Track walks are a time-honored practice drivers use to better understand the nuance of a track, ultimately to achieve faster lap times. Track walks usually come on a Saturday evening, after a long day of racing. You’re always tired, and they do require extra initiative, but they’re nearly always revealing if you know how to do them properly.
If you’re like a lot of drivers who go on a track walk, you might not know what you’re looking for other than to look for something — anything — to help you find your way through each turn more quickly.
We tagged along on a track walk at Pittsburgh International Race Complex last summer with renowned “Speed Secrets” author, racecar driver and coach Ross Bentley, NASA Great Lakes chief instructor Eric Meyer and a gaggle of instructors racers and TT competitors. We wanted to know what Bentley looked for on a track walk, how he approached them, and as we walked along, we also took note of Meyer’s techniques to help drivers.
We also caught up with Blayze.io coach Dion Von Moltke and asked him how he handles a track walk, what he looks for, what he hopes to accomplish and why he does what he does.
Bentley said he’s a big fan of doing track walks after he’s driven the track. That way you’ve got a feel for the track. Driving it raises questions about a given area on the track. Walking it hopefully answers them.
“You drive the track and then you go on the track and you walk it and you go, ‘Oh, that’s why it feels the way it does here. And that’s why I’ve got grip here. And I have less grip here,’” Bentley said. “Sometimes in the car at speed, you just can’t notice some things, and I’m a big believer in the driver that has the most reference points wins.”
Bentley said the more reference points you have, the sooner you can recognize you’ve made a mistake and therefore you can start to make adjustments for that mistake earlier, so you can manage it.
“So, I look at a guy like Lewis Hamilton and go, ‘He has so many more reference points for a track than the drivers here, right?’” Bentley said. “He just soaks those things up and that gives him an advantage from that perspective. If you’re a racer, for sure it just makes you more consistent and able to deal with problems better because you’ve got more references.”
As we walked the PittRace track — backward, mind you — Meyer would stop at different points along the way and ask the students, drivers and instructors about how they would take a certain turn, where they’d turn in, how much curbing they’d use, and whether those curbs are usable in the wet. By getting drivers to speak up, they become part of the lesson, highlighting things other drivers might not see or think of, and by hearing counter points and other theories. It mirrors the dialectic approach used in classical philosophy.
The backward approach Meyer used when leading his track walk dovetails with Von Moltke’s fundamental breakdown of the five reference points of every corner: Exit apex, apex, slow point of the corner, turn-in point and braking point.
“You work every corner backward,” Von Moltke said. “Where you exit changes where you apex. Where you apex changes where you have the slow point of the corner. Where your slow point and apex is changes your turn-in point. Where your turn-in point is changes your braking point. So you sort of work backward.”
Bentley prefers to do track walks by himself unless it’s for group instruction like at PittRace. On the walk, he takes on the observant nature of a golfer on a green. He squats, looks at turns backward and forward and takes note of subtle changes in camber and track surface that can affect how a car gets through a corner. But that’s not all, and what he said next made a lot of sense.
“I also like to look at which of the corners are going to be more forgiving for me to try things. As I’m walking around and I go, ‘You know, if I go off here, that’s going to hurt. If I go off over there, I can get away with it,’” Bentley said. “So that’s where I’m going to push a little bit harder and test things a little bit more so. Even to the point of looking at it like, ‘If I go off here, what am I going to do?’ And I don’t like to dwell on that part of it, but I do like to be prepared.”
Group track walks can be a bit distracting, especially where the dialectic runs amok or lacks focus. Or too many beers. Von Moltke said it almost would be better to use a rental car and take small groups and do a slow lap, stopping after the turns to get out and analyze a given corner. Most tracks don’t allow motorized vehicles on the racing surface after the track is cold, regardless of what you’re doing or how slowly you’re driving. That would really come in handy at a long track like Road America, but motorized vehicles aren’t allowed after hours, so to speak. That’s a 4-mile track walk.
