10 lessons all competitive racers wish they knew earlier

Photography Credit: Dave Green

Story by Peter Krause

Racing can age a person quickly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the learning curve at nearly every level is so steep that if you stick with it, you will become a better, smarter and safer driver. This sport tends to self-select, so flakes don’t generally hang around too long.

Racing schools usually have a similar curriculum that follows the basics: How to keep everyone safe while inculcating good practices and acquainting drivers with a glossary that’s like a foreign language if not in words, then in concept and execution.

Contrast this with that first day at an actual race, where the veteran drivers gather around the newbie friend and dispense advice laden with their heroics–like how, for example, they cheated death by this much as they were split by the leaders lapping them for the second time in a session.

If only that hive mind could be transferred to the novice in one fell swoop. But it can: Here are 10 bits of wisdom to help quickly build that foundation.

1. Racing Is Real

No matter what they teach you in school, you are rarely prepared for racing reality before you’re dumped into the general prison population.

School is a cossetted, caring environment, full of hypotheticals and theory. Race weekends do not operate that way. Racing often devolves into everyone for themselves. (It doesn’t have to be that way, but too many people watch sensationalized pro racing and then set out to emulate that.)

Bottom line: Keep your wits about you. Take nothing for granted. Trust no one to do the right thing until they demonstrate that they can do the right thing.

2. No One Else Cares

You’re always going to be racing with the people immediately ahead of you and those immediately behind you. Deal with it.

Remember that great “I was seventh!” YouTube video featuring Ken Zalner? (If not, look it up.) Even though he qualified seventh, for whatever reason Ken was held on grid and let out last; from there, he proceeded to pass nearly the entire field during the pace lap in order to claim the spot that he felt he deserved. It’s epic.

It’s also a supreme example of the fact that no one except you cares where you think you should be. You have to earn your place, not take it or feel entitled to skirt the rules in order to get where you think you ought to be.

3. Keep Your Emotions in Check

You can’t win a race on emotional, visceral responses, though you can surely lose one on them. Again, the dreaded combination of unrealistic expectations and emotions bubbling to the surface can often compromise a good effort. More often they can result in an expensive body shop bill. (Have you priced a Porsche 911 re-tub recently? It can sure punch a hole in even the most robust racing budget.)

Be calm, look at the long game, and balance the risk with the reward. If in doubt, don’t. As the great Skip Barber instructor Bruce MacInnes says, “If it feels good, watch out!”

Photography Credit: Patrick Tremblay

4. Passing Is an Art

Not only is passing a learned art, it’s also one that depends on several planets coming into alignment–and then you have to be close enough to take advantage of the opportunity.

Early on in your racing career, carving through the field like a scalpel generally only happens in your mind. That scalpel is often more like a lead knock-off hammer: crude but effective, with both drivers scrabbling around the corner, breathing hard, and emerging with great relief that they narrowly averted disaster.

When done correctly, passing is beautiful, the synchronized ballet defined by a carefully crafted plan executed with great precision. Strive for that “smart” pass, one that begins at the exit of the previous corner (or even before). Avoid the divebomb, hail Mary lunge that ends in tears for both drivers.

5. Assume Nothing

Two of the most dangerous words in motorsports? “I thought.” How so?

“I thought they saw me.”

“I thought they were going to stay off track, not come back on.”

“I thought they were going to brake later.”

“I thought I could stay ahead, even though my tires were going off.”

Each is an admission of a misjudgment–often a costly one, if not in bodywork, then in the hard-won trust of your competitors.

Don’t be “that guy.” Be trustworthy. Do the right thing. Race with people and accumulate the intelligence needed to trust them before leaving less margin for error.

6. There’s No Such Thing as “Owning a Corner”

More than a few car-to-car incidents have occurred when a driver feels that he or she has beaten the competition to the turn-in point, only to find a surprise: That other car isn’t in their mirrors, but rather directly alongside or, heaven forbid, a nose ahead. The result? Nothing good.

If you’re the passing driver, the best defense against this situation is a good offense. Present your car sooner, placing it right in the other driver’s field of vision. Take away that driver’s ability to claim that they didn’t see you.

