A short course off-road racing truck has three essential tasks to master to get around the track as quickly as possible – accelerating, jumping (and landing) and cornering. The three tasks are usually intertwined. A turn may be taken so that the truck can accelerate as quickly as possible down the ensuing straight, or to set it up for the next jump. A driver may alter how he or she does a jump in order to prepare for entry into the next corner.
It's the turns that often determines whether a race is won or lost, whether a driver holds off a challenger or rides that competitor's bumper to the finish. It's one of the keys to fast lap times, and the technique changes considerably when one is simply trying to lap quickly vs. racing another driver.
“I come into a corner and typically I'll start to set the truck – we call it backing it in – you bring the rear end around coming into a corner, you change direction on the entrance vs. turning through a corner,” explains Rob Naughton, driver of the No. 54 StrongHold Pro 2 Unlimited truck in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, as he describes his basic cornering technique. “The way you get that rear end coming around is sometimes it's a combination of a shift from third to second, which changes the momentum of the drivetrain and has a decelerating effect on the rear wheels, which will start to bring it around. In combination with that downshift, I start to brake hard and just a little movement with the front wheels will get that rear end coming around. The third thing I can do is my truck has a split [brake] pedal, so if that rear end is not rotating the way I want it to or there's a corner which requires a little more rear brake to get the rear end to come around, I can come into a corner, do the things I mentioned, then I can jab that rear brake a bit and get that rear end to come around. More so on a flat hairpin would you use that split pedal technique, where you go to the rear brake only.”
That split pedal in short course off road trucks is akin to a rally car's handbrake – different tools to achieve the same result and get a lot of mass intent on following Newton's first law to instead rotate in a hurry. Using strictly the rear brake is a key difference from road racing technique, but often you'll see similar lines in short course off road racing to road racing or short oval track competition.
“I use the whole width of the turn with an apex in the middle,” says Rodrigo Ampudia, who races in both Pro 2 Unlimited and Pro Lite Unlimited in the Papas & Beer trucks. “If it's an increasing or decreasing radius, that will vary my apex. Especially in a Pro 2 with so much horsepower, you can drive it more with the rear tires, drive it in a little deeper. Lites, you want to carry more momentum. Usually my technique is slow in, fast out. If it's banked, obviously [using] the banking of the turn is going to be a lot better than going down to the apex.”
The thing about racing on dirt is the track changes – not only from session to session, but also during the race; when there are 30 800hp trucks circulating, they move around a lot of dirt. Most of the loose stuff gets pushed to the outside, creating what's called in any dirt track racing a cushion, and a blue groove, where the dirt is so hard packed it takes rubber like asphalt, and is just about as hard.
“If there's a blue groove, you want to go out and ride the cushion all the way around,” says Ampudia. “There are other turns where sometimes going into the apex and crossing over the blue groove is better. Usually it's just trying to carry your momentum and not lose too much speed braking or going too far into the cushion.”
The line might change from lap to lap as more dirt gets moved, as the cushion shifts to the outside of the turn, as ruts form – “That's another key element in cornering in short course, as those lines groove up, how do you tackle them or manipulate your line and not hit 'em square and get up on the bike,” says Naughton, who lost three positions in the last race at Las Vegas when he bicycled on two wheels in Turn 4. And the line certainly changes when you're trying to pass someone, or hold a competitor off.
Says Ampudia: “When I'm trying to pass the guy in front, I know the people I race against and how they approach the turns and what they do when they feel pressured. So I try to set them up a turn before or two turns before so I can get them to do what I want in the turn that I know I'm faster, or I can get them on a straightaway that has really aggressive jumps. I try to set them up so when I'm ready to pass them, they're either on the inside or the outside – thinking I'm going to the inside again then I'll go to the outside and try to pass them the other way.
“If you have fast guys behind you, just being a little bit tighter in the turns and not letting them dive in and block your line would be ideal, the best way to approach the turns,” Ampudia continues. “Staying really close, half a car in your fast line, half a little bit farther inside just so they can't sneak inside of you.”
It's all a bit science, a bit art, a bit gut feeling. Sometimes that feeling is right, sometimes it's wrong. Naughton notes how he lost a position to Jeremy McGrath at Las Vegas Motor Speedway because he was working hard to protect his inside line and McGrath motored around the outside. With constantly shifting dirt around the hairpin turns and occasional big sweepers that mark short course off-road racing, a driver has to be constantly aware in order to move from corner entry to corner exit as quickly as possible, with the right exit speed for what's coming up next.