Friday, January 20, 2006

The Dark Art of Passing

(the following is a work in progress, but I wanted to put it up anyway)

Perhaps the most difficult skill for a new racer to learn is the art form known as passing. When you are a track day rider or provisional novice racer it can be simpler because the speed differences from rider to rider are fairly substantial, but as you move up through the field the difference in lap times goes from seconds to tenths, hundredths and even thousandths between riders in a given class. To successfully get around your opponent it is necessary to understand several things:
• Trust
• Your desire to make the pass stick, and whether or not it is truly worth it
• Usable variations on the line in each corner or corner complex
• The capabilities of you and your motorcycle
• The capabilities of your opponent

I’m having trouble making this seem easy… I’ll cover each point above briefly first, and then we’ll combine them for something of a how-to.

Every pass you ever make will, at its core, be a shot in the dark. You have no idea if the rider ahead of you is going to botch the corner and run wide or duck low into your path. You could hit some oil, some marbles, the bike could fail, someone can make a bad decision… passing comes down to trust. If you trust the rider you are passing, and you trust yourself, you can make close, clean passes all day long.
Hesitation in passing is a product of distrust, quite simply. Either you don’t trust yourself to make it stick, or you don’t trust the guy you are passing because his line is crap and he’s riding erratically in every corner.

What does this pass mean to me?
Club racing is a hobby. We’re not getting paid to do this, so the only thing you are gaining from passing your opponent is the satisfaction that you can bust their balls about it in the paddock and the pride instilled from finishing in a better position. Not every pass you make is going to be worth asking this question, but at some point you will need to decide if passing the guy ahead of you is really worth the risk.
Keep in mind that not only are you are risk, but so is the guy you are trying to outgun. Crashes are an expected risk in racing, but as the passing rider, you are responsible for making it a safe. I’ve uttered the phrase, “It was a racing incident” more times than I care to admit, but there isn’t much else to say most of the time.

Understanding What the Track has to Offer
Since we’ve already walked the track, watched the expert riders and done some practice laps we have a pretty good idea of where the racing line is on the track. We may also have an idea of what each corner has to offer in terms of alternate lines, or at least the opportunity to run in high or low without getting ourselves in too much trouble. Many corners will have multiple lines, and some riders may not be aware of this depending on how much research they’ve done. This, we will use to our advantage, but not until later.

What am I Capable of Doing?
The only way of answering this question is by getting a lot of track time. The more you are on the bike the more understanding you have of how much lean angle you can comfortably carry into a corner, and how deep you can go in on the brakes. You will, of course, learn a lot about yourself by racing because it forces you to make decisions, take a lot of risks and go above and beyond what you would normally do while practicing, but expecting to develop some dormant part of your psyche at whim in Turn 1 at TWS is probably asking a bit much.

Can I even Pass this Person?
The only way to know where your opponent is weak is to study his/her line as you approach during the race. If they are consistently running wide or taking an early entry to corners (or a particular set) you can easily capitalize on this by running a different line. You also need to be ready to make the most of random opportunities like mistakes and bobbles to help you work your way past at a moment’s notice.
By studying their bike’s attitude, the rider’s body English and things of this nature, we can glean a fair amount of information to be used against them. Most people exhibit consistent weaknesses such as late on the gas (exiting) or early on the brakes (entry) and each of these can be exploited both individually and separately, but again… we’ll get to that later.

Gapping a Slower Rider
One classic mistake a faster rider makes, however, is getting too close to the slower bike and sacrificing all their momentum prior to the pass. If you are right on the wheel of the guy in front of you, there’s no way for you to create a passing opportunity because your braking and acceleration points cannot be any sooner than theirs. They are determining your pace!

As you sit behind the slower rider you will become either annoyed at being slowed down but unable to pass, or you will become complacent and not realize that you are in fact much faster and should have blown this joker off 3 laps ago.

To alleviate this sort of problem we need to:
• Take a breath
• Drop back a bike length or two.
By taking a breath we clear our mind and relax. By dropping back we can create a small gap that we will use to sustain momentum for our pass. This small gap provides us with just enough room to brake later or gas it earlier on exit and squirt around the other rider. It also opens up your field of view and allows you to “see” more of what is going on with your opponent and the track.

Timing Our Opportunities
In general, passing requires one of two things to happen:
• You need to be substantially faster than your prey
• Your prey needs to make a mistake

Obviously, if you are already much faster than your prey (an endurance race) you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting around them as long as your timing is correct. Timing a pass is critical, especially in lapped traffic when you have an opponent close behind looking for a pass! This also works for sprint races when you are looking to pass 4 or 5 people in a cluster and the leader of the pack is likely causing everyone to be slow.

