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Miata High-Performance Driving

What does it take to drive your Miata flat out—as fast as it'll go on a race track? The techniques used in high-performance driving aren't that much different than what you use on the street—steering, braking, accelerating—but you need to apply them smoothly and precisely to get the most out of the car, and only on a track can you push the car to its limits. Even if street driving techniques don't translate directly to the track, high-performance techniques learned at the track will make you a better driver on the street. To that end, a trip to your local race track for a few lapping sessions is a great idea. This is what you'll find.

As track cars go, the Miata is relatively underpowered. Coming out of a turn, your Miata is not going to pick up speed quickly. So it's important to come out of turns as fast as you can. In racing parlance this is called conserving momentum. We may even sacrifice some speed in the first part of the turn to gain more at the exit. The good news is, no street car is faster through the turns than a Miata. With good tires and a pair of sway bars, you can blast out of turns with the best of them. The trick is taking the correct line through the turn and getting on the gas early.

The line is nothing more than the path taken through a turn. The fastest line generally starts on the outside edge
Typical left-hand track turn

left-hand turn
of the track, winds to the inside edge near the middle of the corner, then drifts back to the outside edge when the track straightens out. The idea is to draw the biggest possible arc through the turn, requiring the least amount of actual turning. The less you have to turn, the faster you can go. Drawing the biggest possible arc isn't the same as driving it, however, and in fact the best racing line is typically warped a bit. The arc in the first half of a turn will be tighter than the arc in the second half, and this is especially true in a Miata, where you need to be constantly accelerating through the turn in order to maximize your exit speed.

Also, no car can change instantly from going in a straight line to turning. It's not a limitation on the driver, but a simple law of physics. At the start and end of each turn, the car has to go through a transition that takes a certain length of time and a certain amount of track. The initial transition is called the entrance to the turn. The spot on the track where the entrance begins is called the turn-in point, and the place where the car reaches the inside of the track is called the apex. The final transition is called the exit of the turn, and the path from the apex to the exit is usually called track-out. Each section of the turn requires a specific technique, but remember that everything needs to happen as smoothly and seamlessly as possible.

Entrance

At the entrance you want to be off the brakes, in the proper gear, and correctly positioned by the time you reach the turn-in point. Sometimes you can finish up your braking after the turn-in (trail-braking), but that's an advanced technique we won't get into here. As you approach the entrance, look for four things: the braking point, turn-in point, apex, and the exit. Sometimes you can't see the exit, or even the apex from the approach, and in those cases you won't be really fast through the turn until you've had some experience with it. But get in the habit of looking ahead.

If you're just starting out or learning a new track, use an early braking point. Many approaches will have numbered markers every hundred feet or so. Try the first one to begin with, or even a little sooner if you prefer. At the marker, brake hard but smooth. You don't want the nose of the car diving any more than necessary, because you want the tires evenly loaded at turn-in. If you need to shift down, do it while you're under braking. The heel-and-toe technique is useful here, but if you don't know it, be prepared for the rear tires to jerk a bit when you let the clutch out. Be sure you're approaching the turn in a straight line when you do this.

As soon as you're off the brakes, get back on the gas. You don't have to floor it, but at least give it enough gas to maintain your speed. You should be off the brakes just when you reach the turn-in point. Pick up the apex and drive toward it, feeding in as much gas as the tires will allow. This takes a certain amount of feel, based on experience, but this is what high-performance driving is all about—as fast as the tires will allow. The entrance to a turn is where you find out just how sticky your tires are. On old street tires (or in the rain), you may find that any gas at all gets the car loose, and you have to feather the throttle all the way through the turn. On shaved R-compounds you may find you can floor it right away. The better your tires, the earilier in the turn you can open the throttle, and it's that wide-open throttle that makes you fast.

Transitioning from straight to turning at the entrance to a fast corner can be a little unnerving at first. After awhile you may find it easier to start your transition a few feet from the edge of the track, and briefly turn toward the edge before turning back into the corner. You have to time it so you reach the edge of the track at your normal turn-in point, and you definitely don't want to overdo it—just a slight wiggle to set the suspension. Besides making the transition easier, it can be slightly faster because you're getting the transition done before the turn-in.

Apex

When racers talk about an early or late apex, they're referring to how far around the turn the car is when the wheels touch the inside berm. In a Miata, you tend to use a late apex for most turns because you want to be straightening out the car by that point, to get as much power down as possible. Other factors affect the position of the apex, most notably changes in elevation or track width. A turn that goes uphill at the exit encourages an earlier apex, since the tires will stick better once you hit the hill. Turn 8 at Thunderhill is a good example of that.

If the track widens after a turn, an earlier apex is called for since you can still do a lot of turning on the wide part of the track, after the apex. Turn 23 at Reno-Fernely Raceway does that, and the apex is almost spooky-early. Conversely, if the track narrows, a later apex is needed. Thunderhill's turn 5 is a great example of a turn that both narrows and goes downhill after the exit. As a consequence the apex is very late, and in fact most of your turning is done by the time you reach it.

