Racers have been doin’ it for decades, but, even AAA and the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration recommend holding your steering wheel at 9 and three these days. In this article I’m going to go beyond this simple advice however, and look deep into how a driver can further improve their steering technique to hopefully take their performance to the next step. Just as hitting a homerun requires more than just holding the bat correctly, so too does how the arms and shoulders work (or don’t work) when driving a car be even more important than exactly where you grip the steering wheel!
Along with items such as proper seat positioning and pedal placement, steering control is one of the most important aspects of driving. Improving your steering techniques can offer almost instantaneous performance gains. However, there really is no “perfect” steering technique. Humans adapt incredibly quickly and if you can drive with your teeth, then I say go for it! Remember also that anytime you work on improving your steering technique, make absolutely sure you give it some practice time. If you’re used to driving a certain way for quite some time, it can be difficult to change. Practicing a new technique in your everyday car is a great way to build new motor skills before trying them out on the track.
As always, I stress understanding why a technique works better, so to understand how to properly steer a vehicle, we must first figure out what we’re actually trying to accomplish with steering. Simply put, I believe the primary goal is to enable powerful, yet precise movement over the largest possible steering range. We want to be capable of providing the small, precise steering input needed to drive at the limits through a tight hairpin, while also being able to almost instantly counteract any unwanted movement with equally precise control, if needed. Ideally, we want to be able to achieve this for hours or more in a vehicle without excessive fatigue hindering our performance, and we want to be able do this with no loss of steering precision. Steering precision in these circumstances is not going to come from simply holding a 9 and a 3 hand position, so we need to dig deeper now into the actual body mechanics involved with steering a vehicle.
Powerful and precise. You might not consider powerful to be a word you’d use when describing steering technique. But almost every single veteran karter I’ve worked with has had excellent technique. And what do almost all cars have in common? Heavy steering. Cars almost force proper technique as anything else tires drivers quickly. Heavily assisted powersteering or low-power simracing steering wheels can mask improper techniques and might ingrain bad habitsto how you apply force tothe wheel. Even if a driver doesn’t plan on racing in a car with heavy, unassistedsteering however, proper technique can still offer greatercontrol and precision when dealing with lightsteering forces.
I worked with a truck driver recently who mentioned they frequently had shoulder and wrist pain when driving. This is not uncommon, so I had a fairly good idea of what to watch for. As expected, this driver was shivering their shoulder as they steered, and used more of a pulling movement on the steering wheel rather than a pushing one. Interestingly, when we pointed this out, they said they knew they were supposed keep their shoulders down and weren’t aware they were shrugging their shoulders. Sometimes steering technique issues can be quite subtle and difficult to identify externally, but understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with the wheel and what it should be feeling like will help you spot and fix problems such this.
Proper steering technique all begins with having a solid foundation upon which to apply force on a wheel. In this regard another sport we can look at for guidance is weightlifting, where proper form is constantly emphasized. Applying force to the wheel is quite similar to a dumbbell press and the correct form is therefore also quite similiar. When steering, it is very important that the shoulders should stay down to provide a solid basis. Weightlifters often refer to this as trying to tucking your shoulder blades into your rear pockets. While a driver probably does not need to go quite this extreme in locking down their shoulders it might not be a good idea to start off by doing so. Having the shoulder be the solid pivot point to work with and using the larger muscles of the chest and back will allow a driver to apply more force to the wheel. This will feel like they push up on the steering wheel instead of lifting up on it. The elbows should remain down in line with the hands, and not rise up and outward to the side. Most of the pressure should be felt on the palms of the hands and a driver should be able to turn the wheels without needing to grasp them.
A good way to test your form is to feel the back of your neck with your other arm. This and the shoulder shouldn’t rise as you turn the wheel. Instead, you should primarily notice your chest, triceps and lats engaging as you work the wheel, not your neck. Higher steering effort makes it easier to feel so look around for ways to increase the amount of force needed if possible. Purpose built race cars are great for this, as are karts. Sim racers can increase their feedback through the steering assist. If all else fails, push up on the opposite side to increase the force needed. A partner can also help with this as well, especially if you’re learning how to properly engage the right muscles as you steer. Once you learn how to properly engage the muscles as you steer, then you can start doing this as you drive, whether the steering effort needed is higher or lower.
