DRIVERS ED - PART 2 - Derby Tech - May, 1985

by George Brower

The March (1985) article on Drivers Ed stated that every driver must be able to align, steer and stop his racer. He acquires these skills through education. The following article will show you how important the last two of these race day skills are, and how to acquire them.

The steering and stopping skills are best learned when the driver has, 1) been told what is to be done and shown how to do it, 2) practiced, and 3) reviewed the results. Since these learning principles are the same that were mentioned in the March issue I'm not going to dwell on them. Instead, I'm going to pay more attention to background factors.


OK, what's so important about steering a derby racer? Conservation of energy. And each lane has a route that will best conserve that energy. In other words, where and how you drive a lane determines how fast you go. And the faster you go, the better your results.


Where to drive each track is different, and there is often an advantage to be gained from driving other than straight (Derby Tech, August 1984). Each track has it's own personality, and each lane an individual personality. You can find out what these qualities are in a couple of ways: You can ask someone who should know, or you can try to figure it out for yourself. I prefer the latter.


If you do not have the time or inclination to figure out the best route yourself simply ask someone who might know. DERBY TECH asked its readers what was the best route to drive the Akron and Ft. Wayne hills and how much benefit could be obtained by driving this way. The consensus is shown in Figure 1 for driving the hill other than straight.


1 . Measure the pitch and roll of each lane, all the way to the finish line.

a. Use a level with two prongs attached that are 31 5/8 inches apart (Figure 2). This simulates the distance between the center of the wheels on the same axle.

b. Use a ball with a diameter of 12 inches (same as a derby wheel). When you let this ball roll, it will show you the steepest path.

2. Locate the rough surface areas, .cracks, holes, dips, bumps, and how severe the cracks are at the painted lane lines. The lane line cracks have cost many a driver the race, because he drove with his wheels in these cracks, and could not understand why he lost. These painted surfaces not only cause cracks, but also slow the racer down when the wheels are driven over them, because of the much cooler temperature of the lines. Keep your wheels off the lines!

3. Measure the angles and side: pitch of the starting ramps to determine the fastest route.

4. Trial and error.

a. After determining possible routes to drive, drive them under controlled conditions to establish the actual differences.'

b. Use a standard - Drive against another car that drives the lanes exactly the same way every time.

After determining how to drive each lane, walk the track with the driver. Point out and discuss exactly where you want him to drive, and where the trouble spots are located. The reference point to use whenI discussing where to drive should be the nose of the racer. This is because the nose is the only part of the car the driver can really see, and is where his concentration should be. If your nose is at a certain position, then your wheels will be at a certain position. Use the level with the prongs to determine wheel and nose locations for each lane. Walking the lanes with the driver will take away a lot of the mystery and also some of the fear of the hill.


The best drivers will make driving corrections every time down the hill. Average drivers make a few more, but surprisingly, most drivers make similar amounts of steering corrections. If this is so, why are some drivers so much better than others? The answer to this lies in where each driver makes his turns and how he makes them.

Where Turns Are Made

A key to driving well involves the initial 100 feet. The better drivers tend to make fewer correcting turns at the top of the hill than lesser drivers. A swerve at the top of the hill hurts much more than one at the bottom. For example, a little rock can almost stop your forward motion near the starting gate, while the same rock at the bottom will only cause a small amount of impeded motion (see Derby Tech, May and June 1984).

Restated another way, the percentage of turning resistance is much higher at slow speeds than at fast speeds. The first one hundred feet of every derby track gobbles up tremendous amounts of a racer's energy due to sterring turns.

Even the best drivers will go off their intended route. How they handle these situations are what makes them top-notch. When they are to the high side (up hill) of their route, they immediately make a smooth correction, but when they are on the low side they simply stay there. Driving "up-hill" is to be avoided.

How Turns Are Made

Another key to good driving is the smoothness of the turns. This is especially true when your intended route is other than straight. If the transition from one direction to another is not smooth, you lose energy, and maybe all of the advantage you gain from "driving the hill". Only slight turns should be needed to get the racer moving smoothly in the desired direction. Practice by moving the steering wheel as little as needed.

