A Primer for Novice Racers

No book can begin to give you all the information you need to be competitive on the race track, much less the experience that makes the real difference. You’re going to need to attend several days of race driving school, with classroom sessions interspersed with on-track practice to begin to make any sense of how to get your car around the track safely when competing against several dozen other hotshoes.

But we can cover the basics so that you’ve got some idea of what’s going on before you get out on the track in competition for the first time. We hope this material will be useful as a review, as well, a year or two from now. And even if you have no intention of ever taking your shiny new MINI out “in anger” as the old-timers say, we might be able to give you a taste of what  drivers deal with in competition. At the very least, perhaps we can make your own Sunday afternoon armchair racing a little more interesting.

Preparation is Half the Battle

Any experienced racer will tell you that what happens out on the track between the time the green flag drops and the checkered flag is waved is only a small part of the big picture of racing. In addition, there’s the preparation of the car to go racing, things that should be checked before you leave for the track, and things that should be checked before and after every session. While this off-track work won’t win you any races, even if well done, it can sure lose them in a hurry if they are poorly done.

Car Preparation

We’ve reviewed all the go-fast items, and safety components that are required and permitted by most racing organizations, but we would emphasize that while there is still time to make necessary changes, you get a copy of the rules for the club you’ll be racing with to make sure that you’ve done everything that the rules require and haven’t done anything that they don’t allow.

Our best advice in planning on how to set up your own MINI for racing is to become a new best-friend with someone who is actively racing with the group already, especially if they’re racing a MINI. Amateur race drivers, by and large, are a generous group and will extend a helping hand to anyone crazy enough to join them in this exciting and demanding hobby.

There’s no question that you’ll need a proper roll cage, properly installed, and a safety harness, also properly installed, before any club will allow you out on the track for a race. Find out whether any other safety gear, such as catch tanks for your radiator, safety clips or other equipment is required to protect the track surface during the race.

Before you load up the car to go to the track, you’ll want to go through it very carefully, or have an experienced race-prep shop do the work for you. Every nut and bolt that can be reached with a wrench needs to be checked to make sure it’s tight. Seventy miles an hour at low rpm on the highway is very different from speeds that will go over 100 and revs that are going to be kept near the readline for half an hour or so, and it’s amazing how easily a nut can get loosened under that kind of use.

Speaking of hard use, you should plan to change your oil frequently when you’re racing the car. Changing your oil after every second or third weekend is not excessive on a race car. Fresh oil is probably the cheapest and most important single thing you can do to keep your car running well.

Check the condition of the engine belt. Since most of us will need the assistance of a shop or experienced mechanic to replace the MINI’s serpentine belt, this is not something that can easily be done at the last minute or at the track.

Similarly, check the condition of all the hoses and make sure all the hose clamps are tight. This may be a good time to get your engine cleaned, as well, since it is much easier to spot leaks, worn spots, and loose clamps when the engine compartment is clean.

Check the thickness of the brake pads on each wheel. Once you start driving aggressively, you’re going to be using up brake pads and changing them is another thing that’s much easier done in the comfort of your own garage.

Check the tread on your tires while there is still time to buy a new set and get them installed. If you’ve gone through a few track days and a racing school, you may already be needing a new set of treads, at least on the front of the car.

It can be a very good idea to replace the lug nuts on your wheels with studs, and then use lug nuts, rather than lug bolts, to attach the wheels. With studs and nuts, it is very easy to see whether a lug nut is starting to loosen; with lug bolts they can be hanging on by a single thread and only a check with a torque wrench will actually make sure they are tight enough.

If you’re driving a pre-2004 MINI and haven’t had the coolant tank replaced, you might wish to do that. A number of instances of splits in the plastic tank have been reported, and dealers have a better quality plastic replacement tank available now.  As an alternative, a good-quality polished aluminum tank is available as a replacement for about $225.

Check the rules of your racing organization; many tracks do not permit the use of antifreeze in the coolant of a car racing on the track because of how slippery spilled antifreeze can be. It’s much easier to drain your radiator and replace the antifreeze with fresh water at home (distilled water may be preferable if your local water has a high mineral content) rather than trying to do it at the track.

A product from Red Line called “Water Wetter” is known to raise the effective boiling temperature of water as well as providing corrosion protection, so if you are running plain water it is a good idea to add a bottle of that to the radiator in place of the antifreeze. Just be sure you replace the water and antifreeze if you’re going to be parking the car outside in freezing weather.

Before You Leave for the Track

During the week before your race, you should check and top up all fluids, including oil, water, and brake and clutch fluid. In teching cars at the track, it’s amazing how often we find cars with insufficient water in the coolant tank.

