Street circuit pros offer speed tips for any racer

J.A.
By J.A. Ackley
Nov 14, 2023 | Street Circuit, Street Course | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy SRO America

Rough road surfaces. Blind corners. Tight quarters. Unforgiving concrete. Racing on street courses, such as the ones in Nashville or Detroit, isn’t for the faint of heart. However, as much as it intimidates some, it thrills others.

We asked some of the best for their tips to conquer streets, including Trans Am Series TA2 drivers Brent Crews, Rafa Matos, Thomas Merrill, Connor Zilisch and GT America Series driver Robb Holland.

Fortunately, many believe that street courses allow more skillful drivers to rise to the top.

Street courses is 80% the driver. Road courses is maybe 50% to 60%,” Rafa says. “[Street courses are] very technical. I believe that the drivers with more skills are able to make a difference at a [street course].”

1. Walk the Track

Street courses feature much more variation from year to year than dedicated road courses. This places a greater importance on studying the track.

Robb uses his experience from racing criterium, which involves racing bicycles on city streets. He applies the same strategy he used to navigate street courses with two wheels for when he competes with four: walking the track.

“That’s not getting in a scooter or whatever, but literally walking the track,” Robb says. “All the things you couldn’t see in a race car start to make sense.”

2. Compare the Track With Video

Thomas flies in a day early to check out a street circuit. He pays close attention to not only the surface itself but the placement of concrete barriers.

“Each time we’ve come here [to Nashville], it’s been a little different because human beings are putting the walls down,” says Thomas. “I was watching video to look at if the wall was a couple inches this way than that way last year. You’re using the painted lines to see if I have more or less room than I had before.”


Thomas Merrill at the Music City Grand Prix. Photo courtesy Trans Am.

3. Use the Track

Unlike a road course, city streets are built for people getting from Point A to B rather than racing.

“[The roads have] a crown in a middle so water can run off into the sewers,” says Robb. “If you think about how to enter a left-hand corner, you’ve got to go up a hill, so you’ve got tons of grip as you turn in, but then the road crowns in the middle, so [grip] starts falling away from you [as you exit the corner]. It takes a while to understand that.”

Sometimes, you can use the drainage to your advantage.

“You can start looking for those sewer grates, so if I go there, I’ll have a little bit of a dip, which will allow the inside tire to hook a little bit better and carry more speed through the mid-corner,” Robb says.

4. Pay Attention All Weekend

Street circuits see a wide variety of race vehicles over the course of the weekend.

“Understand that the track is going to be different every time you see it,” says Thomas. “Every time I see the race track, it’s more rubbered in. So going into every session, you’re anticipating that there’s more grip, but how much more grip is the question. How you measure that [is] in terms of how much you brake, how you turn, how you accelerate. It’s not just about going fast. It’s about measuring the grip response.”

5. Find Your Marks

Just as with road racing, develop visual cues to determine driver inputs such as braking points, acceleration points, and when and where to turn. With little room for error, street courses make this even more important.

“On a road course, it’s easy to lose a tenth every corner,” says Robb. “On street courses, it’s easy to lose three-, four-, five-tenths every corner.”

To combat that, Robb gets ultra-precise on his visual cues.

“You’ve got all these advertising banners up all over the place,” Robb says. “I use them to start breaking down my braking zone or turning points. I’ll be like, ‘Okay, it’s the Hy-Vee banner. Do I brake at the V or e? You can really use that to start fine-tuning things, and that’s where you start finding more speed.”


Robb Holland at the Music City Grand Prix. Photo courtesy SRO America.

6. Focus on Comfort Rather Than On-the-Edge Speed

Many drivers say they come into a street course with a fairly neutral, baseline setup.

“It’s about making sure the driver is comfortable in the car,” says Rafa. “The last second, last second and a half is really up to the driver to find that speed. If he feels comfortable inside the race car, he’ll more likely be able to do it. If it’s not comfortable, it’s impossible–you’re either going to be slow or you’re going to wreck.”


Rafa Matos at the Music City Grand Prix. Photo courtesy Trans Am.

7. Attack the Track

As far as driving a street course, drivers recommend getting aggressive–within reason.

“I found a lot of time by getting in [the corner] deeper and finding a way to do it without crashing,” Thomas says. “If you could just touch the walls on the apexes of the exits, you’re doing it right. At Detroit, there was a corner where I was able to use the wall almost like a berm to catch the car if I really needed an extra tenth or two.”

8. To Finish First, You Must First Finish

When teenage phenom Brent Crews heads to a street circuit, he focuses on one thing.

“Keep your car in one piece the whole weekend is the number one goal,” says Brent. “Keeping your car in one piece the whole weekend so you can make the car better, make yourself better, and you don’t have to work on the thing. It’s super easy to slip up and crash or have somebody slip up for you and put you in a bad situation.”

9. Qualifying Well Helps but Doesn’t Guarantee Success

“Being up front is the best way to avoid trouble here,” Rafa says. “When you are in the middle of the pack, you’re running with less experienced drivers. Those drivers tend to make more mistakes and tend to be not aware of their surroundings. They’re trying to survive.”

Qualifying up front is not a guarantee for success, however. At Nashville, a car in the back spun and came to a stop at a blind corner. It was then hit by another car. The two cars then blocked the track, and when the leaders came around the blind turn, they nailed the stopped cars. Those two leaders were Thomas and Brent.


