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A How to: Breaking Down a Road Course

Putnam Raceway

For this week’s post, I decided to write about piecing a new―well, new to me―track together as a driver. It’s a process that I’ve enjoyed during my driving years so I thought I’d share my approach as someone who’s raced and instructed for 20+ years. This seemed timely as I was heading down to Putnam Park Road Course in Greencastle, Indiana to get some laps in our project car, Mila. Full transparency, I drove at Putnam once 11 years ago, but after committing to go there this week I realized I had no recollection of the track and watching a couple of YouTube videos didn’t really spark any “Aha” moments.

Track Layout

To start, I simply want to understand the layout of the track. Is an upcoming turn left or right, sweeping or sharp, increasing or decreasing radius? Memorizing the track map helps, but isn’t useful for knowing where the brake markers, corner stations and other landmarks are in relation to the pavement. I try to take in as much of this information as quickly as possible, especially at an autocross when the time to learn a new course is limited. A lot of this can be accomplished by following another driver familiar with the track. In my case, I followed our friend Alex in his BMW 2002 race car―essentially a car very similar in setup but two generations older―for a few laps.

BMW 2002

The Fundamentals

Once I understand where the track generally goes, I find it’s a lot easier to memorize it when there’s no one in front of you and you can truly focus on where exactly to brake and turn. So after getting a few laps at moderate speed, I’ll work on getting the general “driver’s school” line without trailing someone. The driver’s school line is where all apexes are basically the same―line up at the outside of the track, turn in towards the rumble strip, and then track out while accelerating. This requires getting your braking done before turn in and having the car mostly pointed straight before getting the throttle down all the way. I view this as “the fundamentals.” As with any sport, nailing the fundamentals is key. And if you’re consistent, you’ll be on the path towards putting down some decent lap times.

Fine Tuning the Line

The next step is where you make the track your own. What I mean by that is fine tuning the standard driver’s school line to your car, driving style and track conditions. There are a variety of different ways to accomplish this: talking to other good drivers, experimenting with different lines and pushing the limits.

“Pushing the limit” is a phrase that gets tossed around in a variety of contexts. When driving at speed, and especially when racing, you’ll likely have to get close to the outer bounds of the car’s potential to get the most out of it. This is tricky when you’re new to the sport. Even as experience builds there will be times when you go beyond the limit as I found during my second session of the day. It started to drizzle a bit but the track felt mostly dry. In two consecutive laps I almost spun the car in turn 7, the slowest point on the track. The following lap I got the car slowed down enough to get through 7 smoothly, but then followed that up by looping it to the outside of turn 9…limit found!


Putting It All Together

Finding the best braking points, using the rumble strips, and being consistent are good signs that you’re putting together strong laps. Improving lap times are an even better sign. By my third session of the day the track had completely dried and my lap times were dropping. Mila was performing like a champ and I had a lot of fun trying to keep up with some new generation (read: 100-200 horsepower advantage) M3s. I can’t speak for all drivers, but I’m definitely better when I have something to chase. Here’s a hot lap from the third session where I started to put some complete and consistent laps together.

Anyways, hope you enjoyed this week’s post. I know I enjoyed doing the prep work!

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