NASA-SE Race for the Pi at Road Atlanta, March 11-12, 2018: Being a little more epic

sideways

This is an easy way to gain positions.

The week before this race, I watched the Speed Secrets “Improve Your Racecraft” webinar with Ross Bentley. One of Ross’s suggestions in the webinar was to use a “trigger phrase” to get yourself in the right mindset for the race start. (Ross’s is “Watch this!”) When he put it like that it seemed like telling myself, “Let’s see what happens,” which was probably not what Ross was going for. I wracked my brain think of something better. The next day, a t-shirt that I’d bought from an Instagram fundraiser showed up in the mail. It said “Be Epic” across the front. I decided that was perfect.

It turned out to be perfect for this event, too. We had sunshine, pouring rain, mud, and lots of cars spinning across the track (including me) and going off the track (including Brad). In spite of all that, Brad and I both got our best Spec Miata results to date and loaded two happy race cars onto the truck at the end of the weekend. That’s pretty epic, if you ask me.

My intentions for the event

I didn’t have a plan from my coach for this event because he was traveling and had left the country by the time I got my race schedule. That ended up being just fine because I felt like I still had a lot of progress to make in the areas he’d asked me to work on during my last few events.

Be at full throttle more, especially on corner exits. This is the big area for improvement my coach had identified, and I still felt like I had lots of work to do with this. The week before the event, I spent a few evenings practicing corner exits at Road Atlanta in the simulator. I focused most closely on turns 7 and 10b.  7 is the last turn before the back straight, and 10b is the last slow turn before the front straight (in a Spec Miata, anyway) and the places on the track where a good corner exit will earn you the most time.

Believe in myself. This intention is courtesy of Australian Supercars driver David Reynolds, who, the previous weekend, didn’t defend the lead because he didn’t believe he could win the race. He said, “My problem is I never believe in myself at this track. I never go well here and to pop out in the lead with 30 laps to go… I never thought it was possible. That’s the God-honest truth. I never believed in myself.” That quote hit home for me, because I do this to myself all the time. (Not lose the win in the one of the world’s top touring car series, but miss out on results I’m capable of achieving because I don’t believe in myself.) I decided to learn from David’s mistake and try to take a better mindset into my event. On Sunday morning, a post popped up in my Instagram feed that said, “Make believe in you,”, so I’m pretty sure the universe was trying to send me a message about this.

Not “doing the office dishes.” And by this I mean not moving out of the way of faster out of class cars. Let me explain. In the racecraft webinar, Ross Bentley said that racecraft includes “positioning your car to gain an advantage over other drivers when being passed.” This was eye opening to me, because my goal when getting passed by faster traffic was not to hold anyone up. I try to be nice and stay out of the way. The drivers I point by will give me a thumbs up as they pass, and sometimes they even come by after the race and thank me personally. This makes me feel good, which I like, and positively reinforces my behavior. It’s also the complete opposite of “gaining an advantage over other drivers” and slows me down. Brad always tells me, “It’s nice to give people a point and get them by, but you don’t have to do it.” I struggled to know what to do with the guideline, because I almost always do nice things even when I don’t have to. After the racecraft webinar, I wracked my brain for some optional nice thing that I don’t do, and realized I won’t do dishes at work. I’ll put my dirty coffee mug in the dishwasher, and I’ll even run it if it’s full, but I won’t put away all the clean coffee mugs and then load in all the gross ones people left in the sink because the dishwasher was full. Other people will thank you when you do that, but I don’t do it because I don’t have time. Just like at the track when I’m driving my own race and I don’t have time to slow down to get out of the way of faster cars. Plus, just like if you always do the dishes at work, people will just start expecting that from you. I’m not the person who always does the dishes, and I don’t want to be the person that always lets other cars by, either.

Accomplishments

Ran a personal best lap time. I did this in Saturday’s qualifying session where I had a dry track but a ton of traffic. There were 63 cars on the track, so I didn’t get any clean laps, but I still improved my time by six tenths of a second. Lots of people got personal bests in that session thanks to a new curb in turn 3, but my data said my lap time gains were all in the extra speed I carried out of turns 7 and 10b. I had 12 extra miles per hour when I crossed the start finish line!