Brent Crews started first in the Music City Grand Prix, but did not finish in the top spot. Photo courtesy Trans Am.

10. Aggressiveness Avoids Trouble

Driving timidly isn’t the path toward victory lane or even the finish line at a street course.

“Don’t drive with an avoidance mentality,” Thomas says. “The safest way is always forward. If I’m driving hard, driving forward, I can usually stay out of trouble. The weird thing about motorsports is sometimes aggression is safer. Defensive driving wouldn’t work well on the track.”

In fact, that “avoidance mentality” may invite trouble.

“You can’t start falling back,” says Connor. “When you start falling back, people will take advantage of you, bumping you out of the way, doing what they need to get by you.”

11. Keep Calm

This year, Connor qualified first at both Detroit and Nashville only to be disqualified for a technical infraction. He had to start those races from the rear. Despite that, Connor won those races.

“When you’re the fastest car and something like that happens, it throws you in for a loop,” says Connor. “But you’ve got to stay positive. Remember how long of a race it really is. It may seem short going into it and you feel like you have to do a lot quickly, but you really don’t. Remaining calm is the biggest thing–and not pushing yourself into any errors or [a situation] that you don’t need to put yourself into.”

12. Run Your Race

While the Trans Am Series pits cars from the same class on the track, the GT America Series does not. With limited passing opportunities, Robb applied a strategy he learned while competing at the Nürburgring.

“Don’t let the car following you dictate where to pass you,” says Robb. “So, if you’ve got a GT3 car coming up on you, there are times when I want them to pass on the inside and there are times when I want them to pass on the outside, and you have to position your car. A lot of drivers are intimidated by that.

“They’re like, ‘It’s a faster car, a faster class.’ I’m like, ‘Nope. It’s just another car in another class. I don’t care.’ My race is just as important as theirs, so I’m going to dictate how I want them to pass me. Sometimes, you just can’t give up the inside because you’ve got another guy [in the same class] right behind you. The other guy behind you is going to follow the GT3 car and now you’ve given up the pass.”

13. Know Thy Competitor

As with fish in the sea, racers of certain types tend to congregate in certain parts of the field.

“Understand who you’re racing against,” Connor says. “The guys in the back don’t look at their mirrors much, don’t have much awareness. When I’m passing a guy in the back versus a guy up front, I will almost clear them getting into the corner, so that way they can see me and won’t turn into me. The guys up front, you get up to their door or quarter panel, and they’re going to give you space and respect that you have the inside. The guys in the back don’t look in their mirror as much. They’re so focused on driving and not hitting the wall that they might not see you trying to make a pass.”

14. How to Pass to Win

Unless you start P1, you’re going to have to make some passes to win. The tight confines of street courses make that difficult.

“As a driving instructor, I get that question a lot: ‘Where should I pass?’” says Thomas. “I’m not a big believer in trying to predetermine that, and that’s doubly true for street course racing. Most of the time when you make an overtake on a street course it’s because the driver ahead of you made a mistake, and that can happen anywhere. I wouldn’t think of it as, ‘I’m going to set up a pass to happen here, I’m going to pressure the driver ahead of me to make a mistake and take advantage of it wherever I can.’ It’s not a standard race track where you would set up passes.”

Connor, who passed an entire field of cars both at Detroit and Nashville to win, stresses patience.

“It takes a lot more thought process than you think it would,” says Connor of passing. “You can’t divebomb people in the corner. If you catch a guy and you’re struggling to pass them, you need to understand where they struggle.

“Take your time with each car. Be smart on restarts. Pick them off when you need to, when it’s easier.”

If you think you need to be in a rush to win, Connor proved you wrong. Sure, he had a fast car, but his methodical approach took him from 34th to first in 31 laps at Nashville, where he went on to win the 38-lap event.


Connor Zilisch in victory lane at the Music City Grand Prix. Photo courtesy Trans Am.

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
11/14/23 3:44 p.m.

I almost always enjoy watching a street course, but I don't think I would ever have the nerve to race at one.

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
11/14/23 3:55 p.m.

In reply to Colin Wood :

Not in the rain, anyway.  Carnage.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
11/14/23 4:35 p.m.
nderwater said:

In reply to Colin Wood :

Not in the rain, anyway.  Carnage.

Call me Ian

Agreed. Aside from rain, they can be fun to watch.

j_tso
j_tso Dork
11/14/23 6:33 p.m.

Did somebody say carnage? The Macau Grand Prix is being streamed this weekend on the FIA's youtube channel.

J.A. Ackley
J.A. Ackley Senior Editor
11/15/23 10:07 a.m.

Those who enjoy street circuits, such as Rafa Matos, love the challenge of them. The Trans Am TA2 class certainly put on a show on them. It's a bummer they won't have any street circuits for 2024.

nuthunmuch
nuthunmuch New Reader
11/15/23 9:28 p.m.

Not really a fan of street circuits in F1, but for GT and touring type cars they can provide some good racing.

I've raced the Grand Prix of Trois Rivieres (GP3R) the past two years and it was quite an experience. Drivers definitely need to be even more aware of their surroundings than usual to stay out of trouble when racing on the streets.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
11/16/23 11:32 a.m.

JG and I met Robb at the St. Pete street race BITD, and so cool to see him recognized as one of the best. Plus he’s very nice. 

R_Holland
R_Holland New Reader
1/2/24 6:51 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Aww Thanks DW! And thanks for the support for all those years. You guys rock! 

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