Falsely Accused of Driving Smoothly!

On a recent weekend I ran two different autocross events, one in Huntsville on Saturday and another in Chattanooga on Sunday. Both days, someone (not the same person) commented that I looked very smooth. How outrageous! Don’t they know that I once authored a blog post entitled Smooth Is Slow?

I guess the car looked smooth from their exterior vantage point. Both persons had been working on course during my run group. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think they were trying to slyly tell me I was slow. I was driving faster than ever. Too fast on Saturday, in fact, to stay off the cones.

Both courses were tight and busy. Inside the car I was working furiously, making a huge number of small, quick corrections at both steering wheel and throttle, moving the weight around, finding each scrap of grip available right at the edge of traction and on the precipice of loss of control. I was very busy and I felt nothing smooth about it! I guess since I didn’t spin, didn’t have any big slides and the tires were howling more or less at a consistent pitch and volume it seemed smooth to the observers.

I discussed this observer-versus-driver disconnect phenomenon in Smooth Is Slow. I re-read it just now. Still happy with what I said back then in one of my very first posts. This has made me ponder a slightly different subject, however, which has a connection to smoothness.

Most autocrossers have run into the following complaint about autocross from track-day junkies, usually when asked why they have no interest in autocross: Autocross is dumb because you spend all day to get 6 runs of 60 seconds each. Just not enough seat-time. On a track day I  get 5 sessions of 20 minutes each… that’s 100 minutes of seat-time versus 6 for autocross!

I’ve always thought there was something a little screwy with this position. If you don’t find autocross fun, OK. If you don’t care for the competition and can’t enjoy it while losing, well OK to that also. The seat-time argument, if intended to imply that you become a better driver faster, seems wrong to me.

I’ve found that many of the people who say things like this, despite many hours of time on the track dwarfing the time I’ve spent on the autocross course, are painfully slow when I get out there on track with them. (I’ve done  17 track-days. I like doing them. I’m sure I’ll do more.) Typically, they exhibit car control skills that I think of as mediocre at best, which causes them to drive what seems like a very slow pace in the corners, necessarily leaving a large margin for error. I’ve been thinking about why this might be the case, after all those hours they have on track, and have come to an idea about it.

The idea is this: it seems to me if you want to develop high-level car control skills there’s a fast way and a slow way. The fast way is most accurately measured by how much time you’ve spent at the limit of tire adhesion.

During a day of autocross you get, if properly aggressive, 6 minutes at the limit, more or less. It doesn’t matter what car you are in, how much horsepower you have, or what tires are mounted. Spending time at the limit is what counts when it comes to developing car control.

In that 100 minutes of track driving, the typical, sane person gets how much time at the limit? Zero.

None. Zilch. Not any a’tall, which is infinitely less time at the limit than an autocross gives.

Why is this? Very simple. To get to the limit you must go over the limit. Otherwise, you can’t tell, especially before you are an expert, that you got to the limit. Right? So, what happens if you go over the limit during an autocross? Worse case, you tank-slap spin and that run is toast. Guess what, though? You get to start up again, rejoin the course, and drive the rest of the run at the limit. You’re not out anything except a little tire rubber. Maybe you don’t win your class that day. Maybe you don’t beat anybody that day. You can’t worry about that. This is just practice. All runs are just practice. Some of them, eventually, might win you a trophy, maybe even a National event trophy, but it’s all just practice until you’re running for that National Championship jacket. Maybe even after you’ve won one of those, too.

What happens if you go over the limit on a race track? Worst case, you die. Bummer. Best case, you have an off and return to the pits for an inspection and maybe a time-out. You don’t even get to drive hard the rest of the lap. Rats!

Driving over the limit is really stupid at a track day. Nobody is going to kiss you at the end and hand you a trophy. Therefore, the fast way, trying to drive every moment at 100%, is not available to track junkies. They have to do it differently. They have to do it the slow way. The slow way takes a looooong time (as measured in track minutes) and lot$$$$$ of money, as measured in entry fees, travel costs, brake pads and discs, tire wear, extra brake fluid and engine oil changes, etc. And the kicker is that if you don’t do the slow way right you won’t ever get fast.

How can you drive hundreds of hours at the track and never get fast? I’m not totally sure, but from what I’ve observed you do it by driving consistently well inside your comfort zone. I suspect these folks steadfastly refuse the instructor’s pleading that you are now ready so please try going just a little bit faster. Probably, as soon as they can, they ditch the instructor and just circulate. Having fun. Some of them are really smooth, too.

Which brings up my next point: it’s pretty easy to be smooth at 90%.

What is the track junkie to do to get fast and develop top-notch car-handling skills? Other than doing 50 non-fun autocross events with such paltry seat-time and having to accept losing over and over again. Losing to teenagers in smoking, clapped-out Miatas with mismatched body panels and 300 HP less than you have. Losing to grandmothers. Losing to 85-year olds. Lots of losing in autocross!

You do what all the instructors say: gradually ramp up the speed while working on, wait  for it, Smoothness!

Why work on smoothness on the track and not the autocross course? Because what you really need to do is get sensitive. Trying to be smooth helps you do that, in the right circumstance, which is driving just a little bit out of your comfort zone. Not much out, just a little. Do that consistently and you improve.

If you drive on the track, you must drive below 100% if you want to own an operable vehicle at the end of the day, not to mention operable legs. But, if you drive at, say, an average of 95% you will actually vary around that by some percentage…let’s pick 3%, because nobody is perfectly consistent, certainly not the novice or intermediate tracker. That means you’ll wander around in the 92% to 98% range.

