Friday, May 27, 2011

Back Road Techniques

Passing on the Backroads

Because we are so blessed in this country with freeways and limited-access highways, the old techniques of passing have largely been forgotten. They’re rarely taught in driving courses, except to emphasize not to cross a double-yellow line, and there aren’t many opportunities to practice the technique.

However, the more time you spend exploring the two-lane byways, the more often you’ll find yourself in a situation where you really do want to pass that slow-moving vehicle up ahead. To make a pass safely on a two-lane road just requires keeping a few guidelines in mind, then cultivating your ability to gauge the “closing speed” of your vehicle and the one coming at you from the other direction.

Obviously, there can never be any passing across a double-yellow line, or when there is a solid yellow line in your lane. To emphasize this, in most states there will also be a roadside sign stating “No Passing Zone” wherever visibility ahead is too limited to permit safe passing, and “End No Passing Zone” when there is sufficient visibility ahead to permit safe passing.

The first point to keep in mind in passing safely is that you need enough room to accelerate to a speed faster than the car immediately ahead of you, then you need to get far enough ahead of them to be able to safely return to your lane without forcing the car you just passed to slow up abruptly. You could work out the math, but a typical pass will require a minimum of half a mile, so you must be able to see at least that far down the road to make sure traffic is clear and there is enough space to complete your pass.

It is possible to pass even when you can see a vehicle coming toward you from the other direction, but the best strategy is to wait until they’ve passed you, at least until you are confident of your ability to determine the passing distance required, and to estimate how long it will take for the distance between you to close.

Here a second tip applies. When getting ready to pass, you don’t want to be right on the bumper of the car ahead. Instead, you want to have enough room so that you reach your maximum passing speed before you leave your lane to pass. That way, you will spend as little time as possible in the opposite lane before returning safely to your own lane. To do that, you should be at least two to three car lengths behind the car in front of you when you begin your pass.

If there is a vehicle coming from the other direction, and you can see far enough up the road to make sure that there will be space to pass after the oncoming vehicle passes you, then you should prepare to make your pass before the oncoming vehicle gets to your point. To maximize the amount of time you have to complete your pass, you should begin to accelerate as the oncoming vehicle approaches. If you’ve timed things properly, you will be at your maximum speed and ready to move into the opposite lane just as the oncoming vehicle passes you.

When passing, it is worth keeping in mind that it is illegal in all states to exceed the posted speed limit on any road or highway under any circumstances. In other words, if the speed limit is 65 mph, and you come up behind a farm truck going 45 mph, you’re permitted to go up to 65 in order to pass it, which isn’t a difficult pass. On the other hand, on that same road, if you find yourself behind a cautious driver doing 60, if space permits, you are allowed to accelerate to 65 to pass him. However, you can be ticketed if you have to accelerate to 75 mph in order to pass him.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Road Driving Techniques

Chapter Sixteen

Touring the Back Roads

Even if there aren’t any opportunities for track days or autocrossing in your local area, or you just don’t feel comfortable putting your new MINI through that kind of ordeal, touring can be a great way to enjoy time with friends, see the scenery and sights in your region, and have some fun with your MINI.

But even on pleasant grand tours, there are some advanced driving tips that can make your time on the road safer and more fun.

When The Route’s Brand-new

One major difference between driving on a track or autocross course, and driving on a tour on public roads is that you can’t learn the course in the same way. Even if you’ve driven a section of road frequently, you still can’t memorize the turn-in points and apexes of each corner the way you might on the track. So your mind-set must be different for touring. When you can’t be sure what the rest of the corner will look like, the major goal is to keep your car under control, rather than attempting to push its limits.

In particular, on roads that are new to you, you need to be aware that the curvature of the corner may change as you come around it. What was a reasonable speed when you entered the corner may be too fast for the radius of the curve on the other side.

Similarly, you may find that the easy corner is followed, right around the bend or just over the next rise, by a much tighter corner that you aren’t ready for. Generally, that means staying well within the limits established by the road and geography, rather than those determined by the car.

Old hands at road rallying suggest a trick to deal with blind crests that can help a little bit. If you’re coming up a rise or hill, and can’t see where the road goes after the crest, look at the telephone poles or tree line. Generally they’ll give you a clue to whether the road curves over the crest, and in which direction, or continues to go straight.

Nonetheless, whenever traffic permits, the twists and turns of a good backroads route can still allow you to enjoy the handling and power of your MINI. Generally, it can be more challenging to drive a two-lane back road near the 45 mph speed limit, than it is to drive a divided highway at 70 mph.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

Unlike the race track, out on the road, you don’t have a person with a yellow flag standing right at the apex to warn you if there’s an obstruction right around the bend. Instead, you’ve got to keep your speed limited to the level where you can use your reflexes and brakes to bring the car to a safe stop, or steer around the obstacle, without violating the laws of physics.

To be safe, you simply need to be aware of those times when you can’t see around the corner, and so need to slow down to the speed noted on the caution sign and be alert to what’s on the road as you do round that blind corner.

Don’t forget that you can drive around many obstacles rather than trying to stop to avoid hitting them. Often the safest course is to make a quick, slight direction change, rather than trying to stop.

As you drive, try to be conscious of what the sides of the road look like, as well as the road itself. If you do encounter that recreational vehicle stalled in the middle of the road, you need to know whether your only option is to slam on your brakes, or if you can safely go off on to the shoulder to avoid hitting the RV.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

You Can Learn a Lot by Watching

In between your runs, you also need to use your time effectively. After your first run, you may have some idea of which corners are toughest, or where you seemed to be slowing down too much. Watch the other competitors to see what line they’re taking through that portion, and watch where everyone seems to be having the greatest difficulty. As you watch, try to visualize in your mind what the course looks like from the driver’s windshield so you’ll have an idea of where to go when you’re on the course.

