Coach’s Corner: Wheel-To-Wheel Racing — When To Make The Move

Many amateur racing organizations in North America offer progressive steps to move their members from non-competitive events, like track days and HPDEs (High-Performance Driving Education or Experience), to traditional wheel-to-wheel racing. While these pathways usually take longer than attending a racing school and typically require a driver to supply a race car, the financial investment can be spread over a more extended time. Compare that to a relatively large one-time payment to attend an accredited school, and the progressive route makes more financial sense for many aspiring race drivers.

In most cases, drivers looking to move from non-competitive driving to traditional racing complete a particular number of track day events in groups of advancing experience. During those events, a racing applicant must demonstrate the car control and situational awareness needed to race wheel-to-wheel with other vehicles in close proximity. In nearly all cases, the fulfillment of these requirements is signed off on by highly experienced racers and/or licensed instructors.

Many racing sanctioning bodies provide coaching in the right-seat during entry-level HPDE programs to help those who are new to racing.

While a sizable chunk of responsibility for deciding to grant a racing license lies in the hands of these experienced racers, each potential rookie race driver carries a greater responsibility to evaluate their skills and on-track decision-making truthfully. A high degree of situational awareness, and a baseline of good driving habits, greatly increases the potential to be a safe race car driver. Self-policing is a responsibility each driver must accept to keep on-track action enjoyable and fun.

Telling When You May be Ready to Move Up

There are several ways to evaluate the high-performance driving skills and experience of a driver wanting to jump into full-blown auto racing. However, there are a few essential items to pay close attention to when trying to gauge a driver’s readiness to jump into a club racing setting. The most important thing is comfort, and I am not talking just about making sure you are seated at the proper distance from the steering wheel and pedals.

A racer needs to feel mentally comfortable when driving at speed and in situations demanding maximum attention and focus. Physical comfort, when strapped into a race car, can play a role. Still, a driver’s level of mental comfort during high-stress situations — such as driving in a tight group of equally-matched vehicles — is the most critical attribute of a safe racing driver. Much of this mental comfort comes from a driver’s confidence, which we discussed in detail in a past column. Quiet confidence, between under- and over-confidence, is the ideal headspace for any race car driver.

Being predictable goes a long way to being able to stay safe in tight-knit racing groups.

The next thing to look for is the ability to be consistent. There are a few ways to look at consistency behind the wheel, each of which is vitally important when racing in close quarters. Arguably, the most crucial skill to develop is the ability to drive a consistent line through each section of a given racecourse.

A consistent driver minimizes the chance of getting involved in a wreck with another car for two reasons. First, by taking the same line around the racetrack, there is less focus spent on navigating each corner individually. Instead of attempting to remember where to start braking, turning in, and tracking out, the driver can actively concentrate on accounting for each car around them.

Secondly, a consistent driver is predictable, making it easier for fellow drivers to anticipate where your car will be at any point on the circuit. That allows other drivers to plan where and how to attempt a safe pass versus making a desperate dive-bomb attempt hoping for the best. Often a desperate pass attempt ends up poorly for at least one driver and can collect many other innocent bystanders.

When cars are similarly powered, such as Spec classes, situational awareness becomes that much more important.

Aside from safety, consistency behind the wheel also allows a driver to reduce lap times more quickly. Beginning with a consistent, repeatable line, a driver can experiment with a braking point or track-out point at one portion of the course, and compare the experimental lap time to that of a baseline lap to determine opportunities for improvement. The same experimental process can also be used to develop the setup of a racecar, making it easier to determine whether a spring change or shock adjustment produced a desirable effect.

Understanding when to Log More HPDE Track Time

Almost any honest racecar driver will tell you their first wheel-to-wheel race was overwhelming, even a little nerve-racking. Multiple-off track distractions at your first race keep you from focusing on the task at hand — driving your car. From preparing the vehicle to knowing the daily schedule, there is a lot of information to organize.

For new drivers, things do not get any easier once they roll off of the pit lane. Thoughts often drift toward anxiety of wrecking and desperately trying to recall the brake, turn-in, and track-out points developed in practice and qualifying. There is rarely any mental bandwidth to spend on thinking about turning safe, consistent laps, which is why comfort behind the wheel is critical to safe racing. While HPDE events are a great way to get prepared for competition, they cannot replicate the pressures experienced by a driver in the middle of a race.

Mock starts are performed along the way to help drivers gain confidence in being in a group. (Photo: Jane Absalom)

With that in mind, we return to the importance of honesty when determining if you can safely move to wheel-to-wheel racing. Here are some key things to ask yourself:

  • Am I ever caught off guard when a car passes me on track? Does this happen more than once during every hour of actual on-track time?
  • Am I constantly thinking about my driving line?
  • Does my grip on the steering wheel increase when I know there is another car nearby?
  • Can I say more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to my driver coach’s comments, when appropriate?

If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions, you may benefit from more track time before going wheel-to-wheel racing. When thinking about these questions, attempt to be as honest as possible. By jumping into competitive racing too early, you not only risk the safety of yourself and others, but you are more likely to rack up expensive repair bills from racing incidents. Jumping in over your head can also stunt the growth of your driving skills, sucking the fun out of a perfectly enjoyable leisure activity.

Last Lap

Being honest with yourself will help you be comfortable to move up when you are ready. It is each person’s responsibility to be safe on-track. (Photo: Jane Absalom)

As we wrap up, here are two words to keep in mind when determining if you are ready to jump into wheel-to-wheel racing: Responsibility and Honesty.

Part of being a race car driver is accepting responsibility for the safety of everyone at a racing event. That includes your safety, as well as the safety of other drivers, track workers, race officials, and spectators. The decisions you make on-track can have life-altering consequences because a minor driving mistake or small lapse in concentration has the potential to cause physical or financial harm to yourself or someone else.

Honesty is the other side of this coin. The only way to accurately assess whether a would-be racer is ready to go wheel-to-wheel with other drivers is to honestly self-evaluate whether you have the skills and abilities to go racing safely. As a driver, you owe it to everyone at the racetrack to make sure you are prepared to handle any situation that may arise on track.

About the author

Chris Berg

Aside from covering and writing about motorsports, Chris has been an HPD coach and instructor for about 6 years. He's instructed at Heartland Park Topeka and Brainerd International Raceway.
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