NASA-SE Winter Meltdown at Carolina Motorsports Park, February 10-11, 2018: My first time racing in the rain

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What’s the rain line? Stay out of the puddles.

This is really a story about Carolina Motorsports Park’s (CMP) strange pavement. The asphalt at CMP is made up of small, very pointy, sharp rocks. On the track’s surface, the tar has worn away leaving all the tiny pointy edges of the rocks sticking up, making the track less grippy and harder on tires. I knew all this going into the weekend. But what I didn’t know, and what no one else knew either, is what this track was like to drive on when wet. Somehow it hadn’t rained on a race weekend here in recent memory. This was the weekend it finally rained on us at CMP. And we all learned that CMPs grip levels don’t seem to be correlated to how wet the track is.

I had “supersized” my race entry to include practice sessions with the advanced HPDE group for the weekend, so I was able to get lots of data on lap times relative to wetness. In my Saturday morning practice session, it was foggy and the the track was damp and felt slightly less grippy than normal, but not terrible. For qualifying, the track had started to dry and felt even better, but was still not quite back to normal. When I went out to practice after lunch, the sun was out and the track was dry and felt great. I ran my fastest times of the weekend. Then, as the race time approached, the clouds came back. We tracked a little rain shower across the radar, unsure if it would get bigger or smaller or miss us completely. Everyone but Brad and me waited until the last second to choose rain tires or slicks for the race. Brad and I have one jack and one impact gun between the two of us, so our “last minute” came earlier than everyone else’s. At our last minute, it wasn’t raining, so we committed to go out on slicks. Then the little blob on the radar blew up into a big blob right over us, and the sky opened up. Everyone else put on their rain tires, leaving Brad and I as the only ones who were racing on slicks. By the time we took the green flag, the rain had stopped, but the track was still very wet. And the slicks were totally fine. Brad had to pull off shortly after the start due to a misfire, but prior to that he was on track for his best Spec Miata finish yet, and my pace was more competitive than it ever had been, too.

After our race on Saturday, the rain stopped. Multiple HPDE and time trial sessions ran after our race. The rain held off Saturday night, and Sunday morning we arrived to a dry track that had some rubber on it. I had a practice session right before qualifying Sunday morning, and I went out and promptly spun in the first turn of my out lap, despite my very out-lap-appropriate pace. Then I spun a couple more times, just for good measure. Sunday morning the track mysteriously had less grip than it had the previous day in the rain. In fact, everyone’s qualifying time was 10 seconds slower than it was on Saturday when the track was damp. (Except for me, my time was 15 seconds slower because I was spending an extra 5 seconds each lap blaming myself for forgetting how to drive.) After all that wackiness, it started to sprinkle for Sunday afternoon’s race.  Although the track changed slightly each lap during the race, it was generally back to Saturday’s damp levels of grip.

I don’t know if the track was built on hallowed ground and now the pavement is cursed or what, but nothing about the track surface made any sense that weekend.

My intentions for the event

I had a little help with my intentions for this event, as I’m now getting some coaching! I got connected with a driver coach who also runs a web business, and was able to barter my professional consulting skills from my day job for some help with my driving. I discovered that it’s a huge relief to get some help with my plan for the weekend. I wasn’t second guessing myself on what I should focus on, and I felt liberated from having to crowd source coaching from other drivers. I didn’t realize how much mental energy I spent trying to decide whether other people’s advice was useful, wrong for me, or just plain wrong. My coach didn’t come up with anything magical or anything I’d never heard of before, but having a “coach approved” plan tailored for me let me devote my all brain power to focusing on those select things he prescribed.

Go fast fast. By this I mean, “get up to speed quickly.” I’d been taking multiple laps to get warmed up, and it was time to change that. Going fast fast means getting fast laps in qualifying right away in case a red flag comes out and not losing ground on race starts.

Rolling speed through corners. My coach recommended using my practice sessions to run key corners a gear higher to force myself to carry as much speed as possible to keep the engine from getting bogged down. This would also be a good experiment to see if those higher gears were actually faster than downshifting.

Be at full throttle 3% more of the time. This wasn’t an exact goal to be officially measured with data, but a mindset. My goal was to go out and find every extra fraction of a second where I could keep the gas pedal to the floor. Fractions of a second at the end of straights, on the exit of corners, between corners, all around the track, would add up to whole seconds.

Mindfulness lessons from yoga class. Since my last race, I’d heard some wise intentions from my yoga teachers that seemed to directly apply to the racing mindset I was trying to cultivate, and I wanted to keep them in mind for this event:

  • “This is how I define mindfulness: Just let your thoughts go. Imagine your thoughts are trains. You let the trains go. You don’t get on the train; you don’t wave to the people in the windows; you just let it go.”
  • “Believing our thoughts is the cause of great suffering.”
  • After walking the class through a difficult movement with instructions on where to look and what muscles to engage on where to look: “See, you can do things through engagement and not just because you got lucky!”