Many autocross events will require competitors to act as corner marshals on the course, with their primary task to replace cones that are knocked over and to help the starter make sure the corner is clear. These are excellent opportunities to get up-close-and personal as other drivers run the course. Check out the techniques of the fast drivers and see how they are taking specific corners. Their experience may help you take seconds off your own time.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

High-Speed Straights and Sweepers

Autocross courses are great places to find the limits of your car. In particular, most courses will include at least one high-speed sweeper. On these corners, you’ll want to get your car right at the edge of adhesion. You’ll be able to tell where that is by the squeal that the tires make as they struggle to hold on. You’ll often hear the saying, “A squealing tire is a happy tire,” but you won’t know what that means until you turn your car into that long curve then push down on the throttle until the car is right at its limits, using the throttle as much as the steering wheel to keep the car on course.

Gear selection and shifting is one of the few driving techniques that you probably won’t get to practice much when you’re autocrossing. Because most courses are so short and tight, you’ll probably find that you start in first, shift up into second as quickly as possible, and then stay in second gear for the entire course.
Occasionally an event may be able to set a course that does include one or perhaps two very long straight sections, where an upshift into third is needed towards the end to keep on the power band or avoid exceeding the rev limits. Even on these courses, you’ll need to downshift again almost immediately to be ready to power through the next corner, so you won’t lose much if you just run the car up to the top of the rev range without shifting.

Starts and Finishes

Nearly all autocross courses are timed electronically, with a beam of light and electric eye at the start and at the finish. As you make your start and cross the finish, your car breaks the beam of light, starting and stopping the timer.
For safety purposes, the SCCA has had a long-standing rule that there must be a right-angle turn before the start line, and another right-angle turn before the finish line. The cones that mark the turn before the start line, and after the finish line count just as much any other cone on the course, so you have to be careful in your start and finish. These rules help assure that cars don’t enter the course or leave the course at unsafe rates of speed.
The most obvious tip is that you want to be going as fast as possible when you cross the starting line, so that you begin the course with as much momentum as possible. Similarly at the finish, you don’t want to slow down until you’ve crossed the line and are off the course.
But you don’t want to be faster off the mark than the course permits. On many courses, the person setting the course will set up the first obstacle in such a way that the real hotshoes will find themselves in trouble as soon as they’re across the starting line.
When you walk the course, and as you sit at the start line waiting for your signal to begin, have a plan of attack on how you should negotiate the corner into the start line, based upon the direction you need to be going for the next two or three corners.
Similarly, there may be a complicated set of turns going into the finish that can trip up the unwary, causing them to be off the throttle just when they need a fast finish. Keep these possibilities in mind as you walk the course, and plan your strategies accordingly.
Gearing isn’t quite as complicated. With the MINI, your best bet on most courses is to start off in first, and then shift up into second as soon as you can. For the rest of the course, you can then just stay in second, confident that you’re well up in the rev range where you’ve got good torque for maneuvering. Few courses offer enough space to build up sufficient speed to justify a shift up into third or to require a downshift into first, and in most cases, the time you might gain by being in a better rev band will be lost by the time it takes to make the shift.

Setting Up the Car

During your first season, you don’t need to make many changes to the car. Most of your improvements in time will come through improvements in your own driving skill. In fact, the SCCA stock class places significant limits on what you can do to the car. In these classes you can make only a few changes to the engine. You can substitute a more efficient air filter, and replace the exhaust system behind the catalytic converter, but that’s about it on the power side.
On the suspension, you can substitute adjustable shocks and a front sway bar to reduce the car’s tendency to understeer. However, with the MINI’s excellent stock handling capabilities, it may take a season of practice before you would notice the difference in your time by these modifications.
What you can do within the limitations of the stock class is to replace the wheels and tires, so long as you stay within the stock sizes. Here you can make a great deal of difference in your lap times. As we’ve discussed above, by replace the stock wheels with a lighter-weight set you give the engine less mass to move. By mounting some good-performing tires to replace the run-flat tires that came with the car, you can get much better traction, and reduce the unsprung weight to boot.
If you get serious about autocrossing, you might consider buying tires that are designed specifically for racing, with a softer compound. However, these tires won’t last long at all if they’re also used on the street, so you would have to mount them on a separate set of wheels and put them on the car after you arrive at the event. Making this investment can certainly wait until you’ve worn out your first set of street tires and have gained the skill to take advantage of the improved tires.
But even if you decide to use the original run-flats for your first few events, experienced MINI autocrossers suggest that you can accomplish a lot by adjusting your tire pressures. You’ll probably want to increase the pressure on the tires so that they are less likely to roll. Inflate the fronts with about four pounds less pressure than the rear and you’ll do a lot to reduce the MINI’s basic understeering tendencies.
Another tip to find the right pressures is to make a mark with chalk or white shoe polish on the tire at the point where the tread joins the sidewall. If the mark is worn off after a run, then the tire is rolling over too far and you should increase the pressure that you’re running. Experiment with different pressures over the course of several sessions until you find a level that works best for you.
Be sure to check that the lug nuts are tight while you’re adjusting tire pressure and before going out on the track before every run. To be absolutely sure that they’re tight, you’ll need a “torque wrench” which measures the pound-feet of pressure required to twist the lug nut. You don’t need the best quality, since you won’t be using it every day, but a good one can be purchased for about $50. Tighten the lug nuts individually to 80 pound-feet and you’ll be sure that you won’t be singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.”