When I posted the recap of my last event, I was feeling dispirited and frustrated by my lack of progress and my race car breaking. I figured I could either sit around feeling sorry for myself or I could channel my frustration into something productive. I went the productive route and channeled my frustration into lots of simulator practice to see if I could get to the bottom of what was holding my driving back.
I didn’t even know if I’d be running this event until 5 days before we were scheduled to leave. Racing Analytics had to rewire my entire car after they discovered the body wiring harness was damaged because a previous owner had spliced into it and crumpled it up under the dash. They got the work done in plenty of time, but when the car finally started again it had an engine knock that inexplicably went away the next day. This required more work to assess the engine’s health, which was mysteriously totally fine. I picked the car up on a Sunday, and we left for the track the following Friday.
This event had a different format from any of the other NASA-SE events I’d previously raced in. There was another race in a different NASA region going on the same weekend, so fewer racers than normal registered for this event. The officials decided to put all 54 racers that did sign up in one race group, which would have a “qualifying race” and a “points race” each day, making the event a four race weekend for everyone.
My car made it through one practice session, one qualifying session and almost all of one qualifying race before the electrical gremlins returned and ended my weekend. On one of the last laps of Saturday’s qualifying race (which was to set the grid for the points race later that afternoon), my car spun off track, stalled, and refused to refire for the rest of the weekend. Even though I now have two more empty spaces on the points sheet, I was on track long enough to see that my practice paid off, and that I was, in fact, making progress again!
My intentions for the event
My simulator practice paid off and I did learn what was holding my driving back! I discovered that I was paying way too much attention to what I was doing, and way too little attention to what the car was doing. Once I started paying attention to the car, I realized I had no freaking clue how to rotate the car on the throttle. I could rotate it on the brakes going into a turn, but trying to do anything with the throttle before the wheels were pointed straight just led to spins or understeer, both of which were slow. It was both frustrating to discover I was missing this critical skill and encouraging because I finally knew what to practice!
After that epiphany, I came up with my intentions on my own and ran them past my coach, who enthusiastically approved of them. (I’m proverbially “learning to fish”!)
Feel what the car is doing and what it needs. (And if it’s not doing anything, go faster!) I’d been so focused on getting my own inputs “right” that I completely overlooked that the inputs the car actually needs are always changing. I’d been driving the way I learned to drive in HPDE; brake here, turn there, get on the gas over there… and I had built muscle memory by rote repetition. This got me around the track reasonably fast in HPDE, but it wasn’t a method that allowed me to consistently put the car on the limit. The track, the tires, the car’s setup and my own abilities are always in a constant state of flux, and feeling the car is the only way to know what inputs it needs on a moment by moment basis.
Rotate the car in mid corner and on corner exit like I practiced in the simulator. Once I figured out that I didn’t have the skills to do this, I set about building them. I drilled through the same complex of corners over and over, practicing this process until it started to make sense and feel intuitive. I was nowhere near mastering the technique, but I could at least, to some degree, do it.
Go “fast fast” get up to speed quickly and be a tough, fair racer. This is starting to become my standard operating procedure, but it seemed like a good idea to continue to include it, especially since I would be battling with significantly more traffic at greater closing speeds than I was used to at this event.
Drove sloppier and faster. I have known for a long time that my tidy, HPDE acquired driving style was not fast. Brad has always had less perfect lines and less consistent technique and has always been much faster than me in the same cars. This has seemed like witchcraft to me for years. I could be sloppy for the sake of sloppiness, but it was always slow. When I headed out on track this time, I had only one thing on my mind: feel the car. I scarified tidiness to focus on what the car needed, and it worked! I was faster! I had finally discovered the magic!
Narrowed my gap to the front of the field and ran a personal best lap time. Despite the track being damp in qualifying, I beat my personal best dry lap time by a whole second. Because CMP’s track surface is so weird and inconsistent, comparing lap times from different events is almost meaningless, anyway. A better measure of the massive amount of progress I made was when I compared my lap times to other consistently fast drivers, like Brad, who’s on the same hand-me-down tires that I am. And I was only five seconds off Brad’s qualifying time, compared to eight seconds the last time we were here. This was a massive amount of progress!
Assertively survived crazy race traffic. Because all classes of cars were racing together, I ended up with some slower (and likely less experienced) drivers in faster cars gridded behind me. I knew I needed to go fast fast to avoid getting stuck in my “downward spiral of traffic and slowness,” so I didn’t pull over and made them earn the passes. The first few laps of the race were intense, but by the end of the race I was sorted out into some nice, clear track. Because I didn’t slow down in traffic, I didn’t get caught and slowed down by more traffic, which I view as a big win!
