Lessons learned: heel & toe
If you’re a car enthusiast that participates or is thinking about participating in autox or track days, at some point you’ve heard the term “heel & toe”. If you have mastered this technique, great job! If you don’t know what it is or want some tips that can help you then read on.
The following are my thoughts on the matter. The reason I’m sharing them is because some people have told me my advice has been useful, and as an HPDE 1 coach my students have provided positive feedback after spending a weekend with me. I am not a professional driver, nor do I hold records or have trophies on my wall. This information is based on my experience learning, practicing and teaching.
I am good at heel & toe, but I haven’t mastered it. Most of the time I get it right, but there are 2 reasons why my technique is not perfect:
- I quit practicing
- I’m spoiled
Why did I quit practicing? I honestly have no clue. I guess it’s because for a few years I focused on autox instead of tracks days and due to the car I was driving I didn’t have a need to do heel & toe. Lame excuse? Sure, can’t argue with that.
Why am I spoiled? Because my car currently has auto blip and I LOVE IT! The BRZ doesn’t have auto blip from the factory, I had my tuner enable it on a second map that also has launch control and flat foot shifting. Haven’t used it for autox but I’ve been using it a lot for track days. It helps me focus on being smooth while trying to carry more speed through the corners. Lame excuse? Absolutely. As a wanna be race car driver, I should be able to work on improving corner speed while doing a proper heel & toe. Before I do that though, I need to resume my daily practice. My excuse for that is that at the moment I work from home, so I don’t have a daily commute.
So what exactly is heel & toe? It’s a technique that requires you to do 3 things simultaneously: brake, change gear and blip the throttle. Wait, what?? Sounds like “jumping from a moving car, off a bridge and into a shot glass.” OK, not that complicated but still very tricky. If executed correctly, as a driver it will be rewarding and you’ll be able to go faster.
So why is it so tricky?
- Braking: you need to apply full braking force without triggering the ABS or locking up the wheels (should you not have ABS).
- Shifting: you need to perform 1, 2 or 3 down shifts quickly, smoothly releasing the clutch without upsetting the balance of the car.
- Throttle: you need to blip the throttle while you’re applying full braking force, this will eliminate stress on the drive train when you smoothly release the clutch as mentioned above.
- The braking and the shifting need to happen at the same time! It takes a lot of practice, and coordination.
The following steps are how I have guided my HPDE 1 students while we’re on track, which is the best time to practice. I have seen good results when people follow this process, not claiming this is the best approach so if it doesn’t work for you, I’d like to hear why.
You can safely practice this on your daily commute, but you still need to be careful. This approach works best when you’re on the highway\freeway and you’re about to take an exit. It can still be practiced on city streets, but since the purpose is to practice while the car is at high RPMs you’re going to attract unwanted attention and look like a tool.
In order to slow down, instead of using your brakes just do a downshift as such:
- clutch in
- shift down
- blip throttle
- release clutch
- do not use the brakes!
The point here is to have a smooth transition when you release the clutch, it should be smooth enough that you or your passenger do not feel the shift. You should be able to perform the downshifts without having the car jerk one bit. That is your goal, to match the RPMs the car needs when you release the clutch. The exercise works best when you practice this at different speeds, because different speeds will require different RPMs. You need to “feel” what the car needs without taking your eyes off the road. You will struggle at first, but in time it will become a natural part of your driving. You can get feedback from a passenger to gauge your progress, or you can place a cup almost full of water in your center console. If you do it right, you wont spill the water.
DO NOT release the clutch without blipping the throttle. It defeats the purpose of the exercise and it puts strain on your drive train. It can also cause you to spin out. When I was looking for videos of Sebring on YouTube, I found one from an SCCA race that shows a guy in an Acura downshifting without blipping the throttle. He would just release the clutch while hitting the brake. You can constantly hear the tires chirping in protest while the engine forcibly builds up the RPMs. It is absolutely horrifying.
Brake and blip.
Once the blip becomes second nature the next step is to remove the shift and add the brake, but here’s the tricky part: so far you’ve been blipping the throttle with your foot in the “throttle position”.
Now your challenge is to apply the brake AND blip the throttle at the same time, with the same foot. There are 2 ways to go around this.
Use the ball of your foot.
Or use your heel.
Which one is best? It depends on your car and your body build (in case you can’t tell, it was very hard for me to take the last picture, I’m not that flexible and there isn’t a lot of room). If you have a big leg and a small car, you’ll be more comfortable using the ball of your foot. If you have a small leg and are flexible, you might be more comfortable using your heel. Sometimes, you won’t have a choice. It will also depend on the spacing between your pedals. My legs are big, so I have an adapter plate that moves my throttle 1/2″ closer to the brake pedal and 1″ closer to the driver. This makes it a lot easier to use the ball of my foot to do the blip since I have no room to use my heel. Some cars, like the Miata, have better pedal spacing so an adapter is not required.
Once you figure out the best way for you to do this, you can apply the “feeling” you learned on the shifting exercise. At this point, you should be able to tell what RPM your car needs based on your speed. Your task is to apply the brake and do the blip, no shifting. You’re going to need time to get used to doing the brake\blip before you re-introduce the shift. Once you think you can do the brake\blip properly, you can move on to the next exercise.
This technique is not meant to be used on the street. I mentioned before that one of the challenges is that you need to apply full braking force. For obvious reasons, you can’t do this on the street to practice. An adequate braking force needs to be used when practicing on the street, when you practice on track then you can use full braking force. I mention this for safety reasons, but also because the blip is very different when you apply full braking force vs. when you don’t. Don’t expect to master this on the street with an adequate braking force and be able to go to a track and do it perfectly with full braking force. The feeling and timing will be different, but with practice you’ll be able to compensate.
If you haven’t seen the article on being prepared and comfortable, I recommend you wear chucks when doing heel & toe. Chucks are very flexible, which will help you manipulate your foot so you can perform a subtle blip. Of course you can use any shoe you want, but I’ve found that shoes that are too rigid will not let you have a good feel of the pedals.
Brake, blip and shift.
Now that you can successfully brake and blip, it’s time to re-introduce the shift. The feeling of the smooth transition should come back fairly quickly, and with practice you’ll be able to perform all the movements without thinking about it.
I consider it easier for the student to re-introduce the shift at this point rather than have them work on the smooth clutch release for the first time. This is based on how people have reacted when we’re on track, things might be different if you’re only doing this on the street but the track is certainly the best place to learn.
You need to keep practicing, otherwise you’ll end up where I am today. Practice will help you build muscle memory, this will keep your skills sharp and make it a lot easier to adapt to a different car.
If you are experiencing braking issues, it will make it hard to perform this technique. Please make sure your brakes are in top shape before you do this or any high performance driving.
A friend who read the article sent me some pictures of the pedals on his car to further illustrate how far apart they might be, not sure how he’s planning to implement heel & toe.