Check the torque on each lug nut. Most MINI racers like the lug nuts torqued to at least 80 pounds to make very sure there is no dange of losing a wheel in a corner. Tires should also be inflated to a higher pressure than you would normally keep them on the street.

You’re going to check tire pressure before and after each session, of course, but if you inflate the tires a few days before loading up for the track and then check them just before you leave you’ll be able to spot a slow leak or leaky valve while there is still time to get the tire repaired or replaced.

Make sure that you’ve got all the equipment that you’ll need, including racing documentation, safety gear, tools, spare parts, fluid, and so forth. It is a very good idea to make yourself a list of everything you think you will need, or might need, from racing helmet to stopwatch, for the weekend. Put the list in a protective cover so that you can use it to load the car and support vehicle before leaving for the track. When you discover you need something else at the track, add that to the list so that next weekend you won’t forget it. There’s nothing worse than arriving at the track and discovering you’re missing something basic, like your racing gloves, that you need to race.

Before and After Each Session

Before each session, check the tire pressure on each tire. If the tires are cold, they should be about four pounds or so less than the pressure you like to race at. Tire pressure is the easiest and cheapest thing to modify that will change the handling of your car, and over time you’ll find the tire pressure that you like best.

Check the torque on each lug nut before going out. This is also a good time to visually check the condition of the tread on each tire, and the condition of the brakes and brake lines. If the engine stops in the middle of the race, the worst that’s likely to happen is that you have to be pushed off the track and towed into the pits. Lose a wheel or your brakes and much worse things can happen to the car and to you.

Check the oil level in the engine and transmission, the level of water in the radiator tank, and the brake and clutch fluid.

Before you go out on the track, it is a good idea to start the engine and do a visual check of the engine compartment to make sure that everything is hooked up and spinning around as it is supposed to be, and nothing is leaking that shouldn’t be.

The worst feeling in the world is to be belted into the car, in the middle of the grid, at the two-minute warning wondering if that funny noise you can hear, or smell that you’ve just noticed is coming from your own engine. At that point, there’s no way of jumping out and popping the hood just to make sure everything looks right without losing your place on the grid.

Get to the grid well before the time for your race. This is especially important during your first season of racing, for the simple reason that if you rush things, you’re going to forget something. By the time the five-minute warning is given on the grid, you should be settled into your car, your seat belts should be fastened, and you should have your helmet and gloves on. Then sit quietly for the two minutes before the three-minute warning and focus your thoughts on the coming race.

When the three-minute warning goes up, start your engine and check your gauges. Then try to close out all thoughts of the outside world so that your entire universe is limited to you, your car, the cars around you and the track.

After your practice session or race, just as soon as you come in from the track, before you’ve taken your equipment off and starting explaining to anyone who will listen just exactly what was happening at that last corner, you should immediately check your tire temperatures to see if you’re carrying too much or too little pressure in the tires.

You can do this with a relatively expensive pyrometer, checking and comparing the temperature at the center of each tire tread with the edges. If the edges are colder than the center, the tire is over-inflated. If the edges are warmer than the center, then the tire is under-inflated. If temperatures across the tire are the same, then you’re in good shape.

You also can get most of the information you need by checking the pressure on each tire and using an old rule of thumb. If the tire pressures are about the same as they were cold, you’ve probably got too much pressure in the tires. If the pressure in the tires has gone up by much more than four pounds, then you’ve probably got too little pressure in them, and the flex of the tires is causing them to heat up and make the pressure increase. If the pressure when they’re hot and you’ve just come off the track is about four pounds higher than when they were checked cold, you’re probably just about right.

When the Green Flag Drops

Nothing that you’ve done in your previous track days or in racing school can prepare you for the experience that awaits you when the green flag drops in your first race. Nevertheless, we can offer a few suggestions so that the sensations of the moment don’t completely overwhelm you.

At the start of the race, you really find out what makes racing different from driving around the track on track days. The difference is that, while you are trying to get your shift points right, brake and turn in on the right line, and accelerate out, on all the different corners of the particular race track you’re on, there are 20 to 40 other cars out there trying to do the same things at the same time and, frequently, in the same place.

This is what’s different about racing. The new variable, that makes racing different from, say, golf, is that you’re not alone; there are other cars on the track with you. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the start. So let’s talk about what you’ll encounter.

On the Pace Lap

While you were getting belted in on the hot grid, starting the car, checking the gauges and listening to the engine to make sure everything was running right, we’ll bet that your pulse was beginning to race. It didn’t slowed much as you swung out of the pit lane and on to the track, and took your place on the starting grid following the starter’s instructions. Now you’ll be taking one full lap behind the pace car before the race actually starts so the first thing you need to do is calm down.

