Road Atlanta is one of the more intimidating tracks in North America. It has big hills, blind turns and tall concrete walls. Being fast at Road Atlanta means keeping your foot flat to the floor when you can’t see the track in front of you. Road Atlanta is also my home track and the track where I’ve turned the most laps. I was nervous about this event, because earlier this year my lap times there had hit a plateau. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get below the 2:00 mark, and that is nowhere near a competitive time in a Spec Miata.
The format of this event was different than the other race events I’ve run so far. Brad and I signed up for a practice day, hosted by Just Track It, the Friday before the event. Then the NASA-SE championship races would be run on Saturday, with the season champions being crowned at a banquet on Saturday night. Since the championship concluded on Saturday, Sunday’s race would be a no points “fun race.”
Saturday’s race was pretty special, and is my favorite race that I’ve run so far. The Spec Miata championship was decided in that race, as Yan Dia and Keith Williamson had been battling for the championship lead all season and were only a few points apart going into this race. (Yan won the championship.) The Lightning race group had 70 cars in it, and 18 of them were Spec Miatas. As a bonus, our friends from Racing Analytics were at the track supporting some of their customers, and they let us get on their radio channel. I felt like I was in Top Gun on the formation lap, hearing all the radio calls! I really felt like I was part of something special, battling on track with this great group of drivers that have welcomed me into the fold.
My intentions for the event
Friday practice: Go flat through turn 12, go fast enough to get understeer in turn 1, and go flat through turn 4. These were the areas where I felt I had the biggest opportunities to improve my lap times. As a bonus, going faster through turn 4 would also make me harder to dive bomb into the esses – a fast, technical, narrow section of the track that has close walls and high consequences. I hated it when cars would dive bomb me there in HPDE sessions, and making myself harder to catch there seemed like a logical solution to the problem.
I put together a tactical plan for my practice, because I knew that going out and trying to go faster just resulted in frustration and not speed. I decided I would spend the first session only focused on feeling G forces and the second session only focused on feeling the grip of the tires, especially on the newly repaved sections of the track. I’d assess myself at that point to see how I was tracking against my goals, and use the later sessions to address whatever I felt was holding me back at that point.
Championship race: Drive stupid. I know might sound unwise, but that’s Ross Bentley’s advice to drivers who overthink things and can’t get out of their own heads and into the zone. I really wanted to get into the zone in a race, but I knew I couldn’t try to get into the zone, because, again, trying just leads to frustration. “Drive stupid” means just letting go and driving without thinking or worrying and just being in the moment. I’d already survived 6 races just fine and cleared my provisional license, and I felt it was time to just let go and drive.
Fun race: Observe traffic and flags. The end of the year fun race doesn’t count for anything and usually features a competition caution and other wacky flags just to mess with the racers. I figured this race would be less intense but still have a large field of cars on the track and would give me a chance to divert some brain power from driving as hard as I could to improving my situational awareness.
I didn’t turn my car off with my knee. After discovering at my last race that my stalling issue was caused by me whacking the key with my knee and turning my car off, Brad and I cut the bottom of my key off with the Dremel. Problem solved!
Scientifically proved to myself that it doesn’t take balls to drive Road Atlanta. Road Atlanta is such an intimidating track and I was sick of hearing how “Road Atlanta takes balls.” I know it’s just an expression, but things like that have a way of worming themselves into my subconscious and feeding my insecurities. I decided to fight that figure of speech by explicitly proving it wrong.
Since my last event at Road Atlanta, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the g-forces I feel on slicks and spent a lot of time practicing the track in iRacing. I put those things together during my practice day. My g-force “sensory input” practice got me acclimated to the load the slicks put through my body, which enabled all the programming I’d given my right foot in iRacing to break through! Each lap I carried more and more speed through all the parts of Road Atlanta that are supposed to be taken flat in a Spec Miata. It was like a really good deep stretch in yoga class. It’s uncomfortable, but it also feels sooooo good, so you lean into it more. Before I knew it, my right foot was pinned to the floor in turns 12, 2, 4 and the esses, no balls required!
Finally found the limits of traction on slicks. For six months I’d struggled to adjust my body to the new g-forces I felt on the slicks and was never really able to push the tires. During my practice day, I finally found their limits! I felt my tires oversteer and understeer and learned what it’s like to feel my limited slip diff working on dry pavement. This is a huge barrier that’s now out of my way. Now that I’ve found a limit, I can work my tires with my inputs and try to find the limit.
Got WAY faster! I knew something about me was different when I went out in my first practice session on Friday and took it easy warming up my car and somehow beat my previous best lap time by two seconds. My racing and practice had already made me a better driver before even I hit the track that morning. Even though four out of five of my Friday practice sessions got black flagged for disabled cars and I got a lot less track time than I’d planned for, I beat my personal best lap time in this car by six seconds that day! I was able to drop another second by Saturday’s race, and was able to qualify in not-last-place. Even better, I finally had the pace to race with the back of the pack!
