By on July 16, 2010

Hmm… quite the contretemps yesterday with regards to Web-surfing while driving. Honestly, if I’m endangering any of you by looking at my phone while driving on a freeway so empty that I can’t see a single set of headlights behind me or taillamps ahead, I apologize. And I don’t even own a Martin Backpacker. In a perfect world we’d all be driving in completely silent cars, alone, well-rested and emotionally stable. In my real world, I cover 40,000-plus miles a year on the road and track. Most of those miles are affected by some sort of distraction, whether it’s a phone conversation, personal stress, or trying to sing Douala phonetically along with Richard Bona records. I try to be honest with TTAC readers about what I do behind the wheel. Most of the people in this business are writing whatever they think will ingratiate themselves with the readers or — more commonly — the advertisers.

As it so happens, the one above-parking-speed automobile accident I’ve had since 1988 was directly related to distracted driving. My brother and I were rolling my VW Fox down Cranston Drive in Dublin, Ohio, about eighteen years ago. I was doing about 30 mph. There was a pizza guy in front of me, driving a Tercel. He made a left out of my way. Right then I saw the finest-looking teenaged girl to ever put on a pair of tiny shorts and jog down Cranston Drive. While I watched the shorts, the pizza guy changed his mind and literally backed up into the road. I saw it out of the corner of my eye but was still carrying about 10mph when I hit him. The cop cited us both; me for assured clear distance, him for reckless op. Worst of all, the girl kept running and I never had a chance to share my personal testimony with her.

This article has some of my favorite on-track oversteer photos, from Autobahn Country Club and Waterford Hills respectively. Notice how everybody likes to put up oversteer photos, but nobody ever puts up understeer photos?

Oversteer is cool. Understeer is lame. Yet very few of us really ever deal with oversteer issues during dry-weather trackdays in modern street cars. Nearly everything money can buy, from the Chevrolet Cavalier to the Ferrari 458 Italia, has designed-in understeer. If you want designed-in oversteer, you will have to go racing. I set my Plymouth Neon race car up with narrower tires in back, 650-pound rear springs, a big swaybar, and rear toe-out. When I turn into a corner, the back end steps out naturally. If I do not correct it a tiny bit, the car will crash. Do you want a car which will crash in any turn where you do not apply the proper amount of high-speed correction? No you don’t. For the record, I don’t want it either, but when you race against Miatas and Civics that have a foot less wheelbase than you do, something has to be done to keep you from falling back in faster corners.

Back to your street car, which has one of the following two features:

  • More weight over the front wheels than the rear (everything up to and including Bimmers)
  • “Staggered” tires with more width in back (Loti, Porsches, Ferraris, and so on)

There are a few exceptions, but not many, and most of them are Pontiac Fieros. The rest of us are driving cars which will understeer on corner entry.

Every student I have ever had, without exception, has made the following mistake on track. I’ve done it too and will continue to do it, and I’ve seen Lewis Hamilton do it on television, so read on. You are not immune.

When we drive cars on the street, the amount of steering we get from the front tires is directly proportional to the amount of steering we request at the wheel. Every once in a great while, like in heavy rain or when we are “hammering a B-road”, we might experience mild understeer. Let’s say that happens one time out of one hundred, and that’s being generous.

Since we get a precise and directly correlated steering amount 99-out-of-100 times we try it, we come to expect it. So, when a student goes bombing too fast into a corner and cranks the wheel too much, he gets understeer. I tell him, “Unwind the steering wheel.”

He can’t do it. He is convinced that if he unwinds the steering wheel a bit, the car will STOP TURNING. He thinks this because if you do that on the street, at reasonable speeds, you will go right off the outside of the turn. Try it! (No, don’t, and please don’t yell at me for suggesting it.)

At racetrack speeds, the steering wheel is a suggestion to the tires. Nothing more, nothing less. Ross Bentley, who coached me in 2007, says “At the limit of our tires, the steering wheel slows the car down, while the throttle and brake steer it.” Chew on that a bit. I’ll explain why it’s so in a future article.

With most of my students, I end up having to reach over and unwind the wheel for them a bit. They realize that unwinding the wheel actually produces more turning force because they aren’t as far past the effective slip angle of the tires. The light bulb goes on, usually around the tenth time I do it.

Sometimes the student is exceptionally intelligent and he will ask why I’m better at finding the available traction with my left hand, reached across the cabin, than he is with both hands in front of him. The answer is twofold. First, I’ve done it a zillion times and he has not. Second, I use a relaxed grip and keep my palm off the wheel.