The first thing you should do on the pace lap is concentrate on your breathing. Yes, it’s a Zen thing. You need to get your pulse and respiration back under control. Sure this is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done, you’re all alone in the car, and you can’t remember a thing that you were supposed to have learned in driving school. All the more reason to calm down and relax.

Breathe slowly and listen to your breathing in your helmet. Try to get your breathing into a long, slow pattern.

Now you can begin to attend to the other three things you should be doing on the pace lap: checking your car, locating the corner worker stations, and reviewing your memory of the track so that the key points are fresh in your mind.

The first thing to do is to check your gauges to make sure that water temperature is coming up to regular running heat, and that oil pressure is still under control. Speed up a little and touch your brakes to make sure that the car revs and slows the way it is supposed to.

It is a good idea to begin heating up your brake pads a bit by riding the brake pedal with your left foot to cause the brakes to drag slightly while continuing to maintain speed with your right foot on the throttle. This is particularly important if you’re running racing pads, which don’t work very well when they’re cold.

Regardless of what you’ve seen on Speed Channel, one thing we don’t recommend that you do is to turn the car back and forth to “heat up your tires.” First, it really doesn’t do much good unless you’re driving on real race tires, which you’re not. Second, there’s always the potential of zigging when the guy next to you is zagging, which could lead to an exchange of paint. That’s never a good thing, especially on the pace lap. Third, a combination of a little oil on the track and a little zig or zag, and you could find yourself spinning off the track before the race ever starts. That can be downright embarrassing.

As you go around the track, the flaggers at each corner will be displaying the yellow flag. Nominally that means that you shouldn’t pass, but you already knew that. The main point of the exercise is so that you can fix in your mind where each flag stand is, since they will be your eyes around the corner at each critical point on the track. It’s a nice thing to do to acknowledge their presence with a little wave so they know you know they’re there.

As you go around the track, you should also be checking for your cue points for each corner. Note where the braking point is, where your turn-in is, and where you’ll be tracking out. This can be a little challenging since you will also be trying to keep even with the car gridded next to you, trying to keep from running over the bumper of the car in front of you, and trying not to delay the person behind you.

After the Pace Car Goes Off

We’re going to assume that you’ve been diligent in your practice and have had the chance to develop a pretty good idea of the best line around the track. However, during the first couple corners of the first lap, you might as well forget everything you know about where you think you should be on the track.

We say this because your number one concern on the start is simply to make it around the track safely on that first lap. Of course, your number two concern is to do it as quickly as possible, but at no time in the race is the old racer saying more relevant: “To finish first, you must first finish.”

As you round the last corner, and the pace car disappears into the pit lane, there will be a very short period of time when everything seems as calm as can be. Check to make sure that you’re in second gear, take a deep breath, and then… All the harpies in hell will seem to have broken loose at the same instant.

When the green flag drops—probably quite a ways up ahead since you’re going to be gridded pretty far to the back for your first race—every single one of the drivers will simultaneously shove their accelerators to the floor.

One tip here: watch your tachometer. Like most drivers, you probably shift by ear most of the time. However, at the start of the race, you’re not going to be able to hear your own engine. In addition, with all the confusion around you, and your own excitement, it is very easy to get too enthusiastic with the accelerator. This is probably the easiest place in the race to blow an engine. So in the midst of everything else going on, we’re telling you to watch your tachometer to select your shift points.

Forget everything you’ve ever thought about how neat it would be to gain a place or three on the start. Imagine instead the biggest freeway toll booth complex you’ve ever driven through, with all the drivers leaving their booths at the same time, and all aiming for the one or two lanes available ahead. That’s about what the start will feel like.

Your goal should be just to try to maintain your place in the melee. Focus on what’s happening ahead of you and simply try to drive in a straight line unless it is absolutely necessary to swerve around a very slow car ahead of you. With a little luck you may be able to get away from the start a little bit faster than the car next to you so you can claim your place in line ahead of them. In any case, you’ll probably have to slow up a bit as all those cars that were going two abreast try to get into a single line to go around the first corner.

What really matters, however, is getting through the chaos of the start and around the first or second corner with your car intact. If you lose a few places, so what? If the cars were faster than you (and there certainly will be a few fast cars behind you that, for one reason or another, didn’t get gridded where they belonged in the pecking order of your grid) then they belong ahead anyhow. If they’re slower than you, then you’ll have the chance to prove that in the laps of the race to come. The main point is simply to get around the first two corners in good shape so that you can actually be a part of the real race.

