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Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book with Emerson Fittipaldi called The Art of Motor Racing.

It was a how to go racing book featuring Emerson’s discussion about the techniques of driving and the proper approach to the sport. The book included additional chapters with further perspective from Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Brian Redman and Al Unser Jr., among others, as well as a foreword by Juan Manuel Fangio.

indycar  Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

The book focused on road racing but also included a chapter on oval track techniques and these days it’s clear to me that many Motor Sport readers who have only watched oval racing on television have little or no appreciation of the difficulties of racing on oval tracks. So I thought it might be instructive to sharpen your understanding of this often misunderstood form of the sport by providing a few excerpts from the book about the challenges of racing on ovals.

“In Europe and the rest of the world,” Emerson wrote, “there are two bad images of Indycar racing. The first is that many people think it is just a crazy form of motor racing. They think Indycars just go round and round in circles and that they crash very badly. This image is not correct. Any crash that happens at Indianapolis is for sure a bad crash, and of course big accidents at Indianapolis are shown on television and in newspapers all around the world. But there is much more to Indycar racing than just going in circles and crashing heavily.

“I think most people outside America who haven’t seen many Indycar races are confused about the sport. They don’t know how competitive Indycar racing is nor do they understand how difficult it is to go fast at Indianapolis or any other oval track for that matter.

indycar  Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

“The approach and technique for fast ovals is very different than in Formula 1 or road racing in general, starting with the risk. On an oval you cannot make a mistake. If the back end goes into an oversteering slide on an oval, you are in big trouble. In fact, you have little to zero chance to recover.

“To feel the limit of the car or the track on an oval is much harder than on a road course. At the fastest corner in the world in Formula 1 you can slide the back end of the car and you will have a good chance to recover. On an oval that technique just invites trouble.

“Driving a car on an oval looks easy but it is not. When you approach a corner you must turn the steering wheel very carefully. If you have to back off the throttle or use the brakes, you must do so much more carefully and smoothly than on a road course. Everything you do has a much faster reaction because the speeds are so much faster, so you have to minimise that reaction.

“When you turn the wheel on an oval and the front tyres start sliding at the apex of the corner, you are feeling the limit. Once you have got the car to that stage you can then start trimming the wings very carefully so that the car’s balance is more neutral. When you are able to make the car work with just a little bit of understeer you will find your speeds will go up and you will be able to use more power.

indycar  Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

“You must get to the point where you are able to go around the corner with full throttle or nearly full throttle with all four wheels sliding in a nice four-wheel drift. To be in control of the situation you must work up to it very slowly and carefully because the things you experience on a high-speed oval are things you won’t experience any other place in the world.

“The first thing I discovered about running in traffic on oval tracks is the respect the other drivers have for the line you are taking. You must respect their line. You cannot go down into a corner at 210-215 mph and chop the other guy. When the guy you are trying to pass is committed to turning into the corner on an oval you cannot try to intimidate him. He has no room for error and neither do you. The result of any attempt at intimidation will be a very bad accident.

“It’s not like a road course where you can usually keep coming down the inside of the other guy all the way to the apex. At the slower speeds of a road course you always have a chance of forcing the guy to back off at the last moment because he has the room and margin for error.

“When you are running in traffic on an oval you must also consider the cars behind you. If someone is very close to your tail, you will feel it. The back end of your car will get very light. Before I drove Indycars I never thought this could happen with a formula car. It is really amazing and it emphasises the fact that you must have your wits about you at all times during an oval race.

indycar  Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

“When you race on the short, one-mile oval tracks like Phoenix, Milwaukee and New Hampshire you run very close together – truly wheel-to-wheel. The corners are very long, turning through 180 degrees, and you must be more aggressive and take advantage of every inch of room around you. It is a very tough form of racing because you spend most of your time in a corner and very little time in a straight line. Most of the time you are running in traffic and you must be thinking all the time about how to pass this guy or to protect yourself from being passed by that guy.

“You are lapping at just over twenty seconds each lap and are in traffic most of the time and in a corner most of the time. It’s easy to let your mind, your reflexes and your coordination slow down just a tiny bit and not realise that you have slowed down. To maintain the limit of aggressiveness required on short ovals is extremely tiring mentally, more so than on any other type of race track you will encounter anywhere in the world.”

Emerson had much more to say in the book about racing on ovals. Remember, he was a two-time World Champion as well as a CART IndyCar champion and two-time Indy 500 winner. He knows a thing or two about the sport and I hope these few words will provide some deeper appreciation of oval racing for the uninitiated among you.

Add your comments

15 comments on Emerson Fittipaldi on oval racing

  1. ROB ELWELL, 7 November 2012 10:21

    Interesting to read emmo’s comments about respecting the other guy’s line in the light of the recent demolition derby in abu dhabi. Perhaps webber and others would be less cavalier if they were running over 200mph next to a concrete retaining wall instead of diving into a 2nd gear corner with a massive run off area.

  2. Alan Mertens, 7 November 2012 15:01

    I couldn’t agree with Emo more, I grossly underestimated oval racing and to some extent ridiculed it until (with March) I first came to America. Then I realized it was a very precise and “scary” form of motor racing that commanded huge respect. This was underlined by watching Reberto running his high line around T3 & 4 at Phoenix, or was it Kevin? (my first oval experience) and it was me that was holding my breath. However, did Emo write that before or after he put a wheel under Jr in T3 at Indy in 89? LOL.

  3. Ray T, 7 November 2012 15:25

    …having said that, the tragedy at Las Vegas was initiated by drivers bumping wheels all around the track at 200mph. When a crash does happen, there is often no where to go, and no way to slow safely.