Most apexes will have a berm, and driving over it increases the radius of the turn, which means you go faster. Some berms are taller than others, and you need to learn by trial and error just how far up the berm your tires can go without upsetting the car.
The berm is part of the track—use it

driving on
                    the berm
You can usually get a pretty good good idea of how friendly the berm is by watching the other cars—if they can use the full berm, so can you. If the apex has no berm, it's usually safe to put the inside wheels in the dirt, because there isn't a lot of weight on them and the outside tires are doing most of the cornering work. If the dirt surface is lower than the surface of the track, you can actually pick up some effective banking this way.

In a lot of driving schools, cones will be placed on the berms where you're expected to hit the apex. Often these will be slightly late, since a late apex is considerably safer than an early one. As you begin to pick up speed, and you notice you're not coming close to the exit berm, or only reaching it at the very end, or even driving out to meet it, you might want to start moving your apex a little ahead of the cone. In a Miata, you should try to be at wide-open throttle by the time you reach the apex. There are few exceptions. If you find you have to feather the throttle in a turn after the apex, try a later apex.

As you squeeze on the throttle and accelerate, you'll have to straighten the wheel to increase the radius of the turn. In some cases you'll find you have to straighten the wheel completely, even though the car is still turning. This happens because the rear tires—now supplying driving traction as well as cornering—are running at higher slip angles than the fronts. In effect, the back of the car is doing the turning. This is called a drift, and it's only possible in a rear-wheel-drive car. Straightening the wheel as you apply power is a real art. You have to feel, in the seat of your pants, exactly what the tires are doing, and every turn will feel a little different. Is the back end getting loose? Let the wheel out more, or even countersteer a bit (go past center, so the front wheels are pointed opposite the direction of the turn). Is the front end pushing? Add power, or turn a little more and make a mental note to get on the gas sooner next time around.

Incidentally, don't confuse this traditional definition of a drift with the new motorsports fad of the same name. In a true drift you're cornering at maximum speed, with the tires running at their maximum slip angles of no more than about three or four degrees. In a drifting exhibition the cars are sliding their tires for purely visual effect, and are much slower as a consequence.

Exit

If you entered the turn at the correct point and hit the apex at the right point, the exit will be a walk in the park. If you turned in at the wrong place, or missed the apex, exits can be scary. The turn-in and apex set you on a full-throttle trajectory that can't be easily altered. If you apexed too late, that trajectory will take you short of the outside edge of the track, and you'll be slow. If you apexed too early, that trajectory will take you past the outside of the track, into the dirt.

It's important to prepare ahead of time for that inevitable missed or early apex. Sometimes you can save the situation by lifting slightly to reduce acceleration, then tightening the turn. If you're not too far off the racing line this is often the best way to go. Few racers will recommend this technique because if you lift too much, a lot of the car's weight will transfer from the rear tires to the fronts, allowing the unweighted rears to lose traction and the car to spin. But even those racers who don't recommend lifting on the exit still do it from time to time when they get in trouble, because they've learned through experience how much they can lift the throttle without upsetting the car.

If you're too far off the racing line and the exit is coming up way too fast, your best bet is to straighten the wheels and hit the brakes. If you see you won't stop in time, release the brakes and drive the car straight off the track, letting it coast to a stop. Try to go off with as close to a 90-degree angle to the track as you can, but the most important thing is to go off with the front wheels straight. Most rollovers occur during an off-course excursion with the front wheels turned. If you're going too fast at the exit, you won't be able to save it by attempting to make the car turn more. So don't even try.

When you hit it right, the exit is the most satisfying part of the turn. Your foot's on the floor and all four tires are running at their maximum slip angles, which means the car is traveling in a direction that's not quite the same as where it's pointed. This slight drift angle lets you know you're going as fast as the car will allow.

When you get within 5-10 feet the exit berm, usually 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the way along its length, start the transition back to straight-line speed. If you're really flying, you can continue the drift all the way out to the exit berm and start your transition after you hit it. A transition like that takes you back toward the middle of the track, and the extra distance you have to drive makes it debatable whether or not it's really faster, but sometimes that's where you end up.

Putting It All Together

Track driving involves a fair amount of trust. You have to trust your brakes, tires, and suspension of course, but you also have to trust the track. You have to know—even when it doesn't always look like it—that you can take a certain corner at a certain speed, and make it safely around. Like all trust issues, this takes familiarity and experience. Every time you're on the track you work to gain a little more trust, and that's what makes you faster.

But learning how to drive fast through a turn is only the beginning. It's rare to find a race track that lets you take one turn at a time. Most will have chicanes, or esses, or two turns connected by a straight so short that the exit of one turn is the entrance to the next. In cases like that you often have to alter your path from the classic line, for example you may start a turn from the middle of the track, or apex later than you'd like to set yourself up for the next corner. Every track is different, as is every road, and no matter how long you drive, you'll always find ways to improve.