“Group track walks are extremely difficult to do, right?” Von Moltke said. “To be honest with you, I’ve never come off of one and been like, man, we nailed that, but it can be fun. It can be engaging.”
If you can get away with a bicycle or a golf cart, those also can be helpful. Slight uphill sections can be easier to detect on a bicycle or if you can hear the golf car groan a bit under load. They also allow you to do a few more laps than you would by walking, and can help with visualization and rhythm. It might seem odd, but driving it at 5 or 10 mph does help.
Von Moltke’s approach varies with a few factors, including whether he’s there as a driver, whether it’s his first time there, in a new car or whether it’s a track he knows relatively well. If he’s driven the track, he’s focused on where he is having issues, where the problem areas are, a push here, oversteer there. Taking the engineers with him gives them a better idea of the track dynamics.
“Most of the time, it’s more about us walking with our engineers and talking to our engineers,” Von Moltke said. “It’s typically about where are we struggling, where our problem areas are. It lets the engineers get a little bit better picture or idea of what’s happening, what the track dynamics are.”
If you’re lucky enough to have an engineer on your race team, you are probably lucky enough. If you’re like a lot of NASA competitors, the driver is the engineer, who also is the crew chief, mechanic, transport driver and cook. When it comes time to do a track walk, you’re either out there by yourself or with friends and fellow racers.
If you go by yourself, the good news is that you can really focus, and the goal of this story is to provide you with what you need to focus on. Braking points. What gear will you be in? Where do you get back on the gas? Is there any camber at apex? Are there patches or seam sealer that will add or subtract grip? Are the curbs usable? Are they usable in the wet? Bentley talked about reference points. If it’s a new track, you’re going to have to absorb a lot of them. If it’s a track you know and love, you need to look for newer and more subtle clues. Von Moltke echoed Bentley’s points almost verbatim.
“I’m looking at those reference points. I’m trying to get an idea of what’s this going to look like behind the car? I’m looking at where the rubber is, right? So I’m looking at where the rubber starts on these exit curbs?” Von Moltke said. “Are there any obvious divots and things that I might want to avoid. You can kind of look at the backside of curbs, look at curbs and sort of see, ‘Oh, that’s going to hold a lot of rain water, or that looks really sharp, or that’s a big drop. I want to avoid that. So you’re just looking for more of the details and reference points.”
Another element to a track walk that Von Moltke and Bentley said they do every time is to drag the bottom of their feet along the racing surface to test its grip. Obviously, sneakers are different from racing tires, but scuffing feet is telling enough that both of them do it. While you’re at it, test the grip online and offline. Look at the aggregate that makes up the asphalt. If it’s wet the next day, where’s the aggregate that’s going to let your car stick in the rain?
“I like to rub my foot on the track surface when I’m going along, and just sometimes you can just kind of go, ‘OK, this is going to be a little more grippy than that part over there,’” Bentley said.
During a track walk at what was then Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, drivers in the Mazda Race of NASA Champions in 2015 found that the painted curbs were so sticky with rubber from the Tudor and Continental Challenge cars that your sneaker actually stuck to them when you stepped on them. A track walk is about becoming one with the track.
“And the last part of a track walk to me is, I know this sounds a little woo-woo, but I get to connect with the track,” Bentley said. “But it’s also fun to go and do it with a group of drivers and share the process.”
Getting the most from a track walk means having a plan to focus on what’s important. Von Moltke summed it up this way.
“Now, a lot of that comes down to knowing what to look for. I find 90 percent of the time in grassroots racing, you’ll hear drivers say things like, ‘Well, I know what I need to do to go faster. I just need to go out there and do it,’” Von Moltke said. “To be completely candid with you, pretty much a hundred percent of the time they’re actually not quite right. Or they’re out of order. A key part of going faster in our sport is having the right order of things of what to do next. So their situation might be out of order. So, if you don’t have a plan and you don’t know what to look for, you kind of walk a track aimlessly and you’re not getting anything out of it. So when you’ve got that plan, when you’ve got that coach kind of working with you and giving you the things that we’re doing, then you’re using the track walk to visualize, to see it, to get the sight pictures. And then it becomes very helpful. But if you don’t have the whole picture, you could easily waste your time and energy.”
