Race Car Driving Tip: Smooth is NOT fast

People are always quick to rifle off a race car driving tip. The problem? No one is talking about the right thing.

I’m about to make a wild claim that originated several months ago the Racers HQ Podcast – Episode 21 where I stated something that goes against everything we’ve ever been taught about performance driving: smooth is NOT fast.

Yeah I said it. While most instructors at the autocross, Time Trials, and even the pro level will tell you that smooth driving creates speed I’m about to show you exactly why that’s wrong.

Let me begin by easily proving that the fastest drivers in history all agreed that smooth does equal speed:

“Driving a car at the limit in a corner is like tightrope-walking. Entering a corner with the car on the limit is like jumping onto a tightrope blindfolded.” – Mark Donohue

“If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough.” – Mario Andretti

“Driving a race car is like dancing with a chainsaw.” – Cale Yarborough

Do any of those descriptions sound smooth to you? Again, I present the contentious race car driving tip that smooth is NOT fast.

Let’s go a step further. Have a look at some on-board footage from a few racing legends. 

Aryton Senna

Sebastian Leob at 7:06

Vaughn Gittin Jr

As you can clearly see, these top level legends clearly aren’t driving smooth – they yank the wheel dozens of times and make many corrections in one corner. And yet they were faster than anyone. So when a driving instructor tells you to be smooth it creates a paradox. What can you trust? The actions of the greats? Or the guidance of professional instructors?

To understand exactly what’s happening here we have to consider what fast actually means. 

When I first started racing the phrase “be smooth” meant something very specific to me. It meant I had to make smooth, gradual inputs into the car via throttle, brake, or steering. If I made more than one input or had to make adjustments it meant I could have gone faster. When approaching a corner I would make one smooth steering input that guided the car to the apex. Then I’d start to unwind the wheel as I drifted out toward the exit point.

The result? Slow – even during my best attempts. It was smooth, but definitely not fast. At that point I knew the classic race car driving tip “be smooth” was flawed.

Allow me to explain exactly what fast means. 

Every car has a limit – the point at which it produces the highest level of traction. If you’re under that limit you’re slow. If you’re over that limit you’re slow. The trick? To drive the car exactly on that point where grip is at it’s peak. The problem? It’s impossible to stay exactly on the peak.

If we took al the human elements out of racing (analysis, decisions, inputs) and found a perfect robot then we could see what a perfect lap looks like – Maximize grip for an entire lap.

But for humans that’s an impossibility. A human can certainly very close to peak grip, but will always have to make small adjustments to stay balanced on the top. Just like balancing on one foot atop a fence post takes a bit of movement and correction to keep from falling off.

At first you might find that maximize level of traction but then surpass it. No problem. Make a small input correction to reel the car back in. Maybe you reel it in a little too far and have to make another small correction to bring the grip back up to the peak. You go over again. You’re under again. Almost hit the max again and it drops back off.

Staying at the peak level of grip is a constant battle which cannot be be achieved while “being smooth.” That’s why Ayrton Senna was always making small ratchets of corrections to the wheel. He was doing his best to balance his car atop the line that divides too slow from too fast. That’s why he was so much faster while making dozens of tiny adjustments during a single corner.

The only thing that separates a fast driver from a slow driving is how far they stray from peak grip.

Senna, Loeb, Petty, Vettel, and Foust only stray a tiny amount in either direction before they catch the mistake and reel it back in. A talented hobby driver will stray farther over the line and under it. A new driver may not even hit peak grip even though he’s incredibly smooth.

When I was being smooth on the track I didn’t realize that I was completely ignoring a critical component in speed: subtly flirting with peak traction. I didn’t understand that “smooth” is a term used to describe the car’s overall stabilization near the maximum level of grip. I had been applying “smooth” to my physical motions instead of the car’s. It obviously wasn’t working.

So take this race car driving tip and make the most of it. Remember that smooth is NOT fast. Peak grip is fast. Whatever driver inputs you have to make to get the car balancing at peak grip is the right answer. Don’t ever let an instructor tell you to “be smooth.” You don’t need to be. Only the car does.

Once this clicks you’ll start seeing the speed you crave.

But you can still keep improving your game. Driving at peak grip isn’t as simple as it sounds. There are many components and concepts that play a role in racing at the max and you learn more about three of them here:

  • Slip Angles – the difference between where a wheel pointed and the direction a car is going. Very important in maximizing the highest level of traction a tire can produce
  • Yaw Angles – the difference between where the vehicle is pointed and the direction a car is going. Essential information to correctly apply slip angles.
  • Neutral Steer – (AKA rotation) the culmination effect of slip and angles and yaw angles.

Someone you know will love this! Who is it?