Each time we race, we need a course to follow—but some layouts are extremely interesting while others come up short. Course design doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s how to construct a course that’s appropriately challenging, feels fast, and is fun to fly.
Defining a Layout
A course is defined by its individual features. Auto racing drivers and fans will often discuss famous corners like Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew or Nürburgring’s Karussell . It’s easiest to break down a course this way to discuss the best approach and determine strategy, piece by piece. For the same reasons, it’s easiest to approach course design by considering what features will be included. Course features are mainly described by their shape, but are sometimes further described by the amount of speed a racer carries through them: straights and gentle corners are described as “fast” while hairpins and chicanes are “slow”. We’ve detailed a wide selection of course features you can use at the end of this article including their uses, attributes, and an estimation of difficulty.
Speed and Focus
In course design, speed and focus tend to be at opposing ends of a spectrum. Simple lines and gentle corners make for very fast courses that don’t challenge the ability of the pilot as much. Difficult, technical courses require more precision control and quick reflexes. Where your course falls on this spectrum is a matter of preference. We surveyed our group and found that everyone enjoyed both high speed as well as technical challenge—it’s important to find the balance that’s right for your group.
Technical courses separate out pilots with the best control and stamina, but you can take this too far if your course offers nothing but one technical challenge after another. Racers can get frustrated, and novice pilots may not be able to complete races at all. Use gentle corners and straights between your more technical features to offer pilots a rest. You’ll have far fewer crashes when pilots have just a few more seconds to adjust their entry into a difficult section. At the other end, a course can go too far and have almost no challenge. This kind of course takes the emphasis away from developing skill as a pilot and places it on buying better, faster parts. Fast courses also kill batteries and stress equipment more. However, most racers enjoy an opportunity to punch the throttle flat out in a race and get some real speed.
While nearly everyone will tell you they want to go fast, a big part of the feeling of speed isn’t speed at all; it’s acceleration. Use this to your advantage in course design. Set up a slow, technical feature like a hairpin before a long straight. You’ll make the entry safer, add some interest to the course, and the following straight will give a more impressive feeling of speed because the acceleration is greater.
Having to follow a course that isn’t marked well also requires focus and expends a racer’s mental energy—but never in a good way. Losing the line because you forgot or could not see where to go is frustrating and annoying. Always mark your courses very clearly! Racers want to be challenged on piloting skill, not whether they remember an obscure layout.
Even in the top-most levels of auto racing, course safety is an important aspect of design. Our courses should be no different. If you have the ability to completely separate your flying area from where people are allowed, do so. This will require a strong barrier like thick nets or fencing, and might need to extend fairly high up. If that’s not possible, plan your routes carefully and think about where a quad that’s lost control may end up. If a pilot crashes on a corner, the quad is most likely to roll to the outside. Crashes are most likely near gates and obstacles. Make sure there aren’t people or property in these areas. One good reason to use slower course features is to reduce the momentum a racer has when approaching a sensitive area. Never direct a fast section of the course toward an unsafe backstop.
When you are building your course design, use a variety of features to make layouts more interesting and fun. If you have too many duplicates of the same feature, the design will feel stale. When you do use the same feature, mix up the lengths, widths, tightness, and spacing. What comes before and after any given feature has a big effect on its difficulty and how it can be navigated. This is especially true in miniquad racing where we’re not constantly limited by a barrier on each side. Using fewer markers to define a course gives pilots more leniency in how they make their approach. If you want racers to approach a section in a certain way, you may need to add extra course markers or change the course features that come before and after it.
Your course will be set up in a particular location. Using the natural features that are available can be a good way to add interest to the design and feel like your group “owns” its layouts. Trees and elevation changes can make great obstacles to wind your course around, over, and through. Also keep in mind places to avoid (like spectator areas or standing water) and work around them.
Use a decent length of straightaway leading up to the start line. This simplifies race starts, and many timing systems work best when pilots cross the line straight and smooth. The start/finish is often close to the spectator area, so you may need to use slower features before and after it to maintain safe speeds.
Designing your course takes trial and error before you find how the pieces best fit together. Use a tool that allows for easy iteration: a pencil and paper or drawing app are a good start. One useful tool is Google Maps, where you can find your location and then draw right on the satellite image. (As of this writing, you can find it in the menu under “Your Places”, then “Maps”.) With this tool, you can easily share the results with others when you’re ready.
