We dodged a bullet as far as snow on valley roads with the latest storm, but winter is upon us. And with it come driving hazards we have to cope with unless we intend to hibernate until spring. You will see a lot of idiots out there on the snowy, slick, and icy roadways. As a public service I’m going to give you a few tips on how to avoid running into one of them, or worse, being one.
What separates racing drivers from the ordinary driver is their level of concentration on the task at hand. True, that level of concentration isn’t usually required on our daily trips to work, the grocery store, or the kids’ soccer games. But I’ve seen all too many drivers who fail to achieve even semi-consciousness behind the wheel. And when road conditions deteriorate and visibility drops, you really need to increase that level of concentration. The key phrase here is “situational awareness.” You need to continually gauge the level of traction, your position on the road, and what traffic around you is doing.
If you understand a little about basic physics and vehicle dynamics, it’s a big plus in car control.
If you don’t, here’s a little primer. F=ma (Force equals mass times acceleration is an elementary formula). In practical terms, it means a 4,000 pound vehicle traveling at 40 miles per hour is going to generate a serious amount of force when it encounters an immovable object. So our first objective in winter driving is to avoid that scenario. Now, all that mass is connected to the road by an amazingly small amount of rubber, your tires’ contact patches.
Another tidbit from the world of physics says an object in motion tends to stay in motion. It also tends to continue in a straight line. This means you’re counting on those contact patches to achieve any change in direction, including halting forward motion. So when the road is coated with snow and/or ice, the ability of the tires to answer your commands becomes even more tenuous. Braking distances are longer, turning becomes chancier, and acceleration is limited. And when you try to combine turning with braking or accelerating, you will reduce the tires’ efficiency even more. This is why you’ll sometimes see a car plowing straight ahead with the front wheels locked fully to the right or left.
So, given all these physical factors, we need to modify our driving techniques if we want to make it safely through to spring. I’ve said before the techniques racing drivers use at 180 miles per hour are similar to those you should use on snow and ice at 30 miles per hour. So take a lesson from 2014 racing champions Kevin Harvick, Will Power, and Lewis Hamilton. Use gentle inputs on all the controls, not yanking on the steering wheel and stomping on the pedals. Brake early and progressively; turn slowly and smoothly, and accelerate gently, feathering the throttle. Leave some extra room between you and the car in front. And as I said at the start of this lesson, you need to increase your level of concentration in slick conditions.
NASCAR has released its Sprint Cup rulebook for 2015. There are too many provisions to go into here, but the highlights are a new “no private testing” policy, a reduction in horsepower, a shorter rear spoiler, and an optional driver-adjustable track bar. The horsepower reduction, from a nominal 850 down to 725, will be achieved with tapered spacers. Speeds are expected to be down only 3-4 miles per hour at most tracks, as the shorter rear spoiler is going to reduce drag. Testing will be allowed only in conjunction with official NASCAR or Goodyear tests, and different groups of teams will participate in the individual test sessions. A big change is the possibility of qualifying and racing in the rain at road course events. The Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) series has been doing this for some years now. And another departure for 2015 will be a move to implement automated pit road officiating.