Driving Mastery

Turn Passion into Glory

1.3 - Foundation

In the interest of staving off boredom from too much theory, let’s get started with a practical exercise right away. Your first task is establish your foundation for communication with your vehicle: the seating position. We are not all the same size and shape and therefore, the vehicle must be adjusted to fit your individual dimensions. Just as you would tailor a suit or dress to fit exquisitely, you must find the proper adjustments to make your vehicle an extension of your body:

When the vehicle feels like an extension of your body, you are able to move effortlessly with speed and agility.

A reminder about discomfort: when you change from your preferred seat adjustments you may experience the most physical discomfort of any other experience presented in these exercises. Embrace your discomfort! Growth occurs in the discomfort. We humans have an amazing capacity for adaptation. There will be a period where you will be very conscious of the change in driving posture, but this will pass as you settle into it. But do not settle in too quickly. You can use this discomfort to your advantage. And when you feel discomfort again, remember how you were able to adjust to this discomfort. The improvements in sensitivity and safety will be worth the initial discomfort.

Let’s consider the driver and car as dance partners. Whatever your preferred style of dancing, your ability to communicate with your partner is all about posture: where you each place your hands, how much pressure and the structure and movement of your arms and legs. If the posture and movements are wrong, weak or inconsistent, then it will appear that the dancers are fighting each other; each one trying to figure out what the other is doing. When the posture is firm yet fluid, the dancers appear to be moving as a single unit, even while doing the most complex maneuvers. This is a powerful analogy to remember throughout this book.

As it is with dancers, establishing proper ergonomics is the foundation of a driver’s communication with the vehicle. From the seat you will sense braking, accelerating and cornering forces as well as information about the road surface (roughness, bumps & available grip). Optimizing your position with respect to the pedals, steering wheel and shifter will provide the best control while reducing fatigue. Thus you will be able to relax in the seat with optimal body support and avoid leaning forward. You never want to have to support yourself from the steering wheel. When you are relaxed and supported, the proper arm, leg and head positioning allow for maximum strength, range-of-motion and precision when maneuvering the vehicle while also providing the best feedback from the controls.

The benefits of proper seat adjustment apply whether belting into a street car for a trip to the store or strapping into a race car for an endurance race. Fundamentally, the seating position you employ in your daily driver is the same seating position that serves a racer on the track and vice-versa. Naturally, the position in a single-seat formula car will be very different from that of a touring car or NASCAR. Nonetheless, the following techniques work whether driving on the street or the track.

Finding the optimal position for your body is limited by the range of adjustment available in your vehicle. All street cars have a minimum set of seat adjustment options: fore and aft position and seat back inclination. More commonly, you will also find vertical seat adjustment as well as steering wheel telescoping and tilt. In this day and age, you could purchase a car with 30 or more available adjustments. The merits of so many adjustments could be debated and might certainly be overwhelming. For our purposes, I will address the most common and the most useful seat adjustments.

First, start with the seat base. Drop the seat as low as practical while still maintaining ample visibility over the hood. Sitting as low as practical drops the overall (vehicle and driver) Center of Gravity (CG) and positions your core closer to the vehicle’s CG and roll-center. Many drivers believe that a higher seat gives a greater command of one’s surroundings. However, this is counter productive as it adversely effects the driving feel. When you get used to the proper seating position, having a high seat feels like sitting on top of the vehicle rather than in it.

Next, move the seat forward until you have full range of motion on all of the pedals without extending your toes to operate the pedals. When your feet are covering but not actuating the pedals, there should be roughly a 120 degree bend in the knees (180 degrees being straight legged). You should be able to press the brake through its range of motion without straightening your knee. There are two reasons for being closer to the pedals: if you must apply full braking force, then you want to make sure that you can use the full strength of your leg without being limited by your leg’s range of motion; and if you are involved in an impact, then you do not want the force of that impact to go through a locked knee. That is why it is critical to maintain some bend in the knee even when applying the full braking force. If you have boosted brakes (as all modern street cars do), then it may be necessary to have the engine running when you do this since the brake travel will be reduced if the assist is gone. When you press the brake as hard as you can, you should be able to lift yourself up from the seat base slightly and press into the seat back. As a final check, note that there is typically a rest pedal on the left side of the foot well. This is useful for bracing yourself against the cornering forces. This is also where your left foot should always rest when not actively operating a pedal, whether that be a clutch or the brake (Left-foot braking will be covered in a future Stage).

