Art Of Speed: How To (Safely) Practice Racing On The Street

Anyone who has driven even one competitive lap on the racetrack will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you simply can’t drive on the street the way you do on the racetrack. Besides the illegality of exceeding the speed limit (which you’re certain to do), you’d need to be able to move over into the oncoming lane at corner entrance and corner exit, as well as deal with the possibility of striking an unforgiving curb either at the apex or at the corner exit. There’s no corner worker to warn you of a danger ahead and unlike on the racetrack, cars are coming at you as well as driving alongside you. It’s illegal, unnecessarily risky, and you could seriously hurt yourself or an innocent driver.

Neural Superhighway

You can, however, practice certain elements of what makes a good track driver on the street. You may have heard it referred to as muscle memory or some other similar term. In fact, it’s all about the way your brain is wired. If you weren’t aware of it, your brain is constantly rewiring itself. Even as you’re reading this column, it’s deciding what information to keep and which to ignore. The more you partake in a particular activity the more frequently your brain accesses that part where the information needed is stored. Use it a lot and it becomes a neural superhighway.

Just because you’re not driving on the racetrack doesn’t mean you can’t use your time behind the wheel to practice your race craft.

So that’s the premise here. Practice certain aspects of on-track driving that are safe to engage in on the street so that you brain can readily access the information when you’re on the track.

Seating Position

Try to set the seat in your street car in the same position as your race car. If they’re one in the same, then it’s pretty straightforward. If it’s a different car, try and replicate the distance to the pedals and steering wheel as best as possible. This way when your brain receives input through your senses while on the track, your response will be commensurate with what you’ve been doing on the street.

Also, squeeze your butt down into the seat as far as possible. When wearing a racing harness, it forces you to do so, but the standard OEM three-point seat belt isn’t much help. The reason is that the greatest contact patch between you and the car is your gluteus maximus.

Take a lesson from a three-time Formula 1 World Champion on how to best utilize the greatest interface you have with your car.

Remember the line delivered by the actor Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda in the motion picture RUSH? Lauda described his talent as “God gave me an okay mind, but a really good ass, which can feel everything in a car.” Maybe you don’t have the God-given ass of a three-time World Champion, but you can teach yourself to improve your connection with your car.

Use your time commuting to learn how to feel what the car is doing. Do you exit the same looping off-ramp every day? Try driving it at different speeds and let the car tell you what it likes. Slow, it will be very happy, but as you pick up speed a standard-issue street car will start to protest, most likely in the form of understeer. See if after several days you can find the speed the car likes best. That helps you to tune your butt to what the car is doing.

Looking Ahead

Yes, you’ve heard this a million times from your father and your Drivers’ Ed teacher when you first earned your license. If you’ve taken any sort of on-track education, your instructor would have told you the same thing. But when applied to the street, most drivers just think about watching the brake lights several cars ahead of them. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a good thing to be doing both on the street and on the track. In fact, if you’re doing it right you’ll find yourself on the highway with your foot already on the brake by the time the car in front of you reacts.

A twisting section of road provides an excellent opportunity to practice looking ahead of the car while driving through a turn.

Is there a twisting road somewhere nearby? A great exercise that doesn’t break any laws is to drive the road by looking as far ahead as possible. Avert your eyes from the turn that you’re in. Look up ahead at the next turn once you’re committed to the first turn. It’s a little daunting at first, but have faith in the skills you’ve already built and the fact that your brain will make the car go where you’re looking. Once you’re comfortable looking one turn ahead, try two turns and work on that. Before you know it, you’ll be driving ahead of the car, which is what you need to be doing on the track.

Do you live somewhere where it’s completely flat and there are no twisting roads? Look for a secondary road that makes a sharp right or left turn.

Even if there’s no section of curving roads near you, you can still find a place to practice, like on a single sharp turn.

Drive at a legal speed and always remain in your lane, even if you can see ahead. Now as you approach the turn, once you’ve made your initial turn-in input on the wheel look down the road as far as you can. Let the car follow the course that you’ve set. By driving slowly and giving yourself plenty of room, you lower the risk and will feel more confident with the maneuver.

Mirrors

This applies primarily if you’re on-track with other cars, but they’re also good skills to have on the highway.

I’ve gotten into other peoples’ cars and for the life of me, even if I don’t have to adjust the seat, I can’t imagine by what criteria they’ve set their mirrors. No wonder people have problems with blind spots.

Here’s a way to minimize blind spots for the track and the street. Start with your inside mirror. Set it so it provides you with a full view of the rear window. Now adjust your right mirror so that whatever image is at the far right end of your inside mirror appears on the far left side of your right hand outside mirror. Then do the same thing (or is it the opposite?) for the left exterior mirror. Follow?

Basically what you want is just the tiniest sliver of overlap between the three mirrors. This way no one can slip into your blind spot, whether it’s a motorcycle on the highway or a racecar pulling out to pass you.

Practice looking at your mirrors at regular intervals while you’re driving on the street. One rookie mistake many new track drivers make is to be so focused at what’s in front of them, they’ve lost track of what’s around them. If you’re regularly checking the mirrors while you’re driving on the street, it will become hardwired in your brain and you won’t have to consciously think about checking while on the track – it will just be a habit.

Setting your mirrors to eliminate blind spots make you a safer driver on the track and on the street.

I’ll close with a personal anecdote: By the time I’d turned 16 and enrolled in Driver’s Ed, I’d read every book in the public library about racing and driving racecars. So, I’m behind the wheel and the Driver’s Ed teacher is riding shotgun. He reaches over and tilts the rear view mirror away from me and asks “what’s behind us?” Of course I’d been watching the mirrors like I’d read in the books. And being a teenage smart-ass I replied “a motorcycle. The rider is wearing a white helmet and a black jacket. Would you like to know what kind of motorcycle it is?” “No,” he replied dejectedly. At which point, I’m guessing he was asking himself why he’d signed up to teach Driver’s Ed in the first place.

So don’t just look behind you. Learn what’s around you. Make it a game. See if you can determine the make and model of the car behind you on the highway from a quick glance. That’s a helpful tool when you’re on-track with faster or slower cars. You’ll be able to quickly determine if that car behind you is in your class and just following you or is a faster car that’s ready to pull out and pass. It might make the difference between a clean pass and a two-car incident that you set into motion.

Race safely!

About the author

Art Michalik

Art has served in marketing functions at various aftermarket manufacturers, driven in autocross events and in road racing in a car of his own construction, and even managed a world-famous racing school.
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