Sometimes, bad days make for exciting YouTube videos, like last time I raced at Robeling. This time, bad days made for no video at all. After running about 30 events in two different Miatas, I had a mechanical failure end my weekend for the first time. This is my second “bad day” event at Roebling in a row. Intellectually I’m not superstitious, but emotionally I feel like Roebling is my unlucky race track.
My intentions for the event
I had a plan from my coach again for this event. He had me continue to work on some of the same things I’d worked on at previous events:
Fast-Fast, as in, get up to speed quickly. So far this approach had made a huge difference in keeping me out of “the downward spiral of traffic and slowness,” where I get slowed down by traffic only to get caught and slowed down by more traffic.
Brake less/lighter. I knew I was over-slowing for corners, and I had a strategy to brake with less pressure and/or get off the brakes a little sooner to roll more corner speed.
Spend 3% more time at full throttle. Just like at past events, this wasn’t an official goal to measure with data, but a mindset to have on track. I wanted to find all those little places where I could get on the throttle a little sooner or stay on it a little longer.
Get on the gas before the car is settled. This was my own intention, that went along with what I got from my coach. (I’m bad about always trying to be an overachiever.) I knew that not doing this was affecting my pace, and I’d spent time in the simulator working on it and was excited to put it in practice on the real track.
What actually happened
I tried too hard in practice and qualifying. I got some clean laps in practice, which was pretty surprising because ALL of the race cars share a warm-up practice session and we had about 90 total cars for the weekend. I was so excited to get on the throttle sooner and drive out of turns like I’d practiced in the simulator. And then I spun, twice. They were the type of spins I’d been able to save before. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t driving the way I’d envisioned and practiced. I decided I should dial it back just enough not to spin in qualifying.
I went out in qualifying and was constantly surrounded by faster Spec E30 traffic (as evidenced in the photo above.) I went “fast-fast,” with my second lap being my fastest lap of the session, but it didn’t keep me out of traffic and I felt like I got passed by a hundred E30s and each one slowed me down. My qualifying time was two seconds slower than my previous personal best time, which felt pretty demoralizing. I texted my coach an update after qualifying, and he encouragingly responded that sometimes you have to over-try before you can relax and go fast, which he suspected I’d do the rest of the weekend. That made me feel better, and at that point I was really looking forward to my race Saturday afternoon, especially since it was starting to rain, and I do better in the rain than in the dry.
Then my car broke on the way to grid. I swapped on my rain tires, got suited up, and was feeling energized to run the rain race. This was my jam! I was just about to pull onto the false grid and… my car stalled. I tried to restart it and it cranked and turned over but wouldn’t fire. I cranked and cranked with increasing urgency, but no dice. I radioed a panicky call for help. The grid workers pushed me onto the false grid and I tried to bump start the car… still nothing. The Racing Analytics crew (which at that point consisted of one actual crew member and one friend) showed up with a battery box and tried to jump start the car. Still nothing. All the other cars rolled out on to the track. The crew opened the hood and wiggled wires. Nothing. I heard the buzzy sound of a pack of angry Spec Miatas take the green flag and start the race. My heart broke in a new way I’d never experienced before. There is a very particular kind of disappointment you feel when strapped into a dead race car in the pits while the race starts without you.
And then Brad’s car broke. After pushing my uncooperative race car out of the way, the crew disappeared. I figured they were spotting for the race, but when I got out of my car I saw them on pit lane with the battery box trying to jump Brad’s car. I went over to investigate and offer moral support. I learned Brad’s car developed a misfire on the third lap. After a quick examination in the pit lane, his car wouldn’t refire, either. Both cars had to be towed back to our paddock spot.
We didn’t fix my car. Despite everyone’s best efforts, my car remained immobile for the rest of the weekend. It had no spark, and the problem was somewhere deep within the ignition system. (More on that in a minute.)
But we fixed Brad’s car. After Saturday’s race, the Racing Analytics crew swapped some spare spark plug wires onto Brad’s car. (They’d never really liked the wires his car came with, anyway.) Brad’s car started right up with the new wires, and we thought he was ready go for Sunday. Except the car had other plans. When Brad cranked up his car before heading out to qualify on Sunday, it started idling rough and breaking up. The voltmeter gauge showed the alternator had died and was failing to charge the battery. We knew what we had to do. My alternator wouldn’t do me any good if my car wouldn’t start, so we pulled it off and swapped it on to Brad’s car.
