Racing involves more than just being quick. Strategy comes into play among your competitors and out-of-class traffic.

From the very beginning of an event through the checkered flag, you need two different skill sets: driving and racing. Driving is operating the car and making your way around the track. Racing is dealing with everyone else. There are many ways to do that, and I will let you in on some of the ways that are not obvious. Although it is not really possible for any human to multi-task, the demands of the racing environment benefit those who come the closest. The easiest way to approximate multi-tasking is to attain enough skill and fresh experience that driving can momentarily become a subconscious, background-level activity. That will allow your focus to be directed primarily to tracking the actions of nearby cars, and planning a sequence of moves that will leave them behind.

MIND GAME

There is a purpose to plastering your name in big letters on the side of your car. You want absolutely everyone around to know your car and your name. Racecar drivers are nearly all alpha males, so it takes an over-the-top effort to stand out and establish a dominant position. Begin the weekend by manipulating each competitor’s head as soon as you make first eye contact for the weekend. Tell him all about your chassis dyno session, your new tires, and the indoor karting you do to stay sharp, then console him about how little he got done before this event. Next, go out and lay down the lap of your life in qualifying. Battling your way forward from deep in the pack is the wrong way to establish your position in the minds of your competitors. Immediately disappearing into the distance is the right way, and it is the simplest of all racing traffic strategies.

MOVES AND COUNTER-MOVES

Executing a racing strategy move always brings driving skill back to your conscious attention. That is because each racing move calls for a change to your normal line and speed profile. When your competitor counters your move, it’s time for strategy to take over again, because your racing plan needs to change again. This back-and-forth shifting of focus between driving and racing takes practice to master, and the driver who does it better will come out ahead. With experience and close observation of what other racers do, it is possible for you to develop a highly effective racing skill that will let you predict how a typical driver will react to your moves. That gives you the ability to manipulate their actions to your advantage.

This back-and-forth shifting of focus between driving and racing takes practice to master, and the driver who does it better will come out ahead.
This back-and-forth shifting of focus between driving and racing takes practice to master, and the driver who does it better will come out ahead.

Oddly enough, I learned this racing skill riding a bicycle through 40,000 college students while all of us were going to our next lecture at the same time on a crowded campus, with everyone traveling in a different direction. If all the pedestrians maintained a constant pace in a straight line, it was easy to plan and execute a safe and quick, but wiggly path through them. Oddly enough, every single time that anyone tried to step to the side to avoid me, they stepped into my intended path, not away from it. I can’t explain why. So, by tracking every pedestrian’s eyes, I could predict when someone was about to react to my approach. I would fake a turn away from the direction that I wanted to go, the pedestrian would then step toward that path, and I would switch my direction back and quickly pass by.

GREEN, GREEN, GREEN!

The field always spreads out rapidly after the start, so if you are going to do any passing, you need to get it done during the start or the first lap. Your autocrossing experience has taught you how to make the most of cold tires, and how to switch your head into “go” mode instantly. You need to come as close as you can to jumping the start. Being just a bit early is ideal. The same advice goes for restarts.

After you have battled with another driver and he fell off the track due to an unforced error, you have the opportunity to begin a long con on him. Run up and ask him if you caused him to go off, and tell him that you were really worried about that. He won’t anticipate the vicious move that you have in store for just the right moment, several events from now. This is just one example of the kinds of head games that you can play to improve your odds of coming out ahead in traffic. You will need every advantage that you can get, both attacking and defending against closely matched racers.

ATTACKING

There is a real advantage to being intentionally unpredictable in traffic, and there is actually a fully developed science behind this unpredictability. The aerial combat strategy developed by Colonel John Boyd of the United States Air Force is this science. Search the web for “Forty Second Boyd and the Big Picture,” and you will find a clearly stated and highly entertaining introduction to the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act), as well as a delightful military history lesson. This will show you the most successful aerial combat strategy yet devised, and it is not difficult to adapt that strategy to the much simpler two-dimensional racing environment.

You will never pass another car while you are following it. It takes a conscious decision to move off the line so that you can pull up beside another car, and perhaps ahead. Experiment with alternate lines during the early track sessions, with the intention of using them later. The later in the day that your race is, the less well this works, because rocks and tire marbles build up outside the line. There is elevated risk in driving where the grip isn’t.

It’s often possible to take advantage of one car passing another. Many times, you can sneak through, too.
It’s often possible to take advantage of one car passing another. Many times, you can sneak through, too.

DEFENDING

Making your car artificially wide will work for one move, but more than that can lead to trouble from your competitors and race officials. A technique that is much less noticeable is simply to slow a little bit more than usual before the apex when another car is following closely. That will require your competitor to wait for you to accelerate. Due to the nature of human reaction times, you will usually win that little contest.

An easy way to defend against inexperienced racers is to adjust your brake light switch so that the lights come on when you just barely brush the pedal. You can sometimes make the other racer brake way too early by brushing the brake pedal when you are well upstream of your actual braking point.

EMOTIONS

The best racing approach is to be completely emotionless, about the actions of your competitors and your own. For example, if you get pushed off the track, get back on immediately, reel him in, and pass him cleanly. Be gracious, understanding, and complimentary when talking with the other racers in your class. The friendlier your competitors perceive you to be, the less they will expect the highly aggressive racing that you have in store for them.

At some point in every race, you will be forced to decide how brave you are about to be. Unfortunately, it is necessary to adopt a level of risk tolerance that is precisely at the absolute upper limit of your skills in order to be as competitive as you can be. It is very fortunate that the payoff for all of your effort does not happen until the end of the race, so staying on the track and not hitting anything is a necessary requirement to finish well. Self-preservation just happens to be a convenient side effect.

Giving your competitor a mirror full is often a good way to force an error.
Giving your competitor a mirror full is often a good way to force an error.

RIGHT OF WAY

Despite numerous attempts every day, no two cars have ever successfully occupied the same space at the same time. On the highway, we all have an equal right to a portion of the road, an equal responsibility to accommodate everyone else, and an equal responsibility to maintain a rather large distance buffer to the surrounding cars. None of that is the case on the track. The distance buffer between cars on the race track is about the thickness of a coat of wax, but contact is never acceptable. What you are about to read are the rules that I live by, and I think they are the way things should be, but NASA’s rules are a bit different.

  1. It is your responsibility to see and avoid everything, everywhere, all the time.
  2. The car in front of you owns the entire width of the track, even if you are alongside, and even if you are about to lap that car. The car in front of you has the right to use any and all of the track, the curbs, and the grass, so any contact is your fault. The instant that the nose of your car edges ahead by one micron, the roles reverse. Now you own the entire width of the track, and you can drive anywhere you want.
  3. The way you deal with nearby racers reveals how much you can be trusted.

Those three rules are clear, simple, and your status is easy to determine all the time. There is obviously a lot more to the topic of racing traffic strategy, but these techniques can do a lot to improve your competitiveness. Racing is an exercise in continuous, high-stakes risk management. You stand a good chance of paying the price for any decision that is less than perfect, including those of nearby racers. Getting it wrong guarantees a harsh penalty, but getting it right is supremely rewarding, both in your trophy case and in your enjoyment of the sport.

Strategy becomes even more important in endurance racing. Rely on your crew to help keep you focused on that strategy.
Strategy becomes even more important in endurance racing. Rely on your crew to help keep you focused on that strategy.

Watch how different horsepower levels, dense traffic and different classes come into play in the start of this NASA Florida race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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Images courtesy of Brett Becker and Larry Chen