NASA-SE Turkey Trot at Carolina Motorsports Park, November 9-10, 2018: Coming back stronger after a wreck

I’m looking pretty good for having crashed into the woods, huh?
(Thanks to Nine Lives Racing for the photo!)

I almost didn’t make it to this event. It felt like the universe was conspiring to keep me off the race track. In September, I lost my job when my entire department was eliminated, and then I promptly wrecked my race car. If that weren’t enough stress, the stacker trailer Brad and I bought to replace our old box truck didn’t work behind our new pickup truck. We weren’t sure if we would be able to transport the cars to our next race, even if I could get my car fixed, all while I was hustling hard for work so we could cover these surprise expenses.

Despite all that, I was determined to get back to racing. I needed to prove to myself that my big crash hadn’t gotten the best me. And somehow, everything managed to fall in to place. I landed a contract consulting gig that was scheduled to start the day after my race at CMP. We found our dream trailer. (More about that on Instagram.) Racing Analytics got the last parts bolted on to my car just in time for me to pick it up at the last possible minute. I was going to make a comeback!

I was so glad I got this chance to prove to myself that I could bounce back. Every so often, I’ll have a weekend where something just clicks and I really make a big improvement in some aspect of racing.  At this event, that aspect was my mental toughness. I felt so much more resilient and able to refocus myself, which provided a newfound confidence boost and made me feel like I can handle anything that comes my way.

My intentions for the event

I had a big list of things I wanted to find out at this event, so my coach suggested being in “learning mode” all weekend and not worrying about my performance. I’d missed too many events this year to compete for season championship prizes or contingency, so I didn’t have anything to lose by prioritizing learning over my performance. Here’s what I wanted to find out:

Make sure my car was put back together properly. My crew chief had warned me, “Take it easy at first and make sure everything is okay with your car. It should be fine, but any time you take this much of a car a part, there’s a risk one little thing or another might have gotten missed or not tightened down all the way.” My plan was to take my warmup session on Saturday morning and start out at about 60% pace and make sure my car felt normal and wasn’t making any strange sounds. From there I would work up my pace and continue to feel out the car to make sure it was safe and ready to race.

See how the new springs felt on the track. I hadn’t driven my car at CMP since I discovered that my front springs were on the rear and my rear springs were on the front back in June. CMP has lots of slow, pointy turns where you want to transfer the weight of the car to the rear wheels and power out of turns on the throttle, which was difficult to do when the stiffer front springs were on the rear of the car. I was really excited to feel what the proper spring setup would be like at CMP.

See if my “mental simulator” practice made a difference. “Mental simulator” is my term for the method of practice my coach and I came up with to help me get to the throttle sooner at CMP. It involved me driving CMP in my simulator rig, except I was visualizing the track in my head instead of using the screen. With Brad’s help, I wrote a detailed plan of how I would drive the track if I were getting on the throttle earlier. Every day, I sat down in the simulator and visualized driving the track and getting on the throttle earlier while my hands and feet actually went through the motions with the wheel and pedals. I started out in “slow motion” and reviewing my notes after each complex of turns, and kept practicing until my new way of driving CMP had become muscle memory in the simulator. I’d never done anything like this before, and the whole thing felt like a big experiment. I was dying to see if I could really reprogram my muscle memory without driving the real track or using a computer simulator.


Got back out on track after a big wreck and went fast. I went out and ran within a few hundredths of a second of my personal best lap times and finished 17th out of 20 cars in both races. This was right on par with how I’ve performed on my best days, when I’ve been clear-headed and in the zone. I am so proud of myself for this. Knowing that I can have a big scary crash and come back just as fast is a huge confidence boost. This performance also likely means that my driving has improved since the last time I was at CMP. I wasn’t in the zone at this event, because I was focused on learning and feeling the car. Plus, I was pretty exhausted from everything it took to get back on the racetrack. I know I have even more pace that what I showed at this event.

Qualified 4th out of 20 cars. This was thanks to a red flag after just one lap of qualifying on Saturday. Because CMP’s start/finish line is after where we roll out on to the track, the outlap counts as everyone’s first timed lap in qualifying. One big thing I’ve worked on this season is getting up to speed quickly (or “going fast fast,” as my coach likes to say). We start our qualifying sessions under green, so I went as fast as I could as soon as I hit the track. Since I’m toward the back of the field, this helps me stay ahead of the faster cars who roll on to the track first and gives me more clear track. The faster cars, on the other hand, take a very slow outlap to avoid catching the back of the field. When the red flag came out due to a crash in the middle of turn 2 on the second lap, the handful of drivers who are usually the fastest had the slowest lap times, and I was fourth fastest of the rest!

