The next time there’s a NASCAR Winston Cup short-track race on TV, watch the action through the in-car cameras as the cars enter a turn. Note how the drivers seem to wait an interminable time—right until the center of the corner—before they get back on the throttle and drive off down the straight.

At this stage of your career you’re probably not quite as good a driver as Jeff Gordon or Dale Jarrett, so learn from them and copy their techniques. It’s very easy to be impatient and overdrive a Late Model, but if you do so you’ll burn out your tires, spin or hit the wall, and wreck your confidence.

Late model racing on pavement forms the backbone of American circle-track racing. The cars are relatively inexpensive, yet they look like Winston Cup and Busch contenders. A Late Model will typically have a 360-cid engine giving around 500 hp, but the car is heavy at around 3,000 pounds and its tires are only 10 inches wide. Let’s look at the techniques for getting the best out of one.

Be Smooth

This is your first priority. Be smooth with your throttle, steering and braking inputs. A stock car has very little tire compared to the weight of the car, so saving and managing your tires is very important. If you’re not smooth, and you like driving a loose car, you’ll be fast for 10 laps until you burn your right-rear tire up. Then you’ll drop to the back of the field.

Again, watch the top NASCAR guys. If a car is pushing or has bad tires, the driver who deals with this in a smooth manner will lose less time than a rough driver will.

People who come to Late Models from lighter cars—maybe Dwarfs, Legends, or quarter-midgets—tend to over-hustle a stock car. They want to get on the throttle before they reach the apex of the corner. But a Late Model is a big ol’ heavy thing, and once you get it pointed in a direction, it won’t turn very fast.

Entering the Turn

The way you present the car to the entrance of the turn is the foundation, the building block, of everything you will achieve thereafter. If you present the car properly, you will have all the latitude you want to do whatever you wish through the rest of the turn.

Many people who come to the Race Training Center here at Irwindale Speedway are overconfident: They think driving a Late Model will be easy. They run into the corner too fast and get up into the gray stuff near the wall. Then they have to concentrate on saving the situation rather than working on the exit to the corner. They’re over-extending themselves instead of learning.

One well-known driver from another form of motorsports drove one of our Late Models recently. On one lap he went two car-lengths past the correct shut-off point and ended up in the wall. People who haven’t driven a race car would say that two car lengths is a very short distance, but on the track it’s an eternity. So, establish your lift-off or braking mark, and respect it. You also have to get the angle of the car correct at the turn-in point. Being just four degrees off the ideal line can get you in trouble. If you don’t turn in enough, you’ll head up into the gray; turn in too far and you’ll use your tires to scrub off speed.

Using the Brakes

I tend to be on the brakes a lot in a race car. I don’t necessarily try to slow the car, but to settle it down. Even on a momentum track like Irwindale (a half-mile oval in Irwindale, Calif.) I set the car up for a turn by using the brakes very lightly on the way in. At the apex of the corner, I start to get back on the throttle before I’ve finished braking. It makes the transition from power-off to power-on so much smoother, and it doesn’t upset the car. Modulate the brakes to get back on the throttle. It works for me.

It has been said that legendary Sprint Car driver Bubby Jones wore out a set of brake pads every night at the old Ascot Park track in Los Angeles, but nobody could say Bubby wasn’t fast.

Look, Watch!

Good race car drivers have great eyesight. I don’t mean that they have perfect 20/20 vision: some of them wear glasses. What I mean is, they look, they see what’s happening.

When I’m coming up out of a corner, part of my eyesight is registering what’s happening down at the next corner. Some guys get tangled up all the time; others never get involved in wrecks that have already happened because they’re constantly looking down the track.

If you’re catching another driver, study how he uses the track and start working out how you’ll pass him way before you get there. Everyone marvels at the way 14-time World of Outlaws champion Steve Kinser gets through traffic. People say, “Wow, how did he do that?” But Steve processes in his mind everything he sees. Any passing maneuver that he makes, he has already worked out way beforehand.

All beginner drivers tend to look just over the nose of the car, because at that stage of their development they’re concerned only with driving it. But if you look down the track you’ll find your line a lot faster.

Look and anticipate all the time. When a student at the school gets a corner really right, he sometimes arrives at the next turn half a second quicker than he’s ever gone before. Then he gets in trouble because, in his elation, he forgot to anticipate the result of his faster entry speed!

Communicate

You have to know what the car is doing and be able to communicate this to your crew. Is it pushing, or loose? If it’s pushing, where is it doing this? At the entrance to the turn, the middle or the exit?

It might push in the center but get loose on the exit. In that situation the correct analysis is that the car’s pushing, not loose. It only gets loose on the exit because of what you’re having to do to correct the earlier push. So develop the ability to recognize your car’s nuances, and train yourself to be analytical and articulate.

What if you’re not mechanically knowledgeable? It has been said that Eddie Sachs could barely change a wheel, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming an Indy 500 contender. However, you will generally get better results if you can communicate, and in any case, there are way more variables in car setup today. Read the many books available on the subject, and check the frequent articles in Circle Track and the archived articles at www.circletrack.com.

Wally Pankratz won the 2000 USAC Western States Midget championship, and in an 18-year career he has also won titles in Sprint Cars and Super Modifieds. He is currently a driving instructor at the Race Training Center in Irwindale, Calif. Contact the Race Training Center at 877/901-RACE or on www.racetrainingcenter.com. The center’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo Late Models provide constant radio communication with instructors and are equipped with Racepak data acquisition to analyze your driving skills.