In racing, there are good days and bad days. You’ll often here professional drivers tell the video cameras, “Today just wasn’t our day and our performance on track didn’t reflect what we’re capable of.” I always want to hear more about bad days because I’m always looking to learn from other people’s experiences, and you often learn the most on the worst days. But between sponsors and egos, it’s hard for racers to talk about bad days. However, in the spirit of this website, I’m going to tell you all about mine – even the embarrassing parts.
This event had a competition license school on Friday in addition to the race weekend, just like the one I attended back in September. NASA-SE runs a test-and-tune event in conjunction with their comp school. This benefits the comp school students (and their instructors) because there are more cars on track for the comp school students to interact with, and the test-and-tune racers get a ton of track time for a reasonable price. I paid extra and took a day off work to get lots of practice in the test-and-tune/comp school sessions.
Saturday and Sunday were both race days. Saturday had a different format than NASA-SE usually runs. Instead of having two races – one for the slow cars (like mine) and one for the fast cars – all the cars were combined into one big points race early in the afternoon, and then in a second, no points “fun race” later in the day. Sunday’s schedule featured the usual two separate races.
My intentions for the event
Friday practice: I had big plans for all the things I was going to practice on Friday, with nearly 5 hours of track time at my disposal. I wanted to work on being full throttle in several sections of the track, work on my speed through turns 1 and 2 where I knew I was slow, practice “steering with my feet” and turning the steering wheel less. I was also looking forward to practicing starts during the comp school “mock race,” where all the racers present on Friday were invited to join the comp school students on track to practice starts and racing.
Racing: My intention for my races was to see if I could use my theme song to get in the zone and “drive stupid” again, like I had at my last event. I also intended to not hold back on the starts, which I had been practicing in iRacing and hoped to practice on Friday. I felt like I had really improved my starts, and was ready to go for it!
What actually happened
My brakes failed in my second on track session on Friday. (More on that in a minute.) I ended up spending the whole rest of the day scavenging replacement brake lines and repairing my brakes. I got the job done and the car ready to race, but I missed out on a day of practice and I didn’t achieve any of the practice goals I’d set for myself.
A tough race on Saturday ended with me getting punted off the race track. There ended up being about 70 cars across 12 classes registered for Saturday’s all-classes points race. NASA-SE had run a 40 car all-classes race at last January’s Roebling event successfully, but the extra 30 cars on track made for very close quarters. Even with the unexpectedly large turnout, none of the other slower Miata drivers showed up, which meant I was the slowest Miata by a significant margin.
I did get a good start, but I got caught by the fast horsepower cars at the end of my first lap. I think I might have still been okay at that point, but a red flag was thrown for a grass fire, leaving me stopped among the Corvettes and Mustangs. When fire was put out, the pace car picked up the leader, leaving me a lap down on the second lap. After the race restarted, I couldn’t find my pace among all the traffic. I got stuck in the “traffic downward spiral of slowness,” where I get slowed down in traffic, and then more traffic catches me, and then I slow down even more. I got frustrated trying to keep up my pace and keep track of all the cars passing me. My field of vision narrowed, causing me to miss more cars. (Including Brad!) It was more downward spiraling into slowness.
Finally, the white flag came out. Just one more lap. I saw two or three Spec E30s (1980s BMW 3 Series) catching me as I approached turn 3. I figured I’d take the racing line into turn 3, a very fast left hand sweeper, so they’d have the brake zone for turn 4, which was a slower right turn. As I anticipated them passing me, I had the vague sense that something was wrong and cars weren’t where they were supposed to be. And then, at close to 90mph, my car spun. That was the final piece of information my brain needed to know what was wrong and I instantly knew exactly what happened. I got PIT maneuvered. I was spinning toward a high dirt berm very, very fast. My “both feet in” reflex was triggered, and I safely stopped the spin. My car was fine and I was physically fine, but I was very shaken up and very angry.
As a penalty for punting me, that driver was moved from 10th place in class to behind me in the overall finishing order. That meant he was scored as the last car running at the end of the race. I have no idea what he was thinking, because he never explained or apologized.
