By on May 23, 2010

Last year, Volkswagen decided to hand a truly spectacular insider freebie to the fellow who runs a popular VW owners’ forum: an all-expenses-paid race in the TDI Cup at Road America. The TDI Cup is meant to be a talent showcase for twentysomething novice drivers whose parents can come up with $45,000 and all related expenses, but VW waived all the age, talent, financial, and racing-resume requirements for our forum friend.

Prior to the event, several people asked me “How’s he gonna do?” My iron-clad prediction was that he would finish DFL, and that would only be because there’s no place in a race behind DFL. I’d only met the guy once, but I’d seen the video which is freeze-framed above, and that was enough for me to play amateur odds-maker. In this video, we repeatedly see him “shuffle-steer”. Shuffle-steering is a word for what most of us do on the street every day: change the position of our hands on the steering wheel while turning. It’s comfy, it’s useful for downtown parking, and I find it to be very useful when I’m texting on back roads, but on a racetrack, it is the mark of the chump.

There are a few extremely rare exceptions to this rule, and most race fans can probably name one or two. Rudi Uhlenhaut, the famous Mercedes-Benz race engineer and development driver of the Fifties and Sixties, was a shuffler. Rally drivers tend to shuffle because they frequently turn the wheel more than one hundred and eighty degrees in a corner. And the famous Evolution School teaches its autocrossing students a variation of shuffle-steering in which the driver makes one position change before the corner and maintains constant position through that corner.

99.999% percent of trackday and race drivers, however, will benefit immeasurably from having their hands in one place all the time, and I will explain why.

The human body has some amazing “easter eggs” hidden inside its neuro-muscular-kinesthetic-whatever structure. One of them was called “hand finds hand” by Uziel Gal, the designer of the Uzi submachine gun. Most people can easily put their hands together no matter whether they can see their hands or not. Behind your back, in dead of night, whatever. Most of us are perfect at it every time. It’s why Uzis are easier to reload than HK MP5s. Remember that the next time you’re planning to shoot up your workplace or impress Jodie Foster.

An extension of that ability is that most of us do not need to look at our hands to perform relatively precise motions with them. We write without looking at the paper, and it’s legible. We play Super Mario Brothers with our eyes on the screen. When I play “Just The Two Of Us” on my fabulous Heritage H535 Anniversary Edition, I know where Dmaj7 is and I don’t need to check the fretboard.

Drive through a wide-open parking lot with your hands at 9-and-3 on the steering wheel. Please don’t wrap your thumbs on the spokes; the first time you bounce a curb at VIR you’ll know why. Make a sharp right turn without changing the position of your hands on the wheel… and in the middle of that turn, quickly return the wheel to center. Easy as pie, right? You did it without thinking.

Now do the same thing, but instead of moving your hands to steer the car, “shuffle” the wheel through your hands. QUICK! RETURN TO CENTER! PRECISELY! What just happened?

You know what happened. It was sloppy and slow, and chances are that you didn’t get it perfect without a correction or two. When you are driving at the true limit of your tires — the zone in which a tenth of a mile per hour is the difference between nailing the exit and nailing the wall — that sloppiness will put you off the pace (at best) or off the track (at worst). Fast laps come when we introduce the smallest possible inputs to the steering. The fastest lap comes when we drive with our fingers, palms off the steering wheel, as Schumacher famously did. We want to have the absolute finest-grained control of the car possible, and that comes with fingers. You don’t write by locking your wrist and writing with your arm.

When we are driving at the limit, we will occasionally have to input corrective steering in a hurry. This is where keeping our hands in one place really pays off, because we will have to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Unwind steering from our current position to catch the slide. This means going past “neutral” position in some cases.
  • Briefly return the car to straight-ahead progress so we can apply the appropriate throttle to maintain tire load.
  • Returning to a more appropriate amount of steering in our desired direction.

