turning your car into a tiny metal cube; it’s not a trivial accomplishment to achieve that two miles per hour more than another skilled, prepared driver. And all you get out of it is six feet of track position! Furthermore, if you’re really cornering at the limit you’re unlikely to be able to use that six feet of position to much advantage, because you cannot both drive the corner to the limit and maneuver for a pass.
Now let’s take that same two mile per hour difference and move it to the exit of a corner where we have a thousand-foot-long straight. Assuming the two cars accelerate in more or less identical fashion to an arrival speed of 120mph, we can expect that it will take nearly eight seconds to cover the straight. In those eight seconds, that minor 2mph advantage translates to nearly twenty-four feet! That’s a solid pass. In Spec Miata, it’s probably a solid two-car pass, with the chance to dive-bomb a third unlucky bastard at corner entry.
You can do the math yourself in a variety of other situations. I’d also encourage you to calculate the advantages of late-braking a straight compared to the same 2mph exit advantage. Prepare to be shocked, is all I can say. When it comes to making serious time on a racetrack, corner exit speed wins every time. If you’ve ever been told that old chestnut, “The most important corner on a racetrack is the one leading to the longest straight”, now you understand why. Many of the “unfair advantages” of racing, from wider rear tires to AWD to Formula-One-style stutter-step traction control, are primarily designed to maximize corner exit speed. The entire racing mythology of the Porsche 911 is built on the fact that it leaves corners just that tiny bit faster and better than a “properly balanced” RWD sedan, thanks to superior traction under acceleration.
Wait a minute! I promised you that you wouldn’t have to spend any money to go faster, and here I am talking about AWD, traction control, and Porsches, and you might not have any of that stuff. No problem. We’re going to improve your corner exit speed for free, and as George Zimmer says, I guarantee it. Our free speed boost comes courtesy of Ross Bentley, who tells us that At the limit of the tires, the accelerator pedal and brake pedal work to turn the car, and the steering wheel acts as a brake. Let’s explore the reasons this statement is true. Remember the dollar theory of tire traction? This theory explains to us that when a car is cornering at the maximum possible speed through a turn, 100% of the tire’s traction is being used to rotate the car. In a perfect world, all four wheels would be “maxed-out” with cornering load. Therefore, if we turn the steering wheel more, we can’t generate any more cornering force. We’re already at the maximum. Instead, we will actually slow the car down by increasing the tires’ slip angle. If, on the other hand, we use the brake or accelerator, we will change the balance of the car and “overdraw” the front or rear tires with braking or accelerative force, thus changing the angle at which the car travels through the turn.
Take a moment to understand this: Steering not only turns the car, it also slows it down. When we steer a car, we are converting forward momentum into angular momentum by applying force to the road through the front tires. This is a remarkably inefficient process. Applying steering force to a car actually slows it down in a hurry, and that’s why we keep constant throttle through turns – to prevent the car from losing momentum in the corner. Applying too much steering input, as in the example given above, is even worse, because a front tire with too much slip angle actually provides serious braking force to the front end of your car. You can try this out yourself in an empty parking lot. Start doing skidpad-style circles, accelerate to the maximum grip level possible, and then crank the wheel more. You won’t turn any more. Instead, you’ll just slow down until the car is going slowly enough for the front tires to “catch” and provide the amount of steering you requested previously.
We now know two things: first, that corner exit speed is critical, and second, that the steering wheel slows the car down. This brings us to another Ross Bentley catchphrase: The driver who turns the steering wheel the least will win the race. If this statement wouldn’t have made sense to you when you began reading today, I hope it does now. The time we spend steering the car always slows it down. We have to steer the car – we can’t get through corners if we don’t – but the less we steer, the less braking force we apply, and the faster the car goes as a result.
Easy to say, tough to do. How do we steer less without driving off the track and ending our fabulous day? Now we come to the free speed I promised you, and it’s simple. At the apex (also known as the “clipping point”) of the turn, fully unwind the steering wheel and let the car “run free” under acceleration. You’re not always doing it now. I know you’re not always doing it now, because not only do I observe my driving students not doing it, I periodically observe other drivers at every level, up to and including Formula Unn, not doing it. Training yourself to unwind the wheel properly is perhaps the most difficult task you can undertake as an advanced driver.
