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Five driving tips from a former racecar driver

March 26, 2013

As a former racecar driver turned writer for Yahoo! Autos, I’ve developed a deep knowledge base for driving fast. In fact, I started racing at just eight years old, making hustling a racecar feel more natural than buying a gallon of milk at Target. It’s also a lot more fun, too. You may think that driving in the Indianapolis 500 bears little relevance to cruising along highways, but the techniques used to drive a car at the limit on track apply to your everyday commute. It’s not about being faster; it’s about being safer.

Here are five tips I learned during my career as a racecar driver that will make you a better driver on the road:

• Look at least two seconds in front: In busy traffic, many drivers simply stare at the car immediately ahead of us; when their brake lights go on, we brake. You want to get into a habit of looking approximately two seconds in front of the leading car - or more. The vehicle you are trailing will be in your peripheral vision but your focus remains squarely on analyzing the road ahead, looking for any potential dangers that may occur. We do this in racing for the same reason, as well as to plan how best to attack the next set of bends. Like anything in life, the wise always plan ahead.

• Make your hands as smooth as silk: Many drivers on the road probably think they are smooth with the steering wheel; in most cases, that assessment would be wrong. Truly being smooth is something that must be practiced - especially when in an evasive maneuver. The smoother we are, the less we upset the car’s balance. Most vehicles’ suspension maintains a soft set up to absorb the bumps, but when it comes to aggressive cornering, excessive body roll can make you lose control. The trick to avoiding an accident is to have fast reactions, all the while ensuring your hand movements are smooth and precise. This prevents the car from bucking like a wild horse, increasing the odds of maintaining control. The same theory applies to racing, only for us, keeping the car’s platform stable allows for a better handling machine throughout the turn. Therefore we can drive faster.

• Brake with your left-foot: If you drive an automatic, and let's face it; most of us do, then you should practice braking with your left foot rather than your right. We do this in racing to minimize the amount of time spent transitioning from the gas pedal to the brake. By utilizing one foot on both pedals, the time saved can be close to half a second; that means we can brake later into a turn. How does this apply to the road? Well, instead of using the time gained to brake later, we can begin braking a half second earlier to avoid a potential incident. You want to hover your left foot over the pedal when traffic gets clustered - being careful not to touch the brake. That might not be particularly comfortable - with slight modifications you can make it work fine - but the benefits outweigh the negatives. When traffic dissipates, you can move your foot over to the dead pedal to relax. One thing to remember: take your time practicing before implementing this technique in heavy traffic. At first, it can feel difficult to modulate the brake pressure and the inexperienced driver may have a tendency to hit the gas instead of the brake. It will take time to break ingrained habits, but it's worth practicing. Left-foot braking is safer and more efficient once you get the hang of it.

• Learn to drive a stick: Why drive a stick when an automatic is far less complicated? Surely that’s more dangerous? Driving a stick is certainly more complicated, but that complication demands additional concentration. Simply put, you don’t have as much time for texting, tweeting, and putting on your lip-gloss (ladies, you know who you are). Driving a stick forces attentiveness, and that, of course, makes you a safer driver. Plus, and this is the best part, it makes the whole driving experience more engaging. Ask any enthusiast if they prefer an automatic or a stick. The verdict will be unanimous. Just don't try the left-foot braking technique when you have three pedals. After all, we only have two feet.

• Sit slightly closer to the wheel: If you ever watch on-board videos in NASCAR, you’ll notice the drivers sit exceptionally close to the steering wheel. This is not with an effort to impersonate their grandmother, rather it allows the ability to get “up on the wheel.” While NASCAR drivers take it to the extreme - I am only talking about an inch or two - having your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle enables you to catch a slide more easily. It ensures the muscles in your arms fire rapidly, providing reaction speeds akin to Puss-In-Boots. While you might think it looks cool to recline the seat back, put on some Dr. Dre and just chill, if the going gets hairy, you’ll be digging yourself out of the ditch. Being too close to the airbag is a valid safety concern (don't sit closer than 10.5 inches from the wheel) but being prepared as a driver may avoid the bag ever needing to be deployed.

As you can see, the techniques needed to drive a racecar at 230 mph apply to driving safer on the road. We use these techniques on track to allow for better control when our machine battles the edge of adhesion. No matter where you live, or where you drive, these tips are worth implementing in the name of safety. After all, only the most proficient drivers can truly master the road.