All three of these tasks are much easier if we know where our tires are pointing, and unless we are willing to take our eyes off the road and look at the steering wheel in the middle of a race or high-speed trackday the only way to “know” is that is through your hands. If you are sliding sideways down the hill in Road Atlanta’s Turn Twelve, with the nose of your car pointed right at a concrete wall and the tach pinned to the limiter in fourth gear, do you want to have to guess at which way your tires are really pointing? Of course not. You want that information firmly locked into your hands. It’s been demonstrated that our hands can actually make certain corrections in less time than it takes for the signal to travel all the way to the brain and back. (For more information, try reading Growing Up With Lucy.) That could literally save your life, and if you shuffle-steer you are throwing that ability away.

Try getting out of the shuffle-steer habit on your daily commute, on the freeway, on your favorite back road. Use constant hand positioning to give your car honest, true, low-violence inputs at the wheel. It will reward you in kind.

And our forum pal? He qualified DFL for the race, but he beat my prediction by finishing second-to-DFL among racers who didn’t crash or go off-track. The kid he beat? Someone who earned his spot by winning “iRacing” events, and who had never been on a racetrack before. Do video games make you a better driver? That’s a topic for another time.

(Nobody is born knowing this stuff so I would like to thank Brian Makse, Aaron Povoledo, Ross Bentley, Randy Pobst, and the other drivers who have instructed and inspired me since I put down my bicycle and picked up my SCCA license.)

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57 Comments on “Just Say No… To Shuffle Steering...”


  • avatar
    KGrGunMan

    bravo. the more of these tips the better.

    i’ve been attempting to do this for a while now, but i found my cars steering ratio too slow, i’d max my arms out still need more steering input to make it around a corner; any advice for that?

    my correction to that was to install a quicker ratio rack & pinion and it’s made all the difference. what do you do in the most hard core hair pins when the steering is just not quick enough?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Most of the time this means you’re sitting too far away from the wheel. If you have a vintage car, however, you may have a very low-geared rack :)

      For the hard core hairpins, keep one hand where it should be and move the other one for leverage. For me, this means keeping my left hand “on station”. On most road courses, this never happens.

  • avatar

    Here is one trick taught to me by a Volkswagen test driver:

    Always look where you want to go. Never look at what you want to avoid. You will always go where you look. Automatically.

    We researched this. It worked all the time. It became the basis of a special VW driving course.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      This is what I was also taught, whether pounding a nail or driving a car.

      The opposite is proven time and again by all the drunk drivers that rear-end vehicles stopped or broken down on the shoulder of the road…

    • 0 avatar
      benders

      It’s also taught in MSF courses.

    • 0 avatar
      LastResort

      This behavior is know as target fixation.

    • 0 avatar
      Robstar

      QFT. I learned this in the MSF class and use it for driving as well. Unfortunately “looking around corners” IMHO is a lot harder in a car with the front windshield support getting in the way, but I do it anyway.

      Unfortunately if you do this in a roller coaster, it makes the ride a LOT less fun…

    • 0 avatar

      I learned this on a surprisingly addictive television series known as Canada’s Worst Drive. Look where you want to go; you will naturally go there. It’s surprisingly effective.

      As an aside, that TV show is a hoot to watch (I know other countries have their own version), and even though I fancy myself a good driver, I’ve learned a thing or two watching it.

      Besides, any show that makes you laugh at other people’s driving is worth watching, no?

    • 0 avatar
      findude

      I was taught “Look where you’re going, because you’re going where you’re looking.”

    • 0 avatar
      cstoc

      The Bondurant school also teaches this (along with the steering technique outlined in the article), and it’s effectiveness is demonstrated time and again during the driving course. I’ve taught it to everyone as know as “the most important thing to remember in a skid”.

    • 0 avatar

      @Photojim
      I love CWD, where else can I feel smug and learn something at the same time. Great show.
      One skill I noticed in my trips to Germany – among many – the drivers always had their hands at 9 and 3, which I quickly adopted until it became habit.
      Perfectly normal behaviour on the Autobahn but I felt kinda dumb doing this at home, thought I looked like an overcautious granny.
      But it works and has saved me from a few collisions so far, including a badger (or wolverine)on a mountain road at 140 kmh.
      More of a highway thing and not so much a skill required for parking lots, but a good habit to get into.
      BTW – I have driven many miles on the the Green Hell on various video games and like to think I know it and it’s nuances, but the reality is I know nothing about it. So do video games make you a better driver? In a word…no.

