By: Tony Whatley
Ask anyone who owns a manual transmission sports car about their driving abilities, and they will likely claim to be a “good driver” with the stick. But, we all know that shifting skill varies greatly between drivers. There is a reason some drivers can extract every 100th of a second out of a timeslip, while others get frustrated at the drag strip.
The simple fact is that there are many levels of good driving. Some people have a natural talent for timing those shifts in fractions of a second, the rest of us have to train properly and learn how to master it. I was part of the latter group, and had to learn how to do this well. I first started drag racing a manual back in 1996, and I’d rate myself below average back then. Like most, I thought I was pretty good at the time, until I actually came across some good drivers. The good drivers often get their cars mistaken for automatic transmission cars, they shift that quickly. By 2001, I had competed in weekly bracket racing events in my 10-second Firebird Formula, logging over 2,000 passes in that car. Bracket racing requires you and your car to be consistent, down to hundredths of a second. The faster your car is, the harder it gets to maintain that consistency – due to traction limitations. I won many events, usually being one of the only manual cars in my Sportsman class. So yes, a manual car can be just as consistent as an automatic – if you are willing to invest the time in the driver skill. But, practice is fun!
First of all, let’s begin with your seating position. I know very few good drivers that use the same seating position when they race, as they do when they are just driving casually. Why not? Usually, it is because the racing style position isn’t as comfortable. But, this segment isn’t about your comfort – it is about shifting fast and precisely. If your car has adjustable pedals, like my Vipers do, you’ll want to set those pedals so that they are the shortest length possible. This usually means moving them further away from the driver, and closer to the firewall. We do this to keep the clutch pedal arm length as short as possible, which means the clutch pedal has less travel. Less travel means you can actuate the pedal quicker. You want to be able to slam that clutch pedal to the firewall in a hurry, taking the guesswork out of the clutch engagement point. This might alter the position of your seat, you may have to slide it closer to the steering wheel to be able to slam the clutch pedal down without locking your knee. You’ll always want to set the seat distance so that your knee remains slightly bent, with the clutch pedal to the firewall. Locking your knee during a shift slows you down. Next up, remove the slouch recline position from the seatback. Sit straighter up when racing, it will make operating the shifter more efficient, and it will provide you a more firm support for firing that leg forwards and backwards.
Now for the most critical part of being a precise shifter, hand positions. That is right, there are different hand positions used for each and every shift pattern. If you’ve just been using the trusty pistol-grip style for all your shifts, you are doing it wrong. That might also explain why you miss gears, or have done the dreaded “money shift” – throwing it into the wrong lower gear while trying to upshift. The concept here is simple, think of your shifter knob as a directional object, which can only be influenced by forces which push it into a specific direction. It will only travel in the direction it is pushed. Doing things incorrectly, if you have your hand wrapped around the knob, you now introduce a variety of different forces in multiple directions. That is what causes missed shifts. Proper hand positions eliminate the unwanted forces of direction, and only move the shifter knob in the proper direction.
1st into 2nd gear. This is the easiest shift, as the “pistol grip” hand position works perfectly, and there is nearly no chance of missing 2nd gear. The green arrow shows the direction of the force applied, and this is where your hand should only contact the shifter knob. Elbow position close to your body.
2nd into 3rd gear. This shift is the easiest shift to blunder, simply due to the zig-zag gate pattern required to complete it. The costly money-shift happens here when you shift it into 1st gear by accident. Your hand position should move to the back of the shifter, and the meaty part of your thumb should be the only part pushing the shifter knob. The direction you want to push the knob should be the only part of the knob that your hand contacts. Remove any other contact points, and it is nearly impossible to make the shifter move in the wrong direction. Simple physics applies to shifter knobs!
3rd into 4th gear. Seemingly simple to perform, the 3-4 shift usually gets less attention from drivers. But, that would be a mistake to take this shift so casually, as you can still money-shift into 2nd by accident if done incorrectly. Use the proper hand and elbow position, and you’ll never go into 2nd by accident – guaranteed. I use my three middle fingers and only contact the front of the shifter knob. My elbow is pointed outward from my body. This results in a quick and efficient gear change between 3rd to 4th, with only a straight back force on the shifter knob. If you are only pushing straight back on the knob, it is impossible to go into 2nd gear. If you grab it with the typical pistol grip, you introduce force vectors that could potentially move the shifter towards 2nd.