Got held up by out of class cars. Exiting 10b with more speed meant I carried that extra speed through Road Atlanta’s infamous turn 12. This meant I was closing hard on slower cars on the exit of turn 12 while going 100 mph with concrete walls on either side of me. One of those cars didn’t see me and forced me to put two wheels off the track as I exited turn 12! Then, in Sunday’s race, I got held up by a Porsche 944 that I couldn’t figure out how to pass. This is all brand new for me, and an exciting problem to finally have. I’m fast enough to get held up!

Got a good start on Saturday, even though I was on rain tires and almost everyone else was on slicks. (Brad and I bet wrong, the rain started after our race finished.) I reminded myself to “be epic” and picked up three spots at the start, although I lost one again in the first turn. I’m happy with this, although this start would have been better if I hadn’t been so focused on using the formation lap to figure out how my rain tires were going to feel. I started on the last row and had fallen back a little bit because I was so focused on the tires. That might have been for the best, though, because a car towards the front of the pack spun in turn 5, causing Brad to make an unplanned trip through the gravel!

Qualified in 7th place in the rain, thanks to my past self. I get Road Atlanta in the rain, having taken advantage of all the track time I got in HPDE when everyone else went home to avoid the weather. At the time I thought, “No one else is out here, so someday this will give me an advantage!” and I documented all the slippy spots and grippy spots I found. It was pouring rain Sunday morning, so I pulled those notes out and reviewed them with Brad. When the rain hadn’t let up by qualifying, I knew if there was ever a time to be “fast fast” and get up to speed quickly, this was going to be it. Sure enough, the session was black flagged before I even finished my outlap. Everyone was sent back to pit lane to wait while a wrecker retrieved a disabled car that had crashed on the front straight. I ended up only getting two hot laps in. Even though I knew what to expect, it had been over a year since I’d run Road Atlanta in the rain, and I struggled to get my head back to that place fast enough. As I crested the hill in turn 9 on the back straight, the world disappeared into the mist in before me. The two Miatas in front of me lifted off the throttle, but I stayed in it and motored between them down into turn 10. Out of 21 cars, only 12 were brave enough to qualify in the rain. A couple of cars were moved to the back for not running the spec rain tire, leaving me to start 7th, my best starting position ever. When we came in from qualifying, Brad told me, “Your notes were spot on!” Brad had qualified in 3rd place, despite the fact that his used rain tires had most of the tread worn away. Thanks for sticking it out in the rain, Past Ann!

Practiced better racecraft when getting passed by faster traffic. I didn’t do a perfect job of not slowing down and moving over for faster out of class traffic (it’s so hard to not be nice!), but I did a better job of it than the cars behind me. Thanks to my good starting position secured by qualifying in the rain and my improved racecraft skills, I was able to stay ahead of faster cars in Sunday’s race!

Figured out how to race with a giant pile of mud in the apex of turn 1. It’s my understanding that the mud was from an incident in the session right before our Sunday race, but I don’t know exactly how it got there or why it wasn’t cleaned up.  The mud was just there when the field rolled out of pit lane.

mud

Seriously, that’s a LOT of mud.

Since I was gridded in the inside lane, the mud was directly in my way for the start. On the formation lap, I tried to think of a mud strategy and I came up with nothing. When we came to the green flag, everyone in the inside lane was overtaken as we picked our way around the mud first turn. The car on pole fell back to 4th, Brad went back to 5th, and I went from 7th to 11th. I was frustrated, but thought to myself, “Now we all have to deal with the mud on equal terms. How do I make that mud work for me?” From then on, I carried a little more speed every time I drove around the mud. The track was damp with a dry line (which was now covered in mud in turn 1), so the damp area around the mud developed a slick film as little bits of it got splashed across the track. I found a line and a speed where I got a manageable bit of oversteer as I accelerated up the hill and decided that was the limit, and I started making time on other cars there!

