This is the second part of a series of articles that will take you through the entire race day.
RACE DAY, PART II
Preparing For Your First Race
By Mike Unger
In the first article I took you through getting in the gate, safety tech, registration and practice sessions. The article not only explained what to expect, but also gave some suggestions to make your race day more successful. How to prepare for each session and goals for each session were outlined. Now you are registered for the race, have been on the track through two successful practice sessions and are now ready to hit the track and see how all of these preparations pan out against other karters.
After the last practice session is the time to start thinking about race setup and how you will plan to attack the racing portion of the day. Most clubs’ use one of two types of race format. The first is called pea pill or random draw. When you register you will draw a pill with a number on it or the scoring computer will randomly assign you a number. This number will determine your starting position for the first heat. For the second heat the starting grid will be inverted, giving everyone a fair shot. Then the starting position for the feature will be determined by your finishing order in the first two heats. This kind of racing is very popular at the club levels because it forces everyone, no matter how good they are, to learn how to pass and be passed. You might find a fast guy randomly on the pole for the first race but then for the second race he or she will need to come up through the pack in order to get a good position for the feature. For these kinds of races you need to have a simple and smart strategy.
The first thing you need to realize is that in order to get a good starting position for the main you need to finish both heats. That means you need tostay out of trouble and not take too many chances trying to overtake your opponent. If you end up in the grass for even one of these heats your starting position in the feature will be at the back of the pack. The simple and smart strategy for this kind of race format is to be a little conservative and try to get up to at least the top half of the field in both heats. If you do that you will be sure to have a good starting position for the feature race.
The second kind of race format is the qualifying format. The first round of racing will be qualifying. If you have never qualified before, it is a very straightforward. The grid worker will space each racer out with enough space between as to make it more likely that you will not catch the kart in front of you. You run three or so ‘hot’ laps and your fastest time of those three will count as your qualifying lap. After qualifying the Pre-Final is run. The starting position for this race is based on qualifying, fastest kart on pole slowest kart on the tail. For the ‘Final’ the karts will be gridded based on the finishing position in the Pre Final. This format requires a more aggressive approach than the pea pill format since pushing the kart to its limits is required at each stage to get into a good position for the Final.
Now that you understand the race format and you have a strategy for the racing it is time to start thinking about a race setup. In the first article we had a strategy in practice. That was to work toward a setup that would be a little loose (or oversteer prone) on the last lap of the last practice session. It was also a strategy to pay attention to how many laps of hard running it took for the kart to ‘come in’ and become more drivable and therefore fast. Well this is where we need to take that information and put it to use. At this point of the day there are basically two different race setups, one for qualifying and one for the actual race. If you are running the pea pill type of format you don’t need to worry about the qualifying setup since you will be going right into a race.
To setup for a race session you need some pieces of information. You need a good understanding of how many laps in your practice session it took for the kart to come in and be quick. You also need to make an educated guess on how much more grip the track will have when you race again compared to your last practice session. This information will greatly help you determine the best setup for the first race. For the heat races you need a kart that will come in and be fast before you get to the halfway point of the race. That means you need to take the setup you had for the last practice and reflect on it. Was the kart fast on lap 2 or lap 6? If the kart was fast on lap 2 in practice you probably have a setup that is too tight for a 10 lap race and need to adjust accordingly. If it was fast on lap 6 in practice you are likely in very good shape. For details on what adjustments to do and when I suggest you visit www.nkn.com and under the ‘How to’ section lookup the articles ‘Rear End Adjustment’ and ‘Front End Adjustment’.
Also throughout the race day the track will be changing and you will need to be aware. If it has been two hours since your last time on track and you are the 6th race of the first round of races you can expect the track to have significantly more grip that it did in practice. This will cause the kart to come in more quickly and be more prone to understeer on longer runs. If the clouds have come in and the track has cooled off the track will have less grip that you had in practice. Either way you need to be carefully watching the conditions and anticipating how the track will be and adjust accordingly. This kind of tuning takes time and experience to get it perfect. This is why the locals that race at a given track all the time have an advantage. They know from experience what the track is going to go and by how much. The best bet is to be conservative the first heat and tune accordingly for the second heat race.
