NASA-SE Turkey Trot at Carolina Motorsports Park, November 11-12 2017: Low temps and low traction

Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP) is known in the Southeast for its surface. The asphalt has much of the tar worn away, leaving sharp little rocks that provide little grip and wear tires like a cheese grater. Combine that weird surface with tight turns and hard brake zones, and you get a track that’s punishing for both cars and drivers.


Brad and I have the least amount of experience of any of the tracks we race at CMP. Before this event, neither one of us had driven a Spec Miata at CMP. I’d done a handful of HPDE events there in my track car Miata, one of which I shared my car with Brad. But most of Brad’s CMP experience involved his late model stock car breaking there.

Our weekend wasn’t a smashing success, but as far as CMP events go, this was one of our better ones. The weather was unseasonably cold, with temps barely making it above 50. The cold, our old take-off tires, and the track surface meant we struggled to find grip all weekend. In Saturday’s qualifying, Brad had a tire cord as he entered the 100mph kink, sending him sideways and leaving him back in 9th place for the start of the race. Then, in Saturday’s race, we endured the longest, most ridiculous caution ever. One disabled car went off on the third lap, and it took the wrecker driver thirty minutes to get the car loaded up and cleared. Brad actually gave up and pulled into the paddock before the caution ended. It wasn’t until Sunday that we both got clean qualifying sessions and a full 45 minute green flag race that we finally started to get a feel for how the Spec Miatas slide around CMP.

My intentions for the event

Even though I still needed two more clean races to get off my provisional license, I decided not to make that an intention for this event. I’d had no trouble finishing clean races at my last two events, and at this point in my racing career I feel like I’d have to really be trying to not finish races cleanly. Instead, I set intentions aimed at getting more familiar with my car and multi-class racing.

Learn the car and the tires on CMP. Since I had never driven my Spec Miata at CMP, my only experiences with the track were on 460 treadwear summer street tires. I wanted to focus on feeling how much grip the stickier tires had (or didn’t have) on CMP’s weird surface and how that made my car behave.

Learn my new mirror setup. After struggling with a major blind spot on my left side during my last event, I stuck convex blind spot mirrors on my side view mirrors. I planned to pay attention to what I saw in my mirrors in order to develop habits for checking my mirrors and managing traffic.

Claim my line in traffic. In my last races I got stuck in the “downward traffic spiral,” where I’d get caught by cars, let them slow me down as they went by, and then get caught by more cars because I slowed down, repeat ad nauseam. I wanted to claim my line in traffic and make lapping cars go around me in hopes that I would slow down less and stay out of traffic.


Ran two more clean races to complete my provisional license. I did it! I am now a fully licensed racer and can race with all sorts of groups across the country. It’s a little bit surreal. I’m a race car driver, full stop.

Drove significantly faster. The last time I was at CMP was in February, and my best lap time was about 2:12 in my track car Miata on street tires. At this event I got down to a 2:03, which is nine seconds faster. The race slicks account for some of it, but nowhere near all of it. I need to remind myself of this accomplishment, because I was the slowest car track by about 4 seconds, which was frustrating. In February in the advanced HPDE group I ran down another Miata that was on better tires (RE-71s) than I was with my 2:12 lap times. The caliber of driving in racing is just that much higher than HPDE. I’m now a much smaller, slower fish in a very big pond.

Gained new understanding of my driving errors. This really is an achievement. Earlier this month I did a Speed Secrets live webinar with Ross Bentley called “Reading Your Car.” During the webinar, Ross discussed some common driving errors that can cause handling issues in race cars. When I got out on the track, I actually noticed the handling issues and realized, “Oh, hey! I am doing that thing Ross said upsets the car!” It’s hard to fix mistakes when you don’t know why you’re making them, so I consider this good progress.

Felt more comfortable in traffic thanks to my new blind spot mirrors. Especially the mirror on the left side. With the new blind spot mirrors, I could track the traffic all the way around my car. Sometimes a car that looks like one car behind you in your review mirror is actually two or even three cars running nose to tail, and at my last event I was always wondering if there were still cars next to me and as a result drove off line much more than I needed to. Now I could definitively see if there were cars next to me or not, which meant I could get back on the racing line without worrying that I was going to turn down on another car.


Things I learned

How much less grip really cold slicks have. I’d been warned about “cold tires,” but up until this event I hadn’t driven on the slicks in truly cold weather. When it was 85 degrees out, the slicks still had more grip cold than the street tires I was used to ever had, so I still had to work to find their limits. When I went out for practice Saturday morning, it wasn’t even 40 degrees, and I broke the tires loose in the first turn, even though I thought I was taking it easy. There is a tremendous difference between the grip levels of a “cold” slick at 80 degrees versus 40 degrees. I swore they had even less grip than my cold street tires, but Brad thinks they’re about the same as the street tires and I just drive harder now.

