The folks at Mazda Motorsports explain why you need to walk before you go fast.
By Marshall Pruett, May 7, 2019
Carlos Santana’s epic career in music has been moored by a nightly search for the "sweet spot." The legendary guitarist, among the all-time rock-and-roll greats, spends however much time is needed during nightly sound checks wandering the stage in pursuit of an ally.
Strumming away, Santana takes his nomadic steps until he finds the spot where the sounds emanating from his guitar return the right tone within the unique architecture found within each music hall.
The icon's quest for the perfect piece of ground to play from mirrors a nearly identical pursuit by race car drivers prior to most events.
Faced with multiple turns to master, with varying levels of grip to offer spread across changing track surface materials, small armies of racing teams are seen walking those circuits, one day prior to the first practice session, on the lookout for their sweet spots.
Notes like 'Avoid the bump on the right side of the track while braking for Turn 3—it will destabilize the car and increase the chances of locking the brakes and flat-spotting the right-front tire' would be expected. Something akin to 'Beware of the transition from concrete to asphalt in Turn 10 under acceleration; excessive wheelspin could occur while driving over the seam' would also be helpful.
It’s a reconnaissance mission, conducted by every team, where drivers and engineers break down a mile or more of road into feet and yards of notes that would otherwise be impossible to capture while rocketing between corners in machines like the ones raced by Mazda Team Joest in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar championship.
"Each track changes every year. New bumps develop, on the street circuits there are always new surprises, so the track walk is an easy way to look and see what is new," says Tristan Nunez, who drives a Mazda RT24-P Daytona Prototype international.
"For example, in Turn 5 at Long Beach, we discovered during our track walk that the curbing had a gap that was pretty big—potentially big enough to cut a tire or upset the car enough that it sends you into the wall. And in Turns 9, 10 and 11 at Long Beach you had a lot of rubber laid down by the drift cars and that can have a big effect on grip and how the track changes as it warms up.
"We also get the chance to tackle how to approach certain corners. If it’s your first time at the circuit, you can really understand why you should take a corner a certain way or in a certain gear—if you have a really bumpy braking zone, maybe you can’t be as aggressive as you’d like with the brakes."
The communal aspect of a track walk has value that extends beyond the basic premise of performing a surveying expedition.
"The driving simulators are a very good way to learn the track, but nothing beats having your feet on the ground," Nunez adds. "And it is good to get some one-on-one time with our engineers Leena Gade and Will Kerley because the weekends are so busy, so our time with them is limited, which makes doing the track walk together invaluable."
Where a soloist like Santana will keep track of the prime spot to use at each venue, race car drivers are tasked with keeping dozens of spots—those that will aid performance each lap and the ones that will produce slower lap times—in mind while controlling a dancing vehicle on the edge of adhesion.
Covering hundreds of feet per seconds in some cases, the mental dexterity needed to recall the notes from a track walk while racing against 20 or more rivals makes standing in one spot and playing guitar seem rather simple.
"They do a great job of making the track identical to the year before, but the track walk is still important because they may have moved a wall or a stack of tires and even if they've moved it half a meter, that's huge. It can affect your racing line; it can affect your visuals," says Nunez’s teammate Oliver Jarvis.
"A lot of people think it’s just a basic walk to look at the track, which is important, but it's more than that. There's also the discussion about traffic. You are always asking, 'is this an overtaking spot?' And that’s really important information. In a lot of series, you are thinking about the ideal lap, the ideal line.
"In our series, there’s always the issue of traffic so especially when we were seeing the circuits for the first time, we were asking about where to pass, what the GT cars tend to do, and where you absolutely should not try to make a pass. The track walk is where you can unlock a lot of things that will serve you when it’s time to race."
With IMSA's longest circuit—Road America—measuring four miles in length, a track walk can consume a decent amount of time. Jarvis wouldn't consider taking short cuts.
"The fans don’t get to see it when we do the walks, but it's an integral part of our preparation for every race," he says. "If you don’t know the little intricacies of what you're racing on, you won’t get the most out of yourself or your car."