After a qualifying session, you find you are a half second off the pole-winning time in your class. That may mean you are in second place in your class or, in some classes, you may be 10th. But the bottom line is the half second you are looking for. It is very difficult to find a half second and the attempt can be very frustrating indeed! In fact, just what is a half second? And how do you find one?
Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to switch seats with some very good drivers. When you drive and then swap places with another driver in the same car, on the same track only minutes apart, you can learn quickly where you stand from a relative skill standpoint. The experience can be satisfying or it can be depressing. But if you use the experience as a learning tool, you can gain insights that can be found no other way, even if you are the faster of the two drivers.
Many years ago, the Specialty Equipment Market Association held an event at a Southern California police training facility. SEMA brought along a project car for anyone who wanted to drive. It was a bright yellow Toyota MR2 built by Moon Equipment in a Moon Eyes theme. The car was nicely built with good power and balanced handling. It was fun and easy to drive at the limit around a street grid course, which was a road course-autocross hybrid. The course was about a mile long, with around 20 corners and lap times just over one minute. The short straights and many turns made every element of driving a challenge. You needed to be on top of your game to be quick and consistent.
A close friend, a road-test editor with considerable racing experience and I were at the event. We had instructed together many times over the previous three years. He asked me to ride with him in the MR2. I took lap times for his few laps. He was very consistent. Then he asked me to drive while he rode shotgun and took my lap times. After about three or four laps, he was clearly getting a little frustrated. I was half a second faster with slightly better consistency. So I pulled into the paddock area away from the track. His comment was “How in the world can you be a half second faster? I’m doing everything exactly the same way you are!” Apparently, not quite.
I asked him “What is a half second? Can you define it for me, show me what it is and explain it?” Before you continue reading, you may want to try doing that yourself. It is not easy to do without using either other measures of time or speed and distance as reference points. The real issue is you cannot see or even feel time. It’s a difficult concept to put into words. Simply saying that a half second is five-tenths of a second or 50 one-hundredths of a second does nothing to solve the problem. After my friend stumbled for a few seconds, I decided to intervene. “Forget about time. Think in terms of something you can see and feel, like distance.” At a 60 mph average speed, a half second is 44 feet, or about 3 car lengths, a significant distance. Key word here – distance.
Next, I explained to him that with about 20 corners on the course, and looking at three segments in each corner — entry, mid-corner and exit — that at least 60 opportunities existed to alter distances and locations on the track — places you can see— to work on going faster. If each segment allowed for equal time gains, which they will not, the average gain in each segment to find that half second is only 0.008 seconds. That’s less than a hundredth of a second in each area. And going faster is about staying on full throttle longer, less distance braking and carrying more speed through corners. And making the straight sections as long as possible. And if the car has enough torque to spin tires exiting slow corners, then throttle control becomes more critical. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
Car 1 crosses a corner exit marker at 40 mph. From that marker to the braking marker in the next turn is only 100 yards or 300 feet. Car 1 reaches a speed of 70 mph at that point. The average speed of 55 mph translates to an elapsed time of 3.71 seconds from exit marker to braking marker.
Car 2 crosses the same corner exit marker at 41 mph. Car 2 reaches a speed of 72 mph at the next braking marker. The average speed of 56.5 mph translates to an elapsed time of 3.61 seconds from exit marker to braking marker. One mile per hour at the exit and two miles per hour at the braking marker translates into 1/10 second time reduction.
One more mph of speed at the exit marker could be achieved in several ways or some combination of these several things: a different exit line to allow earlier acceleration, full throttle earlier in the corner, more speed through the corner, less tire scrub exiting the corner and along the straight. To gain 1 mph at the exit likely would translate into getting on the power 10 to 15 feet earlier in the corner exit phase, or carrying one mph through the turn, which means spending less time in the turn for another time savings. But most likely it is a little of each of these factors.
The incremental savings in each area is very small, but remember, we are looking around the entire track for a half second time saving. We have about 60 places to do so. This used only three sections on the track for a one-tenth of a second gain. It is unlikely that similar gains could be made in all areas, but some gains could be. So finding that half second means chipping away at braking a little later, carrying a little more speed in the corners, getting on the throttle and applying full throttle sooner, turning the steering wheel as little as possible to reduce tire scrub and being ultra smooth. Is it easy? Of course not, But it is achievable. It takes hard work and total focus. But then to reach the pinnacle of any activity requires focus, commitment and hard work.
For years, racing and high performance driving instructors, myself included, have preached the praises of driving smoothly. Like most everything, smooth is a relative term. And while being smooth is important, it is not a critical as going fast. It is easy to be very smooth when you are 10 seconds, even four seconds off the pace. Not so much when your lap times are near pole-winning speeds. So how to proceed?