    • 0 avatar
      izzy

      Especially true when driving a motorcycle.  Actually, life-saving when driving a motorcycle

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Great article. I always knew shuffle steering was bad, mmkay, but I couldn’t articulate why.

  • avatar

    Jack,

    Who needs curbs at VIR? I almost broke my thumb once when letting my Elan return to center driving on the street. At barely over 2 turns lock to lock, the steering was rather high geared.

  • avatar
    rehposolihp

    Do most cars have steering ratios quick enough for this to work? I haven’t really thought about it, so without hopping in my car and going for a ride I couldn’t even tell you how I do it…

  • avatar

    I never shuffle steered until I went through an Army MP Staff Driver’s course that taught me to do so. I’m glad you wrote this article because it makes a lot of sense to me now. I’ll start following this logic and stop the shuffle steering, thank you.
    The course did teach me a lot of other good ideas like ocular driving (the idea mentioned above): to look where you wish to go. I’ve found that this even helps in a skid.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Do you have a video that highlights the right way?

  • avatar
    twotone

    This worked for me at our Peak-to-Peak Miata club track days. Most road vehicle steering has too many turns lock-to-lock. It really does not matter for most around town driving and helps for parallel parking. Look at F1 cockpit camera videos — they use 90 degrees of steering input at most.

    Twotone

    • 0 avatar
      rehposolihp

      Comparing street cars to F1 cars is about as useful as comparing a house cat to mecha godzilla. An F1 steering wheel can only turn ~3/4 a turn in each direction…

    • 0 avatar
      sfenders

      I paid close attention to the in-car video at Monaco last week, specifically because I was curious to see how far they had to turn the wheel in an F1 car going round the hairpin there…

      Slightly more than 180 degrees for many of them, slightly less for others.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    FTW reading SSL tips here. Are you going to continue posting over there?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      For sure, but we have a group of young new writers who are carrying a lot of the load at SSL. Derek Kriendler, Byron Hurd, Cherise LaPine, and others. Great kids.

  • avatar

    Not that this makes me want to be on the same roads as Jack in a Phaeton or 750iL anymore than I did before; but good post!

    +Also, what are the details of what’s going on in the car when Clarkson says something like, “There’s Stig, giving it a flick of opposite-lock.”?
    -Thx!

    .
    Does this mean something like the car was starting to oversteer, and Stig uses it to bring the nose more in-line with the rear, backing off from that tipping-point/moment-of-inertia where the car goes full-on into a (RWD) spin??

    • 0 avatar

      opposite lock is countersteering to catch (or continue) a slide, it’s just a lot of it.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The “dab of oppo” phrase is confusing to me. This is what I *think* it means.

      “Opposite lock” originally meant turning the wheel all the way to the stop in the direction opposite that of the turn. In other words, you are heading into a left-hander, but you’re oversteering so hard you have to turn the wheel back past center, to the right, until it “locks” or stops.

      When people use the phrase “lock-to-lock” to describe how many turns you have between stops in a car, this is what they are referring to.

      The Brits now use the phrase “steering lock” to mean *any* steering input, which is ridiculous.

      “So, I was entering Turn 11 at Mid-Ohio, and I had the back end step out so I dialed-out a quarter-turn of lock.”

      It’s a corruption of the language, as far as I know.

  • avatar
    gakoenig

    Doesn’t Bobby Ore teach something he calls “shuffle steering” in his stunt driving classes? I would think a stunt driver would be just as keen to keep intuitive knowledge of where the wheels are pointed as someone on a road course…

    (I am curious because I’ve always wanted to take his 3 day stunt driving school, and his old website talked about teaching “Bobby Ore Shuffle Steering” as a bullet point on the class curriculum list).

    • 0 avatar

      Many drifters shuffle steer because the wheel frequently goes all the way from lock-to-lock and back, and it’s just not physically possible to keep your hands on the wheel while it’s moving that much. If you watch in-car video from a Formula Drift event, you will see many drivers keep their hands at 9 and 3 while the wheel spins underneath them.