I need to leave plenty of time to get my car and myself ready to go on track. There are so many more things to connect, plug in and turn on in a legit race car that I never had in my track car. Since Brad had a running Spec Miata this weekend, we were both on track at the same time and could no longer help each other into the car, I was flying solo for the first time. It took me so long to get into the car and get all my gear connected and switched that I was late for my first practice session. Which meant I went out to a green track full of warmed up race cars on very cold slippery tires for the first time ever and was immediately caught by a big group of fast Spec Iron Mustangs. After that, I was traumatized enough to give myself much more time to get ready to go on track. I think I got faster over the course of the weekend, because I spent about 10 minutes sitting in my car with nothing to do for about before my last race of the weekend.

Watch the flag stands and the incident during a full course caution. As I mentioned earlier, our Saturday race was run almost entirely under caution. The race should’ve been over by the time the wrecker driver got the disabled car loaded on the wrecker. My my ankle was sore from cruising around at part throttle (my seat is fitted for me to comfortably have my right foot flat to the floor) and I was feeling motion sick from all the stop-and-go accordioning of the field of cars through the tight turns. Brad had given up and was back in the paddock with his radio off. After I drove by the wrecker with the disabled car finally loaded up, the next flagger was displaying a peace sign to the field of cars. At that point I just wanted to finish a clean race and get out of my car. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what the peace sign meant. Then, two turns later, the cars behind me raced past me and realized it wasn’t a peace sign, it was a “two,” as in “two laps of green.” I should have realized that the course was going green soon because the car had finally been loaded on the wrecker and I should have been watching the flag stands. I was too far back in the field to see the green flag on the front straight, so my signal that the race had restarted would be the corner marshals withdrawing their yellow flags. In HPDE I had gotten a lot of practice watching for the presence of flags, but now I need to watch for the absence of flags, too.

The stalling issue at my last event was caused by my knee. I had brought the car to Racing Analytics to diagnose the stalling issue. They thoroughly checked it out and told me, “The car seems fine, are you sure you’re not hitting the key with your knee and turning it off? That can be a problem for drivers with long legs.” And I was like, “No way! My knee was no where near the ignition.” Well, in my Sunday race I very definitively smacked the key with my knee and turned off my car. Mystery solved!

I can have fun and learn things no matter where I am in my progress. I’m competitive and desperately wanted to keep up with the back of the pack, so when they pulled away from me again on Sunday, I got frustrated and started making dumb mistakes. I had set an intention to mange traffic better to maintain a pace that would keep me out of traffic, but I just wasn’t fast enough that day to stay out of traffic no matter what I did. So I decided to just relax and go with it. When I stopped worrying about getting slowed down, I discovered that racing a car inches from other cars is quite a thrill. It was scary, but fun scary. I leaned into that feeling. When I went back and watched my video, I saw my traffic management improve over the course of the 45 minute race. I can’t always win (or even get not-last place), but I can always have fun and learn.

What to work on for next time

There are only three weeks before my December 2nd at Road Atlanta, and I’ve got a visit from my parents and the Thanksgiving holiday between these two races, but in that time I’d like to do as much deliberate practice as I can in these areas:

  • Corner exits. In comparing my race video to Brad’s (yay for teammates!) I saw my braking and corner entry were pretty similar to Brad’s, but I was later getting back to the throttle which made me slower out of the turns. Getting back to the throttle sooner and speeding up my corner exits is where I can find my next big chuck of time. I’ll be practicing corner exits at Road Atlanta both in iRacing and in a practice day before my next race.
  • Speeding up my hands. Driving a Spec Miata on the limit means catching oversteer. This has been a challenge for me ever since I bought my first Miata, and although I’ve improved a lot, I still have a ways to go if I want to be competitive. My plan is to spend time on the new dirt tracks in iRacing, although I may not get to it before my next event.
  • Managing traffic. I ran an iRacing race at Road Atlanta a couple of days after I got back from CMP, and I somehow managed to make multiple passes at the start. I’d never done that before because I suck at iRacing, and I can only attribute that newfound ability to my deliberate focus on getting comfortable in traffic in my last race. I plan to spend more time at Road Atlanta in iRacing practicing driving fast off line in hopes that I might develop the ability to pass people in real life!