Got “in the zone” in a race for the first time. Before this event, I’d only ever been in “the zone,” or a flow state, for one lap around CMP and one half a lap around Road Atlanta in iRacing. I’ve struggled to translate the “zone” feeling I get doing creative work to performing in racing. As it turns out, all I needed was a good ’80’s-style montage song. I was sitting in traffic on the way to drop the cars off at the track on Thursday night, noodling a work problem in my head (the good, interesting kind of work problem), and Backbone of the Night by D/A/D came on my Spotify playlist. I felt the song resonate around with my thoughts and felt myself slip into the zone a little bit.
I didn’t think much of it until the next day when I wondered if that song would help me get into the zone during my practice sessions, but I couldn’t recall the tune through the other songs that were floating around in my head. Finally, when I was getting ready to qualify on Saturday, I pulled the song up on my phone and played just enough to get it stuck in my head. Sitting on the grid, I let the tune rattle around in my brain and imagined how it felt when I got into the zone at work. Montage music! Working hard and getting in the zone! Getting shit done! It worked! In both qualifying and racing that day, I got myself into the zone. It felt like it does when I’m writing or designing, except better, because I’m racing!
Made a pass to finish in not-last-place. I qualified 17th out of 18 Spec Miatas, but the driver in 16th place had a dead battery and got to grid late, which meant the driver in 18th place got a “lucky bump” up to 16th. I got a good start, but backed out of the throttle before the first turn. I would have stayed in it in iRacing, but I’m still not always quite sure when a move is there during race a start, so I erred on the side of caution. Lesson learned, that move was there, and I got left behind pretty quickly after that. I didn’t give up though, and six laps later I spotted another Spec Miata off in the distance! I knew it was a older 1.6 liter car, which meant I had more horsepower. At Road Atlanta horsepower wouldn’t do me any good unless I had the courage to use it, though. I kept my right foot planted to the floor in all the important turns just like I’d practiced the day before, and with some help from E30 traffic, I caught that other Miata! I passed it on the front straight, after I’d carried all the speed I could through the intimidating turn 12. Then, for the rest of the race, I kept my eyes forward and kept it behind me! I ended up finishing 12th out of 18 cars. I passed one car, four cars broke or crashed, and the car that was late to grid ended up 15th. It was my best finish yet!
Safely got off the track when the “Fun Race” freaked me out. Even though this one is a little embarrassing to fess up to, I want to give my self credit for it. The first part of the “Fun Race” was fine. I used it as a chance to practice traffic management like I’d planned, and got some bonus bump drafting practice in with the Spec Miata class director. Towards the end of the race, a full course caution was called, which bunched up the field. The first part of the lap after the restart was fine, but in turn 10 A/B I got bumped a few times by an E30. I couldn’t wave it off because I needed my hands to steer. After that, cars just kept coming. They came at me from places they’d never come in a normal race, and seemed more focused on getting in my way than carrying speed. Cars ran two and three wide through every turn. As a rookie, driving at a race pace still takes a lot of my brain, and keeping track of traffic in a regular race takes everything I’ve got. I was over capacity. I tried to lean into that “thrill” feeling that makes racing addicting, but it wasn’t there to catch me, and I kept falling down into terror. For the first time in my life, I was afraid on the race track. In that moment I recalled conversations Brad and I have had about if racing is “scary,” and I remembered Brad telling me, “Racing shouldn’t be scary. If you’re ever scared, you need to get off the track.” That was now. I needed to get off. In retrospect it probably would have been better to pretend my car broke and pull off on a cut through road, but I was in fight or flight mode. My brain seemed to rely on what I’d spent so many hours practicing: “drive fast and don’t hit things.” I safely got myself to the pit entrance as fast as I could!
After the race, Brad told me that the intensity of the restart surprised him, too, and that it was all he could do to keep track of the traffic. Brad has been racing 15 years longer than I have and has developed superior situational awareness skills to go with it. If he found that race challenging, there was no hope for me.
I was in over my head and thoroughly spooked, but in that state I had the wherewithal to realize it and get myself safely off the track. As un-fun as that experience was, I’m still going to consider it an accomplishment.
Things I learned
If my feet are having a problem shifting, it’s because my belts are loose. I learned this lesson at my first race, but somehow missed that it applies to lap belts as well as shoulder belts. I’m good at shifting and I heel-toe every downshift on my commute, so there’s no reason for me to think I somehow forgot how in certain turns on the track. I was having trouble downshifting into turn 10a on Friday, and it took me until Saturday morning to realize that 10a has a hard downhill brake zone where I would slide forward the most if my lap belts were loose. I had Brad check my lap belts while I was sitting in the car, and he took inches of slack out of them. After that I had no trouble with downshifts for the rest of the weekend.
