The Line. What is it? Is it painted on the track, like some sort of Yellow Brick Road? No, it's not painted on the track. The Line is a theoretical thing, a documentation of a collective thought process among instructors. The Line represents the fastest way around the track that has a few compromises thrown in for safety. These compromises are about giving a little margin for error. For example, the fastest way to enter a given turn might be to brake all the way to the edge of the pavement, and then turn in. Fast, yes, but if you mis-judge that one thing, you're going to go off the pavement, and that's not something we encourage in our students. So the 'Student Line' for that same corner might have you braking to a spot that's maybe one car width away from the edge of the pavement. That gives the student a little margin for screwing up.
Most of the time in an HPDE setting, when an instructor talks about "The Line", he means The Student Line. It's the safe way to learn a track.
Most of the HPDE clubs I teach with use cones to mark the various points of the line. Some use different colors to signify different things. I won't write about the color meanings, because they are so variable from place to place.
The first 'cone' of 'the line' is the Turn In Cone. It is placed at the outside edge of the track at the point that you should start to turn in. It is often placed 'later' (farther down track) than the novice student thinks he/she should turn in. Placed properly, it's a great reference for the instructor and student to use. If somebody is turning in too early, I'll either tell them to "aim for the cone", or I might say, "Stay out, stay out, stay out...now turn in."
The second 'cone' of 'the line' is the Apex Cone. The Apex is the point on the inside edge of the track pavement where the car comes closest to that edge. Similar to the Turn In Cone, the Apex Cone is often placed 'later' (farther around the turn) than the novice student expects. This is called a "late apex" and apexing later is the correct, safe line in about 90% of the cases.
The third 'cone' of 'the line' is the 'Track Out' or turn exit cone. It is on the outside edge of the track, past the turn. When the car is being driven at speed on the line, it should be close to the outside edge of the track at the Track Out cone. The car should approach the Track Out cone asymptotically, essentially parallel to the edge of the track at the cone.
That's it, basically. These three cones (repeated at all of the turns) are your guideposts for The Line. But wait, there's more! Many tracks have braking zones marked at the end of big straights, and sometimes cones are used for that as well. Some tracks use 3 cones close together about 300 yards from turn in, 2 cones at 200 yards, 1 cone at 100 yards. They may be different colors. Many tracks / clubs also use cones to show the safe 'passing zones' on the big straights. Lastly, some tracks use cones to block off access roads and parts of the track that are not being used that day. Many (but not all) use different colors to signify different things.
You can usually find track maps with a representation of The Line on them. I have a collection here.
Using cones to mark the line helps us teach people about the track. Having said that, there's a whole school of thought that says you should never rely on any "off track reference" to position yourself on track. Cones move. Trees fall down. I have seen an apex cone placed wrong; somebody simply picked the wrong physical reference when they set it down in the morning. It caused much consternation in the novice group, even contributing to one unlucky student having an "off" (off track excursion). I personally make it my mission to get as close to most apex cones as I can, and I have punted my share.
Crabbing is a term I read recently in a Northeast BMW chapter handbook. It's not in common usage, it's sometimes called "cheating in" or "creeping in" locally. It describes a tendency of not driving all the way to the Turn In Cone, but instead partially turning in early, like maybe 5-10 degrees ten car lengths before the Turn In Cone, then initiating the actual turn in from mid-track. It's a bad practice that slows you down, and can lead to early apexing. Early apexing is bad, in that as you build speed, you will eventually run out of pavement at turn exit and go off the track.
Pinching is sort of related to Crabbing, but it refers to behavior at Track Out or Turn Exit. Instead of completing the turn and letting the car flow out to the cone, pinching is when you hold the wheel turned in too long and finish the turn at mid-track. As the saying goes, "You paid for the whole track, use all of it!" Pinching sometimes happens when the student is really concerned about somebody "in their mirror" who wants to pass them. There's a natural tendency to pinch the turn to make room on the straight to facilitate the pass. Don't do that. Complete your turn, signal for the pass, and then make that happen.
I had an intermediate student at Laguna Seca earlier this year. He drove safely, but his flow was off. In his first session, I said, "You're driving the line." - which is an incredibly obtuse observation. In the paddock afterwards, I explained it in more detail - he was actually making steering inputs like, "OK, I'm at the apex, now I'm going to steer towards the 'track out' cone." I took him out for a ride in my car, and demonstrated flow. Flow is when you're hitting all of the points of the line at a decent speed, the car just naturally wants to be in the right spot, particularly at Track Out. You're not fighting it, wrestling with it, or deliberately steering for the cone (like a beginner at AutoX).
A nuance of flow is managing understeer or 'scrubbing' at track out. There's a tendency as you build speed to think that you're running out of room at track out. ...and sometimes you do. At the early career level of HPDE driving, there's a tendency to add steering input (turn more) as you get anxious to try and 'save it'. Often 'opening up' steering angle is the right thing to reduce scrubbing. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works. Mild lifting of the throttle helps as well.
Feet and Inches
When a novice student learns a track, it basically starts with "this is a left turn, followed by a right turn". I recently heard a national instructor say that he teaches new students to drive the center of the track, and that's really all they need to know at first. I found that interesting, he thought teaching "The Line" as a first effort just overwhelmed the student.
When we do teach the line to a novice, they're often 'many feet' from the reference points marked by the cones. Our goal is to get them to within a foot or two of each cone. Then as they build speed, they tend to drift away from the cones. We guide them back. As they gain experience, they gain consistency. By the time the intermediate student is ready to be signed off solo, we expect them to be inches from the cones, consistently.
The Line delineated by the cones is sort of an average safe line for all cars. But Mazda Miata does not equal VW GTI does not equal Audi RS4 does not equal Porsche 911. Different cars need slightly different approaches, and your instructor may say something like, "Aim for the last braking cone, and then turn in." or "Try turning in two car lengths before the Turn In cone." He or she is adapting the Line / cone language to what works well for your car.
Similarly, your instructor may not have tons of experience in cars of your type. Most clubs strive to pair instructors with students who have similar cars, particularly if the instructor is relatively new to instructing himself. A savvy instructor will reach out to other instructors with more "time in type" if their student is not responding well to direction that works well in other cars.
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