What would you do if you had a whole race track and a professional driving coach to yourself for a day? I’ll can tell you what I did; I worked my ass off. As part of our business-consulting-for-driver-coaching deal, my coach made a stop in Atlanta to coach me for the weekend. Racing Analytics got us on track at Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) (where their shop is located). I worked so hard and I saw so much progress! And I learned a lot, too.
The biggest thing I learned was that my car had something wrong with the suspension all along. In my first session on track, as I was warming up and gradually picking up my pace, the car snapped oversteered on me faster than I could catch it. I shot right myself into the tire wall. (Lucky for me, the damage minimal, so we quickly pulled the fenders back out and got an alignment from Racing Analytics, and I was back on track.) Towards the end of the day, my coach talked Brad into driving my car. Brad assumed it would feel just like his, since they are, after all, spec cars. My coach seemed to have a hunch that might not be the case. When Brad came in, he said, “Now I see why you hit the tire wall. Your car is twitchy and really lose. I think something is wrong with it.” There was no time to dig deeper before our race on Sunday, but my curiosity was piqued. What did that mean for me if there was something wrong with my car? (It turns out a lot. More on that in a minute.)
I came back to AMP on Sunday ready put everything I’d learned on Friday to use racing. I’d never been able to hang with even the back of pack at this track, and I was excited to see what I could do with the improved pace I found on Friday. I still qualified last, but by a much smaller margin this time. At the start of the first race, I passed one car at the start, and made a bold pass on another half way through the first lap. I was able to hold on to one of those spots and finish in not-last place, which felt like a huge accomplishment after losing sight of the whole filed just three months earlier.
Just as I was rolling to the start of the second race, the electrical gremlins returned for a third time and my car died again. I was forced to coast down pit lane while everyone else took the green. My race car now had mysterious electrical gremlins and mysterious handling issues. I left it with Racing Analytics, who now had the daunting task of getting me a running car, and maybe, if I was lucky, a less oversteery car in just 4 days so I could have it for my race at Road Atlanta the following weekend.
My intentions for the event
Just get myself there. My coach had said there was nothing specific I needed to do to prepare for our test day, which was good, because I didn’t have time to prepare anything! It had been less than 3 weeks since our last race at CMP. In that time, Brad and I had been extra busy with work, travel, and other life inconveniences that seemed to just pile up. When I finally got to the track and my coach was there, it felt like a miracle. Was this really happening? Did I really get to do this?
Measure my improvements in Sunday’s race. My only objective in my races on Sunday was to see how my practice improved my performance against the competition.
Translated coaching feedback into speed. Over the course of the test day, I got faster and faster, even though the temperature kept climbing into the 90s. (Tires have less grip when the asphalt gets too hot.) By the end of the day I’d dropped a whole second off my lap times, even though the sun baked pavement felt slippery under the late afternoon sun.
Beat my old personal best lap time by 3.2 seconds. AMP is only a 1.8 mile track, so this is a ton of time and a massive accomplishment! Plus, my old personal best time was from February, when it was 70 and sunny and the track had a lot more grip. This means I likely made even more progress than is represented by the lap time alone.
Closed my gap to the pace at the front of the field by 4 seconds. With the big difference in track conditions since my last event, I felt the best measure was how I stacked up to the competition in Sunday’s race. The same fast drivers are always at the front of the field, so they make a good yardstick for my progress. In the race on Sunday, I was thrilled to discover I was a whole four seconds closer to the winner’s fastest laps!
Finally felt held back by the car and not my own driving. The entire time I’d been racing in Spec Miata, I’d always felt like the biggest thing was holding me back was me, and not way the car handled or the hand-me-down tires I race on. But after all my hard work and practice, plus the revelation that my car had major handling issues, I could finally feel the car holding me back. After a few laps of Sunday’s race, I began to understand that my car just wouldn’t do what the other cars did, no matter what I did. As the race wore on, I could feel my tires falling off, and the loss of grip was exacerbated by the twitchy way the car handled. Even though I wished I could keep up, it was such a huge relief to know I wasn’t just slow because I sucked.
Things I learned
Being a good student isn’t much different from being a coachable athlete. Growing up, I was always the smart nerdy kid who was picked last in gym class, and I internalized the message that being a fast learner and being an athlete had nothing to do with each other. My coach wisely showed me otherwise. In my last session the test day, he would make calls over the radio like, “Report card! See how many times you can make the rev limiter ding before you brake!” and, “Report card! See how soon you can get to fourth gear!” These real-time challenges triggered my inner overachiever and made me aim for “gold stars,” just like I was back in school. In HPDE I sometimes felt like my good student tendencies tripped me up. But my coach showed me that, with the right goals and instruction, I could leverage my good student drive into improved athletic performance.
How to take a methodical approach to improving my driving. This is one of those things that seems obvious in theory, but takes discipline and focus to put into practice. My coach’s approach to improvement was to have me drive a pace I could run consistently, and then go out and work on just one technique at a time until I could perform that technique consistently, too. We prioritized the techniques in the order of how much time they would gain me around the track. This approach seems straightforward, but it requires an honest understanding of what’s holding me back, what I need to do to improve, and the discipline to narrowly focus on just one aspect of my driving. Now that I’ve practiced this approach under the guidance of an experienced coach and seen results, I’m excited to use it on my own to continue to improve my driving.
