While driving recently on a racetrack in Spain, I got wind of juicy reporter gossip: Two of the press vehicles from my group had already been sufficiently damaged to take them out of commission.
This meant that two drivers had gone off-track. Such an error is embarrassing at best in front of peers, and serves a good reminder of a subtle, yet critical, distinction in the car world: Just because you write about cars professionally does not make you a professional driver. Or even a great driver. That goes double for owners of 710-plus horsepower Ferrari F8 Tributos and Lamborghini Aventadors. Just because you can afford the mid-six-figure sum required to own one doesn’t mean you know how to drive it.
In fact, some of the worse drivers I’ve known have covered cars for a living. One reporter, long since departed, was renowned for his stubborn tendency to drive a healthy 10 miles under the speed limit, which is just as distracting and unpredictable as driving too fast because it disrupts the flow of traffic. An editor at a well-known trade rag turned me a sick shade of chartreuse with his jabby driving in an Italian exotic. I haven’t been happier to roll myself out of a car than I was that day on a back hill in Malibu, Calif.
“I can’t imagine something that is more worth investing in than driving. It’s literally the most dangerous thing we do on a daily basis,” says Tommy Kendall, a racing legend who competed in IROC, Nascar, and 24 Hours of Le Mans races, among others, over a 27-year professional driving career. But driving to the grocery store is a far cry from driving on a racetrack. “You think, ‘I drive every day, how hard can it be?’ But it is very complicated to make a car do what it can do at the higher levels.”
The Motorsports Hall of Famer has coached thousands of drivers of all levels of competence since retiring from his professional racing career in 2013; he is now an instructor at the AMG Driving Academy, the Mercedes-Benz driving school with six locations across the U.S.
I spoke with Kendall recently about the mistakes he sees drivers of all levels make when they get on the track—and how to avoid them.
You don’t know what you don’t know.
Since most adult Americans drive every day, it’s easy to assume the skills we use on our commute translate into track-driving proficiency. But far from it. Track speeds reach 200 mph on the straight stretches on many courses, and turns come up far quicker, and are far tighter, than many on public roads. That means you’ve got to brake, accelerate, and steer the car in a wildly different manner. “People think driving is like walking; how hard can it be?” Kendall says. “The most important thing to know is to know what you don’t know.”
How to fix it: Respect the danger. Driving a 523-horsepower Mercedes-AMG GT on a track is taking your life in your hands. Trial and error at 150 mph is far more dangerous than trial and error when, say, you’re learning to ride a bicycle. Little mistakes will cost money and time in the shop repairing your car. Big mistakes mean you could die. Even a small miscalculation, like overcorrecting a turn, can send a car spinning. “One of the most important things you can do is scare yourself a little bit beforehand,” Kendall says. “Hopefully, it will make you gain some respect that there is just a ton going on to operate a car.”
You haven’t positioned yourself correctly inside the car.
Like adjusting your mirrors in a rental, getting your seat set correctly is essential. To drive the point home, Kendall tells the tale of how legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would teach his new class how to put on their shoes and socks the first day of practice. “His whole point was that you build on fundamentals, and if you build on bad habits—even if they’re small—they multiply.” The same applies to driving fast on a track.
How to fix it: Sit in the driver’s seat so that you can comfortably bend your knees and fully press the car’s pedals to the floor—without having to strain yourself to reach them. “You don’t want to have to be reaching for full throttle—or for the brake,” Kendall says. Then allow your wrist to drop over the top of the steering wheel. It should feel like a comfortable drape, again, not a stretch to reach. That will tell you how close you should sit. “A lot of people are sitting too far away from the wheel,” Kendall says. Your elbows should be at roughly 90-degree angles once you have your hands placed at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock on the wheel. That allows a full range of steering without losing contact on the steering wheel or crossing your arms over your body so much that they get twisted.
You have warmed up neither the car nor your body.
Cold rubber means less grip, which could make you spin and lose control. The same goes for brakes: The compound inside them is grippier when warm. The more grip you’ve got, the more cornering speed—and the faster you can accelerate.
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As for your body: Loosening and warming muscles means your back, neck, arms, and shoulders are more relaxed, which translates into smoother and more fluid driving. It also will help prevent injury, fatigue, and strain across your body after spending a grueling day fighting G-forces around the tarmac.
How to fix it: Check tire pressure to make sure it’s appropriate for the track surface you’re on. Do some warm-up laps before plunging into trying to drive your fastest. Generate heat in the brakes by hard stopping a few times in a straight line. You can also drag your brake with your left foot to warm them up.