Passing on Corners

Sure you’ve passed other cars when you were driving the circuit on club track days, in the High Performance Driving Events of NASA, or in driving school. Generally, however, passing was limited to straightaways only. There is a good reason for that. When two cars are going straight down the track, it’s pretty obvious if one driver and car is faster than the other driver and car, and the faster one can easily go by the slower.

However, in racing those differences are pretty well resolved through the use of qualifying times and class grids. As a result, you will generally find yourself surrounded by other cars that are roughly the same speed as yours. It isn’t very likely that you’re going to get ahead of them by passing them on the straights.

Instead, your passing will have to be done on the corners. That’s where the races are won or lost, because that’s where driving skills really come into play. Becoming skilled at driving around the corners faster than other drivers, and then learning how to get around the same corner they’re going around, at the same time, is what drivers spend their careers learning how to do.

Passing in the Corners

But even if we can’t give you the secret tips in this book on how to beat other drivers through corners, at least we can tell you how to make a proper pass. Then you can practice, and at the least you’ll know what’s going on when another driver makes a pass on you. In a short while, with some practice, you too will be able to start passing other drivers on the corners.

In most amateur racing organizations, one rule is sacred: The driver who is making the pass is responsible for the safety of both cars and both drivers. No excuses, and no explanations can alter this fact. If two cars crash in a corner, the driver making the pass is always considered to be at fault.

A proper pass is done by entering the corner ahead of the other driver. Ahead, in this case, means that at the turn-in point a reasonable portion of the front of the passing car is ahead of the car being passed. The passing car will be on the “passing line” which is inside the normal cornering line.

If these two conditions are satisfied—the passing car has a slight lead on the car being passed, and is on the inside of the car being passed—then it isn’t possible for the car being passed to get to the apex of the corner before the passing car, so the passing car can accelerate out of the corner ahead of the car being passed.

The most typical way that a pass is carried out is for the passing car to carry more speed into the corner and brake later than the car being passed. To do this, the passing driver either has to have a faster car with better brakes, or have more confidence in the car and his or her ability to get it through the corner safely, or both.

However, as we learned earlier when discussing the fastest line through the corner, we noted that if you turn in too early, you won’t be able to get on the accelerator as hard coming out of the corner, if you want to stay on the track. Thus it may seem strange that a passing car can take the slower line through the corner and still come out ahead of the car being passed.

In fact, one way to respond to being passed is to drop back slightly, and make sure you’re on the fast line. You can then let the other driver pass you, but still have a chance to accelerate past them as you come out of the corner, since they may not be able to get on the accelerator as quickly.

Keeping Your Passes Safe

If you are passing another car and do decide to do it by taking the passing line and thus blocking them from getting to the apex, don’t forget that it is your responsibility to make sure the pass is made safely. Here are a few tips.

First, make sure that the other driver knows you are behind them. You can’t always count on them to be checking their mirrors to see that you are coming up and trying to pass. One of the most typical ways in which accidents happen in corners is for the driver ahead to not be aware he or she is being passed, and come over to the apex just at the time that the passing car is going for the same point.

So it is a very good idea to come up next to the other car at one or two corners before you actually try to pass. That way, you can make sure they’ve seen you before you actually go for the pass.

Finding a good corner to make your pass is another good idea. If you’re behind another car and the cars’ speeds seem to be pretty evenly matched, you’ll have to pass them on the basis of skill. Typically, all drivers, depending on their own skills and the capabilities of their cars, are better at some types of corners than others.

Be patient and follow the other car through several corners, maybe even for a few laps, while you scope out their skill, their ability to drive through specific corners, and their techniques. If it is going to be possible to pass them, you should be able to find a corner that you drive better than they do, or one that your car can handle better than theirs, and then make your pass at that corner.

Track Etiquette and Common Sense

One major difference between professional racing and amateur racing is that, in amateur racing, your car is your own. If something happens to your car, it will be your checkbook that will suffer. There won’t be a sponsor or team owner to pay for the damage. As a result, you’re going to want to try to protect your car from accidental damage, and you’re going to be hoping that everyone else on the track feels the same way about their car.

Fortunately, amateur racing has taken a leaf from the vintage racing rule book and adopted a common code of track etiquette that helps everyone keep the shine in their paint jobs. The first rule is that contact is wrong. Period. No matter what else is going on, no matter how close the racing is, there is never any excuse for cars to get close enough to swap paint.

Most amateur racing organizations have adopted some form of the “13/13 rule“ used in vintage organizations. Simply put, drivers involved in any incident that results in damage to a car will be placed on probation for 13 months. During that period of time, if they are involved in a second incident where a car is damaged, they will be expelled from the organization for 13 months.

