Young racers often dream of making it big in NASCAR, but before they can, they’d better be able to make the transition to heavier cars.
As racers move up the ranks, the cars they drive get heavier and have more horsepower. Go-Karts, Legend Cars, even Super Late Models might be able to stop on a dime and accelerate at will. But move up in rank to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series or ARCA competition hoping to make it into NASCAR’s top levels, suddenly the cars handle quite a bit different.
Denny Hamlin was a star in Late Model ranks, competing in Virginia and the Carolinas. Sometimes you still find Hamlin behind the wheel of a Late Model Stock Car.
“You just can’t fling (a heavier car) around as much as a Late Model,” Hamlin said when asked about the difference during one of his rare Late Model appearances. “On entry you can just kind of fling (a Late Model) into the corner and stomp the gas, whereas it takes a little bit more finesse with the heavier cars. The brakes become more prominent ... you don’t use much brakes in a Late Model because you’re not running that kind of speed.”
Gary St. Amant was a national champion in the old American Speed Association, then competed in the heavier Hooters Pro Cup cars while that series was alive. He can often be found helping young racers develop their skills.
St. Amant said it’s not just how much brake you use, but how you use the brakes.
“Generally, when a young guy starts driving a racecar he’ll overdrive the car getting in the corner,” St. Amant said. “He has no fear. The toughest thing to teach him is how to slow the car down. Going from a crate car or a Late Model Stock Car, they’re a lot of momentum. When you get in a heavier car, a car with more horsepower, a car with more grippy tires, you’ve got to slow the car down a lot more to roll through the middle of the corners to be able to use the horsepower to be able to drive the car off the corners.”
“To me the No. 1 thing the young guys have to learn when it comes to short track racing in a bigger car is braking technique,” St. Amant continued. “Without a doubt, braking technique is the No. 1 thing that a young guy will struggle with. Me and Kevin Cywinski have talked about it. The guys who have raced a lot of years, who have raced a lot of long-distance races, generally you’re going to see a lot of trail-brakers. You have your foot on the brake pedal until you pick up the gas. It’s kind of hard to fathom that, but it’s just another technique – the brake pedal is just another tool in the car to help get you through the corner.”
Kids are stabbing the brakes and letting off, St. Amant observed, whereas the experienced guys are using more finesse on the brake — a little harder at first, then easy off until the car is pointed in the right direction and they’re back on the gas.
“It might sound weird, but I’d say a young guy is just using the brake pedal to slow the car down, whereas an older guy – a guy who knows how to use the brake pedal – will actually use the pedal to do other things like help turn the car, or help keep the car tight up off the corner,” St. Amant said. “I know you’re not getting back on the brake pedal off the corner, but you’re slowing the car down enough before you pick up the gas to vault the motor and actually put forward bite in the car. That pretty much goes for any kind of car, not just the heavy cars – if you have to slow down and use brake, you might as well use it to the fullest. Use it throughout the corner.”
Could braking technique be the reason some racers win a lot in Late Models but never seem to achieve success in heavier cars? It could be a factor. Perhaps the question to ask the 16-year-old with the heavy right foot in a Late Model is, “Do you know how to use the brakes?”