When Smooth Is NOT Fast

Performance & Race Driving Tip

Sometimes you can be too smooth.

“You’re so smooth… except when you apply the brakes. You really hit them hard.” That’s a comment I’ve heard more than once after giving a sport/track day/HPDE driver a ride around the track. I’ve also heard a variation on the comment from these same sort of people after riding with anyone that I’ll call here a “pro driver.”

I’m the first to preach the message that smooth is fast. But there’s one place where many drivers who don’t race for a living are just a little too smooth, and that’s in how they initially apply the brakes.

As I wrote about last week in my tip about High Performance Braking Technique, we learn from driving on the street to focus on the End-of-Braking point, and to apply the brakes appropriately to stop in where you want. That’s the positive of what can be learned driving on the street.

The negative is the tendency – and ultimately, the building of a habit – to squeeze the brakes on a little too slowly when driving on the street. In fact, most drivers brake relatively lightly when they first apply pressure to the pedal approaching a traffic light, and then gradually increase the pressure as the car travels through the “brake zone,” finally coming to a complete stop with the hardest pressure on the pedal.

That’s the opposite of how you should brake on the race track. You want to spike up the initial pressure as quickly as possible to the maximum amount that the car and tires can handle, and then slightly bleed off the pressure as the car slows (and the grip level is reduced), and finally gently ease off as you trail brake into the turn.

Now I’m sure someone reading this is going to go find a line in one of my books saying that you should always squeeze the brakes on. Hey, never believe everything you read! 🙂

Yes, I said that. And I mean it. But you can squeeze the brakes on very, very quickly, and hard. Most drivers of production-based track or race cars don’t apply that pressure hard enough, fast enough. Drivers of cars with lots of aerodynamic downforce learn that they have more grip at high speed (due to the aero), but that it reduces as the car slows – and they learn to apply hard initial pressure to the brake pedal.

And that’s what many sport/track day/HPDE drivers notice when riding with someone with much more experience. If they use it themselves, they find themselves turning faster lap times.

Remember, hard initial application of the brakes, and gradually bleed off the pressure.

Check back here often for more tips and advice for performance drivers, race drivers, high performance driving instructors, and anyone else interested in learning to get around race tracks quickly.

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2 Comments

  1. I was going to mention the ‘squeeze’ part, but you beat me to it.

    The ‘problem’ is that most folks coming up through the DE system are taught to not stab the pedal (it’s a valve, not a switch), and I am ‘guilty’ of teaching this as well.

    Of course, when a student is just starting out, hitting the brakes hard and fast can really upset the car, but at the same time, the student is building muscle memory and creating habits that will be hard to ‘correct’ or adjust later on, once speeds picks up and grippier tires are used.

    Is there a way to teach this smoothness in a way that it will not become a liability later on? Or is it a necessary evil that will simply need to be ‘unlearnt’ in due course?

    Reply
    • Great question, Francois! There’s a fine line between being too smooth – squeezing on too slowly – and being so abrupt with the brake application that it upsets the car. As an instructor, helping students – like you said, the new ones especially – find that balance is challenging.

      What I do is be aware of how hard the initial application is that the student is using, and then decide whether it’s worth him/her working on that now (building the right muscle memory, as you point out), or focusing on other areas/techniques/skills. If the student is too slow to apply the brakes, then yes, work on it – have them squeeze the brake harder and faster. If the student is too abrupt, then have them be a little more gentle with the initial application. It’s a judgment call you have to make – at speed! That’s why we instructors get paid the big bucks, right?!!!

      Reply

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