Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

Finding the Fast Line

Walking the course ahead of time can make a big difference. Since most autocross events only allow the drivers two or at most three runs, there really isn’t enough time to develop a strategy for the course and figure out the best line while driving it. Instead, serious competitors will arrive early enough so they can walk the course and scope it out.

When you do walk the course, try to ignore the rest of the crowd. Don’t just walk around to see where it goes; instead look at each corner, or sequence of corners and pause long enough to figure out how to go through that portion most quickly.

As you walk the course, divide it into cornering sequences and straightaways. You want to be in a position to get on the throttle quickly going into a straightaway, so that may sometimes mean planning your line through several corners in such a way that you can come out of the last corner at the right point and pointed in the right direction to burn up the straight.

The best strategy to deal with a sequence of turns leading up to a straight is to work backwards. Start with the straight, looking at where the car will be straightened out and pointed in the proper direction, then figure out how to take the previous corner so that the car winds up at the right point, facing in the right direction. Then evaluate the next previous corner and so on until you’ve figured out where you need to enter the sequence and how you should take it.

Autocross courses are typically made up of standard right and left turns, plus some ingenious obstacles that will be incorporated into every course. These include slaloms, chicanes, 360-degree turns, and sweeping turns. For each of these, we can offer some tips to take them as fast as possible

Slalom Segments

Slaloms are an important part of every autocross course. This segment of the course will consist of a straight line of cones, typically placed at equal distances from one another. The task is to go from right to left to right again, weaving through the line while maintaining as high a speed as possible.

To run a slalom sequence quickly, you definitely need to be looking two to three cones ahead, rather than simply concentrating on turning around the next cone. Drivers who focus on the cones one at a time typically start fast, then find themselves going wider and wider with each turn until they finally reach a point where they have gone too wide and can’t get turned without going off course or hitting a cone.

Instead, you should choose your turning point outside the line of cones, so that you just brush past each cone on the way to the point where you turn to line up to pass the next cone. If anything, you should start the sequence more slowly than you think will be necessary. That way you can gradually gain speed as you go through, rather than having to slide around and scrub off speed in order to stay on course.


Most courses you encounter are likely to have at least one section where the cones extend across your direct line of travel, on an otherwise straight section, forcing you to make a set of three tight turns, for example first right, then left, then right, to stay on course. These obstacles, a favorite of the fiends who lay out autocross courses, are called “chicanes.” (A good term, since the word is the root of the word chicanery, meaning trickery or deception.)

Often the chicane is enclosed in a box of cones to make the problem a little more difficult. A few tips will help you negotiate this obstacle as quickly as possible. First, remember that the main trick to autocrossing well is to turn series of straight lines into smooth curves. Don’t think of the chicane as a set of separate turns, but rather as a sort of slalom, where you want to take as straight a line as possible through the box.

Second, plan ahead to figure out where you want the car to be pointed when you exit the chicane. Then work your line back to determine how you want to enter the chicane.

Third, as you go through the chicane, don’t be tricked into dropping your sight line. Instead, look across and out towards the next turn as you enter the chicane. This will help you find the quickest way through.

Finally, don’t be timid, and don’t be tricked into making your turns sharper than they need to be. Be aggressive at the entrance and make your turns early. On most chicanes, you will be able to get on a straight line and back on the accelerator well before you’re actually through the obstacle, turning what could be three turns into only two turns.

Hairpins and 360 Turns

Another typical element of many autocross courses is the tight hairpin around a cone. Sometimes, the course may even require a 360 turn. This turn will be marked a single pylon sitting in the center of the path of travel with some large open space around it. Your challenge is to go around the pylon, executing a 180- or 360-degree turn and then continuing on the course.

This type of obstacle is tailor-made for the MINI’s front-drive capabilities and easily-reached handbrake. The trick to this is to use the handbrake or your left foot to release the grip of the rear tires on the pavement, then use the powered front wheels to pull you around in a controlled skid.

To manage this, you’ll drive close to the pylon, and when you’re even with it, turn the steering wheel to put the car in a sharp turn around the pylon. Holding the wheel turned with your left hand, you’ll give a quick pull on the handbrake, holding the button down and then immediately release the brake. You can also accomplish the same effect by using your left foot to stamp on the brake pedal and immediately release it, while keeping your right foot on the gas.

Either way, the quick braking should break the rear end loose so you can bring the car around with the nose almost touching the pylon. Once you’re about three-quarters of the way through the turn, you get hard on the accelerator to pull you back into a straight line and on down the course, and allow the steering wheel to unwind.

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