How To Drive an LX Hemi on a Competitive Circuit
Ever since I posted my experience with my 300C at a road race circuit, I have had requests to post some basic guidelines for novices wanting to take their LX car to a competitive driving event.
If you plan to take your car onto an Autocross course, a Solo I event, a driving school (highly recommended) or laps at a road circuit, then here are a few tips to make your experience more enjoyable.
Remove all loose objects from the trunk and inside the car. Some venues will even insist you take up loose floor mats.
Ensure your windows are really clean, inside and out. You want to ensure that you have no glare during your event.
Check oil; radiator reservoir; brake fluid levels.
Make certain there is no brake material built up on your rotors. If you can feel ridges on the rotors, then be sure to Bed in the brakes. See BEDDING BRAKES.
Ensure your fuel is topped up to full. Competitive driving sucks up the gas quicker than you realize. Make sure you are running the recommended octane level.
Set your tire pressures at 40 to 45 psi., if you are running the OEM Continentals. If you have a different tire, go 10 lbs. above the recommended normal pressure. Ensure all 4 tires are set at the same amount. A digital gauge will give you the best read out.
Wear loose comfortable clothing. Footwear is very important. Wear a soft shoe with a flat sole – no heels. I prefer those inexpensive surf shoes. This will allow you to feel the pedals - especially the brake pedal. If your steering wheel is slippery, leather driving gloves are recommended. On my C, the top part is plastic, so I always wear driving gloves for events.
If the event requires a helmet and they do not provide them, don’t run out and buy a helmet – unless – you have checked out the specs to ensure it is SCCA or CASC approved.
Setting Up Your Driving Position
The driving position is critical to your performance and comfort. Most people sit back too far from the steering wheel. Set the seat and back the way you would for an office chair with the back quite upright. Place your left foot firmly on the Dead Pedal spot on the floor. Your foot should rest flat on this spot and there should be no pressure on your thigh. Move the seat forward and back, up and down until you feel comfortable with your left foot putting some pressure on the dead pedal spot.
Once this is done, adjust the steering wheel so that with your elbows at the side of your ribs, you can wrap your fingers around the wheel above the spoke, by bending your wrists.
You may find the wheel uncomfortably close at first. It is essential that your steering be done with your elbows and wrists bent. This is to ensure that you do not use your shoulders while turning the wheel. Here’s why: G-forces in the corners will attempt to shift your body to the left or right. Keeping your left foot firmly on the floor and your elbows and wrist bent will keep you from using the steering wheel for support. – a dangerous practice that will interfere with smooth, fast driving.
Set your 3 rear view mirrors carefully. As an oncoming car disappears from your centre mirror while passing you on the left, it should appear in your left mirror. Ditto for the right. You should not be able to see your own car in either side mirror.
Adjust the height of your seat belt so that it doesn’t dig into your shoulder or cheek. Drive with the windows open or closed; A/C on or off – whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
Getting Your LX around the Circuit Quickly
This is not going to be a driving school primer about braking zones, entry speed, finding the apex, exit acceleration, etc. You will get that at a driving school or you can read it on the net. Rather, I would like to discuss techniques that apply specifically to the LX Hemi cars.
Driving around a circuit quickly is all about limits and transitions. Every car has limits in terms of acceleration, top speed, braking, lateral G-force, tire adhesion, and the attitude (direction of the nose of the car). Being able to go out to the physical limits of the car and make the transition smoothly from one mode to the other is the mark of a fast car / driver combination.
Most LX Hemi owners are familiar with the superior acceleration of this 4 door family car. Some have taken it to the maximum speed (may be electronically limited to 126 mph). A few have tested the braking by deliberately approaching a corner and braking at the last second to reduce speed to a level that will go through the corner. And very few have pushed so hard in a corner as to discover the limits of lateral adhesion.
Ok, let’s roll your car onto the course. After starting the engine, punch the “ESP” button in the upper middle of the dash. This does not turn it off – it just sets wider limits before it intervenes with traction control, yaw control and anti-lock threshold. This is very important, as you will soon appreciate. Next, place the Autostick in 4th gear. This tells the computer to use crisper shifts and higher shift points.
Next you will learn the course by driving it slowly, preferably behind an instructor. Keep your eyes well into the distance, focusing on the second next task you have to perform. The immediate task will stay in your peripheral vision and you will have already done what you have to do to execute it correctly. Always try to stay focused one step ahead. Do not calculate speeds or RPM rates – you won’t have time to look at these when you get moving quickly.
Braking: Your Hemi has superior brakes. If it’s a C or R/T, you have 14” discs with ceramic pads. Despite its size and weight, your car is capable of stopping very quickly. The pedal feel is not as good as I like, but one gets used to it. Repeated hard braking will heat up the pads and rotors and cause some “fade” – softer pedal and less grab – longer distances. The fade is mild and the brakes recover quickly. You can get on the brakes hard and not worry about lock up as the anti-lock will kick in. Don’t bother shifting down for the purpose of braking. This is a waste of time because of the design of this modern system. Rely on the brakes to reduce speed.
Accelerating: As you go past the apex of a corner, you want to start to apply power smoothly as you continue the exit. Racing is very much about exit speed out of corners. You want to be in the right gear to get the most torque coming out. Here’s where the Autostick is neat! As you approach the apex (your slowest speed), slap the stick to your left, repeatedly. It will not go into a gear lower that is right for your speed. You don’t have to look at it or the dash to see what gear it’s in. Just slap to the left 3 times. That’s it! As you accelerate out, let the Autostick shift up on its own. Don’t worry about 5th gear. You won’t need it. Keep it in Autostick.
Transitions: Almost everyone has felt the smooth transition of this car as it changes from one force to another – accelerating; braking; turning. The smoothness of the LX is awesome. Guess what? It gets even better at speed as you push out to the limits. This is due to:
- the great unequal arms / IRS suspension design
- the very rigid unibody frame
- the amazing little computers from the E-Class Mercedes making constant adjustments out at the limits
A Final Word
Your personal limits will most likely be below the car’s limits. Don’t be fearful of this car in corners. And, your Conti tires will scream in the corners. Don’t listen to them. Push yourself to make the next lap a bit faster than the last. It is very difficult to roll this car over, especially with the OEM tires. You would pretty much have to drive over a sharp elevation change such as a deep ditch to roll it. When you execute a corner properly, you will know it.
Trust your brakes – you can go from 60 mph to 0 in 122 ft.
When starting off as a novice, concentrate on racing against yourself.
Most importantly, have fun!