Step one before ever cranking the engine over Dalton has Robert sit in the car in full gear. Familiarizing the 15-year-old with where all of the controls are located is critical. This includes everything from the battery switch, starter, and more, but he pays special attention to three items; the on-board fire extinguisher, the window net and the seat belts. Zehr runs over the safety items very carefully making sure his protégé fully understands their function. He then makes Robert get in and out of the car multiple times, always in full gear.
A pad and paper come in handy to explain the finer points of the line.
"It's something that I do myself," explains Zehr. "Let's face it, if you wreck and you're on fire the last thing you are going to do is sit in a burning car and take the time to take your helmet, neck restraint, and gloves off before getting out. So I practice in and out of the car with all of those items on. And I make anybody I work with do the exact same thing for that very reason."
Robert had to perform the task multiple times before Dalton was satisfied enough to go to the next step. And that is something that all young racers need to get used to, repetition. By repeating even the most mundane of tasks you can have your future champion form good habits. You want exiting the car quickly to become second nature so that in the case something bad happens, and we hope it never does, but if it does they can get to safety as fast as possible.
Dalton also had Reagan sit in the truck to allow her to locate those same functions. And while she has raced long enough to know how to get in and out of a car quickly it is still important for her to learn the surroundings of the car. After all, not every car has the fire bottle mounted in the same spot.
Walk the Track, Son
Here’s Robert’s entry into Turn 1.
Part of this exercise is to help demonstrate how to build a well rounded racer and that means developing skills both inside and outside the car. After receiving a complete and thorough explanation of the truck's operation, the trio head out on to the track and walk around the entire circuit. Zehr says it's at this point where he looks for the spots and markers on the track that allow him to get his bearings. During this walk he pays particular attention to the groove, seeking out lift and braking points, checking for uneven spots in the surface that could upset the car and so on.
And here is Dalton’s. Notice how similar the two are.
"I do this regardless of where I am, even if it's my home track," says Zehr. "When you walk a track you want to pay close attention to the curvature of the turns. A lot of times you can pick out the trouble spots before ever turning a single lap."
While you're walking the track you also want to scan the surface for any debris that could cause a flat tire or worse. This is especially true if, as in our case, you are testing the day following a race. Most short tracks in the country don't have the blowers that NASCAR has to clean the track surface.
With the track walk complete, Dalton piles his pupils into his personal car and heads out onto the track. Making laps around the track, he shows the young racers the proper line to take. By making the initial laps in the car it also allows the three to have a conversation about the track's individual idiosyncrasies. Each driver gets a chance behind the wheel of the street car, allowing Zehr the opportunity to critique their line and correct it in real time.
And the fun begins
The smile says it all.
Dalton and Reagan each take turns wheeling the truck around the 1/3-mile before Robert climbs in for his first laps. When it's Robert's turn, Dalton gets in the street car and makes Robert follow him around the track for several laps before turning him loose. This allows the young driver to focus on the line, see in real time where the braking points are and where to pick up the throttle. Zehr believes this is an essential step in the process of acclimating a new driver to the track and car.
"A little follow-the-leader can really be beneficial. When mentoring a new driver you really want to take a walk before you run approach," says Zehr. "It's about baby steps...walk the track, drive the track, follow in the race car then run solo."
Talk About It
After each session, Dalton spent time debriefing both Reagan and Robert. He critiqued their lines, the way they handled the truck and more.
"When teaching a young racer, it's very important to be clear and specific and give reasons why something is happening. What they are doing and feeling inside the car should be easily relateable to the car's suspension, drivetrain, and more. Plus sharing information is critical to avoiding future mistakes. "
We outfitted the truck with cameras both inside and out. The original intention was to gather footage for a video which you can watch on www.circletrack.com,as well as our You Tube channel. But academy award winning performances from the trio notwithstanding this turned out to be an exceptionally good idea. Robert looked smooth and consistent, getting progressively faster with each lap. As he got more and more comfortable behind the wheel his lap times dropped a total of 3 seconds from the first lap to his best lap, which came in his final session. But when we reviewed the video back at the shop we discovered the he was lifting sooner than he needed to and not using enough brake as he should. Plus he was shuffling the wheel through his hands as opposed to keeping that nice firm grip Dalton explained to him earlier in the day. Correcting these three issues will definitely yield much quicker lap times.
This lesson can also be translated to your own racing program regardless of whether or not you're a brand new racer, like Robert, an up and comer like Reagan or a Champ like Dalton. What you think you are doing behind the wheel may not be exactly what is happening. So the next time you head out for some testing or even in a race, take that GoPro and train it on the driver. What you see may turn out to be the key to getting that win.
Prior to the young racers taking their turns behind the wheel, Zehr intentionally spun the truck to find the limit of its adhesion.
So, How'd They Do?
Dalton set a benchmark time of 15.80. Reagan was a few tenths off of Daltons' time with a 16.40 while Robert's best lap was a 16.73. Obviously, both our young racers will benefit from more time in the truck, and as of this writing they have each made a return trip to Showtime where Reagan and Dalton both raced and Robert (not quite ready for full competition) worked on the truck in the pits. With the benefit of the video, Robert will be able to correct his mistakes and lower those lap times so that when he does compete for the first time he can do so with the confidence and skill required to drive a good, clean race.
Stay tuned for more articles on getting your kids involved in racing in future issues of Circle Track.