Those of us who attend driver education events often hear the same mantra over and over. Instructors, those brave souls who jump into the right seat to help us become better drivers, must spend entire days repeating it through clenched teeth: “Look ahead! Be smooth!”
Despite our lofty position atop the food chain, we humans are still just animals. We don’t shed this identity when we strap on our helmets.
On the contrary, our most basic animal instincts bubble to the surface the instant we drive onto a race track. At speed, our adrenal glands fire off at a furious rate, jacking up our heart rate, quickening our respiration, and drenching us in perspiration.
This is brought to us courtesy of the brain’s fight-or-flight reflex, a vestige of the survival instinct ingrained in us from prehistoric times–back when our extreme sport of choice was evading hungry saber-toothed tigers.
Thanks to the miracle of evolution, those with strong fight-or-flight reflexes lived long enough to procreate and thus became our ancient ancestors. Those lacking such reflexes became satisfying snacks.
For us drivers, the most important component of fight-or-flight is its effect on our vision. At high speed, an adrenalin-charged student driver will experience tunnel vision: a drastic narrowing of their field of vision.
Why? Because that stress response commands our brains to concentrate every bit of our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of practically all else.
Picture the pivotal scene from a classic action film: When the bad guy pulls out a pistol and points it at our hero, what is the inevitable follow-up camera shot? It’s a close-up of the sinister muzzle, usually accompanied by scary music on the soundtrack. The camera shows us what our hero sees–the threat (“fight!”). Then the music depicts his reaction: panic (“no, wait, flee!”).
Similarly, on track, an inexperienced driver’s field of vision narrows so much, it is as if he or she is looking at the world through a drinking straw. Worse, that straw is likely pointed at the perceived threat–a point just a few feet directly in front of the car–instead of at the proper place.
Why? Because, like our movie hero, our natural instinct is to fixate on that which is about to kill us–like that looming concrete wall.
What is the proper place to look, then? It’s where we want the car to go.
Upon entering a turn, we want the car to go past the apex, all the way to track-out and through the corner toward the next one. So look there.
This is easy to say, but, alas, hard to do.
Consider this: At 120 mph, a car is traveling at 176 feet per second–way faster than our brains were ever designed to travel. (Unfortunately, those brains haven’t received any software upgrades to the fight-or-flight reflex since the initial release.)
Moreover, at any given point on track, the control inputs that determine where the car is going to be in the next 50 feet or so have already been made; staring only a few feet in front of the car is effectively like looking back in time, without any ability to change the future. And so, despite the fact that every animal instinct is screaming at us to fixate on the threat, we must force ourselves to look past it, effectively unlearning the product of millions of years of evolution.
We must ignore the threat growing bigger and bigger in the windshield, and instead pay attention to where we want to go. We must–wait for it–look ahead.
Looking ahead has the additional beneficial effect of slowing down the action. This effectively allows our brains more time to process visual information and respond with the proper control inputs.
To demonstrate this, the next time you are traveling down a multi-lane highway, concentrate your vision just a few feet in front of your car. The lines on the road will flash by under the car at great speed. Now throw your vision forward about a quarter of a mile. Suddenly the lines seem to be approaching at a far slower pace.
You haven’t slowed down the car’s speed, but looking forward has given your brain much more time to process the scene and make the right decisions. The same thing applies on track. We have to find ways both to ignore and to assist that 3 pounds of primitive mush between our ears.
Looking ahead does not mean ignoring what is in front of you or beside you. If you are closely following another car, it will remain in your forward peripheral vision. You will be well aware of its presence, but will not allow it to dominate your focus. Similarly, your brain will register what is beside you–like an apex–just fine, even though you are looking past it.
Try this experiment: While sitting in a stationary car, look far ahead. Notice how much you can still see immediately around you. You should, without moving your eyes, be able to see someone in the passenger’s seat, as well as the steering wheel and the surrounding dashboard. At the same time, you should be able to see objects almost 90 degrees to your left.
In your calm, non-adrenalized state, your field of vision is remarkably broad and deep–180 degrees or so of peripheral vision in all directions. Our eyes are amazingly powerful pieces of hardware, capable of collecting vast amounts of data. The trick is in preventing our brain’s software from switching them into limp mode during times of stress.