  • avatar

    Nice article! I’d love to see more driving tips articles on here. Off Topic, I’m a big Neon fan (yeah, it’s a disease) and saw your car on squidcar.com. Just wondering if you’re still racing a Neon?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Hey Ritchie,

      Our built SOHC motor was WAY underpowered for last season (we were down 40whp on the Sentras at the same weight) so we are in the middle of building a twincam and will probably debut the revised car in July.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    This really worked great until I had to make a right turn into the local Bag-n-save and in the process of turning the steering wheel 180+ degrees I bruised my elbow on my belt buckle, and dislocated my shoulder. Other than that, all thumbs up here! :)

    Seriously though, anyone who takes to the track handling a steering wheel like he’s leaving the drive through window at McDonald’s is deserving of more than a bit of ridicule. I was whelped on the streets of Germany and the way Americans handle their cars makes me shudder.

  • avatar

    Never say “all” as there are always exceptions. I compete in JCNA Slalom (aka Auto-X) events in the vintage Jag, which is pretty much the only competition driving I do. The corners of the standard JCNA course are all 180° or greater(!) so, unless I am Stretch Armstrong the fixed at 9&3 method just will not ever work. I find I have to shuffle to 12&6 right before I enter the corners then twist them about 250° to get the corners. I usually finish in the top ten of my class every year (the competition is all over the US, Canada, & Mexico) so the occasional slight shuffle has it’s place.

  • avatar
    Bob12

    I remember reading somewhere that the reason you’re “supposed to” shuffle steer is to keep your arms clear in case of an airbag-deploying crash.

    • 0 avatar
      honfatboy

      I also had heard this. Anyone else?

      • 0 avatar
        WheelMcCoy

        Ditto.  I’m old enough to know this was once referred to as hand-over-hand steering.  And since it required lifting your hands and crossing your arms, a deploying airbag might break them.  Then I heard about shuffle steering… I wasn’t comfortable with it, but I understood the logic behind it.

        And now I am reading about this technique!  Kinda’ cool, and will try it out when I am pretending to race on my daily commute. :)

  • avatar
    Mockingbird

    Take a look at this clip of The Stig driving an R8 V10. That’s driving with your fingers, not the palm. And no shuffling, thank you very much. There simply isn’t enough time for that. (http://www.topgear.com/UK/videos/stig-lap-r8-v10)

  • avatar
    tbp0701

    Cool article. I’m pretty sure I rarely shuffle steer, but I’ll have to pay closer attention to how I handle the wheel while driving down a fairly narrow parking garage at night. I think I let go with one hand, keep the other in position then grab the steering wheel again as it straightens, but I’m not sure.

    But an H535, huh? Nice.

  • avatar

    Watch Toshio Suzuki shuffle his way around Nurburgring to 7.26.7 and learn that some of us may think they know everything about shuffle-steering but not really:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9KXIPCQYC4

    BTW, I saw once how Juan Montoya demonstrated to Jeff Gordon how NOT to shuffle-steer, because hey, in F1 you never need to… Conversely you may be sure that Jeff does it in a stock car, or why brief him on “always-9-3” technique, right?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      If you watch the video all the way through, you will see that Suzuki always leaves an “index hand” on the wheel. He shuffles his left hand for physical leverage, but leaves his right hand in place. When he needs to correct, he relaxes his left-hand grip and lets the right hand do the work.

      I suspect it’s because his arms are too short to manipulate the rather large GT-R wheel properly.

      Watching that video also tells you a few more things:

      * There’s definitely some time left on the table there;
      * That GT-R has, ah, quite a bit of boost.

  • avatar
    davejay

    “We want to have the absolute finest-grained control of the car possible, and that comes with fingers.”

    You know, I have no trouble shifting without a clutch, and I shift with my fingers rather than my palm. I never made that connection before, but that helps explain it.

    Also:

    “I was whelped on the streets of Germany and the way Americans handle their cars makes me shudder.”

    Hey, I was raised on the streets of America and the way Americans handle their cars makes me shudder.

  • avatar

    In most cases, 9 and 3 is correct. On a big racetrack, you usually don’t need more than a half a turn of the wheel to make it around a corner. Any more and you’ll simply be scrubbing the tires into understeer.

