What Is The Goal In Racing?

Posted on January 24, 2013


What Is Your Goal In Racing?

By: Rob Oakman

Marco Signoretti wins Rotax Jr. Goodwood. Courtesy ekartingnews.ca

What is the most important rule of racing? After twenty years on and around the track I’m still surprised by the number of people that simply don’t understand.

You see the answer is “Finish”.

“No” you say. “It’s winning races! Particularly winning the most races in some flashy style then doing doughnuts to the delight of your many adoring fans while those that doubted you cry themselves to sleep.” Wrong. To say that racing is just about winning the most races is like saying Politics is about working for the people, or, Pharmaceutical companies are about curing diseases. They just aren’t. Winning races is great. Winning Championships is even better and that is what you really want to do if you want to be someone. But to do either you still you have to finish, and you need to do so by any means possible that won’t make winning in the future harder (Making enemies by driving like an ass makes winning harder for example). But you only need to get to the finish. No matter what you race you must come to accept this concept. Everything you do, on and off track, from choosing equipment to on track decisions are all based upon this simple, yet obvious point. You Must Finish!

So how do you make it to the Finish?

Good Equipment, Maintenance, and Smart Racing.

First off you have to decide what your goal is. If all you want to do is win your first race, then you can take more risks with your equipment and driving at each event you enter. Because you’re not worried about points you can push engine settings and equipment to the edge, you can be more aggressive in the moves you make, you can blow your budget on one race instead of worrying about a season. But, guess what, you still have to cross the line to achieve your goal. So dive-bombing the guy ahead of you in the first corner of the first lap is a really stupid thing to do. Chances are you are just going to wreck, or you’ll just bend something important and then you have no chance of getting to the lead. You must manage your aggression. Plan your moves, exploit mistakes, and save the dive-bombs for the last corner of the last lap when all else has failed. Only then will you have a real chance of getting that win, if maybe a black eye to go with it.

If you want to run an entire season; weather you just want to earn the best championship standing that you can or you are ambitious enough to run for a Championship, things become more complicated. Now each finish matters. You have to be more conservative with equipment and with the moves you make. Given the choice between second place and the absolute likelihood that you’ll end up in the gravel, you have to take second place. Every Champion has had to make the choice between a risky move to win and a safe finish, and they have chosen the safe finish. And many great drivers have chosen the risk, and lost because of it. Every championship winning engine builder has had to dial back the horses to ensure the thing would be running at the finish. If it stops, the race is over.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating a single file parade of boringness. Quite the opposite. Put a group of Racers on a track together and you will see the show of a lifetime. The old IROC series was a good example. It is because they plan ahead, understand their competition, know their machines, and the track they are running on, that Racers make racing so exciting. The Drivers just make themselves look stupid. And in IROC all of them were essentially racing for prestige and bragging rights alone.

Now let’s get to Equipment.

Nothing in racing will cost you more good finishes than bad equipment. But you don’t want to over engineer you stuff either. You need to get to the finish but no further. If you cross the line on fire with the wheels chasing you, but you were the first to cross it, then awesome! This is a balance and a hard one to manage at that. When you buy your chassis, engine, tires, rims, bolts, body work, etc, you need to get the best quality you can afford without costing yourself time. It doesn’t have to be trick to be fast, but it does have to be good. Losing an engine is pretty dramatic to both watch and to have to pay for. Don’t let it happen because the racing oil was expensive so you wanted to use less than your engine builder told you to. It happens. Also, don’t push the engine mods so far that it just won’t last. Having two percent more power than the next guy won’t guarantee a win. Just ask McLaren. Breaking a cheap tie rod will end your day fast. So will a leaky rim. A bent rim will cost you time, so will a cheap shock. No, when you put the kind of money forward that it takes to race, you can’t cheap out when it comes to what you run and you can’t push it to hard when on track or on an end-mill. If you do you will quickly find it costing you even more to constantly repair and, inevitably replace than it will to leave a margin of safety, reliability, and strength to all of it.

Next is Maintenance.

This is probably the most neglected part of the equation, even more so than smart driving, and it can cost you more time than you think. Obviously bad maintenance can cause failures which result in bad finishes and DNFs. But that isn’t the only point about maintenance to be made. I can’t tell you how many times I have put a wrench to my chassis after a run only to find a bolt or two has loosened up. This is normal. It happens because of the vibration and the forces running through the chassis on track. Left loose they affect they way the chassis operates. You should be using glue when ever possible, especially on bolts that you rarely unfasten, but even they can loosen up over time. Check them.

Think about how the chassis flexes. You need it to flex a certain way in order to maximize getting through the corners as fast as possible. You also need that flex to be consistent lap after lap. Now imagine how the accessories you have bolted to the chassis stiffen it and change how and where it flexes. Now loosen a bolt on one side and not the other. It is going to change how the chassis acts on track from one corner to the next, especially in something as simple as a Kart chassis. Now compound that with a few loose bolts and you start to cost yourself some real time. Now think about how those bolts and parts can move around. One lap and they bind, making the chassis stiffer, the next and they move freely, allowing the chassis to flex more. It makes a difference on the watch even if the racer can’t feel it.