Things I learned

What rain tires feel like in the dry. Since I’d recently learned what slicks feel like in the wet, I suppose this is good complementary knowledge. Just like when Brad and I went out on slicks in the rain at CMP in Febuary, we watched the radar and made the wrong bet. Our spec “rain” tires are Toyo RA1s, which have tread,s but are not made from a softer rain-specific compound. I had never driven on a treaded R compound tire before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I quickly noticed that the rain tires weren’t as good as the slicks under braking and that I needed to back up my brake zones. I think my brain unconsciously decided that reduced braking grip meant reduced cornering grip, too, and I automatically backed off in the corners. I consciously noticed that I wasn’t finding the limit in the turns, but didn’t have the mental bandwidth to process the concept that a tire could be worse under braking than it was in the corners. If I find myself on these tires in the dry again, I now know to back up my braking but not back off in the turns until I can feel the limit on these tires.

What rain tires feel like in the rain. It turns out they feel pretty good! I could tell immediately that they had more grip than the street tires I had run in the rain in HPDE. It was hard to sort everything out in just two laps, but when I went out and ran my old “street tires in the rain” pace, I knew I was far from the limit of these tires. I’m looking forward to getting know my rain tires better!

I need to get closer to other cars at the start. This not only means getting as close as possible to the bumper of the car in front of me, but I might need to get as close as possible to the car next to me, too. I lost more positions than Brad did when we had to dodge the mud in Sunday’s race start. I showed Brad my video and asked him if I could have done anything differently, and he pointed to the car next to me in the outside lane and said, “You should have glued yourself to this car’s side mirror.”

I need to stay close to the car I’m following right before a restart, even if that car speeds up. At the end of the caution during Sunday’s race, everyone in front of me started speeding up before the green flag flew. I thought, “Wait, we can’t go, it’s not green yet!” and waited to slam my foot to the floor until I saw the yellow flags at the corner stations come down. Brad, on the other hand, sped up with with the other cars. When I asked him about it, he said, “Stay right on the car in front of you before the restart. If it goes, follow it.” I realized while passing under yellow is not allowed, matching the speed of the car ahead of you doesn’t break any rules.

Unsolved mysteries

On Saturday, I had two instances on track which prompted the praise of “Whoa, nice save!” from crew and friends watching from the pit wall.  The first was in qualifying when I put two wheels off track to avoid the car that didn’t see me on the exit of  turn 12. The second was during the race when I caught 2nd gear instead of 4th on the entry of turn 1, locking up my rear wheels and causing a spin that I neatly guided next to the flag stand… which is right next to a concrete wall.  Neither incident scared me at all, and I never doubted my abilities during or after those moments. This, in addition to my big brake failure save at Roebling in January inspired Brad to ask,  “Why are you so uncomfortable driving at the limit when you go over it kind of a lot and you’re totally fine?”

That was a very good question to which I had no answer. Why don’t I push to find the limit in turns? What the hell am I so afraid of? I can’t be afraid of going over the limit, because Brad is right, I go over the limit kind of a lot and it doesn’t scare me and I don’t hit things (knock on wood). I’m confident in my abilities to recover when I lose control, so why can’t I intentionally loosen my grip on control a little bit? I have a feeling that resolving this question will make me a lot faster, but I have no idea how to go about answering it.

Things to work on for next time

Shifting into 4th gear. Earlier this year, Brad and I both discovered it’s very easy to shift a Spec Miata into 2nd gear when you are going for 4th. We decided that the best way to avoid mis-shifts was to grip the shifter in a way that pushed it down and to the right into 4th gear and away from 2nd. This technique works, but when I watched my video of Saturday’s race and saw myself mis-shift and spin in turn 1, I realized I’d unconsciously gone back to shifting the way I drive on the street and wasn’t using the mis-shift preventing grip. On Sunday, I tried to make a conscious effort to shift into 4th gear using the correct grip, but I felt that conscious thought drain away critical brainpower that I needed for other things, so my hand went back to its old unconscious street driving program. The videos are painful to watch; I grab the shifter with the correct grip, then right before I shift I move my hand and do it the wrong way. Mis-shifts can destroy your engine, so my hand has to be reprogrammed. Therefore, every day when I drive on the street I’m going to use my extra brain power to practice the race car grip every single time I shift to 4th.

Figuring out how to pass out of class cars. The out of class BMW E30s and Porsche 944s have more torque than my Spec Miata, so I need to figure out a way to get by them on the brakes and in turns. I plan to study faster Spec Miata drivers’ videos and really spend some time doing “mental practice,” which is really just thinking about all the ways I could pass out of class cars that hold me up. I’ll get them next time!