I saved brake failure at 111mph. That’s by far my most impressive accomplishment of the weekend. My brakes failed heading into turn 1, which is fastest part of the race track. I hit the brakes and my foot went to the floor, and then my reflexes took over. I threw the car into a slide, enough to scrub speed but not so much that the car would go so sideways into the sand that it would roll, and got it stopped before I hit the berm. My hands knew just what to do, and I felt no fear. The only thought in my head was, “Dammit! Now I have to fix my brakes!” I attribute this ability to three things:
- I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if my brakes failed in the highest speed sections of the tracks where I race. It’s sort of an anti-worrying technique; “I’d be fine if my brakes failed in turn 1 because I could scrub enough speed with my tires to avoid the berm.”
- I went into turns too fast and scrubbed speed with understeer a lot when I was learning to trail brake. Brad even thought up the axiom, “Use your brakes as steering, not your steering as brakes.” So I’m quite familiar with using my tires to scrub speed.
- I suck at iRacing. This means I spend a lot of time flying off the track and practicing keeping cars off the walls.
I got good starts in both races. Even though I didn’t have the pace of the rest of the Spec Miata field at this event, I didn’t hold back on my starts! I was able to hold my position, or even gain a few spots, however short lived those positions were. In Saturday’s race, I got far enough ahead that I was able help Brad out by giving him some bump drafting! I have no idea why this skill is coming together for me, but I’ll take it!
Going back out and racing on Sunday. Before Sunday’s race I was still feeling shaken up about getting punted, and impostor syndrome-y about my slow pace and struggle with managing traffic on Saturday. I actually considered skipping the race. I’ve heard people say you shouldn’t be on the race track if you don’t feel 100%, but I don’t subscribe to that. I believe it was 15-time AMA motocross champion Ricky Carmichael who said, “You win championships on your worst days,” and I know you’re not going to win anything if you don’t race. Although my confidence was low, I didn’t feel scared or clouded by emotion, and knew I was aware enough to be safe. So I went out there. I got a good start and it felt reassuring to move my body and feel the car move with me. I took a “yoga class” approach to my driving, meaning I respected my limits in that moment and tried to “observe without judgement.” I was slow and pointed lots of cars by. Because of Roebling’s short lap times, my slower pace meant I got passed at least 100 times by my calculation. I still got surprised by two cars, but I’m not going to beat myself up about that too much, considering 98% of the cars that passed me didn’t surprise me. After the race, some other drivers told me, “Thanks for the point!” and “You looked good out there!” By going out in the race, I proved to myself that even when I’m feeling slow and insecure, I do belong on the track. And that made me feel better.
Things I learned
Check the brakes before reaching a brake zone. I knew other drivers did this, but I had just never made it a habit myself. To do this, you gently tap the brake with your left foot to make sure the pedal has pressure, while your right foot holds the gas pedal to the floor. This seems simple, but it’s going to take some practice. In the race on Sunday, the process confused my left foot, and when I went to up shift I hit the brake pedal instead of the clutch. This resulted in a giant smokey brake lockup at 100 mph, which destroyed two perfectly good front tires.
Getting punted off the track is scarier than brake failure. Not everyone agrees with me on this one, but here’s my logic: When my brakes failed, I felt no fear. I knew how to bring my car to a stop safely. Then I was able to fit my brakes with my own two hands and test them out to make sure they worked. When I got knocked off the track, I was immediately out of control and had no recourse. I can tap my brakes each lap to make sure they work, but there’s no way to fix or check other drivers’ decision-making skills.