You’ll never win a race against solid drivers if your palms are resting firmly on the wheel. It kills your ability to sense traction. The steering wheel is vibrating in your hands at a specific frequency. That frequency is generated by the vibration of tire on asphalt. Want an extreme example? Go out to a wet parking lot and deliberately steer the car too much. The wheel will vibrate heavily in your hands as you pass the traction limit. That kind of feedback is available to you, at a much lower volume, all the time.

Michael Schumacher did special strengthening exercises so he could steer his F1 car using only his fingertips. We use fingertips to steer, where possible, for the same reason you don’t do calligraphy by locking your elbow and moving your whole arm. Precise motions require precise muscles.

After a nice relaxing night, I was in much better mental shape for my second day at Summit Point and prepared to turn out some decent laps. I get distracted pretty easily during 9/10ths driving. I tried to sneak an iPod into my race car for an enduro event a few years ago but the crew caught me. I just wanted to hear some music for what would be a two-hour stint without much drama. Oh well. In my Boxster I have the stereo, but I turned it off and put my head down to do ten of the best laps I could put together.

For about fourteen minutes I was completely focused, trail-braking every entrance, feeling for grip, kicking up a tiny puff of dirt at every exit. When you’re at your personal limit, it’s wonderful. Time disappears, the chattering backmind is banished. There’s nothing but you, the motor, the tires, and the track. Nobody can touch you and you cannot make a mistake. Is two days of grinding it out worth fourteen minutes of pure focused fury? At the very least, it’s a ticket away from distraction.

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20 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Distraction, the street-steer mindset....”

  • avatar

    Nice article and I know what you speak of with understeer and oversteer. I still practice those things in heavy snowfalls when I’m the only one brave enough to be out and about. (I may live in the mountain west but it seems like Dixie the way everyone disappears during an 8 in snowfall, worse when it hits 1.5 ft like last winter.) I practiced those maneuvers growing up in NW Ohio, and it’s saved my bacon many times in some quite pedestrian cars and trucks. It’s a skill everyone should try to acquire, much more useful than all the passive safety in the world.

    Your little accident story reminds me of the accident I almost had in college driving a college owned maintenance truck, simply because the girl renting the house across from the administration building decided to lay out in her front yard in the world’s filmiest white bikini.

  • avatar

    How about a discussion of trail-braking? I remember many years ago being told “never”. (Triumph TR-4)

    • 0 avatar

      I’d second this. Although I am familiar with its use in motorcycles and go-karts I haven’t really considered using trail braking while in a car. Since your article on the TSX I have been having some fun experimenting with it on an exit ramp with an extremely wide shoulder. It’s amazing how much you can change the direction of your car when you drastically shift the weight to your front tires while entering the turn. But is it really faster than just braking hard before a turn and going in without any power or braking? Also wouldn’t trail-braking cause your front tires to wear out faster?

      The one thing I keep thinking is that if I wanted to get ahead of someone on the track right before a turn I could use a different line than my opponent and rely on trail breaking to bring my car back into a respectable line instead of under steering off the track. I guess my question is when do you use trail braking on the track and do you find a significant difference on how fast the front tires wear out?

  • avatar

    Northwest Ohio? I’m still here in Baja Detroit and nothing beats a few inches of snow on an empty parking lot for practicing your skill at cornering and handling skids. My favorite winters were when I had a 240Z – every corner a controlled power-slide. I remember when a friend, having one of the early VW Rabbits, discovered the hand-brake turn and front wheel drive suddenly became fun in the snow. Most people thought we were hooligans but we learned how to drive in control under circumstances that would put most of them in the ditch.

    • 0 avatar

      Total agreement. I learned how to steer with the throttle not the wheel in a “box” Caprice wagon in a snowy parking lot. (If you’re reading this Dad, forgive me.) That’s one reason I’ve loved dirt racing and WRC to watch them slide. A buddy of mine with an early FWD Grand Am would do the handbrake turn.

  • avatar

    Lewis Hamilton? Too much steering input? Never!

    Not that the boy doesn’t make mistakes, (because when he does, they’re whoppers) but he’s one of the finest rain drivers on the grid today. (His balletic qualifying lap at Silverstone in 07 or 08 in the rain is one of the best of all time) If you see him flailing around in a car that looks like a mess, it’s because the car is a mess… so much so that his team-mate can’t even get it into contention on the time sheets.

    Amazing how often you read the phrase “FWD sucks because it understeers” online… when you often see quite the opposite on track when you lift-off or trail-brake…

    • 0 avatar

      I was surprised and pleased to learn that on dry pavement my ’92 Jetta 2 door would oversteer on trailing throttle or brake. That thing really was a lot of fun in medium speed curves, body roll and airborne inside rear wheel and all. It’s funny how 100 hp and a torsion beam used to be all you needed to put together a fun driver’s car.