I think track walks are one of the most underestimated, under-used tools a driver has in their arsenal. In my opinion, the benefits in the feedback and perspective it can give a racer is invaluable. That being said, I will add this for people to think about and consider.
Case in point, NASA Nationals at COTA in 2018. I had never been to the track or even seen the track other than a single F1 race on TV the year before. I looked at the over-head shots, studied the track map, etc., but I had no real experience at that track I could not get to the track early enough to drive on the practice day. Knowing that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, I reached out to Ross Bentley seeking widom. Since there was no way for him to be at the race, or physically walk the track with me, Ross suggested that I watch his virtual track walk of COTA. No, I didn’t get to drag my feet on the pavement, but it was the next best thing. Then I got to couple that with an actual track walk after the first day of competition, which solidified what Ross shared with me.
That information knocked down the learning curve so much that I was in the top 1/2 of the pack coming out of our first practice session; mind you, that was not having ever driven the track before and among some of the fastest drivers in my class across the Country. I then qualified in the top 1/3 for our first race, top 10 for our next race and top 5 for Sunday’s main race. In the end, I just missed the National podium Sunday, finishing 4th. I am convinced that had I not done both of those track walks, the weekend would have turned out MUCH different.
Thank you for this great article. Can someone explain how to determine where the exit apex is for a given corner?
The exit/track out point is going to be somewhere on the exit curb. The tell tale is where the rubber marks are from racers. It’s up to you to figure out where exactly on that exit curb works/feels right/best for you. If you’re doing the rest of the track consistently, experiment with different exit points in a give turn and see what it does for lap time.
Thank you, Steve!
When I go to a new track I’ve never driven before I like to watch in car video of good drivers that know what they’re doing. If it’s a pro track it makes it easy………watch IMSA, Indycar, etc. Look for where they’re braking, turning in, apexing, getting on power and how hard, exiting, what gear they’re in. Look at their lines through combination turns and how far they’re tracking out from sacrifice turns. If it’s not a pro track, the next best thing is a good amateur racer or consistent advanced driver that knows what they’re doing, looks like they’re hitting the proper marks, is consistent and is putting down respectable times for their car.
If I have a choice, I’ll always choose to drive a new track for the first day in a rental car. They’re easy to drive with low limits and tires that talk to you, so you can focus on learning the track and its nuances. So much easier to get a feel for grip level in a rental.
Track walks are great for that last bit to put it over the top. To help make sense out of why the car is wanting to do something in a given turn and the details of grip from obvious or subtle changes in compression, camber, slope, pavement change, bumps, etc.
As far as Laguna goes, it’s a very smooth track with consistent pavement(doesn’t mean consistent grip) and friendly curbs, as long as you don’t go too far over the apex curbs and hit the square curb behind them. They’re there as a deterrent and will cause damage if the sand/gravel ahead of their leading edge isn’t high enough. The curbing and numbered markers provide excellent reference points for braking and turn in. The bridge at start/finish can be used as a good reference for where to put the car for 1. The bridges before 5 and 6 can be good references for braking, although for 6 it’s very light for higher powered cars and just a lift for Spec Miatas. Speaking of 6…….it’s very important to make the apex because the big compression there helps the car rotate and get through the turn better. You should be on some throttle by the time you get there and commit to it. If you’re turning in at the proper point, you won’t see the apex at turn in. This is where the braking markers come in. It’s earlier than you think and usually before the 2 marker. The rest is for you to figure out lol.
Really appreciate these thoughtful comments and suggestions.
As a turn marshal for 30+ years, I drive the track to see the corners, turn stations and general track condition. That helps me to understand the radio calls, I’ll be receiving during practices, qualifying and races. I’ve flagged CASCAR, CHAMP, CART, INDY, SCCA, SOVREN, IRDC, and track days.