Accomplishments

I’ve increased my fitness level. Last time I was at CMP, this tight track and its hairpin turns kicked my butt. With slick tires and no power steering, driving a Spec Miata is a workout. I’ve been working on building upper body strength since I started racing last summer, but after my last race at CMP I felt like my cardiovascular fitness was holding me back. Since then I’d made a deliberate effort to increase my cardiovascular endurance, and it paid off! Even with the extra practice sessions, I felt like I had plenty of energy every time I was on track.

I stopped the downward spiral of traffic and slowness. The “fast fast” strategy worked! I first saw it pay off in qualifying on Saturday. I’d been out in a practice session right before qualifying, so I started qualifying from the back of the field. I knew my tires were were up to temperature and that if I didn’t get my fast laps in right then, the fastest cars would catch me and slow me down. Going fast right away kept me out of most of the traffic, so I didn’t slow down as much, so less traffic caught me. It was overall a faster and more fun experience!

I ran a personal best time in practice. In the one session where the track was dry and consistent, I beat my personal best lap time by a second and a half. And that session just happened to be the session when I was practicing rolling more speed through a couple of key turns by running a gear higher than normal, so I know I can go even faster now in the right gear!

I ran a wet race on slicks. I really had no idea what to expect when we headed out on slicks in the rain. Brad said, “If it’s too dangerous, come in.” I asked, “How will I know it’s too dangerous?” and he just told me, “Oh, you’ll know.” I headed out with the mindset that I would feel out the danger level on the formation lap, and if I felt like I had a decent shot at not dying, I would go for it. I discovered the wet track definitely had less grip than it did when it was damp, but there was still some grip under my slick tires. So I went for it. And it was totally fine. I drove around the puddles, and as I got heat into my tires they started feeling better and better. Only about half the usual field showed up for this event, and it happened to be the front half (plus some other very experienced drivers from outside the region), and with Brad’s car (with same power and tires) having engine trouble it was hard for me to gauge my performance. Some drivers had new rain tires and some had old rain tires, but I was the only one on slicks. Either the slicks were better than the rain tires or me bravely running so many rainy HPDE sessions in years past paid off, because I had the smallest gap to our usual front runners that I’ve ever had. Maybe it was a little bit of both.

Things I learned

How racing in the rain is the great equalizer. (And is totally fun!) I’d heard many times about how rain is an equalizer, and had always assumed that was because the reduced grip meant car control became more important that outright power. That’s true, but I discovered another element to rain that levels the playing field. Rain changes the racing surface. There is no Rain Line™ that you can count on, because the track changes each lap as the track gets more or less wet. The grip comes and goes, and what worked last lap might not work the next. Everyone has to figure it out, and whoever figures it out the most effectively goes the fastest. In the dry, Spec Miata races often come down to who has the best tires and knows the track the best. But in the rain, no one knows the track. I put all my awareness into my tires and felt a new rhythm in the grip around the track. It was so fun and rewarding to puzzle out the track and what my car needed to keep finding more speed!

If my car is handling poorly, it’s NOT because I forgot to drive overnight. When I went out in the rain on slicks, I knew the track was slippery because it was wet. When the track was slippery when it was dry the next day, I thought it was me. Was I not getting enough heat in my tires? Did I not have enough coffee this morning? Why do I suck so much right now? Then I started thinking my car was broken, which would have to be due to something that I did. What did I do to my car? Since Brad had engine trouble, he was in the paddock on the radio for a couple of us drivers, and I finally called to him, “Something in my car is broken, it’s too loose!” Another driver friend called back, “No Ann, it’s not you; it’s the track. The track is really loose right now.”  Right then I considered, despite my abysmal lap times, that I hadn’t been lapped. Maybe it wasn’t just me! When we got back to the paddock, the friend told me, “I was really struggling, too, then I Brad said I was running in 4th.  I thought if I’m doing that well, it’s not just me, and I felt better. I didn’t get any faster, but I felt better!”

Lesson learned. If my car isn’t handling right, it’s not because I forgot how to drive. It doesn’t actually matter if it’s my car or the track, I need to accept that the car isn’t doing what I expect. I need to understand and give the car what it needs to go as fast as it can in that moment. I’ll figure out what the handling problem is after I get off the track.

What to work on for next time

Getting more comfortable pushing the car. I was going to write, “speeding up my hands,” for this, but I’ve already put a lot of work into speeding up my hands, and I’m no longer so bad at making corrections and catches. What I really need to do is get more comfortable using those skills that I worked so hard to build. When I watched the video of myself driving in the rain, I knew I could go so much faster because I’m hardly making any corrections at all.

Spending more time at full throttle. In the one session where I had a dry, predictable track, this helped me find so much time. I found this is particularly true on corner exits, and I noticed other cars are driving away from me by getting back to the throttle much sooner than I do. This should also help me push the car and use those correction skills I mentioned above. I think this is something that I need to just keep chipping away at. I need to keep focusing on getting back to the throttle just a split second sooner, each time. I know I can get there!