How to drive with the skill of a race-car driver

Spencer McDonald

I was paid what I think is the highest compliment the other day by a friend who was describing my driving to a colleague. He said, “When Spencer is driving, nothing seems to be happening; no excitement, no surprises, nothing abrupt, just a smooth flow through traffic.”

It wasn’t always that way, though. When I was a young man, I thought I knew what good driving was; you stomped the gas and cranked the steering wheel. I thought good drivers had the skill and guts to drive close to other vehicles, zip past and fly down the road.

Boy, was I wrong.

That style of driving cost me huge fines for speeding. Eventually my licence was suspended for three months within the first 24 months of getting it. My style of aggressive, sloppy driving cost me multiple brake jobs because I wore out brakes like you can’t imagine, and I had three crashes in three years — all before I was 20 years old.

The reality is that I was one of the worst drivers on the road. Even after all those tickets and crashes, I still figured that I was a great driver. I was indeed a legend in my own mind.

I thought that because race-car drivers went fast, if I went fast too, I would be like a race-car driver — that’s good driving, right? It wasn’t until years later that I understood just why race-car drivers are able to go fast and stay in control: Smoothness.

Yes, the best race drivers are the smoothest. They have the most finesse with brakes, accelerator and steering, and they apply the principles of good vision, anticipation, space management and risk reduction to ensure they never have to do anything abruptly and upset the balance of the vehicle.

When it comes down to it, traction, or the grip that your tires have with the road, is dependent on multiple factors, but the one that is most changeable moment to moment and controllable by the driver is the vehicle’s balance and loading on each wheel/tire. It’s an easy concept: if you have vehicle weight distributed over all tires (balanced), you are pushing the tires into the road with the vehicle weight and creating traction or friction. This is critical even if you are not a race-car driver or driving at race-car speeds.

What kind of driver are you? You almost certainly believe that you are a great driver, but are you — like I was — a legend in your own mind?

If you strive for smoothness in your daily driving, you will save fuel, reduce the wear and tear on your vehicle (especially the brakes) and enhance safety by reducing risk. Practising smoothness also makes smooth control second nature which is critical if a sudden crisis does develop. Smooth balanced control helps ensure that you maintain traction and reduces the likelihood of a skid.

It’s not that difficult to cultivate a smooth driving style. You start by sitting correctly in your vehicle with your back close to upright and pressed back into the seat. Your left foot braced on the dead-pedal and the heel of your right on the floor prepares you to control the accelerator and brake precisely by squeezing and easing on the pedal to manage the vehicle weight shift from front to back.

Your arms should be bent slightly at the elbows when you hold the steering wheel at 9 and 3 o’clock (yes, 9 and 3) position then use the total control or push/pull method to turn the steering wheel. This will smooth out your cornering and manage the lateral weight shifts when you turn.

Smooth driving is the hallmark of racing champions but also of professionals like police and other emergency vehicle operators.

Here is the litmus test of smooth and professional driving: are your passengers comfortable? Do they remark on how relaxed your driving makes them feel or are you hearing comments (or jokes) about your driving or gasps and sharp intakes of breath?

Perhaps, you should cultivate smoothness and become an excellent driver in reality instead of a legend in your own mind.