Refocused myself after getting freaked out in traffic. I got a good start in Sunday’s race, and was running ahead of several other Miatas when a full course caution came out and packed up the field. In this race, the faster Spec E30 cars had done a standing start, which meant they were the last class to start the race and therefore all behind me under the caution. I had about one clean lap after the restart before the E30s caught me. And they all caught me all at once. I was in the middle of a turn, and they started spitting me, streaming past me on both sides. Panic struck me, just as it had done at the Toy Run Fun Race nearly a year ago. My field of vision narrowed, causing me to slow down and get passed by even more cars. Other Miatas passed me, too. As I came up to the last turn, I debated pitting to get off the track until the panicky feeling subsided. And then I looked in my rear view mirror. There was no one there. Anyone who could pass me already had, and there was nothing but clear track behind me. The panic dissipated. I relaxed and went back to driving and feeling the car. This accomplishment feels huge to me, because when this happened to me last year, the panic haunted me for days afterwards.

Had an awesome battle on track. After getting passed what felt like every car on the track, all at the same time, I focused on feeling the car and learning. After a few laps, I noticed I was catching another Miata. It was a friend, who had started racing around the same time as I did and had been progressing at about the same rate as me. I slowly reeled him in, and I noticed he started driving harder as I caught up to him. The battle was on! As I caught up to him, I noticed the parts of the track where I was faster, and planned my move. I was definitely faster then him through the high speed kink, and he even went off once there trying to stay ahead of me. When the white flag came out signifying the last lap, I knew it was now or never. I closed hard on him in the kink, over the course of the next few turns I got along side of him and completed the pass in the last turn. Battles like that are the most fun part of racing, and why we all show up at the race track. After the race, back in the paddock, he gave me a high five and a big hug because he’d had so much fun, too!

Things I learned

My “mental simulator” practice worked, particularly in the parts of the track I had visualized best. It was fascinating to see the muscle memory I’d reprogrammed surface as I drove around the track. The first thing I noticed was that I had to relax and stop thinking about driving in order to drive by muscle memory, which is always easier said than done for me. But as I relaxed and got comfortable with the car again, parts of the track began to click in a way they hadn’t before. In some complexes of turns, everything went exactly as I had envisioned, and I was able to get on the throttle sooner and carry more speed than I had before. But my new muscle memory was wrong in a few of the turns, and everything felt off and awkward there. In one particular turn, I carried more speed than I had before, but didn’t get back to the throttle soon enough and spun the car because of the lack of throttle. Overall, I think this exercise was worth the effort. (Although I don’t know if I’ll be able to spend this kind of time again now that I’m not unemployed.)

My car’s limit at CMP is so much higher with the proper springs. I spent a lot of time focused on feeling my car a this event, and that was my biggest takeaway. For the most part, the car felt significantly more stable than it ever had before at CMP. Of course, that means I’m now going to have to drive harder to find that new limit!

I’ve my comfort level when running close to other cars has regressed a little bit. I wasn’t nervous my first time back on track after my crash, but I noticed I did feel a little uncomfortable once other cars got close to me. I suppose that’s not surprising, but it was disappointing. I’d made good progress at feeling more comfortable running closer to other cars over the course of the season, and it was discouraging to feel like I’d taken a step backwards. I suppose the good news is that I’ve improved in this area before, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it again.

What to work on for next time

Get ready for Road Atlanta! There were just three weeks between this race at CMP and my next race at Road Atlanta, and during that time I’d be starting a new consulting gig and traveling for Thanksgiving. My only goal for my car and my driving between the two events was to do basic maintenance on my car and make sure everything was ready go for my next race.

Make a plan for this year’s Toy Run Fun Race. After the challenges I had in heavy traffic at this event and the way I got spooked in last year’s Fun Race, I wasn’t sure I wanted to run in it again. Last year Brad had told me he expected me to “get it,” in regards to why an extra-aggressive no points race was supposed to be fun. I still didn’t “get it,” though, which felt discouraging. Could I run it and have fun? What if I started at the back? I wanted to have a plan.