The problem is this: As we learn how to drive on a racetrack (or a fast side road), we tend to leave a bit of steering in the car as we pass the apex, just in case we have to adjust. As we accelerate, we notice that the car isn’t quite pointing in the correct direction. It’s that pesky Dollar Theory again: we can’t accelerate and steer at full power. We’re “overdrawing” our front tires as we exit the corner. But our brain absolutely refuses to believe that we can unwind the wheel. We’re already steering! If we let the wheel unwind, we’ll drive off the track! But the truth is that if we are pointed properly at the apex of the corner, we don’t really need to turn very much – and the steering we are doing probably isn’t having any effect. Just unwind the wheel. Who are you going to believe: me, or your own lying eyes? In this case, you should believe me.
Alternately, you can believe my long-time driving instructor Brian, who has a habit of reaching over in the middle of a corner exit phase and using his left hand to force the steering wheel straight. It only takes a couple of those “assisted steers” before it starts to sink in that virtually all of us are unnecessarily steering the car after the apex. It’s true that there are plenty of times where our exit lines need a tiny bit of adjusting, but that’s a situation that calls for a tiny bit of steering, and no more.
Knowing how and when to unwind the wheel and still get the minor course corrections you may need as you exit the corner falls under the heading of traction sensing. If you’re like most drivers, you have very little ability to sense available grip through your steering wheel. Let’s fix that real quickly. Get your driver’s seat closer to the wheel – as close as is safe. If you don’t have an airbag, it means “NASCAR close”. Your elbows should be bent at a ninety-degree angle or more. Now place your hands on the wheel. Relax your hands and use your fingers to steer the car. What? You can’t do it? Now you know why Michael Schumacher spent a decade working on hand and wrist strength. We cannot steer a car properly using our shoulders or biceps. It has to be a fingers-and-wrist manipulation. If you disagree, write me a letter, and do it by holding a pen in your hand, locking your wrist and elbow straight, and using your shoulder muscles to manipulate your arm. At the absolute bleeding limit of the tires, the smallest steering motions have large consequences. Therefore, it’s critical that we be equipped to make the smallest motions properly, and that we be equipped to feel the “slip” in the steering wheel as we search for available traction. You can’t do it by squeezing the wheel in a death grip, and you can’t do it by straight-arm steering. This is doubly or triply true for rain or snow driving. Relax your hands, get your palms off the wheel, and steer with your fingers. Do it. Do it now.
The “Climbing Esses” at VIR are a textbook case of a track feature which demands the smallest, most sensitive of steering motions. Every input you apply to the car as you climb the hill has monstrous consequences. (For a graphic illustration of this, click here.) How can we make a Phaeton on all-season tires climb the hill as well as a properly prepared sports car? We do it by steering absolutely as little as possible. We relax our hands. We floor the throttle, and we use the thumb and first two fingers of the hand to dial in miniscule input, feeling all the time for available traction, and we run straight up the hill. It isn’t pretty, it’s scary for driver and passenger, and it puts you a hair’s breadth away from straight-lining the top of the hill through the dirt at 110-plus mph, but it works.
Here’s your homework: Fix your seating position, relax your grip, strengthen your hands if necessary, and steer the car lightly, making every possible effort to immediately and fully unwind the wheel at the apex of the turn, even if you think you’re going to run the corner wide by doing so. If it turns out that you are going to run the corner wide, don’t be a hero. Just hit the brakes until you’re off and then steer gently back onto the track, using that same light grip. Your eventual mastery of this technique will result in an unbelievable amount of extra speed at corner exit – and we know what that means. Your fellow track rats will think you tuned your motor, because you’re pulling them down straights where you never could before. Your fellow back-road warriors will ask if you have a limited-slip differential. Everybody else in your “time attack” class will complain that you’re cheating. Only you and I will know the truth: you’re no longer fighting the car, no longer using the steering wheel as a brake, no longer cranking on corner exit. You’ll hear the revs pick up as you unwind the wheel. It’s fantastic. How’d you get so fast?
It was on a recent return trip to have dinner with one of my professors back at Miami that I learned something I’d long expected to happen had finally come to pass. John Romano is no longer with us. His health, which wasn’t great even back in 1989, worsened in retirement, even as he pursued his lifelong dream of adding fluency in Hebrew to his already outstanding Latin and Greek. Miami’s Bachelor Hall no longer rings with his gritty renditions of Chaucer’s Middle English. His replacement is probably some politically correct young prof who encourages his students to write about their feelings or experiences. What a bunch of crap. Romano never took a single lap in a race car, but he intrinsically knew what every racer eventually learns: Out there on the field of combat, there are no excuses, no do-overs, no notes from one’s parents. Do it right, do it the first time, do it every time, and win your race if you can. Anything less isn’t worth it. Get your wheel unwound. Exit the corner correctly. Make your pass. No excuses. See you next week.