Was awarded the official NASA-SE Spec Miata Unicorn of Epicness shirt. Unicorns are inside joke among the NASA-SE Spec Miata drivers. The joke has its roots in the idea that Miatas are “girly” cars, so as a girl I’ve decided to unironically embrace the unicorn thing. (If Miatas are girly, then I should have a natural advantage, right?) Our regional class director will occasionally award Spec Miata drivers with unicorn themed awards for various sorts of “achievements.” At this event I was awarded a very epic t-shirt featuring a cat with a sword riding a unicorn. This award was for my car dying as I rolled on to the grid at my previous race, which the class director deemed to be a very epic failure. It’s a really awesome shirt, and it also made me feel like I was one of the group. At first the other Spec Miata racers weren’t quite used to having a woman as a regular class competitor (especially since this is the Deep South where gender roles tend to be a little more traditional), but now everyone has learned that it’s okay to swear and make off color jokes around me, because my natural tendency is to swear and make off color jokes, too.
Swapped all the components in the ignition system, with a little help from my friends. When my car previously died, the Racing Analytics crew swapped out all the major components of my ignition system. Racing Analytics wasn’t at this event, so I was on my own when my car’s ignition failed again. I remembered everything I learned last time, which made the job much easier. My fellow Spec Miata drivers helped out however they could, offering spare parts to swap, tools, brute strength, and flexibility to swap every part of the ignition system. Together, were able to narrow the issue down, even though we couldn’t find the exact offending wire. Even so, it still felt good knowing we did everything we could at the track.
Things I learned
The value of doing a track walk. Our race weekends tend to be so hectic that Brad and I had never done a track walk. This time we had unusually good luck with traffic and arrived at the track a little earlier than expected. We took advantage of the extra time by doing a track walk with a few other drivers. It was so enlightening! I got a better understanding of the profile of each corner and was able to see and touch the pavement changes and imperfection that I had previously only felt through my tires. I also got a much better understanding of why this track has so little grip. The aggregate in the pavement is made up of large gravel sized rocks and most of the tar in between them is worn away. When you drive on the track, you’re only driving on the tops of these rocks; not the tar! It’s no surprise that the track doesn’t feel much different when it’s wet, since there’s plenty of space for the rocks to stick up above the water. This is also clearly why the track is so hard on tires; you’re getting traction off the sharp edges of what looks to be pieces of granite.
I’ve been driving the wrong way the whole time. Okay, that might be a little harsh, but driving by feeling the car seems so completely different than driving by rote HPDE memory. I discovered that when I was focused on feeling the car and not actively thinking about driving The Line™, my lines totally fell apart. I had to feel the car and what inputs it needed to get back to some semblance of a racing line. The line became a reference point, one clue among many as to how I could go faster. The good thing is, this new way of driving is faster than my old way of driving, even though I’m not very good at it yet. I both drove faster than I ever had before and became more acutely aware of where I was losing time than I ever had before.
What “steering with the throttle” really feels like. After practicing this technique over and over in the simulator, it was so cool to actually feel it in the real car. I know from watching my in-car videos that I’ve done this before, possibly by accident, but I wasn’t focused on feeling the car at that point. It turns out powering out a turn feels like the invisible hand of God reaches out and catches the back end of your race car. It was so pronounced I had to double check my mirror that I wasn’t actually leaning on someone else’s car for traction!
If I practice something enough, I don’t even have to think about it on the race track. In the simulator, I consciously thought about what my hands and feet were doing to rotate the car through the turn. I practiced the same technique in the same turns over and over, the way a musician practices scales. When I got on track, I started off just feeling the car, but not consciously trying to do anything. While I was focused on feeling the car, my hands and feet automatically used the new cornering techniques I’d practiced without any conscious direction from my brain! It just happened! I’ve improved my driving through simulator practice before, but deliberately practicing specific skills seems to improve my driving much faster than just running sim races.
Wearing earplugs to bed at a hotel is amazing. This one is probably obvious to a lot of people, but I have narrow, sensitive ear canals and didn’t think I could sleep in ear plugs. Brad and I had a noisy ground floor hotel room, and I slept so poorly Friday night that I felt sick from exhaustion by Saturday evening. Out of desperation, I stopped at Walmart for earplugs. The earplugs Walmart stocked were squishier and narrower than other’s I’d used, and seemed more comfortable. OMG, that night I got the best night of sleep I’ve ever gotten in a hotel. I’m always keeping a pair of those Walmart ear plugs in my suitcase now!
What to work on for next time
Fixing my car. Again. As of this publishing, I’ve ticked this task off the list! The Racing Analytics crew found a blow fuse to the ECU. I either knocked the fuse out in my big spin, or blew the fuse fixing the car without disconnecting the battery. The master power switch was off, but the crew says that’s not good enough, and the battery needs to be disconnected, too. So there’s another thing I learned!
Practice, practice, practice! It’s very clear that drilling on cornering techniques in the simulator is the best way for me to improve right now. The next few weeks before my next race are really busy, but I’m going to do my best to carve out out time to spend in the simulator. I desperately want to be faster, so sim practice is bubbling up to the top of my priority list.