Speed Secrets: The Value of Cones

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I May 02, 2016
I have a love-hate relationship with cones. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, I’ve probably set up a few thousand "witches’ hats" along the sides of race tracks – and then collected them up, stacked them, and loaded them into vans, trailers and trunks of cars. I’ve also pried more than a few of them from the wheel wells of hundreds of cars. I’ve used them as a teaching tool, and I’ve hit my fair share of them. When Ingrid Steffensen shared her thoughts about the pros and cons of cones in this week’s feature article, all I could do was nod my head in agreement. Sure, they have their place, but are they over-used? I’ll leave it to Ingrid to make you think about that. -Ross
In 2007, the conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim created five 18-foot-tall orange traffic cones out of fiberglass and installed them in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Was he preparing an autocross course for jumbo jets? Setting up a playground for baby giants? Or demarcating an area where really, really extreme levels of caution must be used?
We may never know exactly what the artist (who is now deceased) meant by blowing the ubiquitous traffic cone up to giant proportions, but from the perspective of a high-performance driving instructor, I sometimes feel as though we racetrack denizens have also blown up the traffic cone to outsize proportions. 
Most—and I’ll return to that qualifier in just a bit—of the racetracks where I instruct set up those orange cones for the DE schools, three per turn: one at turn-in, one at the apex, one at track-out. They tend to be pretty accurately placed, and can be a helpful guide—especially for the novice—to find one’s way around the track. They’re a security blanket, a lifeline for the uninitiated, a fail-safe. Probably the most useful cone on that score is the turn-in one, which serves as a bright visual warning that the turn is imminent, and you damn well better be braking ahead of time. Sometimes, too, the apex may be very late on a long or tight turn, and the cone can help prevent an early apex. So I’m not totally against those rubberized witches’ hats. 
Recently, however, I was teaching a classroom session about the importance of vision, and I realized that much of what I was saying was directly contradicted by the existence and placement of those cones. What was the message I was trying to hammer home? Absolutely no one reading this should be surprised that my overarching message was:
And yet—what is the most obvious thing about those cones? Well, duh: they sit on the ground.  They are a practically irresistible invitation to drop your eyes down. The very purpose of an orange cone is to be visible. As humans, we are awfully obedient. If someone puts an orange cone somewhere, we think: aha, someone thinks this is important, therefore I must look at it. So the orange cones practically beg us to keep our vision down, when we all know that our driving improves when we lift our eyes up.
What else do I tell my classroom students about vision? I tell them:
At the speeds we achieve on the racetrack, the decisions you make now are enacted hundreds of feet down the track. But again, the orange cones demand that we fixate upon them even as we drive practically on top of them. The orange cone pulls our vision towards us, essentially shortening our visual future.
In-car instructors have all witnessed the phenomenon of the beginning driver who drives cone-to-cone in a kind of connect-the-dots fashion. The result tends to be relatively safe, but slow and certainly not smooth. Following the cones (and, therefore, narrowing the field of vision), tends to result in sharper, jerkier inputs—just like a connect-the-dots drawing, delineating a puppy with a flat head.
What are some of the other problems with cones? Beginning students tend to rely on them and feel that their placement is somehow gospel, and if they end up somewhere other than a cone, they panic. If they end up off-line, the presence of the cone impels them to think: must get back to cone. This can result, for example, in a driver going to unsafe measures to get back to that turn-in point after a late pass. The cones tend to encourage inflexible thinking (and driving).
These orange things can also lend a false sense of security: if I follow the cones, I will be in the right place. Generally this is true, but one of the foremost issues with cones is that they can move; that sense of security can easily be disrupted. The cones are only as accurate as the humans who place them—and, too, they’re often bumped and displaced by the drivers themselves.
There’s another thing: What about the driver who turns in early, apexes early, and is now running out of road at the exit of the corner? What’s in front of him? A cone. A cone that should not be hit by my beautiful car. I don’t want a mark on my beautiful car! So the driver turns the wheel a little more, scrubs off some speed, the front tires hook up and point the car to the inside of the track. Then the car spins back across the track, often hitting something or someone. Ha! The cone caused the spin!
Some tracks do not use cones —in my area, Summit Point is an example—and the driver who has become too fixated on them will feel totally at sea, lost in outer space. I know, as a novice, I felt this way the first time I drove there—ack! Where, oh where, are my beloved cones?—but I quickly learned to use other markers for my reference points. (Actually, at Summit Point, there are tiny white letters painted on the asphalt; you can see them if you do a track walk. I have often wondered what they were thinking and how anyone was ever supposed to see those miniature markers and still keep their car on the track.) The new reference points I learned to use at Summit Point were larger, higher, and more permanent: big trees, tire walls, flagging stations, gophers. (Just kidding. I wanted to see if you were paying attention.) The—totally unsurprising—result? I became a more holistic driver, one who kept eyes higher, looked further ahead, and became smoother.
So do I have any ground-breaking suggestions to make on the subject of cones? Here’s my one big thought: if your club and/or your track uses cones, and the event is two days long, consider using the cones on day one, and removing them on day two. If the track’s or club’s policies won’t allow for this, then what? 
Make your own policy of ignoring them. They will still be there in your peripheral vision, and their calming orange presence may soothe your anxious lizard brain, but train your eyes to look above and beyond them, to the greater world outside. Don’t let your vision be dominated by 18-foot-high orange cones.  Cut those pesky things down to size!
– Ingrid Steffensen


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