Use real-world courses for inspiration! Monaco, Monza, Laguna Seca, and Spa-Francorchamps all serve to jump-start interesting layouts for your own track day. Look some up and choose features you like best. One of our most successful courses was inspired by Tsukuba Circuit.
Difficulty and Crashing
The location you’re using and the kind of course you want to build both affect which features you choose. The level of overall difficulty is another important consideration. Pilots just entering the hobby will have a tough time with features that more experienced pilots don’t have to think about. When designing, think about the general skill level of the average pilot in your group.
The more difficult your course, the more crashes there will be. Some features cause crashes more readily than others, though—a slalom can be difficult to navigate, but not doing well only results in a very slow line. A gate, on the other hand, often takes pilots out of a race entirely. Where you place features also makes a difference; if you place the most difficult features in fast sections of the course, the higher speed will cause greater amounts of damage. Use softer materials for course markers if you can to absorb some of the inertia. You’ll break much more by hitting trees or concrete than hitting PVC covered with a foam noodle. Use your softest materials in the most difficult areas, if you can.
Difficult features will still cause crashes even with experienced pilots. If you’re concerned that racers will crash frequently, put them closer to the pilot/pit areas instead of on the far side of the course. This shortens walking distance to retrieve a downed quad, and therefore cuts down time between heats. You can also keep this time short by paying attention to what’s in your crash zones. Keep those areas free of tall grass or other things that make finding and picking up parts more difficult.
You can use other strategies to help make races more fun for different skill levels. One option is to run different courses for different race classes. This lets you choose completely different features for each layout, but it’s important to very clearly mark the course line and be sure pilots know which to use! It may also take time to reset and rebuild some features on race day. Another option is to make some course features optional. Gates are good for this. You can offer an alternative time penalty for those who want to skip them. At the community level, it’s a nice concession that allows pilots to choose their own level of challenge and risk.
Putting it Together
Try this approach to course design for your first few layouts:
- Get a map of your flying area, and a tool to draw with.
- Choose a good location for pilots, pits, parking, spectators, and any other areas like this. Sketch these out on the map.
- Draw in your start/finish area with a medium-length straight.
- Choose a feature or two that will form the base of this course’s layout. This might be a simple switchback turn for an easy race, a roundabout for a little extra challenge, or a towering helix for something very difficult and daring. Sketch your chosen feature(s) into the space available.
- Connect the feature(s) with additional corners and straights. Try to use at least one gentle corner, one moderate corner, and one tight corner somewhere in the layout. Avoid using too many straights as connectors, but try to use at least one straight of moderate length. Vary the distance between features. Some should occur quickly after another, and some should have longer spacing in between.
- Review each section of your course and consider the safety of people and property at the event. You can adjust the course line, change the direction of travel, or use a slower feature. You may also be able to move pilot/pit areas to better locations.
- Continue adjusting and re-drawing until you are happy with the variety and safety of the layout.
As you get more experienced, you’ll have a better idea of how features flow together and when you will want to use them.
Try it Out
Some people can get a good feel for how a course will play out just by visualizing it in their mind. Others need to experience it first hand. Race simulators like Liftoff offer the ability to construct your own courses in-game and then simulate flying them. You can even use build your course exactly to scale if you have good measurements. As of this writing, it’s best to design your course before trying to build it in a simulator rather than sketching in-game; the course editor tools aren’t yet robust enough to allow modifying large areas all at once. Once you’ve sketched out a design that you are ready to try, build it and find out if it’s working the way you expect—then save and share your layout with the group for practice before race day!
When designing a course, there are a wide range of features available. Here’s a selection of the most popular, along with when and why you may want to include them. Each feature can be made more or less difficult in a variety of ways. A corner has both a length and a radius. Gates have a width and height. The width of the course can be changed, and features can be placed closer together or further apart. each of these methods offers a slightly different challenge. Use these different attributes to add even more variety and interest to your course design. In our experience, the best courses offer a mix of technical challenges and the opportunity to lay down some raw speed.
These are all strong options with which you can generate an infinite variety of courses, but they’re not the only features you can use. Feel free to combine and develop new challenges for your group. We also encourage you to share your layouts after a race. If you come up with something truly unique and interesting, other groups will want to try it out, too.
