Want to be a quicker and safer performance driver? First, you must get in touch with your tires' feelings. You must know what they're doing and what they're telling you. Like a good spouse, you must be able to anticipate when they're about to get angry (and lose traction) and when they're receptive to your advances (and accept your request for more cornering, acceleration or braking). Pay attention and life will be wonderful. Ignore the often-subtle cues and you could find all your stuff out on the curb (or your car wadded up).
I've driven every kind of racecar from Formula 1 to IndyCars to NASCAR Cup cars to dirt-trackers. When I could feel what the tires were doing, I went fast right away. Tires on some cars, such as the NASCAR Southwest Tour car I raced, loudly and clearly communicated their situation. Others, like the F1 tires, whispered in a foreign language.
How to Feel
Successful race drivers can feel what all four tires are doing at every instant. For instance, the driver can feel that the right font is sliding but is just about to regain grip, while the right rear is barely holding on and will lose traction the instant the right front regains grip.
You can learn to feel what you're tires are doing in everyday driving. (You will probably discover you have low air pressure in one or more tires.) Begin by hold the steering wheel with a firm, but light grip, as if you're holding a bird. Novice track-day drivers often put a death grip on the wheel and feel nothing but fear.
Pay attention as you go around freeway transition ramps, roundabouts or modestly tight highway turns. Those with good judgment, empty roads, and generous speed limits can drive quick enough to feel the outside front tire (left front on a right turn) start to work. Even at moderate speeds, the sidewall will flex and, if the tire is new, the tread blocks may squirm. (If the second number in your tires' size is lower than 45-for instance, a 245/45R17-you're going to have a harder time learning the language of tires.)
Go a bit faster and you should start to feel the outside front tire start to work and slip every so slightly. You will have to turn the steering wheel a bit more to stay on the intended path. As you get close to racetrack-only speeds, you should feel the outside front tire begin to slide.
Before this point, you should begin to feel the outside rear and inside front begin to work. Especially in a front-wheel drive car, an overly aggressive driver can easily overwhelm the outside-front tire by trying to accelerate hard while cornering, or simply entering the corner too fast. The novice may think the tire has lost all traction. It hasn't. But it's really pissed off.
If you panic and jump off the accelerator, the front tire will instantly regain much of its traction. THAT may overwhelm the rear tires, which will cause them to slide. If the road is wet or slick, the car may try to spin out-all because you weren't paying attention to your tires' feelings. This can also happen in powerful rear-drive cars. (Do NOT disable the electronic stability control on the street. Instead, use it as a digital driving coach. If the ESC engages when you don't expect it, you were not paying attention to your tires' feelings.)
You can also hear your tires talking to you. At moderate speed on, say, a transition ramp, there will be a slight change in tire noise. If you go faster, you might hear a light whine or, with low-grip tires, a squeal. When you get to the racetrack or autocross course, you're aiming for your tires to make a happy squeal of delight. If you hear shrieks of pain, you're overwhelming the tires. If the tires issue oscillating shrieks of pain, you're roughly sawing on the steering wheel or stabbing the gas or brakes.
On a long racetrack or autocross turn (in an unmodified car on highway tires), you should hear a smooth building of squealing from the outside front tire as you turn into the corner. Ideally, it will reach a smooth squeal of joy in mid-corner. If RWD, as you apply power, the noise from the front should gently fade away as the happy squeal starts to build in the rear. On front-drivers, you're seeking that happy squeal from the outside front tire until the car starts down the straightaway. In FWD, if the front starts to shriek, you pushed the accelerator too soon and too much. A trained observer is able to close his eyes and tell if you're driving correctly.
When you can feel what all four of your tires are doing at all times, you're ready to move onto the second part of this series: Anticipation, Not Reaction.
Editor's Note: This Advanced Performance Driving series is designed to help you become a better performance driver. autoMedia.com, its partners and the author insist that you obey all traffic laws and drive within the limits of your vehicle and your abilities. Many of these suggestions should be performed only during sanctioned autocross or track-day events. This lesson is about advanced performance driving and your tires.