1986 Pontiac Firebird in the American Sedan class

Satisfy your need for speed

1986 Pontiac Firebird on Ohio Valley track
1986 Pontiac Firebird – SCCA – 2012 Ohio Valley Sprints, original photo by Sheila Best

…by tightening up your hand technique

You see it in racing all the time, a car traveling at high or maximum speed; it either twitches or slides. The professional at the wheel often catches the car but sometimes doesn’t. To become a better driver, amateurs and near professionals should examine their sometimes less successful techniques up close. What you do behind the wheel; steering, throttle control and braking, should always be questioned if you’re interested in improving racing and driving skills.

Some of what we’ll discuss here is also useful for street driving, but be aware that other parts are not. This piece is primarily for those of us who race and are looking for ways to maximize control of the car and maximize speed around the racetrack.

Here it is.

Don’t do this…

Drivers turning into corners “granny-style,” using one hand to move the steering wheel toward the other hand; sliding the wheel through until their hands almost bump, keeping their hands near the 9 and 3 positions on the wheel regardless of how far it’s turned from centre.

It doesn’t sound too bad but, consider this: If you have turned the wheel 90 or 130 degrees to enter a corner this way, what will you do if the car begins to slide or spin and how well will it work?

You will, of course, steer into the slide but using the granny-style or hand-over-hand, working the steering wheel in segments. It will likely be inaccurate, and certainly slower than necessary. If you are lucky and the slide is relatively slow and you can fumble around to find the straight-ahead position again, you can catch the car, and feel like a hero racer and continue your race.

The problem is, you are more likely to experience quicker spins and neither the hand-over-hand nor “hand bump” methods are quick enough and you spin. Or, you won’t accurately find the straight-ahead position in time and you crash. So, from then on you will compensate with less speed entering corners, and even set the car up more conservatively to make it easy to correct a spin or slide. The result is, you become a slower, less capable driver and you are doing it to yourself.

Example: Scott Sharp, successful racer and champion in a number of racing series, crashed in the 2001 Indianapolis 500 in the first turn of the first lap. You will notice that 200mph slides are difficult to catch, that Indy car cockpits are tight, and that Mr. Sharp moved hand-over-hand to catch that car. He was a little late, and ultimately his hand position caused him to lose track of the steering position relative to the attitude and direction of the car. He steered his car into the wall after the spin was nearly corrected and straightened out.

Let me also say that this is no particular criticism of Scott Sharp, a fine racer and a champion driver. He is more successful than I, and very likely he is faster and quicker than I will ever get a chance to prove I am. His crash happens to have been on television. Recordings of my spins at Lime Rock’s downhill corner in 1985, in a much, much slower Renault Cup Encore, or my spin in the last turn at Nelson-Ledges in Honda Ron’s CRX in 1996 aren’t easily found, and are not even on tape, as far as I know. I did look for them. So, his example gives you something to look at and analyze. I’ll tell you about my crashes and spins later.

Do that…

” The Fixed 9 and 3 Technique”

Ok so, here’s what will help make you faster; correct hand placement and proper technique – The Fixed 9 and 3 Technique. Put your hands on the wheel in the 9 and 3 O’clock positions and leave them there. Turn your arms and the wheel as a unit. Two hands can turn the wheel faster than one and still allow you to turn more than 210 degrees without removing them, which is good for all but the tightest hairpin turns. Don’t slide your hands around or reach up to the 12 O’clock to start your turn. Don’t remove your hands unless you have to shift gears or make that tight hairpin turn.

You’ll be a more confident racer. The Fixed 9 and 3 Technique helps prevent you from overcorrecting or turning too far past the point where the spinning car regains grip.

  1. Mainly, the fixed 9 and 3 allows you to be responsive to the steering wheel. You must be able to turn the steering wheel as quickly and as accurately as possible to the angle that will correct your slide. Through familiarity you will feel how much steering to put into each spin. Wait for the car to react to your input and regain grip and turn quickly back to straight ahead position or slightly beyond, to finish your correction. Without looking you must know where the straight-ahead position is. You should be able to feel it. You have other things to do with your eyes besides looking for 12 O’clock on your steering wheel. You want to effortlessly end up there when you’ve corrected a slide or spin.
  2. Unlike hand-over-hand or granny-style, the fixed hands position also allow you to react more quickly when the car gains traction and turns back in the direction of travel so, you won’t be late correcting the spin. Granny-style hand movement promotes over-correction, and slow correction. Granny-style lets you lose your sense of where the steering wheel’s straight-ahead position is. It’s likely to let you leave one hand off the wheel or add angle toward the spin at that critical moment, spinning the car in the opposite direction.
  3. Another important benefit of the fixed 9 and 3 Technique is this. You will also easily be able to consistently apply and measure the steering angle you use to enter each corner. You can monitor your car’s grip and handling, and make small adjustments to steering angle, braking, acceleration, and even the car as its grip changes during the race. You will be able to prevent slides and spins, turn more consistent lap times, maximize speed from corner to corner, and drive faster over the duration of a race.

The fixed 9 and 3 position works best. It’s tough enough to keep up with your competition when your car spins out or slides around. Why would you want to handicap yourself by effectively steering with one hand and possibly steering in the wrong direction? Keep your hands fixed in the 9 and 3 positions on the wheel so you can quickly respond, and know how much and where you are steering at all times.

You will be faster. You will be better able to prevent slides and catch spins, and enter corners faster, with more confidence. You can also set up your car to be a little more neutral or even more positive on turn-in (slight oversteer) when allowable, to generate more speed. You will drive more precisely and become more capable, more consistent, and faster. This is the cheapest performance improvement you are likely to find.

by Tom Best
Detroit, Michigan, USA