Lap times alone are meaningless. In road racing, you hear about lap times a lot. We tend to talk about track record laps and personal best times like they’re an objective measure of performance. But the more I race, the more I realize that lap times alone don’t capture the full picture of my performance. That became even more clear at this event. Even though my driving improved over the course of my test day, I struggled to run the same times in the afternoon that I had easily run in the morning. The hot track just had less grip than it did in the morning. When I came back for my race on Sunday morning, I expected to see my lap times drop even further, since the track would be cooler and should therefore have more grip. I was disappointed and frustrated when my qualifying times on Sunday morning didn’t get back to where they had been on Friday afternoon, even though I felt like I was driving well. When I saw the grid sheet with everyone’s qualifying times, I realized it wasn’t just me. Everyone was a little slower that morning than they had been at previous events.
Grip levels vary not only based on track temperature, but on a myriad of other factors that can’t always be anticipated. Sometimes everyone is just a second or two slower. The good thing is, in the type of racing I do, everyone qualifies and races on the same track at the same time. That’s why competition is so great. You’re always being challenged, even on a day when a personal best lap time will never happen. Going forward, I plan to be mindful of this, and gauge my performance on how much I feel I’m getting out of the car and how I stack up to my competitors, and not on my lap times alone.
The value of having someone else drive your car. All Spec Miatas have the same spec suspension, which allows for very few adjustments. There are rarely big handling differences between cars. The Miata I had been doing HPDE events in had a better suspension than the Spec Miata suspension, and I was aware that it didn’t feel as good. But I wasn’t experienced enough to know that it felt wrong. In the past I’d said the car felt loose and very willing to spin, but other Spec Miata drivers would just tell me, “That’s just how these cars are.” There was no other way to find out my car was different from all the other Spec Miatas without putting an experienced driver who was familiar with how the car should handle behind the wheel. I’m so grateful to my coach for talking Brad into taking my car out for a couple of laps. “My car has a handling problem” sounds like a typical racer excuse, but when you see the video of Brad driving his car versus Brad driving my car, you can see my car responds very differently to the same inputs.
I’ve been racing a car with a MAJOR suspension problem this whole time! So, here’s the big plot twist… A day or two after the race, Racing Analytics put my car up on the lift and searched for anything that could cause weird handling behavior. After close inspection, the crew discovered that the front springs were on the rear, and the rear springs were on the front! Miatas, which are front engined, are supposed to have much stiffer springs on the front than the rear. (700lbs versus 350lbs.) The front and rear springs look identical, except for a tiny engraving of the weight on each spring. Reversed springs, which meant the suspension was way too soft in the front and way too stiff in the rear, explained so many of my problems. It explained why the car tended to spin under trail braking, struggled to put power down exiting a turn, became unstable over even slight bumps, and felt unsettled in high speed turns. Having the springs at the correct corners would change everything!
It’s possible to accidentally race too aggressively. I’ve always struggled with being too nice, (both on track and off) so I was surprised when an official told me that other drivers were complaining about my aggressive racing. His feedback wasn’t specific enough to be actionable (ideally other drivers would come to me directly with this stuff, but that’s out of my control), so Brad and my coach brushed it off. But when I watched my video afterwards, Brad pointed out a few places where I was defending too aggressively. Initially, I was horrified. I’m so nice! How could I do something like that? I hadn’t been angry or suffering from “red mist.” I was having fun and enjoying the challenge of trying to keep the other cars behind me.
After some reflection, I think my accidental aggression came from two things; firstly, I’m not used to being fast enough that cars behind me will need to be side by side for a little while to pass me. I’ve always been too slow or have just pulled over for other cars. I wasn’t used to closely motioning for cars that were creeping up next to me. I was aware there were cars behind me, but not exactly where. Secondly, I was finally beyond feeling self-conscious about my driving; I was believing in myself. My coach told me, “You have to believe that the cars behind you belong back there.” So I did. I believed those cars behind me belonged there, and I just did whatever it took took to keep them there. In some ways, this is an actually an accomplishment!
I have seen other drivers be “accidentally aggressive” before, and it tends to happen when they’re at a disadvantage. If you believe in yourself but you’re down on grip or power, you can accidentally make more aggressive moves than you intend to in an effort to put your car where you believe it belongs. Going forward, I think the solution to this isn’t to be nicer or more self-conscious, it’s just to be safer and more aware. If you make a move to “chop off someone’s nose,” there’s a good chance you could end up spinning yourself. Now that know I need to watch for this, I can avoid moves like this in the future without compromising my belief in myself. I think I’ll also be more empathetic when approaching other drivers in the paddock who might have been “accidentally aggressive” to me.
What to work on for next time
Getting my car sorted out. There was only one thing I needed before my race at Road Atlanta the next weekend, and that was a running race car. The current electrical gremlin kept blowing the ECU fuse and stalling the car. That had to be sorted out for it to be physically possible for me to race again. I needed to pick my car up at Racing Analytics just four days after this race to get it over to Road Atlanta in time for my next race. It would be a feat to get the fuse problem solved before then, let alone sort out the handling problem. I left Atlanta Motorsports Park unsure of what kind of car I’d be driving the next weekend, if I would be driving at all.