Johnny O' Connell

Driving Tips - Tip 1 | Tip 2 | Tip 3 | Tip 4 | Tip 5

Braking and Shifting
OK...most of your are probably saying to yourself "duh Johnny....I know how to brake"...but really, there are lots of things to consider about braking. I promise you that at sometime or another, you will need to go the brakes hard, and if you know what to expect, then the chances of you doing the right things are better.

First off, lets talk about ABS. When it first came out, people would always say that it lets you stop quicker/shorter than non-abs. While for most average drivers this was the case, it really is not the true benefit of ABS. The benefit is that ABS prevents the wheels from locking up, which allows you to better control and steer your car when you need to stomp on the brakes.

I remember when I taught out at Bondurant in California, and occasionally you would see a rear end collision on the highway. It was amusing in that the car that did the ramming, would always have put steering in trying to avoid the wreck. What happened of course, is that when they slammed on the brakes, they locked up the front tires. Once you have done that, you might as well throw the steering wheel away, as you can turn the steering to full lock, and unless those front tires are rolling, you are going to go straight. Thus the beauty of ABS, in that those front tires are going to keep rolling, so you can change direction. Make sense ??? Good.

Now we last learned about weight transfer and its effect on our handling. We need to be totally aware of this when we brake. Ideally, when we brake...we always want to do it in a straight line. This is when our car is best balanced. But on occasion, we may be called into doing hard braking while cornering. Remember, when you do this, that the car is likely to do some bad things !!! Weight will be transferred from the rear to the front, and most likely, the rear is going to want to go sideways on you, so you need to be aware that as you go to the brake, you will also need to unwind some steering.

But also, should you hit them really hard, you may lock up a front tire. If this is the case, then your car is going to quickly want to understeer off of the road. So what is the correct action ?? That's right, release some brake pressure, and get those front tires to roll again. And always look where you want to go....not where you are going.

Now hopefully you have ABS on your car, and things will be much easier for you. But be aware that you can still spin a car out if you hit the brakes hard while cornering. You need to take some steering out as you simultaneously go to the brakes to avoid this.

Let me know if you have questions.

OK. When it comes to braking, the most important thing is to always, when possible, do it an a straight line ....which leads us into shifting.

Now if you have an automatic...sell it. You are totally missing out on the coolest part of driving. Shifting is so much fun when done properly. But it does take practice. Lets go over it.

Like braking, shifting should always be done in a straight line. That is when you and your car are best balanced, and the chances for missing a shift are minimal. So always, up and down the gearbox in a straight line. now you are going straight, and there is a corner up ahead for which you need to slow down. Your first to get your right foot on the brake, and slow your car down. Your left foot should still be on the floor, against the dead pedal area ( to the left of the clutch ) Still with me ? Good.

Now race drivers use a technique for down shifting called heel/toe. A bit of history might help explain this technique a little better.

In the old days, the gas and the brake were far apart on cars. Drivers had problems, in that when going fast, when they downshifted, they kept getting rear wheel skids as they went down the box (you would call this a compression skid as it is the compression from the engine that starts the rear wheels skidding). What would happen is that when they put in the clutch, the engine RPM would drop to idle, and then when they let the clutch back out after selecting the proper gear, the engine would have to speed up again. Some driver realized that he could fix this problem if while on the brake, he could also use his right foot to rev the engine when the clutch was in...thus when he would let the clutch back out, the RPMs would be higher, and he would not get that compression skid.

So to do this technique, a driver would brake with his heel, and then tap the throttle with his toe to make a smooth down change. This worked, but it was hard for racers to get a good feel for the brakes using their heel on the brakes to slow the car. Some guy obviously figured out that by placing the pedals closer together, they could still brake with the ball of their foot, and then get the throttle with the heel or outside of their foot. Thus their braking was not sacrificed.

It seems complicated, but really is not so tough. If you have seen it watching Nascar...ignore that as most of those guys don't do it properly. Here is how it works.

Lets say we are in 4th gear, coming to a third gear corner. First...go to the brakes...and get a good brake pedal under your foot. You concentrate on the braking because if you miss the shift, but have a good brake pedal, you will still most likely make the corner...never sacrifice a good brake.

Technique wise...when on the brake, your foot should be straight up and down, in a straight line with your ankle, knee...everything aligned.

Now move number 2, your left foot goes over and pushes down the clutch. Once it is in, you take your heel from your right foot ( you are braking with the ball of your right foot ), lift it up slightly, rotate it to the right, and rev the gas for a second. It should ideally just be a blip of the throttle. Once the engine has revved, the car has told you to select third gear, bring your right foot back to straight over the brake, and then let the clutch out. When done properly, there should be no compression slowing down or skidding from the engine.

So going over the moves:

1) Brake

2) Clutch in

3) Rev the motor while still on the brake using heel/toe

4) Pull the selector into the lower gear.

5) Let the clutch out and return to a good braking position with your right foot.

Now for the warning. If you try are doing it at your own risk. Unless I train you personally, both of us in a car at the same time, you are on your own. Technique for this is everything, and having a qualified observer see you do it is a must to ensure that you are doing it correctly. Because it is for some people hard, they don't practice it, and thus don't use it or do it well when they need it. Bottom line for me is that excellent heel/toe is mandatory for anyone wanting to be a strong driver. To me, it is why someone like Ron or any road racer for that matter can compete against the Winston Cup drivers the way that they do on road courses. Better foot work equals better balance of your car entering the corner.

In my years of coaching at the different schools, the most common mistake I would see is drivers concentrating to much on the blipping the throttle, and not enough on the brake. NEVER sacrifice a good position with your foot on the brake. You should have your foot over it solidly. What a lot of people do however, is sacrifice the brake, and maybe only catch it with half of their foot. They then go blip the throttle, and without knowing it, as they brake harder, the edge of their foot presses down on the gas. What then happens is that the front tires lock up, and they freak out. So they push harder on the brakes....the car doesn't slow down of course because at the same time they are pushing on the gas...and what happens is that you hit what you don't want to at a higher rate of speed. I've ridden with drivers when they have done this, and had to hit many a right leg hard to get the person off of the gas as I tried to regain control of the car from the passenger side. THAT RIGHT FOOT SHOULD ONLY TOUCH THE GAS FOR A MILLISECOND, BRINGING UP THE REVS, AND THEN GO BACK TO BRAKING.

Phew........I hope that makes sense. If not...or you have trouble...let me know in the guest book part of the website and I will try and work you through it.

As always, the techniques that we use on the race track, are ones that can be used on the street. But never would I condone or recommend that you drive fast on the street. It is just way to risky. If you want to go fast, go to a drivers school like Bondurants. Or call your local track or the SCCA, but no matter safe. The things I am going over, will make you a better driver...and without a doubt...safer. But it is up to you to use the techniques properly and responsibly.

Johnny O