  • avatar

    So maybe Gran Turismo, a game I’ve dubbed as the “under-steer simulator”, actually had it right all this time? I’ve never owned a car powerful enough to step out the rear end other my truck (big V8 in front + empty bed + rain = !!!). And yet under normal conditions the truck – well you guessed it – UNDERsteers.

  • avatar

    Street cars take understeer to a ridiculous extreme. A wise man once gave me the perspective of the carmaker general counsel: “if you understeer off the road, it’s your fault; if you oversteer off the road, it’s the car’s fault”. Odd, really, because countersteering to head off incipient oversteer feels entirely natural to me, but countersteering to quell understeer (!) not so much. I’ll keep practicing!

    • 0 avatar

      For common untrained people, understeer is easier to control (back off throttle) than oversteer.

      The OEM can’t assume that every plain Joe or Jane have Baruth-level skills.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree- To counteract understeer, you must point your wheels off into the dirt, where you don’t want to go. Very unnatural feeling.

      To counteract oversteer, you just point the wheels where you want the car to go. Much better (unless it’s snap oversteer and you can’t move the wheel fast enough).

      Of course, most people don’t even know you should put your run-away car in neutral, so I imagine oversteer might be more panic-inducing to the average idiot.

      FWIW, I had the negative camber on my 335i dialed up as high as it would go (not very high- about -.5 deg rather than the absurd +1 deg). Much more neutral now, and the tail begins to slide first in corners.

    • 0 avatar

      You’ve got a big job convincing me that putting the car in neutral is a solution for anything good besides idling at a stop.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s exactly what I’m saying you should do. I was referring to the runaway Toyotas where idiots would call 911 or their spouse instead of putting it in neutral and stopping.

      Now try to convince those people about oversteer vs. understeer.

      Understeer is probably better for the panicing idiot, oversteer for both of the rest of us.

  • avatar

    I can’t remember having understeer problems in any of my cars. When I was driving an RX7 12 years ago, one of my favorite past times was going on a tour of the winding narrow backroads west of town. I became very aware of oversteer as I would push that RX7 as far as I dared, which was sometimes past its limits. It made perfect sense to me to turn the wheel back towards center as I slid around the inside of a corner with the car’s rear end on the wrong side of the road. I really wanted to get that rear end back on the safer side of the road. By the way, I believe an RX8 would be an example of a street car that does not have more weight over the front wheels than the back.

  • avatar

    Another terrific article, Jack. Entertaining and informative, and I’ll admit to distraction by teen-aged jogger as well. Fortunately no pizza delivery truck was on the road at the time.

    I’ve tried lately to turn off my phone in the car, and to fiddle less with the stereo and iPod (leave it on shuffle). If you haven’t tried it, satellite radio is a great companion on long trips in the Boxster (I use an FM-modulated portable XM unit).

  • avatar

    The last paragraph sums up the ‘track junky’ addiction. Well written!

  • avatar

    For those interested in amateur driving training, I suggest taking an older Miata out on backroads and messing about. Highly communicative car which you can use to test these ideas

  • avatar

    “Honestly, if I’m endangering any of you by looking at my phone while driving on a freeway so empty that I can’t see a single set of headlights behind me or taillamps ahead, I apologize.”

    Okay, you’re off the hook for putting your fellow motorists at risk, but that deer crossing the road (or armadillo in the southwest) that you notice too late, if at all, is seriously going to ruin your whole day. Isn’t there an app that will read the webpage to you?

  • avatar

    @Lumbergh21: if you can’t recall experiencing understeer… you’re driving right.

    If you’re not driving like an absolute loon, the kind of understeer you’ll actually get on the road will be understeer due to loss of traction due to poor conditions. Not really something that unwinding can counter, but which braking (as long as you have ABS) can.

    Oversteer… you have one choice… countersteer. If you hit the brakes, you’ll spin. If you let off the gas, you’ll spin (whatever car you’re driving… as long as it’s the kind that oversteers), if you hit the gas in a RWD, you’ll spin. If you hit the gas in a FWD or a decent AWD car, you’ll straighten out… but that’s highly counter-intuitive for most people without experience in the dirt.

    With understeer, you have two choices… unwind or hit the brakes. Generally, most people would be too panicked to unwind… but not too panicked to brake, which achieves the same thing. In fact, it’s often their first reaction, and the correct one.

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