When I race I check every single bolt and nut on the chassis before it hits the track. I check critical nuts and bolts after practice (Seat, floor, torsion bars {if used}, and bumpers), check them all before qualifying, critical ones before prefinal, and all again before the final. In a race car checking them all is impractical, but you do need to check critical areas, especially ones that make the biggest differences to handling and performance (sway/anti-roll bars, suspension pieces, exhaust headers, spark plugs, etc…). If you don’t know what to check, ask, or make a regular habit of checking everything you can on race day and everything at the shop when the weekend is over. You will quickly learn what comes loose and what doesn’t. Best of all is to make a list of critical areas you need to check. NASA uses lists and they are the smartest people on the planet. Racers are not. Use a list.

Lastly on the subject of maintenance, don’t forget to check you throttle position when the pedal is full open. If you’re not getting full throttle you’re not getting everything the engine has to give. Even a small amount can make a big difference. Check it!

Now the big one.

Racing Smart.

Winning every race at all cost sounds like the true, most noble goal to some, but it is pure stupidity going for broke when you don’t have to. And yet win or wreck trying is a motto some people wear proudly. Then they wonder why they don’t win Championships, only luck into wins, spend all their money on massive parts bills, and no one likes them. You need to drive smart. There is a time for measured aggression, a time to push, and a time to let someone by knowing you can get them later, or, that fighting may cost you more that the one position you lost. There are many great temptations to push hard all the time, to take unnecessary risks, to always be the leader, to get revenge on the guy that hit you on lap 2, but patience and foresight prevails. There is only one place you need to be ahead, and that’s at the line for the checkered. Leading the most laps sounds great unless you finished thirty first. Qualifying pole is another one. Looks good, but it is meaningless without a good finish.

With all that said you may not agree with any of it, so how about some examples.

Robby Gordon is the epitome of a fast Driver. He can make a machine sing on a track and off road. With experience in CART, NASCAR, and Rally, he has the skills to be one of the greatest Racers of all time. But he’s not because he doesn’t make good decisions. The best example I can think or was at Sonoma California in 2001. While running in a one-off ride with Ultra motorsports, Robby was leading the race with a healthy lead over Tony Stewart. On the final restart Kevin Harvick, after a late pit stop, got ahead of Robby on track with new tires. Harvick was the last car on the lead lap and was not a threat to Robby’s race. Tony Stewart was running second and quickly fell back behind the pair. Harvick was determined to finish on the lead lap and had little to lose. All Robby had to do was trail Harvick and collect the win. He didn’t. In the greatest display of Wallydom I have ever seen, Robby Gordon raced Harvick as if it was for the win of the last race ever being run in history. They inevitable tangled and Tony Stewart, who had no chance of catching Robby on his own, was able to get by and went on to win. Had Robby just used a bit of judgment, he would have won. He didn’t. And he didn’t.

Still don’t believe me? Just ask Rust Wallace. In 1993 he won ten of thirty races in the Winston Cup series. NASCAR’s elite. But he lost the championship by 80 points to Dale Earnhardt who only won six races. The reason? Not that Rusty is just a Driver, but that he had five DNF’s (Did Not Finish) with parts failures and crashes including two wild flips at Daytona and Talladega. With an average finish of 9.4 to Earnhardt’s two DNF’s and an average finish of 8.2 Rusty lost the Championship. Wrecks and parts failures cost him a second Championship because he didn’t finish well in enough races, but he’s not alone.

F1 in 2007 makes another great example. In his inaugural season Lewis Hamilton broke or tied about all records for a rookie season that existed. With two races to go he had a massive 17 point lead over Kimi Raikkonen and only one DNF versus Raikkonen’s two. Both drivers had four wins. All Hamilton had to do was earn four points in the next two races to win the Championship. But he didn’t. In the next race in China he drove himself off the track and failed to finish for the second time. He only needed four points heading into the final event in Brazil to guarantee his Championship. That is equal to a 5th place finish. But he broke a transmission and only managed a dismal 7th. The championship went to Raikkonen who did exactly what he had to and won both races.

“But wait Rob”, you say, “you told us winning isn’t everything, but Kimi had to win”. Kimi was in that position because his lack of consistency earlier in the season made it so he had to win if he was to have any chance at the championship. And even though he won two more races than Hamilton that season, he still only won the championship by 1 point. He wasn’t as consistent as Hamilton had been all season up until the final two races. Hamilton’s consistency kept him on top until the final two events where it all came apart. Raikkonen had to push, where as Hamilton needed to be smart. The results speak for who was successful at this and who wasn’t.

From personal experience I won the World Formula (Briggs and Stratton) Championship in the 2003 Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship (I also won Canada Senior {Honda} that year) having won only one race in the class all season. But I finished well in most races well unlike my competition. No one else came close because they wrecked themselves, were caught up in someone else’s wreck, or broke. It was a tough series. In the final race all I had to do was finish fifth, even if my closest competition won. He was an aggressive old vet. At the drop of the green I pulled up to his bumper and followed him for the entire race. He even tried to wave me by a few times but I wasn’t having it. He wanted to race rough. He could have taken me out if I was ahead of him. He could have wrecked me if we were racing hard, and he probably would have. Following though, I had control. I gave up racing for one win so I could take the Championship, and the scholarship into a GT series that came with it. I won, he didn’t.

Though winning is an obvious goal in racing, you can’t get there if you end the race on a hook. Hitting things, being sloppy and lazy with maintenance, unreliable equipment, racing like an idiot, and innumerable other things will get you nothing but broke; and fast. The first thing you need to compete for the win – no matter what or who you race – is this understanding. For all the money you can spend, for all the speed you can squeeze out of your machine, for all the talent brought to bear, it is all meaningless if you can’t make it to the end, Period.

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Posted in: How to Race