NASA-SE Savannah Sizzler at Roebling Road, September 21-23 2018: What it’s like to crash

crashed

It was a big crash, but I was completely unhurt and the car is fixable.

Roebling has become my unlucky track this year. Our season includes three races at Robeling. In January my brakes failed in practice, and then I got punted off the track during the race. In April, the electrical gremlins that dogged me for three events first appeared, just as I rolled onto the false grid for my first race. And now, at this most recent event, I experienced my first big crash that seriously damaged my car.

I’ve never felt comfortable at Roebling. Lots of drivers like Roebling because it lacks the intimating blind corners and concrete walls that Road Atlanta has, but that’s never put me at ease here. Roebling doesn’t play to my strengths. I’m best at precision and hitting my marks, but Roebling’s layout rewards drivers who can hold the car consistently on the limit in its long, sweeping turns. It doesn’t matter much where you put your car at Roebling, so long as you’re at the limits of grip. The advice to “Just get on the throttle until you feel the car start moving around,” has never helped me, because I’m never confident that I can deal with the car just deciding to move around at some non-specific point at high speeds.

Of course, that wasn’t even why I crashed. The universe has a better sense of humor than that.

My intentions for the event

Use my test day to improve my pace by practicing braking less and getting on the throttle sooner. I signed up for a test day on Friday before racing on Saturday and Sunday. I hadn’t seen my pace improve here since January, and I was hoping that lots of focused practice on Friday might remedy that. I had plans to spend time working on braking less to roll more speed, getting on the throttle earlier and using less steering input. I was on a mission!

Have fun and enjoy driving fast. To balance all the focus practice, I also planned to take time during my test day to just have fun driving fast and feel the thrill of driving hard. I also wanted to make this the main focus of my race days. I do this because it’s my hobby and I enjoy it, so if I’m not having fun and enjoying myself, I’m missing the point.

What actually happened

I didn’t get any faster. My fastest lap of the day on Friday was in my first session when I was just setting a baseline. After that, everything I tried slowed me down. When I focused on getting the throttle sooner, I unconsciously braked more to compensate for it. When I focused on braking lighter or for a shorter amount of time to roll more speed, I unconsciously waited longer to get back to the throttle. I couldn’t figure out a way to do both. Despite my best efforts (or maybe because of them), my qualifying time on Saturday morning was more off pace than usual, and I was disappointed and felt like my efforts were wasted.

I had a big wreck. When I gridded up for my race on Saturday, I decided to stop worrying about how to go faster and just have fun. My plan was to focus on racing, get caught up in the moment, and forget about everything else.

I was second to last on the gird, with two rookies on the row in front of me. I’m good at race starts, and I knew that even if those rookies could put together a better qualifying lap than me, I could get them on the start. When I heard “Green! Green! Green!” over the radio, I mashed the pedal to the floor and aimed for the space between the two cars ahead of me. First I passed the car on the left, then the one on the right. My sense of timing told me I should have been clear of the car on the left, so I checked my left side view mirror and thought what I saw confirmed that I was clear. I slowly moved just the slightest bit to the left to set up for turn 1 and…

BAM! Something made contact with my left rear fender and my car spun at over 90 mph. I spun off the track. Even though I locked up the brakes, I was sailing backwards across the grass into… I didn’t even know what. Whatever it was, I knew it was going to be bad. I was expecting to hit armco or a earthen berm. Instead, I saw a tree fly past from behind me. This was going to be very, very bad. More trees flew past, and finally my car came to a rest wedged in between several large pine trees.

Why I crashed: I had thought I was clear of the car behind me, but I wasn’t. I misjudged where it was, and the other driver stayed his course and didn’t move to avoid me. No one made any overly aggressive moves or did anything notably dumb. We are known for our close racing in Spec Miata, and in close racing even small errors can have big consequences. Usually they don’t, but very occasionally they do. I wrecked at the end of the front straight, which is an uncommon place to wreck and why the trees were unprotected – although I’d now argue they should be!

Compared to other sports, luck plays an outsized role in racing. I was both unlucky to wreck where I did and lucky that I went between the largest trees and my crash wasn’t worse. Maybe the crash could have been avoided if I hadn’t moved that tiny bit left, or if the car behind me had moved out of my way, or if my hands were faster and I could have caught the spin before I got so far off track. There are always “what ifs,” but there’s not much anyone can do about them now, and I’m choosing to let them go.

Accomplishments

I kept my shit together after my crash. This really does feel like a huge accomplishment! I don’t think I’d have been able to do it at the beginning of the season. I felt like all the other incidents I’ve been through this year prepared me to handle this crash. Before I started racing, I viewed car crashes as a big, scary, traumatic events. Over the course of the season I’d been hit by another car and gone off and hit a couple of tire walls on my own. Coming back from those smaller incidents helped me see that, while unpleasant, crashing is just a part of the sport. And as unpleasant as crashing is, it’s not so unpleasant as to outweigh all the joy racing brings me. That giant shift in perspective took an incident that would have otherwise been traumatic and upsetting and tamped it down to just being a major bummer.

