First of all, I have to thank the Racing Analytics crew for all the hard work they did on my car that made this event possible for me. When I left my car with them after my last event, it wouldn’t start due to an electrical problem and it had a mysterious and severe handling issue that we’d just discovered. In just four days, the crew discovered the source of the electrical problem (the O2 sensor wire was touching the exhaust, which caused the ECU fuse to blow) and the handling issue (the front springs were on the rear, and the rear springs were on the front) and fixed both problems! As soon as the crew had the car back together, I loaded it up to take it to Road Atlanta for my next race.
It turns out I’d been racing my car with the springs backwards for the entire year I’d owned it. (The front and rear springs look identical except for a tiny engraving of the weight on each spring, so neither the crew or I had spotted the issue I inherited from the previous owner.) Since I didn’t have any time to practice with the springs on the correct corners before my race, Saturday was all about relearning the car. It was so different, and I quickly discovered I need to unlearn all kinds of weird habits I’d developed trying to keep the previously compromised car from killing me.
By Sunday, I had started to wrap my head around how a Spec Miata was supposed to handle. All of the sudden, the progress that had been eluding me for months began to materialize. Things finally started to click. Instead of searching for tenths of seconds, I started dropping entire seconds off my lap times. I felt more confident than I ever had before. I finally felt, without any doubt, that I belonged on the race track.
My intentions for the event
Learn my “new car.” Going into this event, I had no idea what my car would feel like, but I knew it would be very different. Racing Analytics boss Shea Hughes to told me, “You’re going to have to lean how to drive a Spec Miata all over again.” I was eager to improve my performance, so I tempered my excitement by reminding myself that I might regress and have to climb a new learning curve before I saw improvement again.
See where I now stacked up against the competition. Since the electrical gremlins had cut my recent events short, a lot had changed for me since I’d last really gotten to compete. Not only did my car’s springs change, but my driving had likely changed through practice and coaching, too. I was excited to measure my progress against the yardstick of my competitors.
Find the new biggest thing that’s holding me back. Even though I was hopeful I’d see progress at this event, I also knew I wouldn’t win. Since my goal is to someday win, I was going to be on the lookout for my next problem to solve so I’d know what to work on to keep making progress.
Found a new level of confidence on track. Fixing my springs increased my confidence in two ways. First, the car was much more forgiving to drive. With the backwards springs, it punished every little mistake with big snap oversteer that I wasn’t confident I could catch. As I got used to the corrected springs, I discovered that I no longer needed to be perfect with every input just to survive. If I was going too fast, I could lift off the throttle a little without spinning. I now had a big margin between perfection and being out of control. This gave me the courage to carry more speed and try different lines and inputs because I knew I wouldn’t spin off the track even if everything didn’t go perfectly. This freedom to make mistakes made me faster everywhere!
I finally felt like I belonged on the racetrack. Secondly, my fixed springs made me feel more confident in myself as a driver. When I couldn’t get my car to do what the other cars did, I doubted myself. When I didn’t know differently, it seemed like I was slow because I sucked. When I couldn’t figure out how to improve, it triggered feelings of impostor syndrome and made me question whether I had what it took to be a racer. As I learned the new spring setup, I felt the car’s increased capabilities and could finally see the path to being fast. As I picked up speed over the weekend, I started to catch other cars, and I was no longer one of the slowest cars on track! There was a moment, when I was catching other cars in the challenging Esses section, that the empirical evidence that I didn’t suck finally outweighed my fears that I did. “I’m a racer. I belong out here,” I realized. I was capable of anything any other racer could do. I was no different than anyone else. For the first time, I truly believed in my bones that I belonged on the racetrack.
Actually got to race! My previous three race events had been cut short thanks to the electrical gremlins that prevented my car from starting. I hadn’t completed a full race weekend since my last race at Road Atlanta back in March. I had kind of forgotten why I love this sport so much. After participating in every session and loading a running car onto the truck at the end of the weekend, I felt confident that the electrical gremlins had finally been defeated. I had so much fun actually racing!
Achieved my best results ever. By every measure, I earned my best results ever on Sunday. In qualifying, beat my personal best lap time by 1.3 seconds, even though it was hot out and track conditions were worse than when I ran my previous personal best time. I closed my gap to the front of the field by 2.1 seconds a lap, which hints that my real progress is more than what lap times alone show. I finished Sunday’s race in 16th place out of 19 cars. All 19 cars were running and crossed the finish line at the end of the race. The only other times I had finished that well were when the cars behind me had broken or gone off track, so my 16th place represents a big improvement in pace!