I helped Brad get back on the track for an awesome race. We got my alternator on Brad’s car just in time for Sunday’s race. Brad was starting at the back of the pack (in 14th place), since he’d missed qualifying. I was on the radio (which is the next best place to be if you’re not in the race). Brad passed ten cars in the first handful laps, working his way up to 4th before his hand-me-down tires started falling off. I radioed the gaps to the cars ahead and the time left in the race so Brad could manage his strategy and tires. Brad ended up finishing in 5th place thanks to his awesome driving and my alternator, so I’m taking a little credit for this accomplishment. And since I don’t have any race video of my own to share, you’ll have to watch Brad’s epic drive through the field instead.
I kept my shit together when my race car broke. It’s difficult to come up with accomplishments when my car broke after my disappointing qualifying session, but I’m going to count keeping my shit together as one. Since I started racing, I’ve been surprised at how upsetting racing setbacks are. I’ve experienced setbacks in other areas of my life, but racing setbacks seem so immediate and concrete. After I missed the green flag for Saturday’s race I’d never get a chance to start that race again. I was surprised at how crushing that felt. But sitting around and moping won’t fix anything, so I put on my big girl pants and started asking around the paddock for knowledge and spare parts.
Things I learned
Why drivers are always thanking their teams. I don’t technically have a team or a crew. Brad and I are Racing Analytics customers and we take our cars to them for work we can’t do ourselves, but paying them for track support isn’t in our budget. That means we crew for ourselves when we’re at the track. Racing Analytics is often at our events supporting other customers, and if we need help they always do what they can. Paying customers always come first, though (as they should).
But Saturday night, when my race car was inexplicably dead, I felt like I had a team. The Racing Analytics crew helped us swap every part in the ignition system in the pouring rain, even though they still had a customer’s car to repair. Competitors offered up spare parts for me to swap in. When we missed the awards dinner, a friend brought us all the leftovers. After we had tried swapping in every spare part and my car was still dead, I felt a little better. I knew we’d given it our all, and I felt the support of the Racing Analytics crew and several other Spec Miata drivers. In fact, on Sunday afternoon when Brad and I were rolling my car into position to load in to the truck, several other Spec Miata people ran over to help push. I had to remind everyone that we had a winch, because everyone started to push my dead car up into our truck! That’s just what we do, because we’re all a team.
All about my Spec Miata’s ignition system. Since we swapped all of them out, I now know every part in my race car’s ignition system! Funny how that works. I’m now well prepared to troubleshoot any Miata ignition problems and ready to start collecting spare ignition parts!
That I care a lot, and that’s okay. When I couldn’t get my car fixed for Sunday’s race, I told Brad, “Now I’m going to lose my fifth place in the championship points, but we’ll get you out there and you can grab that spot!” (Fifth place is the lowest championship position that Mazda offers prize money for, and it’s a measly $300.) Brad told me, “I don’t even care about that.” I turned around and said, “Well, I care!”
It’s hard to care. As I wrote in my piece about being competitive, for years I said I wasn’t a competitive person and chose not to care about anything I couldn’t win to protect myself. (Why do I always seem to get tested on these lessons right after I write about them?) Many people have warned me not to care too much and get too competitive, but after having spent so many years not caring at all I’d rather care too much than check out and pretend to not care again. When you care, the highs are higher and the lows are lower, and I’m just not used to this amplitude yet. I’d rather keep caring and learn to ride the waves of victory and defeat. Before Brad went out to race without me, he said, “If you could fit in my seat, I’d give you my car.” When I asked why, he said, “Because you care more than I do.” It’s okay to care!
I have no control over when things will click for me. I felt so frustrated when I wasn’t faster at this event, even though I felt like I had worked hard to get faster. I am the slowest driver in the field. I saw a big gain over my HPDE pace when I first started racing, but I haven’t improved my pace much since. I’m good in the rain and in race traffic, but my lap times in the dry are still the slowest. I can’t identify what’s holding me back right now, either. Things just aren’t clicking. After this event, it dawned on me that I have no control over whatever it is that needs to click. I just have to keep practicing and keep racing until it either clicks or the thing that’s holding me back becomes apparent.
What to work on for next time
Getting my race car fixed. You know what they say, “To finish first, first your car must start…” or something like that. After I got my car unloaded at home, I called Racing Analytics and got a little more diagnostic information. It appeared the failure was somewhere in the wiring harness, between one of the sensors and the ECU. I found a new wiring harness online, and dropped the car off at Racing Analytics. I’m crossing my fingers and toes that I’ll have my spark back soon!
Keep practicing, even though I’m not sure what’s holding me back. I wish I knew how to unlock the pace I believe I’m capable of, but since I don’t, I’m just going to keep practicing anyway. I’m hoping that whenever it does click (whatever “it” is), that my practice will make me even better when I get to that point. Or maybe the thing I’m missing is even more practice. Even if I don’t have control over that, I do have control over not letting ambiguity hold me back.