Circle-Track School: What Does Mayonnaise Have to Do with Your Throttle?
October 23rd, 2012 by DavidP
I like to cook. A lot. My friends often joke that I’d make an excellent housewife. However, no one complains because they love my food (and beer). When they ask me how I make mayonnaise, hollandaise, or ice cream, I tell them it’s the same concept as controlling a race car. They often look at me with the same puzzled look as you, the reader, have on your face right now. How can culinary wizardry have anything to do with racing footwork?
Without giving you an organic chemistry lesson (which I would really love to do), making these three items is as difficult as controlling wheel spin at Martinsville. If you add too much oil (mayonnaise), butter (hollandaise), or heat (New York-style ice cream) too quickly, the concoction will coagulate, or “break,” and you’ll be left with a mess that you can’t fix. The same exact principle is true of applying throttle to a race car on asphalt: apply too much too quickly over a long run, and at best you’ll melt the rear tire(s); at worst, you’ll be facing backwards on the inside fence.
This concept is nothing new to anyone who’s turned a few laps. Many old-school guys will tell you to imagine a hard-boiled egg under your pedal: you want to squeeze the egg, but don’t break the egg. This analogy is good, but what is needed is a restatement: stress the system, but don’t shock it. In other words, too much throttle, too soon will result in an out-of-control rear end.
As an educator, I’m a firm believer in my students using my lessons as much as possible in the real world. I feel we, as racers, should be doing the same. Have you ever thought about how you use your feet in your daily commute? Basically, there are two different styles of pedal work: toe or ball. I started my racing career in karting, where the pedals are simple tubular bars, not the plates and pads found in street cars. At seven years old, I felt it was easiest to feel the pedals with my toes by planting my heels on the floorboard, and simply pushing with my ankles.
I never moved my heels off the floorboard. When I made the transition to driving cars, I used a throttle pedal similar to karting in my race car, and even today I still never move my heels and just use my big toes on my street car pedals, just like Neil Crompton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdWSyrqEnE4
Some drivers, like my dad, feel the pedal with the ball of their foot, placing the whole of their foot on the pedal pad and push with their knee. For what it’s worth, he learned to drive from a ’65 VW Beetle and a ’69 Dodge Charger, and then made the transition to race cars through karting. From what I’ve seen and asked around from drivers, this is the more common preference. And hey, if you do, you’re in great company: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DhtCbSayj0
I learned to work the pedals with the tips of my toes from my karting days (below), and when I raced big-boy cars, I really liked the feel of a tubular throttle pedal (above).
For all intents and purposes, “toe” and “ball” style pedal work are effective, and are simply driver preference. I simply believe that it’s best to know which is best for you. Experiment with the feel of each style The same is true for the choice of shoe (or lack thereof for all the Earnhardt fans) that you use to feel the pedals of your car. For example, I’ve found I can’t drive a clutch in work boots because they’re too big and clumsy for my “toe” work. When I’m not driving barefoot during the warm months (try it sometime, you’ll be amazed at what you can feel through the pedals), I keep my Puma training shoes or leather moccasins in the car: the ultra-thin and soft soles help me feel the pedals without changing my footwork.
I believe that everyday driving hides flaws in proper throttle technique. Unless you commute to work in a supercar that was featured on Top Gear, your race car has better performance than your street car, both in horsepower and throttle response. Little flaws in your footwork that you do on your daily drive manifest themselves when you try to control a beast on wheels and lay down fast times. These flaws come in three major areas: stabbing, spiking, and pulsing. All three penalize the driver with time, and sometimes even wrecks.
For those who have raced dirt or rally, spiking the brake or throttle instantaneously manipulates the direction of a car. On dirt, many drivers “spike” (tap and release) the brake on corner entry to set the car and “pulse” (work) the throttle to steer the rear end. Any accomplished dirt racer will tell you they steer the car as much with the throttle as they do with the wheel. However, these principles do not translate very well to asphalt, which is iRacing’s track surface. Accomplished asphalt racers (both circle-track and road) are smooth with their footwork. What’s the difference between the two disciplines? Dirt is not as abrasive as asphalt, as any kid on a school playground will tell you. Therefore, asphalt driving demands tire management, and ergo, throttle control.
“Stabbing, spiking, or pulsing a pedal on asphalt is an indicator of poor driving skills — or of a good driver compensating for setup flaws.”
Stabbing, spiking, or pulsing a pedal on asphalt is an indicator of poor driving skills — or of a good driver compensating for setup flaws. In fact, the contrapositive is also true: any given setup is designed to hide flaws in footwork. Think about it: why does a setup that is just right for someone else feel loose/tight for you? I’m willing to bet that your feet aren’t doing the same thing that the other driver’s feet are doing. Does that mean that you’re doing it wrong? Not necessarily. They could be doing it wrong and the setup is hiding their faults that your footwork exposes. When race teams conduct test sessions, the instantaneous driver feedback is in the steering and the pedals. To illustrate this point, here’s a video of Max Papis conducting a test session at an unknown road course. Since we know Max Papis to be an accomplished road racer, it’s most likely that the car wasn’t at its best handling that day. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jQC_g_3O1E
Any good driver should be analyzing their style to see if there are stabbing, spiking, or pulsing their pedals, plain and simple. What’s the difference between the three?
Stabbing is the most common beginner flaw. Too much sustained input on the brake upsets the car on entry and disrupts the balance throughout the corner. Stabbing the throttle before the car can properly accept it results in self-spinning and a “loose” feel. To correct this, think more “roll in, roll out” by imagining a marble sitting in the middle of the car. As you accelerate, the marble moves backward, and as you decelerate, the marble moves forward. Try to make the marble move as smoothly as possible.
Spiking a pedal is usually done on turn-in braking (generally a dirt-tracker’s trick), and mid-corner throttle to steer the rear end around a tight corner. This might be a great way to drive a dirt sprint car or late model, but in essence, you’re relying on wheel spin to steer the rear of the car around. This trick might work for a green-white-checkered finish, but it will not sustain a longer run. To correct this, imagine that hard-boiled egg under your pedal. Squeeze the egg, but don’t break it.
Pulsing a throttle (on/off/on/off) is a pedal flaw that gives the illusion of “working” the throttle to get the fastest lap time, when in reality, it’s a gimmick that results in slower lap times. If you don’t believe me, you can take this advice from a three-time F1 champion. (Skip to 3:22, 5:43, and 6:46 if you just want the advice.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rpFXdWtK4
As a driver, remember that there are only two inputs at your disposal to steer your car around the racetrack: the steering wheel and the pedals. Although the steering wheel is an easy concept to understand, the art of footwork takes repeated practice to develop the feel and intuition to develop consistently fast lap times for powerful cars.