Competitive Driving

You know, I get asked over and over and over, “How do you make a mower go fast?” There are many ways to do this, but in my opinion, there are many ways to go fast that have nothing to do with the motor. I will discuss one of the most important, Driving Ability.

First, many beginners will routinely ask other racers what they should do when things are not going right, or when they are starting out. By this they usually want to be told what tire pressures, gears, plugs, jets, etc., they should be using.

If they would just think this through, they would realize that what they are asking is among the best ways to guarantee that they will never learn what to do, when to do it, and why it should be done.

No two mower/engine/driver combinations are alike. No two drivers weigh exactly the same, have exactly the same chassis design, exactly the same chassis flexibility, exactly the same engine, and exactly the same driving skill and technique. And remember too that the other guys on the track are your competitors and they may look at you as posing a threat to them. Don’t get me wrong, asking questions is very important, but think for yourself also. Take all the answers you get as advice not a way of life.

So, how do you learn what to do and how and when and why?? PRACTICE. In professional racing it is a way of life for the teams to test their cars for months before the start of each season, and for days or even weeks before an individual event. If these people are willing to spend so much time and money doing this, is this not a serious message for the new guys. Testing and practicing are not just a time to have some fun, this is where you find out for yourself which of the many and various ideas you have gotten from all those questions work or do not work, for your particular situation. And remember; only make one change at a time. Keep detailed records as to what you do. Did the changes work or not?

Another thing one should keep in mind when operating any vehicle, is the fact that a driver cannot drive to his full capability if his mind and body are involved in keeping his body in the seat, getting a grip on the steering wheel or stretching his legs towards the pedals. Professional teams go to great length to building the machine to fit the individual driver, so that the driver can give his complete attention to driving. In most types of motor racing the cars are suspended. Mowers have no suspension. This causes them to bounce and jump around the track. Mowers hit berms and hay bales, take reverse camber turns, all of which tries to throw the driver off the mower. The time to combat these adverse affects is at the shop and practice by keeping the driver secure and comfortable on the mower.

One last thing I want to discuss is driving skills. Practically all of us believe that we are just about the finest, and most skillful, driver that ever sat behind a steering wheel. Now, the more we get into any form of racing, and the more we compare our driving with other racers, the more most of us realize that we will never know it all.

Even the most highly experienced racers out there have spun out, flipped, or bumped into others during their early attempts to drive a race mower at speed. The first thing that should be realized is that the heaviest foot/hand or the fastest mower, or the bravest driver does not necessarily win races. Driving technique, being properly setup for the next corner, and moving through traffic require much experience and are the keys to winning.

There are very few places on most tracks where absolute top speed is even obtainable. Getting around the corners, being properly set up before entering the corner, the ability to “read” the track, traffic, and other drivers, are all vitally important.

Walking the track is a technique that has proven to be of utmost value. Either physically walk the entire track in reverse or stand in a place where the entire course can be studied. For example; if turn #4 leads into the fastest part of the course, you will want to exit that corner as fast as possible. The entry to the turn should be decided to determine the most advantageous exit. This will automatically force you to consider where you should have exited and entered #3 and turn #2 etc.

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Always keep in mind the key to successful racing lies in your head, not in how far you can squeeze the throttle or how brave you are. A really good driver usually does not look as though he is going as fast as he is actually moving. His smoothness, ability to look ahead and decide what the situation will be in the next few seconds, and his knowledge of where he should be on the track at that particular moment, all make it appear as though he is not trying hard as the others.

The smoother the driver becomes in steering, accelerating, turning, and braking, the faster his lap times will become. It will also result in being recognized as a skillful driver who can be trusted in close, fast moving traffic.

The good driver is aware of the traffic behind him. Few drivers are more dangerous than the one who sticks his chin on the steering wheel and stares straight ahead like a horse wearing blinders.

On most tracks there are sharp or hairpin turns where the wise driver will glance, over his shoulder (or across the track) to see what traffic is developing behind him. This is not only common courtesy, but it makes good driving sense.

Many drivers have been hit from behind, spun out, or wrecked, because they drifted or swerved into the path of a mower that they didn’t even know was in back of them.

In every racing organization, each driver is required and expected to give way to another driver who is obviously faster than him. This does not mean that he should give way to everyone, but if the move-over flag is waived, he must allow the faster, or lapping mowers to pass.

THE best experience that the new driver can get is to watch the consistent front-runners. Following the more experienced drivers around the track in practice, or standing at various locations to watch them carefully, will allow the observer to determine the lines, braking points, and the time when the throttle is picked back up. See where they accelerate or brake (watch their feet on the pedals), their usual lines through different corners, and the relaxed way that they “ease” their mowers around the track. Then spend time practicing what you have observed. As you become more comfortable with the mower at full power, try varying your lines through the corners deliberately going into the corner “too high” or “too Low”. In a race, with other mowers around, it will not always be easy to drive the ideal line.

A Famous driver once said that he won more races in the grandstands than he did on the track. By that he meant when he was not in actual competition, whether practicing or just watching others drive, he carefully studied the habits of his competition. This knowledge can be used to “set up” another driver and to get past him when he least expects it, or when he thinks he has the driver blocked. These “MACHOS” are the ones that cannot be trusted in close traffic—but they also are the ones who often can be setup for a pass.

Some drivers seem to believe that they are showing great skill and bravery by making sudden movements, “bulling” their way past others, and by cutting off those who are trying to pass. Actually these drivers are showing that they are mediocre and dangerous, and that they cannot win races by skillful and thoughtful driving.

Among the greatest pleasure in any form of racing is running lap after lap, fighting for the lead against drivers whose techniques, skills, and judgments have earned the trust of other drivers and who trust the others in the very same way.

One final thought about driving: a multiple USAC champion driver, talking about another world recognized driver, said: “He learned to go fast before he learned to drive. “

Think about it. George Herrin