Now that we’ve addressed your slouched seating position, and sloppy hand positions, it is time to combine the clutch pedal with the shifts. This is where practice, practice, practice comes into play. Most try and time their shifter movement to begin after the clutch pedal has hit the firewall. That would be the slow way of shifting. Those who shift the fastest have split that action into a more precise timing. I’ve timed it so that I’m already pulling the shifter out of a gear, at the same time my clutch foot is pressing in on the clutch pedal. My intention is that my shifter is headed into the next gear, just as the clutch disengages from the engine. The clutch pedal is already on its way outward at the specific time my shifter hits that next gear position. Every car is a little different on the timing due to the clutch pedal travel, the clutch release point, and the smoothness or precision of the shifter linkage. But, usually in a few passes I can adapt my timing to the car.
Shifting quickness has a lot to do with muscle memory. You can practice this timing sitting in your garage with the engine off. Just practice rowing the gears as fast as humanly possible, along with timing the clutch pedal. Be sure to practice the proper hand positions, too. You can also practice doing this stuff at low mph and low rpm, just driving around daily. It doesn’t have to be at high rpm while racing, to learn how to time the clutch vs shifter and using the hand positions. I use the hand positions every time I drive a manual, now they have become second nature to me.
Power-shifting. This is an advanced method of shifting, and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners, or for those who haven’t mastered the hand positions and quick timing yet. If you do it wrong enough times, you’ll be on your way to an expensive transmission rebuild from grinding the gears (synchronizers) too much. Power-shifting (aka no-lift-shifts) is simply doing all of the stuff I’ve previously mentioned, but without lifting off the throttle pedal. Yes, shifting while keeping the gas pedal completely floored. It has to be timed so that you initiate the shift a few hundred rpm before the engines rpm limiter kicks in. If you do it perfectly, you’ll have completed the shift just before the rpm limiter steps in. Everyone has different reaction times, so you’ll have to practice to figure out which rpm you should initiate the shift, vs where it actually occurs.
Power-shifting has huge benefits in a timed race, or against another side-by-side competitor. A well-executed series of power-shifts down a 1/4-mile is usually worth 1-2 tenths and 1-2 mph trap speed, vs shifting fast and lifting the throttle between gears. The reason is that if you never lift the throttle, the airflow into the engine is never interrupted, and that airflow doesn’t have to catch up again from each time you close the throttle by lifting. So, you can essentially shift as fast as an automatic transmission, and realize the same benefits as those cars see, since they don’t close the throttle between shifts either. As before, you can practice power-shifting sitting in your garage, with the engine off. It takes some practice to make a habit of not lifting that throttle leg each time you shift. It just feels awkward to do. Keep practicing until it feels normal. Then go out and do some low rpm tests and try to keep the throttle pedal steady at that rpm. Creep up on the rpm until your confidence and experience allow you to do it at wide-open-throttle, just before the rpm limiter. Get rewarded by 1-2 extra car lengths during a race.
If you have a Vbox Performance Box , you can monitor your 0-130 mph times and observe your progress. You can also measure how quickly your shifts take place. The faster you shift, the smoother your acceleration curve will appear. The shifts will show up as tiny dips in the curve. Here is my 60-130 graph from my 100% stock 2014 Viper. My shifts are about 0.10 – 0.20 seconds each on this run.
Now for a demonstration. Below is a link to a video of me driving three different Dodge Vipers. The first two cars (white and orange cars) I was just quickly shifting, maybe halfway lifting off the throttle pedal during shifts. On the third car (black car) I did not lift off the throttle on the 2-3 and 3-4 shifts. You can see how much faster those shifts are. Also notice the hand positions change, as well as my elbow position on the 3-4 shift. To date, I’m still the only driver who has run 10s with a stock Gen 5 Viper, and I also have run the highest trap speed (134.65) in a stock Viper. I practice what I preach!
Hopefully I can pass on some of this knowledge and make everyone a better manual driver. If you have other tips to share, please post some responses under the YouTube video. I’d also enjoy hearing any feedback on how your progress is going.