The same advice applies to your own body and mind. On the track, things come at you really fast, says Kendall. If you go out and try to charge right away, everything will be coming at you at what feels like a million miles an hour. If you work up to it, your brain will piece the course together and engage muscle memory so you can attack corners with ease. This is especially important if you haven’t been on a track in a while: “It’s a little bit like skiing: If you ski once a year, you spend the first two days of your trip getting back to where you ended the last trip.”
You’re looking down.
“The No. 1 thing to work on is vision—that never changes,” Kendall says. “When the adrenaline goes up, your eyes go down. You look right off the hood of a car.” Short-sighted driving like this is like trying to get across a crowded mall at Christmas time. If you’re watching your feet, you’re going to bump into everyone; put your eyes up and look ahead to where you want to be, and you’ll see the fastest and easiest path through.
How to fix it: Look a point or two above where you’re supposed to be, Kendall says. On the straightaway, look down to the corner. As you approach a turn-in, move your eyes toward the inside of the corner. As you approach the inside of the corner, get your eyes up to the exit of the corner.
“There is an interplay between primary vision and peripheral vision that takes a lot of people a long time to get,” Kendall says. “If you’re looking ahead, you can still see things like cones at braking points or apex or exit points in your periphery, but if you’re staring at the cone, you can’t see down the road. You need to train your eyes to always be up and moving toward the next point before you get to it, and let your peripheral check it off as you go past.”
Your hands are tight.
That white-knuckled grip on the wheel when driving on a track may be the natural response to such death-defying speeds, but it’s not the way to be a great driver.
How to fix it: Hold the steering wheel lightly. Lock your thumbs loosely in the spokes of the steering wheel. “You want to be fluid,” Kendall says. “You can generate as much force as you need without actually gripping the wheel.”
You’re holding your breath.
The intensity of track driving induces novice drivers to hold their breath without even realizing it. This holds you back because it makes your hands, eyes, and body tense.
How to fix it: Consciously force yourself to take deep, even breaths. Empty your mind so you can get into a flow of breathing. The more relaxed you get, your eyes will be more fluid, which helps you navigate the track quicker and easier, Kendall says. “When you’re calm, you’ll be better able to adjust to things coming at you quickly.”
You lose focus.
One of the most difficult things about racing is maintaining that super focus, Kendall says. It really is a muscle. When you lose focus at high speeds, you start to make mistakes.
How to fix it: Practice driving with intention and focus. During your daily commute, or when running errands, turn off the radio and scan the road in front of you, looking for obstacles and potential stack-ups or snarls as you move forward through traffic. Off-track, take a yoga class or do a meditation app to force your mind to quiet itself. Anything that strengthens your ability to focus on the present, with no distractions or wandering thoughts, will improve your ability to drive fast on a racetrack.
“You need to have the basics mastered, but what you are ultimately shooting for is to be very relaxed, in the zone,” Kendall says.
You’re focusing on the entry at the expense of the exit.
Practice smooth, quick exits of corners first before practicing how to enter them. It’s safer and quicker than trying to late-brake and rush into corners without knowing how to exit them, Kendall says. “If you are trying to go fast at the first part of the corner, the rest of the corner is just whatever is left over—if you haven’t gone off the track.” By flipping the priority, you’ll know what a good exit feels like. “Then as you start charging the corner a little harder, braking later and that stuff—it’ll become obvious.”
How to fix it: It all comes back to where you’re looking. Work on how your eyes see the exit, Kendall says. “When you unwind your hands on a corner, that’s when you can really get after the throttle, and you will start to build muscle memory. Your eyes look through the exit, you unwind the car, you let the car out of the exit, and then you’re feeding the throttle. It feels really good.”
You’re not listening to your coach.
Ego often gets in the way of people who have spent lots of money on a hot-shot car. It’s natural to want to save face in front of friends and peers out at the track. But often that turns into driving past your own ability.
How to fix it: Remember how fortunate you are to have someone devoted to helping you improve—and you’re paying them. Your coach is a better driver than you, period. And they can see from a top-level perspective what you can adjust to become a better driver.
“You could spend a week by yourself out at a track and never figure any of this out. That’s where a coach comes in,” Kendall says. If you’re paying thousands of dollars for their time and expertise, shouldn’t you get your money’s worth?
You are too hard on yourself.
Be patient—track driving is deceiving. You can learn how to operate a steering wheel and pedals within an hour, but it takes years of discipline and practice to master the form. “Maybe you don’t feel like you’re improving, but if your practice is resulting in slowing things down, and things are feeling more automatic, you’re going to eventually break through the plateau,” Kendall says.
How to fix it: Remind yourself that even Lewis Hamilton didn’t start out winning races, and he doesn’t win every race he enters. He practices, trains, and gradually improves. “That’s what all the practice does—it makes the good habits automatic so you don’t have to consciously think about all these things,” Kendall says.