How to methodically find more speed at the track

By J.G. Pasterjak
Dec 4, 2023 | track day, Track Car | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

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Two questions we hear all the time: 

How do I get faster?” 

How do I get better?”

They’re good questions, even if they’re more different than they might seem at first. Any hobby you engage in–particularly one that requires the commitment and focus of motorsport–is going to have its own siren song of improvement. After all, motorsport is a metric-rich environment, and every split second, every g and every mph represents another yardstick. 

But when we talk about “improving,” which of those metrics really matters? Which should we focus on, and what path should we take to hone our skills?

That’s a tall order, so let’s discuss.

Asking the Right Questions

At its heart, this discussion is as philosophical as it is mathematical. Ultimately, regardless of what path you take to improvement behind the wheel, you need to have a goal. 

Does improvement to you mean lower lap times? Less broken equipment? More confidence? More control? All of these are worthy goals, but all may have different paths to achieving them.

Let’s start with things that we can measure–and it doesn’t have to be that complicated. One of the best indicators of increased performance is what Terry Earwood refers to as the “redneck MoTec.” This is, simply, data that your brain and eyes can gather, like checking speed or rpm at specific points on track. 

For example, are you now turning 500 more rpm while passing that corner stand that sits about an eighth of a mile past Turn 5? Guess what? You got a better exit from 5. Now figure out what you did and do it again, but better. 

Another common measure that doesn’t require formal data: Are you turning in from the edge of the track, hitting the apex curb with the shoulder of the tire, and tracking out to the limit of the pavement (or the limit of your comfort)? 

If you’re not, but you feel like you’re driving at the limit, try opening up your lines and using more track. You’ll likely find that your limits are now higher than you previously thought.

Another common refrain–mostly pitched as a joke but closer to the truth than many realize–is the line about calling an event a success if the driver had fun and brought the car home in one piece. 

Yes, not finishing a session with a splitter full of rocks and dirt is important, but what these jokesters are really getting at is a sense of control and comfort on track. As one friend of ours puts it, “Just speaking from iRacing track experience, I measure progress by how many laps I can complete without spinning out.” 

A second set of eyes brings something important to the learning experience: accountability. And that chatter can take place trackside or virtually. Photography Credit: Dave Green

Finishing a session with the car in good shape likely means the driver is comfortable, confident and fully in control. One of the best measures of this is pure fatigue. Are you running out of breath, grip strength or upper-body endurance by the middle of a session? Yes, driving is a physical activity, but there’s just as much of a chance that your tension level is way too high. 

Tightness leads to fatigue, and fatigue leads to incidents, and if every track session feels like a workout, you may want to consider a slower run group or some exercises to calm and focus yourself before heading out on track. No, you don’t need to be a stoic, hypervigilant samurai when released from grid, but you should be focused on the task at hand while also relaxed enough to let the car do the hard work.

One of our pals recounted the time an in-car driving instructor started a casual conversation a few laps into a session. The talk focused on things like corner stations, escape roads and other track stuff. 

Far from being a distraction, it was an exercise in broadening the field of vision and sensory input and observing as much information as possible. Most things are way less scary with more information and a broader picture, and a relaxed driver is usually a fast and safe driver. 

Start the Clock

Once the clocks start, we have a lot more information to manage. First, though, let’s abandon the idea of lap times being the ultimate measure of improvement. They’re a great metric, but they tell only a tiny part of the overall story.

Because of that, we’ll lead off this portion of the discussion with one of the tried-and-true paths to improvement, getting an instructor. Now, this education can take many forms, whether it’s a structured school, a private coach or individual instructor, or even one of the growing number of remote instructors who consult via video chat, review data and do session debriefs. 

All have their advantages: In-person instruction tends to be very immediate and real-time, while remote learning takes place after the fact, giving you more time to internalize the data but also little opportunity for immediate repeat execution of skills. But all instructor-based learning methods share an important benefit: accountability. 

Spotting things you’re doing wrong, or celebrating things you’re doing right, takes a level of discipline that most of us simply don’t possess. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Having an impartial third party who can dispassionately evaluate your progress and suggest improvements is invaluable. 

Track the Data

Of course, the ultimate impartial information is data, and as we’ve said in plenty of previous stories, data is easier to use and more accessible than ever these days. And while we’re going to talk about data collection and its importance in your journey a bit here, understand that data is simply a tool, and tools can be misused.

Data does give you a fully objective picture of what’s happening with the car, though. Even reading a simple speed/distance trace can reveal where you’re not maximizing your brakes or when you’re transitioning from braking to turn-in too quickly. It simply provides many objective measurements that can be compared from lap to lap. 

Another tool that helps those post-session debriefs: today’s easy-to-use data systems, now a common sight even on autocross grids. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

What data can’t do, however, is turn those squiggles into a plan. It can’t rate the quality of inputs it took to produce them, either. Two drivers could turn the exact same lap time or negotiate the same corner at peak speed, and for one driver it could be a white-knuckle terror trip into the unknown, while for the other it could feel like a Sunday drive to Grandma’s. 

The challenge with data is not simply in the collection but in learning to interpret it. One thing we’ll recommend with some certainty regarding data usage is to monitor as many important driver inputs as possible. Many systems today–even highly affordable ones like the Apex Pro–are OBD enabled, meaning a Bluetooth dongle plugged into the car can broadcast data to your acquisition device. 

We recommend monitoring throttle opening at a minimum, as this can be a huge tool in driver development. We’d be willing to bet cash money that many drivers of moderate to high skill level who are struggling to pick up those next few tenths have similar throttle traces in key corners–basically the ramp upward during corner exit–that plateau or even dip for a fraction of a second before moving up again for a final throttle application. It’s a typical sign of someone pushing too hard, getting on the throttle too early, and then having to back out past the apex before gathering the car and getting back to full throttle commitment.

