By Aaron Waldron
From day one of my RC racing career, I was fortunate enough to have the support of experienced and successful drivers who helped my dad and I to learn everything from basic vehicle maintenance (like cutting comms) to driving advice. A long-time family friend was a multi-time national champion oval racer who distributed high-end chargers and brushed motors, and the announcer of our favorite local track was a factory-sponsored racer (who then became my dad’s roommate and — 20 years later — my co-anchor for a handful of LiveRC broadcasts). As I grew up in the pit area of tracks scattered around Southern California I got to mingle with some of the industry’s top pros, many of whom shared with me valuable tips that both helped my skills improve and have stuck with me for decades.
1. Slow down in the corners, go fast on the straightaways and don’t hit the jumps so hard
My dad made up this mantra for me when I was still racing in the novice class, and I repeated it in my head so many times that I developed a musical tune that sounds straight out of a children’s TV show. Sure, it seems overly simple, but it was his way of teaching a more complex approach to driving to an eight-year-old. The goal was for me to wrap my head around braking sooner in order to hit the apex of the corner and get back on the throttle earlier. By carrying more speed through the corner, I learned to gain the momentum necessary to hit bigger jumps without having to charge up the face full-throttle; that gave the suspension more time to settle and absorb take-off and landing for better control.
2. Turn into the roll
I used to watch in wonder as Adam Drake launched his 2WD nitro stadium truck off of triple jumps built for 1/8-scale buggies, because it seemed like he could save almost any error in mid-flight attitude in order to land back on all four wheels. As it turns out, that whole hit-the-jump-with-enough-speed that my dad had been drilling into my instincts for years paid off, because it’s easier to save a nose-down buggy or truck by pinning the throttle than it is hitting the brakes and hoping the car stops pitching backward.
The Drake was also the first one to be able to explain the benefits of turning the front wheels in the air in very straightforward terms - to straighten out a bad take-off, simply turn into the roll. If the car is listing to the right, turn the steering wheel to the right.
3a. Practice as much as you can
I couldn’t tell you how many different people told me to get the maximum amount of track time, or who told me first - but this is another “no-duh” that sometimes gets forgotten. There were many weekends that, in order to get ready for a big race, I’d skip club racing on a Saturday afternoon — with its promise of two qualifiers and a main event over 4-5 hours in the pits — in order to practice on a relatively empty track on Sunday.
3b. Practice like you’re racing
Those coaching me to log more hours behind the wheel also impressed the importance of treating track time like it was a race, especially with regards to having my cars in tip-top shape. If you’re just out to have fun, then maybe having a leaky shock or bent hinge pin isn’t a big deal, but if you want to elevate your abilities then your gear should be race-ready every time you hit the track. Sure, you might not glue up new tires for every practice run, but there’s no excuse for your car to be in any state of disrepair for a heat race and it won’t do you any favors on practice day, either. There’s only so much you can learn on a track that’s blown-out and unlike what it will be on race day, so if you have to sweep and water it yourself to get close to real-world conditions, do it.
Along the same token, you shouldn’t just burn laps mindlessly — especially if your typical driving speed isn’t on par with the track’s fastest drivers. Keep an eye on your lap times, and try to pick up the pace by the end before you call it a day even if it’s just a tenth knocked off your best lap. Study where faster drivers are picking up time, and copy their approach to certain obstacles. Before you walk up onto the drivers’ stand, determine whether you’re going to focus on going faster or being more consistent, and keep that in mind while you’re driving. If you’re going to try making adjustments to your vehicle, or install new equipment, take notes before and after the change for future reference.
4. Don’t lose your cool when you make a mistake
There are a lot of local heroes who can run lap-for-lap with the country’s top pros who visit for special events, but the biggest difference over the span of a five-minute run is how the best of the best can regain composure after a bobble or crash. It takes years of practice, in both driving and controlling one’s emotions, not to compound the time lost after wrecking by pushing too hard and making additional errors. If you crash on lap four, you’ll end up with a better finish time by taking it easy and sacrificing three-tenths per lap for the remainder of the round than driving out of your comfort zone to make up the deficit and crashing again before the finishing tone. Don’t give up until the race is over, and you might be surprised at how many positions you can salvage.
5. Stop when you stop having fun
I’ve written a lot lately about how those that are burnt out can be a drag on the overall environment at the local track, but none have addressed how destructive it can be to one’s own racing efforts. Like acing a test in school, lifting weights at the gym, performing well in your job, or anything else where success can be measured, it’s nearly impossible to perform at your best when your mind isn’t in the game. Don’t confuse “I don’t know what else to do with my Friday night” with genuinely enjoying the inherent ups and downs of competition, and don't equate ambition with bad sportsmanship; being driven to win and being unable to lose with grace are not the same thing. If your first reaction to a first-turn crash is “&$#%, this happens every time!” then the best thing you could do for your long-term success and individual improvement is to take a few weeks off and get back to it when you start missing the struggles of being an imperfect racer with room to grow. Some of the most successful, and enjoyable, parts of my racing career came following a short hiatus.
Even if you've heard one, or all, of these tips before, reading them again and letting them sink in could benefit a racer of any level. Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below — or on Facebook!