Heel and Toe Shifting Made Simple

Here’s a great primer for all those interested in moving to the next level of shifting by frequent MotoringFile contributor Jerry Bradbury:

BE CAREFUL. DRIVE DEFENSIVELY. STAY ALERT. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE

1. What is heel-and-toe?

A) Heel-and-toe is a racer’s term describing a technique used to downshift while braking when approaching a corner. It is a misnomer, but ball-of-the-foot-and-swing-your-knee (although more accurate) is not a sufficiently racer-like description.

2. Why do I need to learn heel-and-toe?

A) For smoothness and balance. The smooth line with the car in balance is the fast line, be it Turn 11 at Sears Point, or the exit ramp of the nearest freeway. Since you are most often shifting down when you brake during everyday driving as well as on the track, you can integrate this technique into your daily routine. It will make you a smoother driver as well as impress your friends. You may find yourself turning off the music so you can listen to your tuneful downshifts.

3. So how do I learn it?

Follow these steps:

DAY ONE:
a. Remove your shoes.
b. Sit in the driver’s seat and adjust your seat and the steering wheel so that your left knee is slightly flexed when the clutch pedal is pressed to the floor and your knee does not hit the bottom of the steering wheel when you let off the clutch.
c. Start with your left foot on the dead pedal to the left of the clutch.
d. Practice moving your left foot quickly to press the clutch pedal to the floor with the ball of your foot, let it go and return your foot to the dead pedal. Practice this move until you can do it without thinking at lightning speed.
e. Now rest your right foot lightly on the accelerator pedal.
f. Move your foot quickly to the brake and press the brake pedal firmly with the BALL of your right foot only. (This is the fleshy/bony part right under your big toe). Keep your foot stiff and parallel to the floor. Do not let it twist or flop over. At this point, most of your foot should be hanging off the right side of the brake pedal, your heel should be resting lightly on the floor and when the brake pedal is depressed, you should feel the accelerator pedal come into light contact with the right side of your foot.
g. Let off on the brake and move your foot back to the accelerator.
h. Practice this maneuver until you can do it without thinking at lightning speed without pressing the accelerator pedal.
i. From now on, ALWAYS apply the brakes this way. ALWAYS. If you look down your leg, you will see that the big toe is in line with your shin. So is the ball, making this straight line the vector of the most force. Use it.
j. Practice some more.
k. Take a break for today.

DAY TWO:
a. Remove your shoes
b. Practice your clutch and brake moves until you are comfortable with them
c. With the transmission in neutral and the e-brake on, start the car
d. Rest your left foot on the dead pedal and your right lightly on the accelerator
e. Now try your braking move. Although you won’t do this every time you brake, you must be able to press the brake hard enough to engage the ABS without making the engine accelerate, so press HARD. When the car is in motion, this is called “threshold braking”.
f. Return your right foot to the accelerator pedal
g. Practice this braking move until it is natural. If the car accelerates when you depress the brake pedal firmly, you are either not keeping your foot flat or your brake pedal is out of adjustment. If the latter, have it adjusted correctly.
h. Now depress the brake pedal firmly as you have learned. While holding the brakes on firmly, move your RIGHT KNEE quickly toward the center console and back, while keeping your foot stiff and still holding the brakes on firmly
i. This move forces the right side of your foot to depress the accelerator pedal. This is called “blipping the throttle”.
j. You have probably noticed when downshifting that at any speed, the next lower gear will be approximately 1000 rpm higher at the same speed when you let out the clutch. To achieve a smooth downshift, you must match that increased rpm while depressing the clutch so that when you release the clutch the engine is already turning at the higher rpm in the lower gear.
k. This sounds more difficult than it is. A smooth downshift is accomplished by blipping the throttle while the clutch is depressed. Practice blipping the throttle while braking until you can feel how much pressure on the accelerator will produce a 1000-rpm increase.
l. Now return your foot to the accelerator pedal and then practice braking and blipping to a 1000 rpm increase over idle until it becomes automatic.
m. Move foot to pedal, brake, blip, and move foot back to accelerator.
n. That’s enough for today