    Oval racing is different, but the simple reality is that with rare exceptions, drivers retire from F1 to oval racing. Ovals were relevant 50 years ago, but Emmo is comparing F1 from the 70s to oval racing in the 90s. Both forms are very different now

  4. Andre, 7 November 2012 15:34

    Oval races can be breathtaking when the cars are truly on the limit. When they’re not, though, it gets boring fast. I attended an IRL race weekend at Pikes Peak raceway years ago and truly enjoyed the USAC support race — those guys were clearly on the limit coming through the corners. The “headliner” IRL race on the same track turned out to be a snooze-fest. The cars just had too much grip for their power levels and were never at the limit of adhesion. Drivers could drone around side-by-side for lap after lap and there was never that “wow” factor that comes with watching great drivers at work — you got the impression that any reasonably competent race driver could have run those cars flat out in either groove all race long.

  5. dave cubbedge, 7 November 2012 15:43

    thank you Mr. Kirby for putting this out there. I follow all kinds of motorsport and get frustrated by the comments coming from the Euro school of thought regarding US oval racing. There is a lot more to ovals, be it Indycars or Nascar or even USAC Sprint cars, than meets the eye.

    very few drivers that retire from F1 to go oval racing have any success at all. and it isn’t the ovals that bring them over here, it is the desire to remain in some form of competitive sport, as in Barrichello. Emmo, Mansell, Zanardi and Montoya come to mind as ones who retired from F1 to excel at ovals, but the list of former F1 drivers who couldn’t cope with ovals I think is much longer.

  6. Pat O'Brien, 7 November 2012 17:15

    I agree w Andre, the impression of Indy in the current cars is not that they are running at the ragged edge like they used to. They just don’t look as nervous as they used to.

  7. Gordon Kirby, 7 November 2012 19:33

    A key point here is that this book was written a quarter-century ago when Indy cars were still over-powered beasts that were clearly difficult to drive. This is what Indy cars were for ninety-some years before T.George and the IRL dumbed-down the cars and engines.

    It should be a lesson for the people at IndyCar about what an Indy car should be and what gave us such tremendous racing back in the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s a lesson IndyCar seems incapable of taking on board.

  8. chris b, 7 November 2012 21:25

    Gordon, reading this article brought several emotions to the fore, like Nigel you have come to this great magazine via a weekly mag, that has been so diminished by your departures i will be cancelling my autosport subscription shortly – which i am sad about, but quite frankly when i read the above and Nigel’s et al’s yea- sorry not good,

    secondly, those brilliant cars, i was so so fortunate to go to Indy in 95, the last great year as far as i was concerned, and was just blown away by them – the speed – the technique etc – awesome, and it was one of my ambitions to visit a short-oval but that kind of died a death when Tony G etc happened,

    so a great article Gordon, keep on scribing dear sir

  9. Steve W, 8 November 2012 10:56

    To me, the most amazing feat of speed ever on a closed circuit was Arie Luyendyk’s practice speed at Indy in 1996. On May 10, he clocked a 37.616 second lap around the 2 1/2 mile oval which translated to a 239.260 mph average speed. From what I understand, he had a couple of “tows” along the way, but still… And remember, there were of course no run-off areas – and back then, there was only a hard concrete wall to greet him if something went wrong.

  10. Gordon Kirby, 8 November 2012 12:31

    And let’s not forget Gil de Ferran’s world closed course record set in qualifying for the California 500 on October 28, 2000 at 241.428 mph back in the days when Indy cars had more than 1,000 bhp. I wrote about Gil’s achievement & the thrill of driving such a monster in Motor Sport four or five years ago. Those were real men’s racing cars and that’s what IndyCar needs to recreate if it wants to once again be a successful, respected form of motor racing.

  11. dave cubbedge, 8 November 2012 14:30

    the speed involved is why I have the utmost respect for even the slowest qualifier at the Indy 500.

  12. Marty Davis, 8 November 2012 17:39

    Great stuff, Mr. Kirby. And I well remember that article on the 240 mph laps (DeFeran and…??? I don’t have my M’Sport collection at hand).

    Finally got to visit the Brickyard in person February of this year. After all these years watching on TV, I really didn’t appreciate how shallow the banking is, or how the corners are such a tight 90 degrees. Truly awe-inspiring, even without cars running. And what a great museum, great staff. If you’re anywhere near Indianapolis, go visit!

  13. Mark Chapman, 11 November 2012 16:17

    I do agree with some of your comments that the IRL isn’t as exciting as exciting as Indycar races used to be. I have been to the Toronto race many times and they just seemed more exciting like the cars were more edge back in the day. I hope the switch back to turbo will bring some of that excitement back to the sport. I have been to the Montreal F1 race as well and if anyone has never seen one do yourself a favor and go you won’t regret it.

  14. Vernon R, 20 November 2012 21:44

    Hello Gordon

    I was in a motorbook store sometime ago & the owner had recommended that book, unable to locate one do you have any extra copies??

    I would really like to get one…or would you consider to publish it as an ebook?

  15. Richard, 5 January 2013 10:40

    . She’s made a lot of sacrifices she left scohol, left her family and left for England to train. She writes how it’s hard to be the only female around for a while because she might be labelled a B whether she opens her mouth or not. It can be challenging. I think this book will appeal to so many different people young kids (girls AND boys), sports fans, women (even those not interested in car racing) etc. There is something here for everyone and it’s inspiring for younger kids too. This is a great read.

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