So, sometimes, for a brief moment, you actually are very near to the limit. If you are sensitive, driving for extended durations  at an average of 95% is close enough to get the feel for what the tires are doing and how weight shifts with every input you make and how that affects the level of traction front to back and left to right and how it affects what the car will do next and how it affects how you can execute the technique your instructor has given you, or the drill/practice/cornering method you have set for yourself. You will develop mad skillz, Bro.

On the autocross course you can use the fast way. Immediately push yourself to the limit and learn to handle it. What will you actually be doing? You’re understanding of the car’s dynamics will expand, you’ll anticipate events earlier, your sensitivity to what the car is doing will naturally increase, you will make corrections better, earlier and faster. You get instant feedback from all angles, including the time on the clock. Looking at data will show how much time each little mistake costs. If you want to win you stop making them. You will develop mad skillz, Bro.

You might even get to the point where someone will accuse you of being smooth.

One last thing. Is one way really faster than the other? Let’s say you do 25 autocross events per year for 5 years. That’s 125 days of your life. I think most people can develop quite good skills with that amount of autocross running, if they do it right.

Let’s say you do 25 track days per year for 5 years. That’s 125 days of your life. I think most people can develop quite good skills with that amount of track running. If they do it right.

Interesting: the two methods are not different in total time expended, but very different in seat-time.

Put in the time, either method, and you’ll get there. But, whatever you do, don’t drive the track at 100% (or you won’t last long) and don’t drive autocross at 95% (unless you’re OK with staying slow or you think of your tires like pets and can’t bear to torture them.)

me & vette small

At TAC/TVR #3                        Photo by Scott Budisalich






Watch This!

The most interesting autocross video I’ve ever seen is a split screen of Matthew Braun and Geoff Walker, both driving Geoff’s S2000CR in STR on day 2 of the 2014 Wilmington Championship Tour. You can find it here on youtube.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet both of these guys and I can tell you they are both great drivers and great persons. Many of you know, or know of, Matthew. He’s been a fixture on the national circuit for a long time with (I think) two jackets and many Nationals trophies. Geoff, from nearby Nashville, is a very solid up-and-comer that I’ve been chasing for years. He and Matthew drove Geoff’s car in STR last year at Nationals. Both trophied, with Matthew in 2nd and Geoff only 0.6s (over two days) back in 8th. On to the video.

I’ve seen some side-by-side comparisons, but I’ve never seen anything done quite as well as this. Matthew is on the top half of the screen, Geoff on bottom half. The action is shown at about half-speed, so you have time to take in what’s happening. (Still, I’ve watched it countless times.) At three points along the way the video stops, the car behind is allowed to catch up and the delta time and total elapsed time is displayed. Really cool.

But the driving, Holy Toledo Pro-Solo! There may have never been as good a comparison of two very different styles. Geoff is smooth as butter. The car is always in perfect position. And, believe me, he is fast! Matthew is a wild man by comparison, but utterly perfect. The first ten seconds is enough to tell the story. Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait right here.

Each of the offset cones in the first 10 seconds of the run is the same story, and really is the story. Matthew is traveling faster, turning the wheel much faster, farther and earlier (has to be earlier because his velocity is greater) and the back end slides out approaching each cone. Then he counter-steers, catches the tail while hitting the throttle and zooms on to the next cone. Meanwhile Geoff is smooth and controlled with, near as I can tell, very little sliding going on. (I’ve seen Geoff slide that S2000CR, so I know he is sometimes more ragged, but not here. Maybe he was, for whatever reason, just being slightly safe on that run. I don’t know. I’ve been wanting to ask him but he hasn’t been racing much this year.) After 11.7 seconds on-course, Matthew is 0.265s ahead. Matthew’s total lead over Geoff on day 1 was less than 0.265 seconds.

The two drive almost exactly the same line, in the same car, on the same tires, yet by the end Matthew is over 0.8 seconds in front. The only “mistake” I see anywhere is that Geoff gets a little late in the slalom around 13 seconds into the run. Just a little bit. But, you can see it costs him some time as the slalom ends and Matthew gets on the throttle earlier.

Go watch it again!

Smooth is Slow!

The common advice that smooth is fast is just plain wrong. It’s the worst advice you can give to a beginner… totally useless and, in fact, misleading.

The idea that it is necessary to be smooth to be fast is probably an illusion, possibly caused by looking at a car driven by an expert from the outside. It ignores what’s happening on the inside.

From inside the car, the driver should be making constant, rapid and sometimes even violent corrections. If not, the car is not being driven on the limit. The expert autocross driver doesn’t look smooth from an in-car video or to a passenger nor does it necessarily feel smooth to the driver himself. After a 60-second run the driver may well be huffing and puffing from the exertion and from having his breathing interrupted by high lateral-G forces.

Now, if the car looks herky-jerky from the outside, then the tires are probably being shock-loaded beyond their capacity, grip is being sacrificed and the positioning is not correct. All such faults are most likely the result of not looking ahead, not due to a lack of smoothness. So, if looking from the outside is what people mean by “smooth is fast” well, okay, but it’s so misleading as to be useless. To look smooth from the outside, and therefore to be FAST, look ahead. Do not “try” to be smooth. There is no more colossal waste of time in autocross than “trying” to be smooth. It can only slow your reflexes, make you late and make you fail to transition rapidly enough. All things that make you SLOW.

All that said, it is true that we do get smoother as our car control skills improve, as we look farther ahead and as we better anticipate what the car is about to do next. That type of smoothness only comes with experience. Forget about it. Learn to drive on the limit, smooth or not, and you’ll get fast. You can be smooth in your old age.