Hood pins are SUPER important. I kind of thought this was the case, but now I know for sure. Brad’s car, which we bought from experienced Spec Miata racers, had hood pin studs but actual pins had been removed and a hood latch was installed. This didn’t seemed to make sense to me, but they had done well with this car, so what did I know? Turns out my instincts were right. Brad’s hood release opened in the race on Saturday, causing him to pit on the last lap. On Sunday we bought whatever hood pins the Discovery Parts trailer had handy, which didn’t exactly fit the studs that were already on Brad’s car. They seemed like they’d work, but by the end of the race on Sunday’ Brad’s hood had let go and he only had one hood pin left. Lesson learned. The car will have properly installed hood pins before it hits the track again.
Race cars settle down when the driver is calm and confident. And by this I mean, when you confidently and smoothly apply the throttle, the weight of the car shifts to the rear wheels and it feels more stable. I’ve known this for a long time, but this weekend was the first time I really felt it. When I felt confident, like, “Yep, I can totally go full throttle here and everything’s fine,” my race car settled down, too. This is most true in the fast, high consequence turns, like 12, 1 and the esses. At first it’s counter-intuitive to put the gas pedal all the way to the floor when you feel the most intimidated, but it’s exactly what the car needs. I learned to tell myself, “Be sure to act confident here so the car feels safe!”
Being fully present in the moment means you don’t remember things. Brad warned me that this would happen, but after the championship race on Saturday, I learned it first hand. I was telling Brad what turn I had passed the other Spec Miata in, and I found that I couldn’t remember. Being in the zone means you leave everything in the turn where it happened, good or bad, and stay focused forward. Whether it was a mistake or an amazing move, it doesn’t do you any good in the next turn so you leave it behind. Fortunately, when I watched my video, every thought I had during the race came flooding back.
I’m adding this “unsolved mysteries” section because I’m realizing that not everything I experience in a race weekend is always going to fit neatly into my “things I learned” section. There are going to be some experiences that I want to write about that might take some time to reveal their lessons, and if I wait for them I might not get my blog updated.
Why did I get so freaked out in the Fun Race? Again, this topic is a little bit hard to write about, but if there was anyone else out there who got spooked, or had a similar experience in a different race, I want them to know they’re not alone. After I pitted and got safely back to my truck, I was angry. I was angry that no one had told me this race would be more intense and aggressive than a normal points race, and angry at myself that I wasn’t able to deal with it. So far it hasn’t been the kind of angry I can do anything productive with, though. Before that race I had no idea I could feel like that on track, and my first instinct was to try to figure out how prevent it from ever happening again. Brad’s theory is that I was just overwhelmed because I don’t yet have the ability to drive at race pace and manage all that extra traffic of 70 cars all racing each other at once. It’s not a bad theory, considering that restart maxed out his superior situational awareness skills. Brad also predicts that by next year at this time I’ll be up to speed and think the “Fun Race” is actually fun. I’m more skeptical on that last point. First off, I can’t imagine a year of racing making up for the 15 year head start Brad has on me, and I think his intensity-o-meter has been skewed by 10 years of motocross racing. Secondly, right now I don’t even understand why racing more aggressively than normal is fun, even if I could keep track of it all at speed.
For now, I don’t have any good answers as to why “fun” means “extra intense and aggressive” or if something in a regular points race could make me feel that overwhelming fear again. I’m telling myself that I don’t have to run any more “Fun Races” if I don’t want to, and that if I get spooked again I already know I can recognize it and get myself safely off the track. Beyond that, I’m hoping that with more experience I’ll understand this race and these feelings better. I’ve run five NASA-SE races where I never once felt uncomfortable on track, and I refuse to let this one experience with fear stop me now!
What to work on for next time
Radio connection. I have a handheld radio in my car. It sits in a little box mounted to roll cage behind me, which means I have to turn it on and set the volume before I get in the car, when I can’t really see it, and then I can’t change it once I’m in. On Sunday, when I did a radio check on grid the volume seemed fine, but once I got on track the radio calls and static were so deafening I pulled the connection out of my helmet. Another racer friend with a radio like mine has a hard wire kit with a switch, so he sets the volume and channel once and then switches the radio off an on via a switch on the dash. I plan to get one of those.
Cardiovascular fitness. Since moving to Atlanta three and a half years ago, my cardio fitness levels have really declined, which I really felt after my last few races. When I lived in Minneapolis I had a gym I loved and I biked a lot in the summer. Although I’ve found a wonderful yoga studio and have been doing strength training at home, I haven’t found a gym I like in Atlanta and I can’t safely bike in Atlanta traffic. Just feeling out of shape wasn’t motivating enough on it’s own, but wanting to be faster on the track is motivating me to find a solution to this problem and get my endurance levels up to throwing my Spec Miata around for a whole 45 minute sprint race.
Turning the car in harder for slow corners. This is something that both Brad and I realized we need to work on, because we previously drove cars that didn’t respond well to being chucked into a turn. Both Brad’s old late model stock car and my old Miata on street tires would have spun if we had thrown them into turns like a Spec Miata needs to be. I think it’s just a matter of practicing and seeing just where the Spec Miata’s limits are. The aforementioned working out should also help with this!