Essential Tips for Great Race Starts

Originally published back on the 28th May 2016 for Ross Bentley's Speed Secrets Weekly #184 we recently updated this article with even more tips.

You round the last turn and can see the front straight with the starter stand. You’re watching and managing the gap in front of you. The tension is rising, the pack of race cars are ready to go… The green flag flies and everyone guns it. 

The motor lugs; you were in the wrong gear. Oh no! You quickly grab a lower gear, but the damage is done. Those hard-fought extra tenths that got you a few more places during qualifying are gone. One, two…no, three of your competitors cruise by you and there is nothing you can do. You settle in and get to down to business, just to claw back the positions you lost. Sadly, this story is all too familiar to every racer out there.

How to Get a Great Race Start

Rolling starts are a key component of most amateur and professional racing including the SCCA, NASA, and even the Indianapolis 500. There is more to a start then just watching the green flag fly and stomping on the go pedal. The racecraft during and after the start are just as important.

For race starts, you need to be a task manager, using all of your senses to your benefit. While the best way to get a great start can be having a buddy on the radio to let you know when the green flag flies, most amateur and club racers don't have this luxury.

Practicing race starts can be difficult. How often can you convince ten to twenty other racers to interrupt their test day so they can surround you and give you an advantage for your starts? You might be able to get one or two racing buddies to do it, but it really isn’t feasible. Racing simulators can be very useful, but a lot of them use standing starts. Here are some tips and what you can do to improve:

Mind The Gap

Managing your position among the group of cars is important; you don’t want to drop back and leave a big gap. Alternatively, you don’t want to be tucked up right behind the car in front so that you have to throttle back to avoid tapping them from behind. You can experiment and see what works for you. Watch race starts from other competitors in your class and car type by finding their in-car videos online, see what gap they are using and see how well it works for them.

Selecting the Right Gear

As in our opening story, many a bad start occurs from being in the wrong gear - either too low or too high in the rev range - when the green flag flies. Being slow at the start or requiring unnecessary shifts can see you losing ground and positions early, even before Turn 1. Use your ears during the start to hear the engine. On a test day, you can practice listening to the motor and comparing where in the rev range you are. You want to be in the good torque range for your car. Don’t know what that is take it to a dyno and get a dyno sheet showing your engines torque curve.

Make Clean Shifts

As Ross Bentley says in Ultimate Speed Secrets, “A shift should be made gently and with finesse.” Rushing and missing a shift has a far worse consequence than being 0.005 seconds slower on the shift. In Spec Racer Ford races, we repeatedly see people lose two to three positions from missing a shift on the start. On a test day, practice smooth and deliberate shifts every chance you get.

Getting yourself and the race car in the right state is only half of the problem. After the start, chaos often ensues. Making it through the first lap cleanly can be a feat unto itself.

Know Your Place

Knowing your gridded position before the start helps you determine your actions. It might also give you clues and the ability to predict those actions of your surrounding competitors. Grab that grid sheet or check the qualifying results on your phone. Knowing if you are inside or outside for Turn 1 is a great aid to determining your desired positioning in the ensuing accordion. Information on the position of the other racers around you and their styles can also potentially help you avoid first lap incidents.

Plan Ahead

You know where you'll be and who will be around you. So you can run the start through your head multiple times and plan different actions based on various scenarios; drivers missing a shift, a slow start or an incident. You can't control what will happen at the start but you can use mental imagery and visualization techniques to minimize the number of unexpected events and to plan possible actions for some of the more likely scenarios.

Test Day Practise

Experience helps. You might not be able to get lots of cars around you, but there are things you can do to practice on a cool down lap or during a test day. There are lots of things going on at the start and you need a way to manage them. If you don't see the green flag and just wait for the pack to accelerate, it will already be too late. Try looking up and knowing the engine revs by sound, so you aren't looking at the gauges while managing the gap to the car in front. As you come onto the front straight, practice using your peripheral vision by looking up through an imaginary pack of cars at the flagger station on the start/finish line. At the start of the race, most cars are slower going into Turn 1. Practice different lines and speeds into Turn 1. Most racers (especially beginners) aren’t comfortable being off the racing line. The experience you gain from being off the traditional line might help you snag a few positions.

Hopefully, you now have a short list of items you can practice at or before your next test day:

  • Visualization

  • Peripheral vision

  • Listening to the motor

  • Different lines into Turn 1

  • Watching the flagger station

  • Managing a gap

Not every start can be great, so treat every race start as a learning experience. Review your data, watch your start videos, and you might see hints at areas to improve for next time.

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