Looking ahead trains us to overcome our brain’s frantic animal commands and use all the data collected by our eyes to make good car control decisions. It also enables us to comply with the second commandment of driving instructors: be smooth.
In an ideal steady state, a car’s weight is evenly balanced among its four tires, affording each the maximum contact with the road. Indeed, that is the idea behind the common chassis tuning technique of corner balancing.
The problem is that this ideal condition can only be reached on a perfectly flat surface with the car at rest–not a condition we often encounter on track. In fact, a car driven on a track is never in an evenly balanced state.
Under acceleration, weight is moved backward (think of how your head snaps back when you nail the throttle), removing traction from the front tires. Under braking, weight moves forward, removing traction from the rear tires. And under cornering, weight moves to the outside of the turn, removing traction from the inside tires. Throw in a hairpin at the bottom of a long hill, and the variety of weight transfers caused by the multiple combinations of braking, turning and accelerating becomes very complex.
Springs, shocks, anti-roll bars and tires all work in concert to manage the continual transfers of weight that happen when the car is in motion, allowing the driver to effectively command the direction of travel. They maintain the traction the car’s tires have on terra firma, allowing the driver to keep on track. A car’s ability to maintain traction while being subjected to the multiple and changing forces of accelerating, turning and braking defines that car’s performance envelope.
A well-tuned suspension provides a large performance envelope, allowing the car to maintain traction even when subjected to a wide range of forces. Still, the car does not drive itself.
The driver’s inputs through the steering, the brakes, the throttle and even shifting all affect how well the car manages weight transfer and thus maintains traction. When a driver makes inputs that allow the car to operate near the edge of, but not outside of, its performance envelope, the driver is turning fast, safe laps. But when a driver issues commands that overwhelm the chassis’ ability to manage them, that driver exceeds the car’s performance envelope. Traction is lost, and bad things happen–like spins and crashes.
Smoothness, simply stated, is the art of managing driver inputs so that the car’s performance envelope is never exceeded. Being smooth requires precision; muscle movements that affect the car’s controls must be made carefully and deliberately. This means we must use our fine motor skills, which are provided by our smaller muscles, to guide the car.
Steering inputs should be made with our hands, wrists and forearms. The throttle, clutch and brake pedals should be operated with our ankles and feet. Fortunately, today’s cars, with their power everything, require very little actual force to guide them, regardless of the speed they are traveling. Gone are the days when we had to manhandle or muscle a car around a track.
Unfortunately, our prehistoric fight-or-flight reflex once again stumbles into this happy scene to do battle with what we should be doing, in this case being smooth. Kicked off by the gobs of adrenalin released in our excitement, this reflex energizes the large muscles in our body that are designed for fleeing or fighting: the big thigh muscles in our legs that allowed us to evade the saber-tooth, and the biceps in our arms that allowed us to turn and do battle.
Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, these are exactly the wrong muscles we need to be using for precision driving. To be smooth, we must relax those big muscles and rely on the little ones.
If your driving lacks smoothness, take stock of which muscles you are using to drive your car. Make a deliberate effort to use the ones employed by fine motor skills instead of the big, bulky ones. Are you clutching the wheel in a death grip? Try driving a few laps with just your palms placed on the wheel, and your fingers out straight. (Obviously, use care and do this in a safe, controlled environment.) You will be surprised at how much your steering inputs smooth out.
Similar techniques can solve other obstacles to smoothness. Shifting like a club-wielding caveman or cavewoman? Use only your thumb and forefinger to work the shifter.
Are you pounding the brakes or stabbing the throttle? Try driving so that your right foot never leaves the floor, but instead simply pivots on your heel between the throttle and brake.
The goal of these exercises is to teach you to apply less force to the controls. Instead, you will be required to use those delicate, smaller muscles in your hands and feet to make your control inputs. They will become much more precise, measured and–here’s the big word–smooth.
Overcoming our natural programming–particularly programming that was designed to keep us alive–can be difficult and frustrating. Maintaining the ability to control a car at high speed requires lots of practice, and the skill must continually be reinforced.
That’s why driving instructors seemingly never tire of reciting their mantra: Look ahead and be smooth.
But a better understanding of why looking ahead and being smooth are important will set you well on your way to better, safer lap times. Your instructor will thank you.
Terry Thomas has spent years coaching drivers with the Porsche Club of America, BMW CCA and other groups.