The best drivers, when alongside each other, let the corner sort it out: Two abreast and whoever gets back to power first and can corral their steed most effectively on the exit, wins.

Until the next corner.

Photography Credit: Kristina Cilia

7. The Car Is Always More Capable Than You Are

So many control inputs are based on what the driver believes the car can accept, not what the car will accept. Not a few times have I coached drivers who, when suddenly confronted with a spinning car in front of them, engaged in perfect threshold braking, often shocking themselves (and me) with their excellent execution of this fundamental skill. Afterward, it’s easier for them to ask more of the car’s braking system.

If the car doesn’t inspire confidence when tasked, fix it so it does. There is no car that cannot be driven faster by someone else. Think about that.

8. No Place Is Filled With More False and Misleading Information Than the Paddock

The post-session chronicles in Connie’s Pub at VIR can rival some of the biggest fishing stories ever told. These stories are usually not malevolent or designed to deliberately mislead, they’re just the massaged recollection of an imperfect data recorder, the human brain.

We often remember things the way we would have liked them to be, not necessarily as they actually happened. It’s not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind when you hear all of those stories about friends who were flat through this corner or braking at the last marker for that other one. Start easy and add speed gently, because it’s very hard to take it off.

9. Do Your Homework Early

Today, there is no excuse for not using the prodigious resources available online regarding track specifics: What pads or tires work best, the general track culture, whatever. Sure, some of these are subjective valuations, but gathering knowledge about the track you’re going to run is like adding arrows to your quiver. You will profit from it if you do your homework.

10. Be Realistic

Adjust your expectations downward so that you can be pleased when and if you exceed them, especially early on in your track and racing career. I see a lot of the intensity of daily life creep over into this wonderful, calming and pleasantly distracting avocation–and not for the better.

So take a deep breath. You’re only as good as your last performance; build from there. Be aware that every driver often reaches performance plateaus where they’re stuck no matter how hard they try. It’s only when they step back, deconstruct what they’re doing, and improve the quality of every individual on-track decision and execution that they end up driving quicker, easier and with more headroom.

Inevitably, going faster with less effort and less risk is the worthiest goal. Good luck!

Photography Credit: Bill Stoler

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More like this
zordak Reader
1/13/20 9:46 a.m.

I agree totally with #4. Having been on the receiving end of both the good pass and the dive bomb,  I try very hard to be the former and not the latter. Also my experience is that you will pass the dive bomber on the next straight because they had to slow down to much to actually make the turn.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/13/20 10:01 a.m.

In reply to zordak :

Yes, totally. On that note, yesterday I came across this video that totally makes your point:

In the Golf Cup race, you see a pass as you described. And not only does the passer wind up not holding onto the lead, but he goes off the track. And crashes. In the car that he drove to the track. 

Chris McComb
Chris McComb New Reader
1/13/20 2:11 p.m.

#7 is excellent.  When I started racing, I forced myself to leave the car essentially untouched for nearly two years.  I knew it was better than I.  When I started to feel like I could do more than the car was letting me do, that's when I started the upgrades.

Seat time is the best teacher.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/17/20 9:51 a.m.
Chris McComb said:

Seat time is the best teacher.

Yes, 100%. 

randyracer New Reader
7/3/22 6:22 p.m.

Very thoughtful article by Peter Krause.  #4 I also agree, passing is an art, and unfortunately a bit of a lost art at the top levels of racing lately.  I believe racers in both F1 and NASCAR make late, desperate moves that require the car ahead to get out of the way or be hit (Verstappen), or just punt the car ahead out of the way (Most any young gun driver in NASCAR).  What Peter alludes to is the skill and knowledge to make a pass without contact, more like a chess move than a professional wrestling throw down.  Even worse, this kind of driving is watched by racers all over the world who get the impression that this is what racing is:  "...the dive bomb, Hail Mary lunge that ends in tears for both drivers."  


I call it passing in the Vortex of Danger.  That a late move that happens after the lead car has turned.  It comes from a blind spot, and sets the passing car on a collision course with the lead car.  


In a skilled pass, the following car gets next to the lead car before it turns, taking away the racing line by getting into the peripheral vision of the formerly leading car.


Race well, GRM'ers!

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