As we run in hard on slower traffic we need to be aware of what corners are coming up next, and plan on how we’ll use that to our advantage. If you are paying attention you should be able to time the pass so that you can blast by them without impeding your own pace, or endangering the safety of the lappers. Simply cannon balling the pass and hoping that the lapper won’t mind getting stuffed is ridiculous, in my opinion, and only shows that your skills as a rider are lacking significantly in judgment.

If done properly you can slip past a group of lappers (or slower riders) just before a difficult section of corners, keeping your opponent trapped there until after that corner complex, which allows you to slip away by a few tenths and make their task that much harder!

Creating an Opportunity
If we are not much faster than our prey, as is often the case, we will need to either wait for a chance to pass, or create a passing opportunity ourselves. If your prey is not prone to mistakes this becomes doubly hard, especially if he/she has a lot of experience.

To create a passing opportunity we need to get into our prey’s head. We need them to know we are behind them, that we are faster and that we are never going to let them live this down after we blow past them. We need to Force a Mistake from our prey.

Showing a Wheel
Often times when we are in this situation we do not have quite enough speed to pass our opponent on the straightaway, but we do have enough speed to get next to them, at least in their peripheral vision just before we start braking. By doing so we can show them a wheel, show them that we are behind them and ready to pass. Once you are in the back of their mind, it is truly difficult for them to maintain concentration and a mistake may be soon to follow.

The “It’ll Never Stick” Pass
I like to pass people even though I know the pass won’t stick. Go rocketing up the outside of your opponent where you really don’t have a chance at completing the pass, but with the intention of simply calling a tremendous amount of attention to yourself and getting them to think you are nuts. Either way, you are once again in the back of their mind.

Changing Their Line to Our Advantage
Another trick I like to use is changing the prey’s line to our own advantage. “How”, you ask, “can we change another rider’s line?” It isn’t easy, but it isn’t that hard either. If you can get into their head you can get them to run a defensive line, slower than the ideal line because they are covering the inside, which ruins their momentum and will allow you to out accelerate them on the next straight, or better yet…

I like to play with people’s minds. Run up the outside of a few corners and get them thinking that you will only pass them there, when they move wide to block at the next corner, slip inside and be done with it. Basically, we are strategically showing them a wheel and getting in their head in an effort to make them run an abnormal line that will open a door for us to pass through.

At MSR you can run up the outside of someone going up Boot Hill into Tombstone. It is not easy to make this stick but if you get out there and your prey sees or senses you, he or she will likely run a wide line into and through Tombstone. If you have the balls you can pass them here, or you can wait until Big Bend. They will probably run a slightly deeper and wider line on the way into Big Bend, which opens a huge door on the inside. If they change up and run an inside line, use your momentum to slaughter them on the outside of Big Bend and pass going into Rattlesnake under braking.

The Dark Art of Passing
More often than not, it seems, the passes I’ve put on people have been close to religious experiences. You get to the point where you want to pass this guy so bad, but to do so will require additional focus, planning and a lot of balls. It is also a combination of many types of passes, or perhaps it involves getting your prey onto a less than ideal line to wreck their momentum, then pass them on the straight and out brake them.

Strange as it may sound, you can learn a lot about passing by watching all forms of motor sport, not just motorcycle racing. Dirt oval, IMSA, Touring Car, Snowmobiles…

[IMG] [/IMG] (Jac Haudenschild)
Anyone ever watch World of Outlaws? At 800 pounds wet with upward of 1000 horsepower, the power-to-weight ration on an Outlaw is three-quarters of a pound per horsepower! As you might imagine, getting all that power to the ground efficiently and without doing a monster wheelie (as happens often) is probably not too much different from controlling the throttle on a liter bike or modern 600. My favorite type of pass in Outlaws is what is known as a Slide Job or Outside-Inside.

The Basic Idea
The basic idea here is to run deeper [higher] into the corner than your opponent, get the thing turned hard so that you are now pointed up the inside line and get on the gas sooner to beat him/her out of the corner. Let’s ignore the fact that an Outlaw spends 9/10 of a lap sideways because you’ll see this type of pass in every form of motor sport on the planet. Outlaws are just more fun to talk about and look at.

Setting it Up
This type of pass works well on riders who are on a defensive, inside line.
Let’s say we are approaching a hairpin, left hand corner. To set this up properly you’ll want to run up the outside (right side) of your opponent and get next to them as you enter the corner. Brake with them to keep things even, then drop back just slightly and allow them to have the inside line, you are now out of their sight. This will slow their momentum because they are:
1) Aware you are there
2) On a tighter entry arc (early apex)
3) Thinking about blocking you on the exit
Now, we want to turn the bike hard and change our line so that we are coming out of the corner on their left as they drift wide from an early apex. By running deeper into the corner we’ve also given ourselves the ability to get on the throttle a heck of a lot sooner, allowing us to blow past them as we exit the corner.