Didn’t pass under yellow. First of all, the fact that I even had to worry about passing under yellow is an accomplishment in and of itself, because it means I was actually passing people! There were lots of incidents in Sunday’s race, which resulted in several local yellow flags and two full course cautions. I did a good job of keeping my eye out for flags, but having a radio really helped. All the Racing Analytics drivers were on the radio together, and the drivers at the front of the field called out the flags as they saw them. Now that I was closer to the front runners, most of the flags they saw were still out when I got there. Several drivers did pass under yellow in that race, but I was proud that I wasn’t among them, even though I could have been!
Things I learned
The many ways I was unconsciously compensating for my handling problems. I was surprised at all the weird driving habits that came out after I got my springs fixed. The car was so different that many of my old reflexes were just plain wrong. For example, now the car rotates less with the same steering input, which meant sometimes I just wouldn’t turn the steering wheel enough to make the turn! In Saturday’s qualifying, I this happened to me in turn 10b. I went wide off the track and drove right into the tire wall! (It ended my qualifying session, put some more dents in my car, and required another alignment from the Racing Analytics crew. ) When I discussed the incident with some other Spec Miata drivers, they said, “That’s a weird incident. Why didn’t you lift off the gas?” When I considered that question, I realized I didn’t lift off the gas because the old spring setup would have spun me if I lifted. When the same thing started to happen again in the race that afternoon, I remembered those conversations and lifted! While that’s the most dramatic example, I discovered many more of those weird habits over the course of the weekend, and I expect to find more at my next event. I’ll just have to keep watching for them and learn what to change as they crop up.
Don’t hesitate to pass when you catch a slower car. Going faster always changes things, and that means encountering new situations and making new kinds of mistakes. In this case, catching slower out-of-class cars was a brand new experience for me. My inner monologue went something like this, “Holy crap, am I catching that car? Yes, I am. In fact, I am going to catch it in the Esses. Yikes! What do I do? I guess I should just pass it, like the car in front of me is doing.” When I watched my video, I saw myself hesitating as I processed this new experience. Hesitation caused two problems for me; First, I lost time to the non-hesitating cars in front of me, and I never made it up again. Second, when I finally did pass the slower car, the driver was no longer watching for overtaking cars and ran me off the track. Now, there’s no excuse for not noticing a car next you and running it off the track. However, I think if I had stayed closer to the car in front of me, I could have gotten around the slow out of class car before it had time to start moving back across the track. Next time I won’t be surprised when I catch other cars and I’ll be ready to make a pass as soon as I catch them.
I can drive deliberately without overthinking it. For a long time I’ve struggled with finding the right mindset to drive fast. I felt like I had to “hypnotize” myself to relax and get in the zone or I would overthink everything and try too hard. This time, I used the approach my coach taught me during our test day. After reviewing my videos on Saturday night, Brad and I had discussed different techniques I could use in turns 2 and 5 that would find me more time. Doing two things differently wasn’t an overwhelming amount of stuff to think about. When I went out in qualifying on Sunday morning, I stayed focused and aware of what the car was doing in the present moment around the track and made the two planned changes to my driving. It worked! I was a second and a half faster than I had been the day before, and I was five miles an hour faster through turn 2 alone!
What to work on for next time
Learn and get comfortable with my “new” car. After this event, it was obvious that this is now the biggest thing that’s holding me back. Before my springs were fixed, I had started to find the limit of what the car would do in that state. Now that the limits of the car are higher, I’m driving well below what the car is capable of again. Intellectually, I know the car will take more steering angle and throttle that it did before, but my muscle memory still says otherwise. Right now my mind and body are fighting over how to drive. My brain wants to go faster, but my hands and feet are still just trying to survive. I’m planning to get more seat time in my car before my next NASA-SE event in September. I think sim practice my also help with this, since it’s impossible to reverse the springs in a simulator car!
Keep practicing the basics. Since I don’t know what big thing will hold me back next, I want to keep improving my fundamentals in the meantime. I know my hands still could be faster, my braking while downshifting could be smoother, I could be stronger and fitter… the list goes on. I know if I keep working on the basics now, I’ll be even faster once I find the limits of car on the new springs.