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Learning from Traction Control

When you drive on the street you use the brakes to keep you safe. It’s important to slow down and come to a stop when you need to. On the racetrack your brakes are one of the tools you use to go as fast as you can. They help you transfer weight and keep your car balanced.

Your brakes work in conjunction with your suspension. Power certainly plays into balancing your car properly and why a high-powered car is more of a challenge to drive well on a track.

This season I’ve had a chance to race a car that I built eleven years ago. It’s front wheel drive and doesn’t have a lot of power. The suspension I installed was a non-adjustable kit tuned for SCCA Showroom Stock. Although it was hard to get the car to oversteer it was great for learning and super fun to four-wheel drift it through sweepers like West Bend at Lime Rock. The car now has an adjustable coilover suspension. I was excited to get back in it at Lime Rock for testing and looked forward to sliding

through West Bend again. Three laps in I decided to pick up some speed to pace off the Miatas that I let past me. That was fine until I got to West Bend and lifted the throttle to adjust my line which caused me to spin off. Seems the rear was set super stiff so lifting the throttle a bit caused enough weight to shift from the back to the front and send the rear end sliding away from the inside of the turn. Two feet in kept things to a half spin and a great view of the cars coming toward me. A few counterclockwise clicks softened the rear suspension and made the handling even better than it was with the SCCA kit. The new setup makes it much easier to transfer weight through the brake and gas pedal and that makes it much easier to carry more speed into a corner, to rotate the car in the middle of a corner and then exit the corner with more speed.

That about exhausts my ability to describe what is going on with suspension and weight transfer. To dive deeper, much deeper, I recommend signing up for Your Data Driven by Samir Abid. As Samir notes in this post on Your Data Driven, “Your goal is to ensure that you load the tyres in a way that maximizes their grip and makes you feel confident driving.”

Now then, about managing traction control systems.

At our last event a driver asked me to help him. He wanted me to give him feedback on his tires and set up. His car is very nice. It’s a new car that has gobs of power, giant brakes, and all the handling programming to make sure you’re safe on the road. Without ever having driven his car and not having driven a lot of new/sophisticated cars on track I thought it would be best to leave all the traction control stuff switched on to get a baseline understanding of how it handled. After figuring out when the traction control would activate we pulled in to adjust the settings to be less sensitive. Unlike my old race car, but like most any new car the traction control engaged as soon as the car sensed we were starting to lose grip. The front end tucked into understeer and the engine cut power to keep the rear end from coming around. My reaction was to counter steer against the input. By the end of the 20-minute session I was ready to turn all the traction control bits off so I could play with the traction limit where the tires, suspension, steering and power came together.

I’m sure that is possible to do the fastest lap with optimized traction control settings, but HPDE (High Performance Driver Education) isn’t about lap times. It’s about learning how to drive on a track meaning how to manage traffic, be safe, quick, and predictable. The traffic management and car control techniques that are learned in HPDE will make you a safer driver on the street.

Slowing down to go faster doesn’t sound right but without practice we can’t get better at anything that we want to do be it cooking or driving. The rub is that our cars are much more capable than we are, and our expectations can get in the way at a track day. Our cars are designed to keep us safe while we are enjoying the drive, and is it necessary to have a goal for a track day?

It’s fine if someone does, but it isn’t necessary. Whether a driver comes out to do one day so they can tick it off their list of experiences or hopes to go on to race there should be a way to accommodate them. If a driver in our club (National Auto Sport Association) wants to advance from the novice DE1 group to the intermediate DE2 group they must be proficient at managing traffic, understanding and obeying the flags, drive the proper dry line, make smooth inputs, share the track by using point-bys correctly, adapt to instruction, and attend their group downloads to discuss what they are experiencing as part of their group and learn how to plan for the next track session. If drivers can do all that then it’s time for them to advance to solo driving with the DE2 group. If a DE2 driver wants to advance to the DE3 group they need to work on car control techniques that an in-car instructor can’t help with in the moment on the track. For example, an instructor can help a driver work on threshold braking by describing it, but drivers need to practice to get it right. The same is true for refining their throttle inputs to manage steering, knowing when to select the correct gear, hit apexes consistently, and understand what to do if they go off course and how to reenter the track safely.

What becoming competent at these car control techniques implies is that drivers need to rely less on their car’s traction control systems and more on their own capabilities. It does not mean that drivers should go cold turkey and turn everything off all at once. As I wrote above, it takes practice to get better at something. For DE2 drivers that can mean driving slower to learn how their inputs will affect their car’s reactions. In this way learning is not a straight line but more like a series of steps.


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