    Even in slaloms, you can get away with not using too much steering input, unless you’re dealing with a 180 degree or 360 degree turn (and in the case of the latter, you’ll mostly be steering with the rear end, anyway).

  • avatar
    cdotson

    Jack,

    In your response to KGrGunMan you reference the problem that improper seating position creates for steering control. When I was in college designing FormulaSAE cars that was one of the key takeaways the better drivers on the team successfully impressed upon me. I constantly see drivers everywhere sitting FAR too far away from the steering wheel, even my brother-in-law who is a physical therapist and used to do ergonomics consulting work. A lot of people could benefit from instruction on how to adjust your seat as “comfortable” doesn’t seem to clue people into the importance of vehicle control.

    I’ve sat in vehicles at car shows and gotten quizzical looks from bystanders as I sit in a car and try to move the seat forward enough to achieve proper knee and shoulder angle (I’m 6′-3). Someone my height doesn’t need full rearward seat position in midsize cars (and pickups are plain ridiculous) unless they have a 40″ inseam and drag their knuckles unless they fold their arms.

  • avatar
    tedward

    One of my big pet peeves is being in a car driven aggresively on back roads and seeing the driver have one hand on top or two on the bottom. That is fine for the highway, but it just means fidgety adjustments when moving with conviction, and it scares me a bit to have to sit through it. In this case I’ll blame police training (I believe they near universally shuffle-steer), as it seems like a lot of people get that advice from them when taking defensive driving or just through social osmosis. It works when drifting or taking low speed corners, but is just dangerous with a loaded up suspension.

    I think the police training is wrong on this point, and that they themselves would be better drivers if they were taught both techniques in a time for each sort of way. Just think on all the pursuit videos you’ve seen where the cop over-steers (not oversteer), botches the correction, and ends up plowing into an embankment. Part of that is driving cars too large and floaty to be any good at pursuit, but part of it is likely due to driving style.

  • avatar

    Jack,

    Are you describing shuffle steering or hand over hand? I’ve always thought that shuffle steering is what old folks do, moving the wheel in small increments between their hands. I can see why that would be silly on a race track, or even on the road.

    Hand over hand steering, though, is unavoidable in real world city driving with the low steering gearing ratios normally found on road cars.

    Like I said before, my Elan had very high gearing for a road car’s steering and it still sometimes took some hand over hand in urban and suburban driving.

    BTW, regarding seating position, most NASCAR racers “sit up on the wheel”, they sit very close to the steering wheel, apparently to get better leverage.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Ronnie,

      There are all sorts of variations on the whole “I’m gonna take my hand off a perfectly good steering wheel” technique. In real world city driving, you can do whatever you like… I’m discussing road course driving and high-speed road driving :)

    • 0 avatar

      Jack,

      I can remember when American cars were really big, heavy and had massively overpowered power steering units with real low steering ratios. Suicide knobs were popular accessories, not something you’d only see at a car show.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Good Advice, Jack, thanks. Can’t wait to read more stuff like this reguardless of the writer as long as he knows what he’s talking about. I learned a quite a bit about driving in my teen years by driving “slow cars fast” cause they tend to be less forgiving.

  • avatar
    Power6

    Great article Jack!

    I tend to fall into the “change hand position once before the corner” which I sort of developed sub-conciously on my own, as a response to driving sport-compact type cars with fairly slow steering. I wonder if I would be better served by trying to maintain hand positon. I am certainly going to think more about this on the track days…

  • avatar
    joe_thousandaire

    “Please don’t wrap your thumbs on the spokes; the first time you bounce a curb at VIR you’ll know why” – that made me laugh, as a person who has been driving very heavy, powerful things off-road for most of his life – this is rule no.1. Whether you’re going 65 in a WRX or 6.5 in a John Deere. Wrap your thumbs on the wheel and the first time you hit an unseen rut with both fronts your next drive will be to the emergency room to have your freaking thumbs reattached.

  • avatar
    Revver

    “It’s comfy, it’s useful for downtown parking, and I find it to be very useful when I’m texting on back roads. . .”

    This IS a joke, right?

  • avatar
    wstansfi

    I agree with the left knee, that way you’ve got your right foot free to man the pedals.

