Hands at Three and Nine All the Time
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
A version of this article appeared in NASA SpeedNews in April of 2016
The foundation of steering control is a solid reference position, which is where your hands naturally rest on the steering wheel. Despite arguments to the contrary, the only position that a racer should consider is with hands at three and nine. The spokes are generally the best way to locate your hands with thumbs resting gently on the spokes rather than wrapped around with a death grip. The palms press against the wheel and the fingers are wrapped gently around the wheel with the index finger rotated slightly towards the top. This hand position provides maximum sensitivity, leverage and the greatest range of motion.
Experiment with the vehicle stopped: place both hands on the wheel and without repositioning your hands turn the wheel as far as you can in one direction and then the other. Try this with hands at ten and two, three and nine, and four and eight. This example should make the reasoning quite apparent.
Furthermore, with the reference position established, the driver knows where the front wheels are pointed at all times. This is critical when the car slides and the driver relies on his intuition to point the wheels in the direction he is looking. When extreme steering inputs are needed with a shuffle or hand-over-fist, a driver must develop a habit of always returning to the reference position. Rally drivers use a colored band around the top of the steering wheel to help re-establish their reference when sliding around corners. This band is rarely used in road racing because steering inputs are rarely extreme enough to require repositioning the hands. Proper hand discipline informs the brain of the steering position without the driver looking at the wheel.
As with any skill, developing a proper reference takes practice such that it becomes involuntary. Practice every moment that you are behind the wheel. Do not let your hands get lazy by changing position or resting on the shifter any longer than is necessary to change gear. When a driver has both hands on the wheel from the moment he begins driving, his intention is established. When he rests his hand on the shifter, even between shifts, his mind is elsewhere rather than in the driver mindset. With practice the hands will become uncomfortable resting anywhere but three and nine and this is when you know you have a natural, subconscious reference position. This is the foundation on which to build your steering control skills.
Here is a video showing proper hand discipline: https://youtu.be/vCSAa5nOU64. Note the reference position is established even between shifts and when it is lost, mistakes follow.