In the junior division, when a driver looks at his opponent while racing (Figure 3 - not included - Ed), he increases the size of the frontal area of his helmet. The shape of the helmet has a larger coefficient of drag because of the uneven shape as it goes through the air. He is slowing himself down. Also, the driver is not concentrating on keeping the racer in the correct position of his lane, again slowing himself down. The driver should keep his helmet in the straight ahead position at least until he crosses the finish line, and preferably until he has come to a complete stop. Practice in these areas will easily provide dividends, especially when aided by a camera for review purposes.

Practice makes you better. There is nothing better than experience. After a driver obtains the basics of driving, have him practice by simulating the Akron, the Ft. Wayne, and the course on which he is going to compete locally. This variety can be fun as well as rewarding. Video tape his progress and explain to him how he is doing and where he can improve. To ask drivers to drive differently than they have practiced is asking a lot. It is also asking for trouble. The following diagram (Figure 4) shows how much can be gained through good driving.


Good braking techniques will generally not make you any faster, but they can keep you in the race. I have seen drivers with an excellent chance to win the Championships ruin it with a braking error either before or after the finish line.

Before The Finish Line

Applying the brakes before the finish line can slow you down enough to lose the race. I've seen drivers consistently put on the brakes from one-half car length to a full length before the finish. They steal from themselves between one to two feet each time down the hill. Senior division drivers have more trouble with this than junior drivers because it is harder to judge where the finish line is in a lay down racer.

The flow of air under the car is just as important as the flow on the top of the car. Therefore, the brake pad and the bottom of the car should be smooth and aerodynamic. How many cars have you seen that were built aerodynamically only to race with the brake partially down? I've seen plenty. The driver can easily give up three feet due to the extra drag of the brake.

After The Finish Line

Many Championship caliber racers have lost a chance to win due to a crash after the finish line. Crashes into the kickboards, into the end-of-track barriers, and into the other drivers are usually caused by fear, mechanical failure and lack of concentration.

The fear of not being able to stop has caused more crashes than those where the brake actually failed. The fearful driver tries to stop too quickly. He slams on the brakes, loses control and possibly crashes.

I used to tell drivers to stay down, look straight ahead, slowly count to three, and then ease the brake down. Stopping should be a smooth, leisurely process (except in an emergency). They were told that jamming the brakes can cause skids, and a crash. If the braking area is safe and smooth, the driver should not apply his brakes until well after the finish line. This allows him to avoid the other cars that are having troubles.

Walk the track braking area and point out the exact location of the the finish line, the area to start braking and the place to stop in each lane. Keep in mind that rough areas can cause your spindles to bend. Explain exactly what to do if the brakes fail. End-of-track barriers such as hay bales, tires and large blocks of rubber should be hit exactly in the center. You stop better and reduce the possibility of damage and/or injury.

When the driver has walked the braking area and knows what to do and why, the fear lessens and he becomes better at braking. Again, video tapes of the driver braking will be very helpful in achieving perfection.

Often a driver is so anxious to put on the brakes as soon as he crosses the finish line, that he does not concentrate enough on driving. Drivers in both divisions have this problem, but the juniors have added things that can create trouble. Juniors tend to jerk to an upright position, pull on the steering wheel and apply the brakes all at the same time. And if.they happen to glance at their competition at the same time, their concentration is so divided that accidents are bound to occur.


There are many ways for a driver to improve steering and braking skills. Basically they must learn where and how to drive, and how to stop to their best advantage. These driver responsibilities are put to the test on race day when they show how well they have been taught. The adults responsibility is to educate the driver. It also includes race day review. The most important things that the driver needs to learn are that he can, 1) gain 36 inches by improving from being an average driver to one of the best, 2) gain from "driving the hill". The Ft. Wayne hill , for example, will yield between 10 and 13 inches, and 3) proper braking skills will help you avoid giving up inches as well as help you avoid having an accident. Once again, the better the driver's education the better the results.

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