If you are racing in a qualifying format your strategy for setup needs to be a little different. You will only get 3 laps in qualifying. If your kart is setupso that it doesn’t come in till lap 6 you will never get that optimum lap. Like in the pea pill format you need to consider the grip of the track as well as how the kart was in practice. Then you need to adjust the kart to come in on the first lap. If you had the ideal practice session and at the end of a 6 or 7 lap run your kart was good, the easy and straightforward way I usually do this is under that situation is increase the tire pressure 2-3 psi. This will narrow up the contract patch a bit and force the tire to support the same load with a smaller footprint. This will heat up the tire quicker and allow you to get that fast lap in during the 3 laps of qualifying. If your kart never came in during practice you will need to consider other chassis adjustments.
After practice sessions are complete there will be a mandatory drivers meeting. In the drivers meeting they will explain details of how the races will go throughout the rest of the day. The head flagman will explain how he or she wants the starts to go, and what he expects out of the pole position driver. They will also explain how the out lap and cool down laps will go. These are details that are unique to each track and organization so it’s important for you to fully understand these details. If they do not tell you these things in the drivers meeting ask the head flagman afterwards. The last thing you need to worry about is what to expect. They will also do a random roll call. If your name is called and you are not at the drivers meeting you will have to start on the tail for the first two heats. After the drivers meeting the races will immediately start.
Immediately after the drivers meeting go back to your pit and put the setup on the kart you have been thinking about. You won’t have lots of time to do this so it’s important that you decide before the drivers meeting. Don’t forget to top off the fuel to a level high enough so when you finish the session the fuel level will be above the mark you put on the tank from practice. Check the wheel nuts, gas cap, and engine mount clamps. These are the ones that I constantly see come loose and cause problems out on track (I have made the mistake a time or two as well).
Over the PA the officials will start calling classes to the grid for the first session. In most cases they will post a lineup sheet somewhere near the grid with your grid position. This is the position you will start the race or go out for qualifying in. As a courtesy if you are at the back of the lineup wait till the other karts in front of you get in position before you do. Grids tend to be tight and busy places. A little courtesy goes a long way toward making a smoother race day.
If this is a qualifying session, you need to be totally focused on getting absolutely everything out of the kart it has to offer, without going off the track on the first lap. If you do, you will guarantee to be on the tail of the field for the PreFinal. So as a simple smart strategy I always recommend that you run the first lap a little bit conservative to get one ‘in the bank’. After you have a decent lap recorded you can push it to the limit. Even if you go off on the second lap you won’t be on the tail because you have one in the bank already.
If this session is a Heat race then remember what the situation is. There are karts all around you and some are faster than you and some are slower. You need to race smart and move up through the field without getting caught up in trouble. It is just as easy to spin off the track as the result of being too aggressive trying to pass as it is to be taken out by someone being too aggressive passing you. Remember the goal is to finish in the top half of the field each race. If someone gets alongside you let them go in the first two heats. This is not the Final race just the race to set the grid for the Final.
If this session is the Pre Final in a qualifying format the situation is a little different. The karts around you are about the same speed as you. This means you will need to look for opportunities to make clean passes and push as hard as you can without risking a spin or an off track excursion. Keep in mind though, this is still the Pre Final and spinning on the first lap will guarantee you a poor starting position in the Final. Be smart and keep your eye on the prize.
Ok, now you have worked your way through the heat races and it is Final time. You had to make setup decisions throughout the races as well as have a solid strategy to get to where you are. If you are on the pole or near the front you did a great job throughout the heat races and must be doing something right. For you the strategy is simple, keep doing what you have been doing and be smart. Do that and you are likely win. If you are starting at the back of the pack it is time for some thinking.
If you have had a good day and your current position to this point is a good performance for you then I would suggest keeping with the program and get through the day targeting where you are now or even look for an opportunity to move up a spot or two. If you are not happy with where you are and you should be more towards the front you need to try something different. Usually you have time before the Feature race to look back at your notes and figure out where you went wrong. Look at your comments after each race and try to find out where you went wrong. Did the weather change and you didn’t adjust accordingly? Did you miss the setup right from the start? Did you have mechanical problems? All of these things are factors that are easy to miss in the hustle and bustle of a race day. No matter what the reason, if you are not happy with where you are starting I suggest you make a change to your setup. Make a gear change, track width, torsion bar or some other change. You really have nothing to lose. Best case you stumble on to that half a second per lap you need, worst case you learn what your changes feel like and keep that knowledge for future situations.
So now I have taken you through the heat race portion of the day, discussed strategies and things to watch for, and covered the simple things like what info to listen for at the drivers meeting. Now all that is left is the Feature race. In the final article in the series I will go over the Feature race, tech and very important information to help you repeat the success or help you to not repeat your mistakes next time.