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The Racer’s Why-To Guide To Winning
By Neil Roberts
ISBN 978145155 8753
Autographed/inscribed copies available directly from the author
$30.00 plus S&H
Review by Doug Stokes
PREAMBLE: Right, correct … LA Car is not a racing site, but it is a driver’s site and most of us (when we drive) have small moments of what we’ll call “performance driving” … we all put our foot into it every once in a while and most of us think that’s what race driving is. It looks so easy … like sinking a 60-foot downhill putt, or put a basketball through the hoop from the 3-point line, or throwing a 1-pound eight-ounce javelin 290 feet.
And, as we’ve all found, at topmost levels, every pro sport is impossibly difficult for almost all of us.
And that’s where a book like “Think Fast” comes in, if you have an interest in motor racing (even if you don’t plan a career in NASCAR or Formula One) this sort of a book can really add to your understanding and enjoyment of the sport.
You’ll better appreciate the skill, concentration, and delicate balancing act between pure science and controlled aggression that successful pro drivers have to master in order to win on a consistent basis.
Not for all, but for true fans a self-taught course in understanding the sport from the viewpoint of the driver and crew.
PREFACE: In 1957, a veteran Italian Sports Car and Formula 1 racing driver named Piero Taruffi published what I believe was the first book written specifically on the subject of driving a racing car in competition.
Called “The Technique of Motor Racing”, Taruffi’s book was something of a sensation when it came out … almost no one had ever really talked about what it actually took to be a driver and most just thought that an unhealthy disrespect for personal safety was the key ingredient in the pursuit.
Taruffi codified the pursuit … he broke it down into the basics, said that one had to be fit and needed understand the balance between going fast and going off the road even faster.
The man’s ground-breaking book featured something that this reviewer has just about never stopped doing … drawings of race track corners and series of corners and the correct racing line through them. I must have filled up a hundred notebooks with drawing of racetrack curves and my idea (all based on Taruffi’s book of course) of the ideal line.
In 1959 Dennis Jenkinson published “The Racing Driver”, it carried forth many of the ideas and professional cues that Taruffi had laid out in his book. Journalist Jenkinson was not a racing driver* but his close friendship (and very close observation) of one of the all-time great racing drivers, Stirling Moss provided him an excellent view of the techniques and talent that it took to successfully manage a raging race car.
Jenkinson was in the passenger’s seat when Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia, a grueling thousand -mile open road race that went from Brecia to Rome and back to Brecia. “Jenks” as he was called, read (IN A LOUD VOICE, I suspect) Moss the route notes from a highly-detailed map which Jenkinson had cleverly transcribed on a long roll of paper that he unrolled as the pair raced up and across most of central Italy. Their time for the race set a record that stands to this day.
Times have changed in the years since Taruffi drove the piss out of race cars and Jenkinson rode shotgun with Sir Stirling, but the basics, the mental side of the exercise has changed little over time.
On the other hand, the machinery has changed greatly… the days when a great driver like a Fangio or a Foyt could just pick up and carry an underperforming car on his back are over and long gone.
If a modern race car is not right, all the talent, great advice, genes, and even money (the Mother’s milk of speed) simply won’t work. You simply will not beat another driver of similar talent if their car is better optimized than yours.
REVIEW: And that’s really where this book comes on strong. For me it is much more a primer on the tech/hardware side of the driving equation. Author Neil Roberts is a racing design engineer and (by all accounts) a pretty damn fair SCCA open wheel racer.
His theme here in Think Fast is that understanding the machinery and being able to help the team make changes that make the machine better is far more important and than ever to the team effort (even that’s just you, some Harbor Freight tools, and a buddy or two).
Early-on in this 183-page soft cover Roberts indicates that he has been inspired by Carroll Smith’s “To Win” seminal series of books about racing and racing equipment. Every one of them is a dead-nuts classic for one reason … Smith’s honest and unrelenting sense of the immutable rules and reality of the racing business. His driving book (“Drive to Win” first published in1996) for my money, is where the mental/personal side of the process is still best explained and advised. For example, Carroll Smith hated golf, like Mark Twain he personally felt it a waste of time and, besides, it encroached on TV time for racing coverage … So what does he advise in his driving book?
Smith suggests that if you want your youngster to do well as a racing driver, teach him (or her) to play golf … indicating that he understood full well that there’s a lot of business done on the golf course. I might add that Smith was the unalloyed master of applying pragmatic thinking to the dark science of motor racing.
The back cover blurb on Think Fast calls it “…the breakthrough why-to guide to winning races,” I sincerely hope that’s the case. It also indicates that it, “…can help any racing driver, engineer, or designer focus maximum effort on … crossing the finish line first.” If a driver is open enough, everything, even their mistakes, if understood and used to never make THAT one again are learning tools. Here’s one more tool, this one from the bookstore, not the hardware outlet.
Again, a young racing driver really should learn as much as they can about their machine and how it works, and then work very closely with their engineer to optimize not only the car but themselves. And this book will honestly help in that pursuit.
Along the way you’ll learn about kingpin angle, wind tunnel testing, torsional chassis stiffness testing, droop limiters, virtual swing arm lengths, steer plates, skin friction drag (the car’s not yours), toe stiffness (again, the car’s) and semi-monocoque tubs.
In fact, and for me, this book is one that I might well prescribe for serious racing fans, not only the direct participants … as I said earlier, just about everyone drives a car, when they want to go faster, they simply step on the gas … so what’s so hard about racing? You’ll be surprised. Get your hands on this latest “flight manual”, find out about the science that yields real speed and become an even more knowledgeable (and appreciative) fan.
I think that the late Carroll Smith said it best about motorsports: “…There is NO magic … Only logic, common sense, forethought, vast amounts of hard work, and a fanatic dedication to the task at hand.” And he was (still is!) right.
Of course Smith meant the above in the most cordial and friendly way, but he said it because it was true then and even truer today.
Roberts’ new book looking at the ins and outs of the ancient and honorable skills needed in motor racing is the latest version of a now decades-long quest to define, explain, enjoy and (possibly) excel in the exercise. And, as the other titles that have come before it, well worth the read. -DS
• Early-on the diminutive Jenkinson, had raced himself as a “hanger” … that’s the passenger part of the two-person team motorcycle sidecar racing who “hangs off” those weirdly-configured, evil-handling, three-wheeled beasts that always seemed hell-bent on going anywhere but where the riders would like them to go, no matter how much the brave “hanger” climbed all over the crazed machine “hanging” his butt out to tame the SOB.