Pro-Racing Tricks You Can Use Every Time You Drive
You probably learned to drive in your mom's car going in little loops at 30mph, while she fearfully took up a renewed interest in religion from the passenger seat. That’s all well and good, but it’s not the way you learn to actually control a vehicle. For over a century now, the best drivers in the world have honed their skills on closed roads and race tracks, where they learn advanced techniques that 99.9% of the population doesn’t know. There’s no reason you can't head to a track and see for yourself, unless you’re a total wuss about high-speed driving, in which case I’m happy to break it down for you.
Here are some of the proven techniques used by actual race-car drivers on track that you should practice every time you get behind the wheel. They’ll make your soul-sucking commute more fun AND make you a better driver -- then maybe you’ll put your phone down for two seconds and stop being a menace to society.
Don’t focus on the car in front of you
If you keep your eyes glued to the car ahead of you, that's a big no-no. There's a ton of reasons this is unsafe, primarily because you’re more likely to do whatever that driver does. On a race track, that might mean taking a bad line (aka, following another driver and putting your car in a bad position). In the real world, it can be a bit more deadly. Do you really want to trust the texting teenager in front of you? Of course not.
Instead, look through its windshield and as far ahead as possible
Truth be told, you shouldn’t be looking at the bottom half of your windshield all that much. Instead, keep your eyes up and look through the windshield of the car ahead -- or, if there are multiple vehicles in front of you, look through the spaces between them.
Looking far ahead sends important information to your brain earlier in the game, giving it ample time to figure out the right response to a potential threat and send those signals to your hands and feet -- which comes in handy, whether you're facing a suicidal squirrel on the road or a random tractor that wanders onto your race course.
Focus on where you want the car to end up
Hand-eye coordination is a wonderful thing. By focusing your eyes on the spot where you want to be, and not where you think you're actually going, you'll unconsciously adjust your hands and feet (the wheel, brake, and gas pedal) to help get the car to the right spot.
Push your tongue to the roof of your mouth
Your tongue is basically one big field of densely packed nerve endings, and activating those nerve endings sends electric signals to the same general area of your brain that’s responsible for balance. And balance is pretty central to understanding what your car is doing at any given moment; it's how you sense if your car is doing what you want it to.
Pushing up against the roof of your mouth makes you momentarily hypersensitive to any movement of the car that you’re not expecting (i.e. loss of control) so you can react that much more quickly. The relationship is so direct that several clinical trials are currently underway involving electrostimulation of the tongue to treat traumatic brain-injury victims, as well as Parkinson’s and MS patients.
Always keep your hands at 9 and 3
Forget 10 and 2. FORGET IT. Luckily in most driver's ed classes today, teens are taught 9 and 3 because 10 and 2 is just downright dangerous if you've got an airbag. (If you're not familiar with the concept of airbag degloving, click here, or here, if you're not squeamish.)
9 and 3 is also better because if you momentarily lose control, the second you get the car going the right way again, you want the steering wheel pointed straight ahead. With your hands at 9 and 3, all you have to do is bring them back to their resting position.
Brake with your left foot
I've mentioned this one before, but it certainly bears repeating. Many of the world's best race-car drivers brake with their left. On an automatic, you can use it 100% of the time, and on a manual, you can use it whenever you don't need to shift. By keeping your left foot hovering above the brake pedal (not on it, unless you want your brake lights on all day, which is obnoxious), you're seriously reducing the time it takes to start slowing down in an emergency. At highway speeds, that can mean stopping 50ft earlier for the average driver. Thats... a lot.
This one will feel weird at first, so definitely practice in parking lots until you get it down.
Pulling down on the steering wheel > pushing up
Without delving too deep into physiology, you have two basic types of muscle fibers: slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow is the kind you use for endurance, like running a marathon. Fast is what you use for quick, sprinter-style bursts. You've got more fast twitch in the muscles you use to pull down on the steering wheel than in the muscles you’d use to push it up.
In other words, you essentially have more dexterity if you pull down with your left hand for a left turn, rather than pushing up with your right. More dexterity means your body has more control over the car. And more control is a good thing.
Steer, brake, or accelerate -- but don't do more than one at a time
Think of your car as a particularly attractive dance partner you want to impress. Be gentle, and for God's sake, don't try too much at once. You can steer, you can brake, or you can accelerate -- except for a few specialized track-only techniques, you should only do one at a time.
If you try turning while braking heavily, you’ll either not turn nearly as much as you need to (understeer), or you’ll start to spin (oversteer). You might not think this is a huge issue on your daily commute, but the moment conditions get slippery and your margin for error drops, it’s a pretty big deal.
Any abrupt command from you -- steering, braking, or accelerating -- can easily break traction. Sometimes that's a good thing on the track, but on the street, you always want to be careful, steady, and smooth in your actions. It's a good way to go through life.
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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He's serious about thinking everyone needs to get on a race track at least once to understand the importance of proper technique in daily driving.