I need to use my professional communication skills at the race track. When I’m really angry or upset, I need to keep my shit together. Not only am I good at this at work, I coach other people on how to do it, too. Observe when you’re feeling angry, upset or defensive, and wait until that feeling subsides before you choose how to react. Take a break or walk or do whatever it is you need to do to let the strong feelings pass. It’s fine to say “I’ll consider that” or “I need a minute” if someone is giving you feedback or expecting a response. I’m embarrassed I didn’t do this at the track. I think I was caught off guard because I wasn’t in “work mode.” I was really angry after I got punted, and let everyone know. (It seemed like the most egregious thing anyone had ever done to me, and my reaction felt justified in the moment.) Then on Sunday someone gave me critical feedback when I was already feeling insecure about Saturday’s race, and I didn’t handle it well. The good news is, since I already have these skills, it shouldn’t be too difficult to import them into a new setting.
Impostor syndrome doesn’t just go away. I had really thought I’d found a way to beat impostor syndrome, but it turns out that banishing it isn’t a “once and for all” kind of thing. Even though I no longer felt like I didn’t belong in the race because I lacked the natural ability, new doubts crept into my mind after my challenging race on Saturday. “Am I really good enough to race yet? Should I have done time trials to improve my pace? Do I have the stomach for dealing with aggressive drivers who punt out of class lappers?” It seems as though I’ll have to continue to work on maintaining my confidence when I make mistakes and run into problems.
No one can explain to you how to manage faster traffic. I’ve asked a lot of drivers this, and no one has an answer. Most people will mention something about watching your mirrors and making sure you see other cars, but in my experience, seeing other cars is only part of the battle. Not only do you need to see the cars coming up behind you, but you need to then decide what to do about it in a fraction of a second. The “deciding what to do” is the difficult part. I’ve concluded that no one can explain this to me because it’s just something that requires practice. Your brain has to have to the experience to take tiny bits of information gleaned from the mirrors in your peripheral vision and subconsciously make sense of them in a fraction of a second. The only way I can think to get this experience is to go out and be in race traffic (either in real life or the simulator) and let my brain soak up this information, and accept that I’m going to make mistakes as part of this process.
I need to give more points for my own benefit. When Brad watched my video from Saturday’s race with me, he asked why I didn’t point faster cars by if I saw them. I told him, “I don’t know which side they want to pass me on, and I’m afraid I’ll mess them up.” He told me, “A wrong point is better than no point. It’s better if they know you see them and what you’re thinking. They don’t have to follow your point.” In HPDE, you point faster cars by for their benefit, because they can’t pass you without a point. In racing, cars can and will pass you however they want, so pointing is my one chance to take some control over the situation. I doubt it would have prevented my punt, but in other cases it may very well prevent a car from passing me in a way that makes me uncomfortable or slows me down. At the very least, a “wrong” point will make faster cars aware that I see them but am just a confused rookie!
Racers are awesome. Okay, I already knew this, but it became even more real for me when so many things went wrong. When I discovered that auto parts stores didn’t carry my brake line, a Mazda racer who lived near by saw my Facebook post and not only sourced me a new brake line, but helped Brad and I replace the lines and bleed my brakes! When I discovered my left front line was in bad shape, too, another Spec Miata driver’s dad gave me a spare. So many racers empathetically shared their stories of learning the ropes and having bad days. And everyone put up with me and accepted me even when I couldn’t keep my shit together!
What to work on for next time
Building my spares collection. Having to scrounge for a brake line made me realize that having some spare parts can mean the difference between being inconvenienced and having your weekend ruined. I also want to have some spares with me so I can “pay it forward” when a fellow racer is in need of a part.
Double checking my brakes and cleaning out my car. This is about the only preparation I’ll have time for before my next race February 10th. I want to make sure my car is safe, and then my next priority will be cleaning out all the dirt and sand my car picked up in our high speed excursions off the track.
Being patient with how fast I’m able to make progress. With all my practice sessions being black flagged at Road Atlanta in December and brake failure keeping me off the track during this practice day, I’m beginning to feel like the universe doesn’t want me to improve! As a gentlewoman driver with a full time non-racing job and a house she has to keep from falling down around her, I only have so much time I can dedicate to being a better racer without burning myself out. And that’s okay. Getting to the front of the field is going to take however long it takes, and I need to keep reminding myself that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun along the way.