  • avatar
    Compulsive Obsessive

    Jack,
    After all of the race training you’ve taken it’s not surprising you’re fast. Congrats. Sharing techniques with readers… even better. It’s a shame though that you can’t even do that without belittling someone. I guess it plays well in forums and raises eyebrows but it also seems kind of small.

  • avatar
    TacticalDriver

    With all due respect, but I believe the writer is very wrong in regards to the steering input topic.

    Leading law enforcement agencies, military organizations and close protection training institutes are teaching “shuffle steering”. And they are teaching it for a reason. I personally use this technique for a number of years on my daily driving, on my professional driving, on the race track or auto cross/precision course.

    One of the top world’s drivers, Bobby Ore, is advocating (and teaching) the shuffle steering for more than 20 years.

    Bobby Ore is a veteran stunt performance/precision driver and for more than 25 years he is teaching military, FBI, CIA and Secret Service agents to drive in extreme circumstances.
    He holds 13 automotive world records (to date), including one for driving a London double-decker bus on two wheels for 810 feet.
    As a stunt driver he is one of the most accomplished Hollywood stunt drivers and only a hand full of other drivers in the world can match and/or replicate his driving.

    Another accomplished driver advocating shuffle steering is Sgt. Dave Storton, the Director of the San Jose Police Academy. He holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education and is the lead instructor for the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) at the San Jose Police Academy. As well he is a lead instructor for the local regional academy. He teaches EVOC instructor courses, advanced EVOC instructor courses, off road EVOC, counter-terrorist / dignitary protection driving, and motion picture stunt driving. Dave has trained over 3,500 drivers.

    If those drivers are advocating shuffle steering and they are wrong.. .. I want to be wrong too.

    I would personally have absolutely no problem to get together on a driving pad, performance/precision course and/or racing track with Jack, or anyone else for that matter, to settle this issue, “Myth Busters” style and see which steering input if the most accurate, ergonomic and safe.

    We can even take bets.. .. Anyone?

    • 0 avatar
      tedward

      There’s a problem with doing that kind of comparison…how do you get someone to drive a car equally well using both techniques? On the other hand, Fifth Gear did a test along these lines with a UK police driving instructor vs. the host Vicki, and he got his ass handed to him. They did focus on steering technique, and when he tried it her way his times improved dramatically (from what I recall). The problems though, are obvious, she might just have been a more physically talented person, perhaps she’s received a higher calibre exposure to driving (police cars are NOT impressive, here or there, and the road is not a track) or maybe what he actually improved was his race line and would have gone faster with either method etc…

      Part of the appeal of shuffle steering surely comes from driving giant, slack steering tanks such as the Panther cars and Suburbans I see associated with most protection work. You could probably make a case for shuffle steering having an advantage over the 9 & 3 when it comes to dealing with poorly designed vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        TacticalDriver

        Do you by any chance have any YouTube link with that particular episode?
        Tell you the truth I am using shuffle steering all the time, on SUVs, Crown Vics, Mini Cooper or pickup trucks, for over 10 years, on the street- family driving (Subaru Tribeca B9), on call – emergency response (Crown Vic), on race track . I teach this method for tactical driving and I can say that shuffle steering is THE best steering method.

    • 0 avatar
      Geoff

      A stunt driver does not equal worlds best driver. Being able to jump cars or drive them on 2 wheels has nothing to do with being able to put a car on the limit of its tires around a race track.

      Watch actual race drivers, people who are the best and fastest at what they do. Nearly invariably you never see one shuffle steer. Why? Because you have better control of the car when your hands are ON the wheel.

      One may be able to run the same lap time shuffle steering, but as Jack pointed out, when something goes amiss, and it almost always does at one point or another in a race situation, you need to be able to correct the steering perfectly. For this shuffle steering can’t hold a candle to non shuffling.

      • 0 avatar
        TacticalDriver

        Bobby ore is not just a stunt driver. I think you missed the part of “13 automotive world records (to date”; 25 years he is teaching and training military, FBI, CIA and Secret Service agents in tactical driving”
        Now, I would take this guy’s advice any time over any taxi driver, Sprint cup driver or Sunday racer.

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