DAY THREE:
a. Remove your shoes
b. Start your engine and put the transmission in neutral and e-brake on.
c. Practice the separate moves that you have learned
d. Now SLOWLY put them together like this:
a. Step on the brake
b. Step on the clutch
c. Blip the throttle
d. When the rpms are at their peak, release the clutch and return your left foot to the dead pedal
e. Release the brake pedal and return your right foot to the accelerator
e. Practice until this move seems natural and you are doing it quickly and smoothly
f. Turn off the engine and put your shoes on.
g. Your driving shoes should have non-slip rubber soles that are thin and flexible enough to enable you to feel the pedals. Leather shoes are not good for serious driving, nor are thick-soled running shoes.
h. There are many good driving shoes on the market, and not all of them cost a million dollars. You will be surprised how much they can improve your feel and control of your car. Let your friends tease you. What the $#@* do they know?
i. This is the last practice session before we take this act on the road so practice these moves with your shoes on until they are smooth, fast and automatic.
j. Good. That’s enough for today.

DAY FOUR:
a. Do not skip ahead. You will need to have practiced these moves in a static environment until they feel like old friends.
b. For the next learning phase, you will need a nice long stretch of high-speed freeway between two easy-on, easy-off exits and light traffic.
c. Accelerate up through the gears on the entrance ramp. Try to make your up shifts quickly. When you merge, stay in the right lane.
d. Now you are in 5th gear approaching the next exit with your turn signal on (Because if you were in 6th gear still accelerating, you would be WAY over the speed limit in any of these United States)
e. Be careful that you are not being followed closely as your braking maneuver could collect an unwary driver (and aren’t they all?)
f. You will NOT be threshold braking during this practice session.
g. Apply the brakes lightly, blip the throttle and downshift smoothly
h. Practice your heel-and-toe just like you learned it in the driveway until your braking, blipping and downshifting work smoothly together. Heel and toe all the way to the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp. Don’t be disappointed if it is rough at first. It requires lots of practice to develop the feel of the braking and blipping and downshifting working together. The Getrag gearbox in your MINI is the best I have ever used for this technique, and the pedal placement is perfect for heel-and-toe. You’ll know when it works and it’ll bring a big smile. It sounds good and it feels good. SM-O-O-O-O-O-OTH! Keep practicing. You’ll get it. (Remember how many times you stalled the car when you were learning to drive a stick, back in the day?)
i. Cross over/under the freeway and accelerate again quickly in the opposite direction.
j. Repeat these techniques until you are doing them smoothly and automatically. If you do not exceed the speed limit or impede traffic, the police won’t hassle you.
k. Take a break.

DAY FIVE:
a. FIRST RULE OF BRAKING: ALWAYS BRAKE IN A STRAIGHT LINE.
b. Never brake while turning. You can easily lose control of your car! Your MINI has all kinds of electronic elves to keep you out of trouble if you make this basic mistake, but why bother them? The elves response is always to slow you down; you, on the other hand, want to be fast and smooth, so try not to wake them up.
c. The smoothest transition is brake/downshift on the approach to the corner in a straight line, get off the brakes, turn the wheel and SLOWLY squeeze the throttle back on so you are accelerating and the front wheels are PULLING you around the corner. (We will not concern ourselves with apexing at this time. Basic technique first.)
d. For this practice session, you will need a stretch of twisty road and light traffic. Find a road where you can shift between second and third without going too far over the speed limit.
e. Accelerate to third gear, then when you are approaching a corner, brake and heel-and-toe to second in a straight line before turning in and accelerating smoothly through the corner. Shift up to third and do it all again.
f. Be careful! Work up to speed gradually.
g. When you are doing it smoothly, you are ready for the next step.
h. Practice delaying your braking until the last second, then getting HARD on the brakes while heel-and-toe down shifting.
i. Try to brake hard enough to engage the ABS in a straight line. You WILL be doing threshold braking at the track, so it will be good to practice it here. (When the ABS engages, you’ll feel a rapid, light tapping on the bottom of your foot.)
j. Again, watch out for following vehicles, especially guys in hi-buck sports cars or pickups that think they can keep up. Pull over and let them go by. We’ll deal with them later. Keep practicing until you are smooth and fast.

BE CAREFUL. DRIVE DEFENSIVELY. STAY ALERT. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE.

If you practice these basic techniques you will ASTOUND your instructors on the track and can quickly move on to more advanced techniques.

If this primer has been useful to you, please let me know if you’d like to see the next one: “Calling a Corner Names”

Supurb – thanks Jerry! Just a quick note however. MotoringFile does not condone any speeding on public roads. Some of these exercises may be better suited for the track. Carry on…