Lastly, move the seat back and steering wheel together to optimize for comfort, range of motion and visibility. If the steering wheel is adjustable, then move it as close to you as possible while making sure you have full view of the gauges. Next, put the seat back as far upright as is reasonable - even if initially uncomfortable. Use your hand to feel the space between your head with respect to the headliner and headrest. If there is any potential interference, recline the seat back to accommodate. Then adjust the seat back and steering wheel to suit your preference. Proper distance from the steering wheel will allow roughly a 120 degree bend in your elbows with your hands at the 3 and 9-o’clock position on the wheel. You should be able to place one wrist over the top of the steering wheel without your shoulders separating from the seat-back. If you must lean forward to place your wrist on top of the wheel, then you are positioned too far away. This “rule of wrist” doesn’t necessarily apply to NASCAR style or Formula cars where the steering wheel tilt is nearly vertical and range of steering may be less than 360 degrees. Whatever the case, verify the full steering range of motion so that your hands do not pull away from the wheel nor does your back pull away from the seat.

Continue to make adjustments to be sure that you have full visibility of the instrument cluster and easy reach to the shift lever. The lever should rest in the palm of your hand while running through all shift positions without any interference between your arm and the seat. Finding optimal placement and comfort may require compromises. Move the steering wheel, seat-base (vertically and horizontally) and seat-back in that order of priority. Find a balance between sight-lines, shifter and seating position. Now click-in, tighten the seat belt or harness and check everything again. Just remember that a standard street three-point-seat belt tensioner will lock with high forces experienced in spirited driving as well as during accident avoidance maneuvers so avoid any slack during this check. The last thing you want is a seat belt holding you back from the steering wheel and pedals at the moment you need them most (another good reason for the “rule of wrist”). If your seat has additional adjustments, then use these to provide more comfort and support for improved communication and control with less fatigue.

It’s always worth the time and effort to find the best seating position. You will be rewarded with improved kinesthetics through the steering wheel and seat. The heightened feel and control through the steering range as well as a solid seat support build confidence. Improved driver confidence, feel and support translate into greater safety on the street and lower lap times on the track.

If you are in a family that shares a vehicle, it is worth your time to adjust the seat properly before each drive. This is also an opportunity to take a moment to check in with your attitude. Do you find it a burden or inconvenience to make the change? Would you rather not “waste” time? Don’t you wish that everyone would just use the same seat position that you do? On the other hand, this is an opportunity to take care of yourself and do something to improve your likelihood of success and satisfaction on your drive. What does your attitude about this one small task tell you about your attitudes and beliefs in general? Self evaluation and knowing yourself, your beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and triggers are all critical to developing mastery. I will discuss techniques for self evaluation in a future Stage.

When setting up your seat with track use in mind, it is best to wear your helmet, shoes and gloves so there are no surprises when you first roll out to grid. Molded racing seats complicate the adjustment process because of the limited adjustments available and the difficulty of making adjustments. Regardless of your intended use, the same principles apply. Additionally, drivers that share a car for endurance racing or split sessions will have some additional considerations. If you must share a fixed seat, find a compromise you can both live with without sacrificing safety and control. If that’s not practical, then an added cushion or molded seat insert will allow each driver to achieve their desired position. Keep in mind that it’s better to be too close than too far away.

Note that some cars have an adjustable stop for the clutch pedal; some even have adjustable pedals. Moving these around can help establish the optimal leg extension while still achieving full pedal actuation along with ideal steering ergonomics. Warning: done properly, adjusting the clutch stop can reduce shift times. Done wrong, this can damage the transmission. If in doubt, seek professional help. Also, verify or reposition the rest-pedal (if applicable) to maintain a comfortable place to support your left foot in between clutch or brake applications.

Now that you have adjusted the seat for the optimal driving position, take a drive and test it out. I want you to be particularly aware of whether you are feeling any discomfort. Ask yourself if the discomfort is distracting you from driving. Are you noticing any other thoughts or sensations that may be affecting your ability to focus on driving and on your surroundings? Notice how long it takes to settle into the new position. It may take hours and it may take days. Are doubt and uncertainty setting in while adjusting to the new ergonomics? It’s best not to force anything. Let the discomfort run its course and observe how you’re inclined to respond. The thing we most want to avoid is going backwards, which would be to return to a less optimal seating position.

If you are still unable to feel comfortable after several days, then you may have a car that doesn’t fit your personal dimensions. I have certainly found some cars have terrible ergonomics. If this is the case, make whatever compromise is necessary such that you are still able to maintain the “rule of wrist”. This might require that you sit closer to the pedals or you may find the seat is more upright than you would like. Raising or lowering the seat can also help you to find a better compromise. Whatever the case, having the proper steering control and range-of-motion is more important than any other factor.