Drivers really do drive by the seat of their pants

Rear ends often are more accurate than computers

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Jeff Gordon (front left) tries to catch Jimmie Johnson during the Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville, Va. Gordon said it is important for drivers to rely on their body's feeling about how to make adjustments to the car.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jeff Gordon (front left) tries to catch Jimmie Johnson during the Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville, Va. Gordon said it is important for drivers to rely on their body's feeling about how to make adjustments to the car.

Years ago, race crews set up cars by using rulers, scales and a ball of string to make sure the tires and suspension were in proper alignment. Now they use computers.

For most drivers, however, all that information can be gained in a single lap through their backside, giving credence to the phrase “driving by the seat of your pants.”

“Basically, it’s your body sending you signals, the car is sending your body signals to what the car is doing,” Jeff Gordon said.

Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison was never big on slide rules and computer printouts. If the car was good, his fanny let him know.

“I understood the car because I built cars early on,” he said. “Based on what I felt, I could make the necessary adjustments. I knew what a car was supposed to feel like, and I didn’t need a computer to tell me that.”

As teams started hiring engineers, Allison often argued about the car. Book-smart engineers would say one thing; Allison’s rear end would say another.

“We ran into the entrance of the engineers and they came in and said according to their computer, we need to go another way,” Allison said. “A lot of the time we didn’t agree. Every once in a while I’d do it just to show them I was right.”

Allison said he could feel a car lose grip through his seat. When he ordered a change, engineers sometimes overruled him. There were times engineers made changes without telling him, but it never took long for his rear end to know the difference.

“Sometimes they resented that,” he said.

NASCAR outlaws the use of computer systems during the race, so most adjustments come from what the driver learns inside the car. The two most-critical points of contact are the steering wheel and the seat. The steering wheel provides a lot of information on front end traction; the seat gives input on the rear.

To be successful, a driver must have good hand-fanny coordination.

“It’s my computer center,” Greg Biffle said. “It has lots of data and thank God it’s connected to my brain. It’s my sensory system that tells me you’re about to wreck or you’re doing really well or you’ve got to go and work on the car.”

A well-balanced car will be vital to success during Saturday night’s Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR schedule, and the 24-degree banking puts a lot of importance on the way the car rolls through the corners.

The driver who can get back on the gas the quickest in the exit of Turns 2 and 4 will have a head start for the runs down the straightaway.

Engineers still get the car ready for the track by using simulators and test information, but it’s up to the driver to get things fine-tuned. They rely on the most-reliable computer of all – their senses.

“That’s why we adjust every little detail around the car on because we don’t have the data in the car during race weekends so we’re doing it all off of simulation and we do it off of what the driver is telling you,” Gordon said. “The driver is telling you that based on that sort of seat of your pants feel. It’s important.”

And something not learned in a classroom.


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