I used to LOVE watching USAC Midgets on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder!
[IMG] [/IMG]

Playing Checkers
The USAC Midget series runs mostly in the Midwest & California on asphalt and dirt ovals. What I’ve learned form these guys is that you can set up some really interesting combination passes in traffic.

The Basic Idea
Rather than slip by one person per corner you can run through like a checkerboard. Pick someone off with a high (deep) line going in, and then on the low (inside) line you can snag a position on the way out because you got to the throttle earlier and have a nice straight blast out of the corner.

Setting it Up
This is not easy to do; mostly because you are required to be a bit of an ass to the guy you just passed. You can also do this from the outside or inside first, depending on the orientation of your prey. This type of pass also takes less planning and more spur of the moment reaction to the opportunity when it presents itself.

Let’s say we are chasing a pair of riders into Turn 1 at TWS. Given that T1 offers us a variety of racing lines it makes setting this one up a dream come true. Let’s pretend we’re going in on the inside. We can slip under the first rider by staying on the throttle longer, or being a little later on the brakes. Now use the width of the track to drift out and scrub speed before you turn it, get on the power and go around the outside of the second rider on the way out of two and up the chute. The reason we are going outside instead of inside, is because a tight line on the way in forces us to early apex, which means our line will run wide at exit. Given the shape of T1 at TWS, it is possible to go inside, drift wide and pass on the inside again, but this is one of those special things you learn about each track you visit.

Dive Bombing

This is easily my favorite way to pass someone and simultaneously cross their eyes.

In 1994 I was in Corpus Christi at a tracked called Bill Whitt, it was set up on an old airfield and the surface of track was roughly 2 inches above the original tarmac. I was racing Saturday night in a money race and had gotten myself stuck in fourth place behind a great guy named Tim Hatcher. The leaders were starting to walk away and even though I was faster than Tim, I was unable to make a decent pass stick. The front stretch at Corpus had a right-hand dog leg in it at pit exit that everyone would snap the kart into before whipping back to the left for a long round about leading onto another short straight. Every time through I was simply following Tim into the corner until I finally decided that this was it and I need to do something to get around him. I remember making a conscious decision that I would either make this stick or simply spin off the track and slam into the hay bales and fencing on the outside of turn 1.

As we scream down into one, Tim jukes right following the outside edge of the track and the dog leg. I, on the other hand, simply go straight down into the corner without lifting off the throttle. This, of course, put me on a ridiculous line; a very ugly and early apex. I blast past Tim, get hard on the brakes and throw the kart sideways into one, hooking the left front tire on the inside edge of the track (remember I mentioned it has a 2-inch lip…) and drift the kart around the corner with the sidewall of the tire providing me with that extra little bit of grab so I can make the corner. I’m telling you, it was beautiful. It was very Initial D, but I had gotten the idea after watching Stig Blomqvist on a rally stage from the mid-eighties. I ended up catching the leaders but never got past them and finished in third. I also had the great fortune of being told by my father that when I made the pass everyone in the pits took a deep gasping breath, and someone had come up to him and said, “Rich, that kid of yours has the balls of an elephant!”

Of course, given this result I attempted the same style pass some weeks later at another track and found myself stuffed inside a few stacks of tires, drenched in some very stale, foul water. But, such is racing.

Setting it Up
Dive Bombing is nothing more than being so late on the brakes that you are often left wondering why you had this idea in the first place. This is what I was doing at Oak Hill when I wadded the F4i, so there are some obvious risks involved. Essentially, you are looking to get past your prey under braking and take their line, hopefully destroying their momentum so that they are unable to come back and pass you on the way out. It is common to run quite wide and allow them to get back past you, so brake control and timing are critical. You’ll want to blast in underneath them, then level out with them under braking and hold them on an outside line until you are ready to turn in and accelerate out of the corner. If you let them get behind you under braking they’ll simply dive across and do the afore mentioned outside-inside and your efforts will be wasted.


This is a last resort. Stuffing a pass is not the greatest way to make friends, and it probably is the quickest way to guarantee an accident, so tread lightly.

The Basic Idea
Go in underneath your prey as late as is possible, typically at or just prior to the apex and more or less knock your prey off line. You are not trying to knock them down, simply steal the line at the last possible moment, breaking their momentum and will.

Setting it Up
I’ve never actually tried this before because I never had a use for it, but I think the idea is to completely unnerve your opponent by going in as late as possible. I’d reserve passes like this for a sprint race when the only thing separating you and your prey is less than a tenth of a second, and there just isn’t any other way to pass. You’ll see this a lot in AMA, WSBK, MotoGP… but it’s uses in club racing tend to fall more on the expert riders who have the utmost respect for each other on the track.


At 8:23 AM, Anonymous RCS said...

Very practical and imaginative. This is the most informative article I have seen on passing. Most try to impress the reader by making it seem harder than it actually is, while revealing nothing that would actually help the reader improve their technique. You give many practical hints and techniques and share your practical expereinces as well.


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