A straight line is the simplest possible feature and lets racers go flat out. No other feature provides this kind of opportunity for pure speed! Flying a straight line also provides a brief mental break that is often important in course design. The only real decision to make regarding a straight is its length. Shorter straights allow recovery from a poorly flown or technically difficult section that preceded it. Longer straights provide the pilot an opportunity to develop a strategy for the next section or, if it’s long enough, even consider how to improve the entire lap.
Basic corners serve a wide variety of roles. They are necessary connectors from one feature to the next, but can have enough interest to make up an entire course. Wide, long corners act similar to straights because they are simple to navigate. Tight, short corners have moderate difficulty which require pilots to plan and think about the best line. You have a wide spectrum to choose from. A series of very easy corners can be used in place of a long straight, offering plenty of speed but preventing the section from becoming boring.
A constrained corner is a simple corner with a barrier on the outer edge. This disallows a pilot from taking a wider line than you intend. Constraining the course line limits the speed that can be carried through and the ability to set up for the next feature. You can add a constraint just to make sure pilots don’t go too wide into an unsafe area, or use it as a way to set up the next feature with the intended line.
Basic corners have a constant radius. A complex corner’s radius changes through the length of the corner. Complex corners make it difficult to plot the fastest line. Your corner can either increase its radius and become gentler, or decrease radius and get tighter. Generally, decreasing radius corners are considered more difficult because you have to brake within the corner instead of only on entry.
The hairpin is a corner that turns a full 180° and has a very small radius. Pilots need to change directions very quickly and often overshoot it by a wide margin. The hairpin itself is only moderate difficulty, but adding a constraint to a hairpin quickly elevates it to a very difficult feature.
A chicane is a very quick series of opposing turns. Chicanes are generally used to slow racers down. If a chicane is permissive, pilots will try to “straight line” it, which doesn’t reduce speed at all. Pilots with less skill in plotting a good line can lose a lot of time through a chicane.
A succession of alternating corners is a slalom. These are known as “rhythm” sections because finding the line and sticking to it has a natural, rhythmic feeling. Losing the rhythm takes a pilot far off the line and leads to a lot of lost time. The slalom is all about keeping momentum. If you make it too difficult, the slalom actually changes into a succession of hairpins—a feature that requires a very different approach that’s less rhythmic.
This feature is something like a lane shift. The line goes through a quick transition to the side, and then back again. A Bus Stop feature mainly adds variety; the type and degree of challenge is easily replicated by other features.
When a corner extends 270° or more, it’s often called a roundabout. The out-in-out method of finding a corner’s apex falls apart on corners like this. Pilots must find and then hold a cornering line for several long seconds at a time. The mental gear-switching involved makes these features stand out as something very different than a few corners strung together.
The needle is a very narrow area that doesn’t restrict a racer’s elevation. The challenge is pretty minimal if placed along a straight, but approaching it on a corner or at an angle dramatically increases the difficulty.
Climbs and dives
Since quads race in three dimensions, we’re not limited to traditional flat-track features. Climbs and drops are the simplest of these and require a pilot to change elevation. Descending is more difficult than ascending—pilots typically have cameras pointed upward so it’s difficult to see, and the penalty for overshooting a dive is much greater than the penalty for overshooting a climb.
The gate, a feature that constrains the race line on every side, is a staple of modern quad racing. “Air gates” are the most common example; these fabric gates are readily available to purchase from many retailers, have good visibility, and are easy to set up. Gates are difficult features that may be too much for novice pilots in your group. A gate is also extremely unforgiving: hitting the gate frame usually results in a crash and being knocked out of a race. Gates can be large or small, and are sometimes even elevated or turned horizontally for an extreme challenge.
Hairpins can be turned on their side and run vertically. This offers a similar challenge to a horizontal hairpin with a quick change in direction, but muscle memory used in normal cornering is no longer of use. The result is a feature that disproportionately challenges less experienced pilots.
A helix is a roundabout which simultaneously changes elevation. Adding the challenges of changing elevation and hitting a gate to a very long corner makes the helix an extremely difficult feature to fly correctly. It’s easy to lose a lot of time, especially if the elevation is descending. For experienced racers only!
Get out there and build your first course!
Now that you understand the different building blocks of course design, go make your own! Practice makes perfect, so be sure to vary up your course features and attempt multiple layouts.