This pushing motion is primarily used to control the steering wheel. Once you understand how it feels, this can help guide your determination of your ideal seat and steering wheel position. Not only will you be able to determine the ideal height, angle and distance to the steering, but also the best place for your hands. You may not always wish to keep your hands at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, because while this works well for some turns, a driver will still desire to have maximum control during tighter hairpin turns and correcting big oversteers where keeping your hands in the same position won’t always be feasible.
Your Top Hand Driving Dominance
Whatever hand becomes higher as the wheel is turned, we call the dominant hand, because it provides the most force and control. The non-dominate lower hand has an important part to play as well though, as it can act as a counterpunch to instantly snap out when necessary for a quick transition or corrective action. A driver will need seamless switching between hands to maintain control over the wheel, so that they always have access to the greatest amount of control available. The reason why we emphasize that one hand must be dominant instead of equal strength from both hands is that best control is only achieved when driving within about a 180 degree sweep from each hand. The dominant hand is best from about 10 to 4 o’clock and the non-dominant hand is best from about 8 to 2 o’clock. Drivers can go further if necessary but control starts to suffer when driving outside these ranges. Fortunately, for most cars, driving only requires the very tightest of angles to exceed these ranges.
While turns with little steerage needed allow both hands to offer effective control at the same moment with a pull/push action, many turns will cause your bottom hand to lose good grip and therefore control as it goes below the 8 or 4 positions. Even though control is diminished your bottom hand should stay on your wheel if possible. The lower hand needs to remain in position and ready to take over dominance when the steerage goes back in the other way. Some drivers have a tendency of favoring one hand over the other so this switching of hand domination back and forth might need practice.
I worked with a chauffeur recently who had a tendency of maintaining dominance with his left hand. This was often hard to see unless one looked closely as he drove, but there was the telling wear pattern on the thumb grove of the steering wheel one often saw when a driver did this. Even in a close left turn, with the left hand all way over in the five o’clock position, he would be providing the majority the steering force by pulling the left steering wheel spoke down with his thumb. While controlling a car with the lower hand may sometimes be necessary if a driver has shift during a turn, this provides less control than using your top hand to control the vehicle, as well as increased arm and wrist fatigue. One good way to practice maintaining upper hand dominance is to avoid putting your thumbs through the steering wheels. Instead, wrap your hands around the rim with your fingers. This will prevent you from applying much force to the wheel by your lower, non- dominant hand. Once you get used to this, you can move your thumbs back if it feels more comfortable.
Find Your Own Ideal Hand Driving Position
So if we aren’t supposed to pull down on these thumb grooves, then why do they exist? I think the only reason they exist is because they allow a driver to easily find their “home” position on the wheel. Think of them as the bumps on the F and H keys on a keyboard that allow you to quickly find your home position without needing to look. While always leaving your hands on 9 and 3 makes this redundant, sometimes this isn’t ideal or even possible. A very sharp turn that needs 270 degrees of steering wheel rotation would make it very difficult for the driver to keep their non-dominant hand where it belongs. At some point, they would need to let go of the wheel with their lower hand as the steering was turned. As the driver unwound the steering, they would be able slip the rim through their fingers until their thumb caught the groove allowing them to go right back to 9 & 3 and be ready to turn in the opposite direction if needed.
Being able to quickly locate 9 and 3 also allows one to change their starting hand position if desired. While approaching an abrupt left turn, a driver can shift their right hand down into the 4 o’clock location to provide them with more steering range and control during the upcoming turn. The driver can also raise their left hand slightly into the 10 o’clock location, but do not go too far with this as it will compromise the amount of steering range they have should a quick counter steer be needed. I recommend a driver keep their top hand below the 10 or 2 position of the wheel as they will compromise the amount of countersteering ability they have should a quick maneuver be needed. The farther you bring your soon to become non-dominant hand upward, the less steering range will you have should a quick counter-steer be needed.
Once the turn is completed and the driver begins to release tension during corner exit, they will then be able to use their thumb grooves to quickly return their hands to their original position. Using this guide will allow a driver to go beyond simply keeping their hands in place all the time. They can tailor their hand position to allow the greatest amount of control possible in any situation, depending on the corner, their seat position, steering wheel height, and angle, as well as other factors such as needing to shift gears or even their own personal body mechanics. Just keep in mind to keep your shoulders down and elbows in, and maintain dominant top hand position on the wheel. By following these guidelines, you should be able to figure out what the best hand position is for you and hopefully improve your driving skills.