Sure, it’s an easy problem to describe, but it’s also an easy problem for a driver to deny–until they see that telltale dip in the throttle application trace.

So What’s the Plan?

We’ve outlined some of the tools for gaining speed here, but how should you apply them, and in what order? Well, that’s kind of a personal decision based on how you learn, your available resources and your goals. But we’ll recommend an approach that we think is sustainable and scalable as your skills and investment level increase.

First, start with data. Even if you don’t do much–or any–analysis of the data, having it collected from every part of your learning curve will pay dividends down the road. When you store that data, don’t just log the day, time, track, weather and other bits of info that are easy to look up later. Take the time to provide some context for that info: “This session felt rushed.” “Braking felt good, but cornering was sloppy.” “I wanted to give up early this session.” “I never wanted this session to end.”

Those bits of context–and they can certainly be more elaborate–will begin to form a more complete picture when you or someone else studies the data.

Next, learn to interpret that data. What do the numbers and squiggles actually mean? Learn how to read a speed trace and compare good ones to not so good ones. (To go deeper into this topic, dive into our online back catalog.) 

Now that you have data and some ability to understand it, it’s time to act on it. Devices like the Garmin Catalyst aim to fast-track this process with an AI-fed virtual coach that uses your previous performance to help you get to better lap times. 

It does a great job of producing actionable strategies for the intermediate and advanced driver, but it doesn’t provide important context. An encouraging statement like, “Next right, apex earlier,” is great advice for someone who understands that apexing earlier can simply increase road camber, fix overly conservative driving or provide a faster exit. 

A less experienced driver, however, won’t have the tools to make that adjustment at a fine enough level to truly judge its effectiveness. As a result, they may not fully understand why the command is going to make them faster.

Remote data review can also have positives and negatives. On the plus side, you might better absorb the lessons since fewer distractions are present. However, as it’s typically mid-week activity away from the track, you have to wait to turn those plans and discussions into actions. 

An at-track instructor can take many forms, too, from an on-site data coach to a corner observer to even someone in the right seat. In general, we feel that right-seat coaching is most appropriate for the most novice of novices–drivers who are learning the rudimentary skills of physically negotiating a track without being a hazard to themselves of others. 

Once speeds start increasing and finding the limit becomes more the goal, we believe the safer–and, honestly, more effective–place for an instructor is outside the car. Exceptions exist, of course, but in most cases the data system and video recorder can tell an instructor everything they need to know about what’s going on in the car, while that outside view provides a much broader, more holistic picture of how things are evolving on track. 

Match that corner observation with a little radio contact and a post-session data review, and you’ll be on the way to the top step of the podium in no time.

Practice Makes Perfect–or Does It?

The adage, “There’s no substitute for seat time,” is still true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Much like the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” it omits some key qualifiers. 

We prefer to channel our inner Vince Lombardi: Only perfect practice makes perfect. 

Try even simple exercises, like identifying the make and model of cars parked at the corner stations or seeing how quickly you can read the starter’s body language. We’ve predicted many yellow and black flags just by reading a worker, instinctively knowing that their look meant the tow truck would be rolling soon. 

To take it one step further, take in all the info available to you. If possible, look ahead, across the track and into the paddock. Are the emergency workers panicking or finishing their game of Bejeweled on their phone? That observation alone can yield more info than a simple yellow, red or black flag. 

That’s information that you’ll know before everyone else does, and info that will put your mind at ease and make your experience less stressful. Remember, a relaxed driver tends to be a fast and happy one, and ultimately, isn’t that the entire point of going to the track?

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gerardwon New Reader
12/9/23 11:39 a.m.

Great article. 

If I might add a few things that truly matter...

* Fitness Training:  Strength and Cardio.  40 Consecutive Push-ups is a good baseline.  Grip strength is also vital--and its something you can work on improving anytime.  Core strength is another must too--can you hold a 3 minute plank?  Running up multiple flights of stairs is brutal but priceless--can you run up 6 stories of stairs?  When you get tired you get brain fade.   

 * Work on Your Balance:  I prefer riding a road bike.  This has multiple benefits as its easy to put yourself in situations that require quick decision time.  Can you come to a complete stop and keep your balance for a while being completely winded?  Driving on the limit requires an acute sense of balance. 

* Data logging is awesome: Your body might be doing things without even letting you know.  I was stunned to learn my foot was coming off the throttle a bit in a flat-out 3rd gear corner without even telling me!  The solution was the push down on that loud pedal so hard my foot hurt through my racing boot.  




codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
12/9/23 11:59 a.m.

Another piece of tech that helps a ton when you're working with a coach is an in-car radio.  I find that brainpower is a precious resource when pushing out on the track and it's difficult just to remember all of my specific goals when I'm driving.  Having a radio means I can offload that mental work, my coach will bring his notes to a good spot for observing the track and can remind me of the things we'd been discussing at the appropriate time.



gerardwon New Reader
12/9/23 5:51 p.m.

In reply to codrus (Forum Supporter) :

Great tip!

BTW:  I literally do Not remember my first Formula Ford race. Well I remember the formation lap and the checkered flag. And that is it!

I suspect its from too much adrenaline. It took a lot of seat time before I could visualize (aka Bench Race) my circuit driving.  Eventually I was able to remember what I was thinking before my transitions--and the goal  is not to be thinking anything.

I had a Sports Psychologist who specialized with racing drivers who told me to remember this when I drove: "You are an observer."  

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