Slow Down to Go Faster
One exercise I have long used with my students is to slow down to go faster. I ask them to go run a few laps and purposely drive about 10 seconds a lap — on a 90-second regular lap — slower. The goal is to drive the perfect line, find the spots on the track — and off — that are good markers that may have gone unnoticed, practice getting on the power sooner, unwinding the steering wheel sooner and being very light on the brakes. Invariably the student will begin to gain speed lap after lap. It usually takes only two to three laps for this to happen. It doesn’t matter if they started out 10 seconds off the pace, or only one. Nearly without exception, they run their fastest laps ever.
By running laps that allow total focus on the mechanical aspects of driving, but well below the fear threshold, all the elements of being a fast driver come into focus. The driver gets comfortable. The driver will start getting on the power earlier, carrying more speed down the straights. The driver has slowed more than necessary at the corner entry, so getting on the power earlier is easier. You don’t feel like you will fall off the edge of the track at the exit of the corner. Next the driver lifts later going into a corner, but carries more speed through the turn because it is now more comfortable to get on the power sooner. Then the driver will brake a little harder and little later, but still carrying more speed through the turn and getting the power down and the steering unwound earlier. Speed is found, lap times are quicker and the driver rarely even realizes what is happening.
I recently worked with an 11-year-old quarter-midget driver on a 1/20th mile banked concrete track. In his class, lap times were in the low five-second range. Yes, five seconds! The track was cool in the morning, but at least 40 degrees hotter in the afternoon. The lap record for his class was about 5.1 seconds. His best was 5.3 seconds. His dad was trying some setup changes, which were not working well. He went back to their standard setup, but was chasing a deteriorating track condition. By midafternoon, with the thermometer hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was a situation that running anymore would bring diminishing returns. So for the last session, I had the driver go out and run slower laps. He started out running perfect lines at about 6.5 second lap times. Within eight laps, he was running 5.25-second laps, his fastest ever on a very slick, hot track. The driver and his dad were pleased. If this was during a cool evening when most of the races were being run, he likely would have set a new track record for his class, probably in the high 4.9-second range. So I know it still works, but the above example leads us to one of the pitfalls related to finding speed.
Traps When Searching For Time
We’ve looked at the importance of ignoring time, at least when you are in the car. Focusing on distance, specifically where you are taking action, like being on full power 5 feet sooner than before, helps put the focus on what you can see and control, not on a concept. But where can you expect to find pitfalls in the great time search?
Unfortunately, everything involving speed and, by necessity, traction, is constantly changing. In the quest for speed, finding time in changing conditions is elusive. It is a challenge, but it is done all the time. One key is understanding how conditions affect performance. Another is knowing how much. It may be that your fastest lap was run under ideal conditions. As you work hard to find more speed, and you will, the conditions may be different from ideal. So that lap that felt great, but was a tenth slower than your fastest lap ever, may have been a couple of tenths faster in ideal circumstances. If you had kept detailed records for the ideal conditions compared to the current conditions, you may realize that the laps you just completed occurred when the track temperature was 30 degrees cooler.
Rain, dust and leaking fluids from other cars, and especially heat, can alter the traction of the tires and affect the power output of engines. Of course, weather can be a major factor, too. Temperature, humidity and barometric pressure all affect performance and traction. Keep in mind that throughout an event, the track can improve as rubber is put down on the racing line, but then deteriorate as temperatures and slippery fluids reduce traction.
Tire traction is affected by wear. A DOT race tire may be fastest when virtually no tread pattern is left showing. More rubber is on the track surface. But by the same token, the wear and several heat cycles could make the rubber compound harder, again reducing traction. Heat cycles, track surface and track conditions, wear, tire pressures, camber and other suspension settings can affect tire performance. For the most part, tires heated to optimum temperatures during the first fast laps of the first heat cycle are usually at their fastest. While this is great for a flying fast qualifying lap, it may not be so good for running consistently fast laps. Tires that are heat-cycled once or twice often lose a few tenths of a second, but will run consistently quick laps.
Weight is a major factor in lap times. Fuel load affects weight, but also can affect weight distribution. Big factors! When I worked with the legendary Smokey Yunick at Circle Track magazine in the 1990s, Smokey had modeled the effect of total weight on lap times on a half-mile oval with moderate banking. Lap times for late-model stock cars were about 18 seconds. He figured that 50 pounds of extra weight would add about half a second to the lap times. That is significant, which leads us to another way to go faster: make sure your car is right at the weight limit for your class. And if you can get below the weight limit, you can add ballast low and positioned where it will help balance the car. Is it easy? Of course not! But removing weight is like looking for time. If you can remove a couple of ounces from 50 places on your car, just like using 50 places on the race track to find speed, you can save a few pounds. And that attention to detail is what makes the difference.