What Actually Makes the Pros Faster?
Want to get better? Of course you do. Follow these tips and you’ll smoke the competition.
Before we even talk about the steering wheel or brakes we need to talk about you. That’s right, despite what you may be told by magazines and YouTube, you are the most important thing about your car. Professional racing drivers work on physical fitness like it’s their job—because it is. No breakthrough in tire technology is worth a cent if the driver can’t maximize it every moment of the race. We’re not talking about becoming an Olympic powerlifter either, many racing drivers are built like jockeys which means they put an emphasis on building lean muscle and cardio. As the body fatigues, the mind also suffers in the form of brain fade. Keeping in shape is a large part of how professional drivers are so fast. The more relaxed you are, the more consistent you can be when it comes to clocking off lap times.
PRO TIP: You don’t have to join a gym to get to the level of fitness required to control a car. A brisk walk every day and some basic weight training are usually enough for the average guy to notice a big difference in his ability to control the car. Get off the couch and start working out!
Pro drivers have access to testing and tuning on a 24/7 basis. While you likely don’t have a fraction of the funds to light on fire, you can be smart with your money and maximize your efforts by getting a second-hand spec car or something that is dirt cheap to beat up on. Seat time is seat time and it often matters very little if it’s in a 6-figure sports car of a $2,500 beater that you have no concern for. Driving a lot develops the feeling from your backside and the innate ability to predict what the car will do before it happens. Professionals in any discipline hone in on this and it creates a unique advantage. Any kind of seat time you can get from indoor karting to full-blown racing is going to benefit you in a substantial way. Professional drivers might not even be more naturally talented than you or I, they simply have more access to explore their limits.
PRO TIP: If you’re looking to get into racing or buy a car for occasional track days, think about buying something cheap that you can really abuse without worrying. Many professional drivers that I deal with have a Craigslist car they wouldn’t be sad to lose and they all list this bullet point as one of the most important. Seat time, seat time, seat time.
A racer’s mind is often compared to a computer. Sensory input comes in from what the car is doing which is converted into things like your arms turning the steering wheel or your foot coming off of the gas pedal to moderate wheel spin. What separates a pro from really good amateurs is the ability to keep processing data when the proverbial ish hits the fan. Freezing up is actually more common than one might think when a blowout or spinning car unexpectedly comes our way in a turn and we’ve all done it. Even the pros freeze up sometimes, they just do it less or know how to snap themselves out of it in a hurry. Much of driving is between the ears and top paid sportsmen perform well under pressure as often as possible. This is also why repetition and seat time are so important. If you have a lot of experience under your belt you are less likely to panic, less likely to make a mistake and more likely to keep your lap time grouping tight.
PRO TIP: Visualization is a powerful tool that almost all great drivers exercise, and it is an exercise. Practice seeing things happen that are out of your control and how you will react to them. If they actually do happen, it might not shock you as much as you think which allows you to maintain control of the car. The worst thing at a track day is damaging your car due to something that could have been avoided with a calm mind and smooth hands.
One of the greatest skills I have noticed among those who reach the absolute pinnacle of the sport is the ability to communicate effectively what the car is doing to an engineer. “But I don’t have an engineer with me at the track,” I can hear you say. That’s true, you don’t. But what you do have is a giant community of enthusiasts, shop owners, tuners and people you likely speak to on a day to day basis about your car. As many of us deal with shop owners who race themselves, you can make leaps and bounds when tuning just by effectively communicating what the car is doing. Many people struggle with this even in sports like NASCAR. Watch a documentary about any great F1 driver and you will likely hear someone at some point mention how “he was so good at setting up the car.” Remember—these guys don’t work on their own cars! They are communicating to someone effectively so that person can make the required adjustments. You might not have an engineer, but you should pay attention to how your car was handling and in what kind of turns it was exhibiting those traits. Bring a notebook to the track and work on effectively describing what your machine is doing. Relaying this information at a later point to the person who helps tune your car could knock seconds off your personal best.
PRO TIP: You don’t have to be Mark Twain to communicate effectively, but you should take time to study some of the greats like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton to understand how they speak about a racing car.
Go Back to School
No, we’re not talking about buying your way into USC, we’re talking about learning how the equipment works. Great racing drivers know that the car matters just as much as all of the other things on this list. That track day guy who is always telling people it’s “all about the driver” probably has very little insight into racing beyond his local club. If he did, he would know that this simply isn’t the case. You see, pros spend enough time around engineers that—if they’re good—they become a bit of an engineer as well. Having a basic understanding of what a radial tire is compared to a cross-ply tire is one example of this as they require different camber specifications to maximize the contact patch. If you are unaware of this, you might be unnecessarily hard on your driving when it is quite literally out of your control. As much as you can you should strive to learn about how things work, how to disassemble them and how to put them back together. Getting faster is all about knowing the platform you are tuning and how it responds to changes.
PRO TIP: Even the weather has a large impact on lap times. Certain tracks can be up to a second slower depending on the time of year you are competing. This can change your setup from the previous year if the same race was held earlier on the calendar. Know your environment and your equipment intricately—that’s what pros do.
Racing is a dynamic sport that requires physical strength, mental determination, and an analytical mind. Keeping all of these things to a high level is what the best athletes do on a day-to-day basis, and while you might not have the Monster Energy team behind you, there’s no reason you can't emulate what they do to get better. Apply all of this to your driving and you will see an improvement in your ability as well as your understanding of what is going on with the car. The more you learn, the more you will improve and be the envy of those at your next race. Just be sure you tell them you got the tips from my column! I hope you enjoyed reading this and it helps you become more consistent behind the wheel. For our last pro tip, I’ll leave you with a constant reminder. Thank you for reading.
PRO TIP: Have fun.