Brad finished second in both races. This race was Brad’s first race on brand new tires. Up until this point, we’d both been racing on used tires, which don’t have as much grip as new ones. Brad had finally won enough tire money by finishing races in third, fourth or fifth to afford a new set of tires of his own. Brad qualified fourth on Saturday, but raced up to second in the restart after the caution caused by my wreck. (When the race director called Brad up to the podium, he introduced him as, “The man whose wife crashes cars so he can win second place!”) On Sunday, Brad finished second on his own, without any help from me!

Things I learned

I’m scared to get on the throttle at this track in particular. I usually don’t feel fear on the race track. At times I’ve felt timid or self-conscious, but rarely do I feel “fight or flight” style fear. But when I really thought about what happened when I delayed getting on the throttle, there was a tiny little moment of fear that prevent me from following through with my intentions. Intellectually, I know I can get on the throttle sooner. I sent Brad out in my car for a few laps during our test day on Friday, and I have video and data of him getting on the throttle much sooner than I do and being totally fine. But it seems that intellectually knowing something and really believing it are two different things.

To be fast in a Spec Miata in Roebling’s long, sweeping turns, you have to get on the throttle long before you can straighten your steering wheel out. In the past, this would have resulted in a spin for me. Before I started racing, I did DEs (driving education) on regular street tires, which have significantly less grip than the racing slicks I run on now. And then when I did move to race slicks, I also moved to a race car with the front springs on the back and the back springs on the rear. The backwards springs meant that, even though I had grippier tires, the rear of the car was too stiff and the car would snap oversteer when I got on the throttle sooner. Having slick tires and proper springs means I should be able to get on the throttle much sooner, and car should come around much more slowly if it does oversteer. The key to overcoming this fear will be figuring how to make myself believe that deep down.

My biggest fear is not being able to race. When I was headed backwards into the trees, there was only one thought in my head; “This is going to destroy my car and I won’t be able to race.” I didn’t once think about my own physical safety. This is either means I fully trust all the safety equipment in my car or I’m such a racing addict that I don’t even bother to consider my own physical well-being. After the wrecker crew deposited my car (with me it) back at my trailer in the paddock, I sat in it and sulked for a few minutes. Finally a friend came by to see how I was, and told me, “You can get out now, you know.” I asked him how my car was. He showed me a photo on his phone screen. The car was dented, but fully intact. It looked repairable. A huge flood of relief washed over me, and I knew everything was going to be okay and got out of the car.

It’s okay to fail. My second biggest fear, after not being able to race, is failure. “Failure” is a vague, fuzzy fear. I think failure is scary because being a failure would mean I shouldn’t race, and really, all I want to do is race. Even though businesses like to talk about “making it okay to fail” and “failing fast,” in practice failure is not okay in my professional life. In fact, there are very few organizations of any kind where it’s truly okay to fail. My racing organization, NASA-SE, however, it the rare exception. I epically wrecked and everyone was cool with it. Everyone said, “I’m so glad you’re okay!” and went about their business. No one panicked and no one needed to figure out how to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again, which is the way I’ve always seen people respond to failure in the past. I had never felt so accepted.

The importance of camaraderie. Our NASA-SE Spec Miata group does a pretty good job building camaraderie. We eat lunch together, sit together at the awards ceremony and we always debrief, talk and laugh together after our races. I’ve always appreciated this, because it makes racing more fun. After I had my wreck, I had a new appreciation for camaraderie. Because I have a good rapport with other drivers, I was able to talk to everyone after the race, review videos from other cars, and quickly understand what happened. I felt like I already had a head start on getting the situation sorted out because everyone knew me and how I race. Having camaraderie and rapport with your competitors means that when an incident happens on track, everyone knows the drivers involved weren’t being assholes on purpose.

What to work on for next time

Fix my car. Obviously this was my top priority. The frame was straight and the tub sustained minimal damage, but the suspension was heavily damaged and the car was crabbing so badly we could barely get it on the trailer. For the most part, everything that was damaged could be unbolted and replaced. I had 6 weeks before my next event, and I was hopeful my shop, Racing Analytics, could help me get all the parts sourced and replaced in that time.

Visualizing what it would feel like to get on the throttle sooner. After feeling frustrated with my progress in this area, my coach suggested visualization exercises to improve at this before my next race at Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP). It sounded a little out there, but CMP isn’t in any driving simulator that I know of, so I was willing to try it as an experiment. I made a plan to spend time each day visualizing getting on the throttle earlier at CMP.