July 23, 2017 AMP Car Championship: My first Spec Miata race ever!

I knew on my very first track day that I wanted to be a race car driver. In pursuit of that goal, I’ve climbed the ranks of NASA’s (National Auto Sport Association, not  the space NASA) HPDE program and got approved to attend “comp school” to get my NASA pro racing competition license  and run my first wheel to wheel races in September.

However, as luck would have it, my racing debut came a little earlier than expected! My friends at Racing Analytics invited Brad and I to participate in the Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) Car Championship series. Even though I don’t quite have my license yet, Racing Analytics offered to write a letter of recommendation to the race director which would allow me to participate as a rookie!  I signed up for the two race event on Sunday, July 23rd.

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Setting my intention for the event

During my time in HPDE, I adopted the method of “setting an intention for your practice” that I learned in yoga class. An intention is an area of focus. In yoga, you might focus on stretching your limit, staying present in the moment, or continuing to breathe (turns out those things are helpful on track, too). I find this method of focus helps me not try to take on too much and overwhelm myself both on the yoga mat and the race track.

These were my intentions for my first race:

Run two clean races and be invited to come back again.

Accept where I’m at in this journey, which is back at the beginning of something new, and not be too hard on myself. I’m a rookie; of course I’m not going to be at the front of the pack.  Beating myself up about it won’t help me get there.

Relax and learn to feel the tires. Racing slicks are new for me. Until a few months ago, I had only run street tires with the goal of learning car control and to put the tires on the limit. Once I felt like the tires were the primary thing holding me back, I switched to racing slicks thinking, “Great, I know how to put a tire on the limit, now I’m going to go wring everything out of these slicks!” Only it didn’t happen like that. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t go out and throw the car around on slicks. My hands and feet wouldn’t cooperate, and I’d unconsciously back off at the point where my old tires would have let go. I ran three events being frustrated by that. Finally, in the last session of that third event, it dawned on me that I needed to stop trying so hard. I needed to build up trust in the tires and reprogram my body to be okay with the G-forces I felt on slicks. I needed to relax, feel that the tires were well below the limit, and internalize that it was okay to keep pushing.

Accomplishments

I did it! I finished two clean races! I was the last running car in my class for both of them, but I dropped time over the course of the day and the race director said ran about 4 seconds a lap faster than most rookies do when they first start running the series.

I handled the traffic on track well. Contrary to what you might think, being fast isn’t the most important thing in racing. You have to be fast enough, but beyond that, no one really cares if you’re very fast. (You, as a driver care about being fast, but no one else cares. Competitors are totally cool with you staying slow!) The most important thing is being aware of all the other cars on the track and not hitting them, while still going fast enough. After the races, several other drivers complimented me on how well I handled the traffic. They knew I saw them and were comfortable being on track with me. The race director was also very pleased with how I raced. I know AMP has a closed circuit camera view of the entire track and that as a rookie I was under close observation that day, and it felt awesome to get confirmation from an unbiased source that I belong on the race track.

I kept my head in the right place. I was able to relax and accept that, even though I’m not great at this racing thing yet, I am fabulously adequate and was able to enjoy myself and the experience. Because of that, I was able to get more comfortable on the slicks. That comfort resulted in me finally dropping my lap times, which had been eluding me for months. I also discovered how much practicing with the iRacing simulator helped me with my focus. I got comfortable with the practice/qualify/race process in iRacing, and the mindsets I developed there helped me with the real deal. I actually heard the iRacing crew chief voice in my head when I was gridding up before the race!

Things I learned

My approach to learning the slicks worked! I kept dropping time all weekend, even as the hot sun baked the track and slowed everyone else down. It felt amazing to start making progress again after being stuck on a plateau for so long. This also taught me that trying differently is a more effective strategy than just trying harder.

However, this caused a new problem for me. As I started braking harder, I began to have trouble downshifting in the hard brake zones. My hands and right foot did what they were supposed to do, but my left foot stubbornly stayed on the clutch. It was like my brain sent my left foot the signal to release the clutch like it does every time I drive, but my foot decided to reject the command. I was mystified, so I showed Brad my GoPro video after the race. He observed, “You’re moving around in your seat a lot. Now that you’re braking harder on the slicks, you’re moving forward and using your left foot for support. Your harness needs to be tight enough so you don’t move around at all.” Mystery solved! I need to get my harness belts tighter.

Finally, I learned when you’re racing, don’t slow down, ever. I’d been working hard to stay on the lead lap during the last race, but by the end of the race the 95 degree heat had melted all the ice in my driver cooling system, and my concentration started fading fast. The leaders caught me in one of the last turns on the last lap, and the rest of the pack wasn’t far behind. Being a hot, tired rookie, I figured I should lift off the accelerator and move out of the way. Faster cars surrounded me, and as I pulled on to the front straight to take the checkered flag, I felt a push from the car behind me. Bump, bump! I was in the way, and I instantly realized I shouldn’t have slowed down. The bump also made me feel like a little bit of a badass, and like I was really racing! 

What to work on for next time

Start strength training, particularly my upper body, so I can get my harness belts tight enough to stop moving around in my seat. Upper body strength will also be helpful muscling around my manual steering race car on slicks and lifting myself out of the small opening in the roll cage. I’m confident some regular workouts will get me all the strength I need to handle my Spec Miata.

Keep making progress with the tires. My approach of relaxing and getting used to the feeling of the G-forces on slicks worked, and I’ll keep building on that my next time out. Not taking full advantage of the slicks is the biggest factor slowing me down right now. Because I can only practice this on track (and in my imagination), I’m hoping to run another race event at AMP before attending NASA comp school.