The reasoning behind this rule is that if you’re involved in an incident where a car is damaged, whether it’s yours or another car, you probably could have helped prevent the incident. Either you’re either taking chances beyond your own driving ability, or you’re not being cautious enough or paying enough attention to keep out of trouble. Either way, if your car is damaged once, under the 13/13 rule you’ll be warned to change your driving.

If your car is damaged twice, even if a reasonable observer might agree that neither accident was actually your fault, it was you who put your car in harm’s way by overdriving your abilities, or by not paying attention. Either way, you can be considered to be a risk to yourself as well as others on the track and shouldn’t be out there.

You and Other Drivers

What safety on the track boils down to is that you need to be know where the other cars around you are at all times, and you need to leave them enough room to maneuver so that there’s never any need for two cars to try to occupy the same space at the same time.

When you’re first starting to race, there are some specific guidelines that will both help you stay out of trouble and allow others to race safely while you’re on the track. Perhaps the most important practice for you to work on as a novice driver is to check your mirrors frequently. You need to be aware not only of who is ahead of you, but perhaps even more important, who is coming up behind you.

When you do see a driver coming up behind you because they are going faster than you are, both politeness and common sense point to allowing the faster driver to get around with a minimum of fuss. You only need to do two things: be predictable and be polite.

To be predictable, you should stay on the standard track line. The worst thing you can do is to move off the line in order to let them go by. If you move off the line, you might do that just at the time that the driver behind you decides to go off the line in order to pass. All of a sudden, you’ll both be trying to be in the same place at the same time.

Instead, simply keep on the line. Then all they need to do is use their relative speed and skill to go around you on the passing line.

To be polite, it is a good thing to signal which side of the car you will be expecting them to pass. All you need to do is use one hand to point the following car by. This accomplishes two things: It lets the overtaking driver know that you know he or she is there, and it tells them where you expect them to pass you.

In the event that you should find yourself overtaking another car, either because they may also be a novice and be more timid than you are, or because they are in a slower car, which can be the case with a multi-marque grid, then keep in mind the rules we talked about above.

As we said, passing safely is the responsibility of the overtaking driver. If that’s you, then you’re responsible for making sure the car ahead knows you’re there, and you’re responsible for making a clean, safe pass. If you have any doubts, then back out and wait for a nice wide, straight place on the track where you’ll have lots of room to pass. And before you do, check to make sure that you don’t have an even faster car on your tail about to pass you.

 

Keeping Cool in Chaos

Keeping calm and staying focused are probably the two most important aspects of safe racing. When problems do develop, more often than not, the driver who caused the incident will say, at least to him or herself, that they just experienced a momentary instance of “brain fade” or “red mist.”

Brain fade occurs when you let your mind wander away from the moment at hand. Red mist is a racer’s term for the condition when your desire to beat the other driver, or worse, get even with them, overwhelms your common sense and leads you to do something stupid.

Either way, anything less than 100 percent calm, common-sense driving is likely to get you, and probably someone else, in trouble. So the trick is to keep your cool at all times.

Keeping calm starts by remembering that your primary reason for being on the track is to have fun. You’re not earning your living by racing, and there is no money at stake. At most, there might be the passing glory of being listed as having come in first, or recording a time better than a specific competitor. In most cases, with most clubs there isn’t even a first prize to vie for, and if there is, you can buy a better one for a few bucks at the nearest trophy store.

Nothing that you could possible win is worth risking a major dent in your bank account to repair a major dent in your car, much less risking a lengthy and expensive stay in the hospital, or having someone else’s injury on your conscience.

But even if you do know that you’re just out to have fun, and you don’t intend to take any risks, you still need to keep focused. Seasoned race drivers will tell you that the best way to do that is to always keep thinking about the next corner, the next lap, and the next race. If you screw up a corner, or just as bad, if you really nail one and gain a place or two, immediately put it out of your mind. There simply isn’t enough room in your head to be regretting or gloating about the last corner while staying on line and hitting your braking point for the next corner.

If you think there’s something to be learned from your mistakes or your triumphs—and, quite definitely, there is—then invest a few hundred dollars in a digital video camera that you can attach to your roll bar. Film each race, and then think about it afterward, in the comfort of your own living room. Just don’t waste any time thinking about what’s passed while there is still racing to be done.

Automobile racing is one of the most exciting ways we can imagine to challenge your skill, intellect, patience, self-discipline and nerve. It isn’t for everyone, and many people every year participate in only one or two races before deciding that they don’t like the experience. But if you do discover you like racing, then you will have joined an elite fraternity. And no words you can ever find will be able explain to the uninitiated your excitement, pleasure and satisfaction. Now that’s motoring.

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