I was so excited for this race. First, because it was at my favorite track, Road Atlanta. And second, because it was supposed to rain and I love racing in the rain. Road Atlanta and the rain have something in common for me; they’re both situations where I stack up better against the competition. My driving tends to be limited more by my lack of skill than fear. Rain and Road Atlanta both tend to intimidate other drivers more then they intimidate me, which is an advantage for me.
Brad and I have two sets of rain tires, both of which came with my car when we bought it. One set is 7 years old and hard as rocks, but has like-new tread. The other set is 10 years old and has very worn tread, especially on the shoulders. Up until this point, Brad had been racing on the 10 year old set of rain tires and had been reasonably fast on them. However, coming into this race, Brad was in third place in the championship by one point. He knew the driver in 4th had good rain tires, so Brad ordered a new set… which FedEx then lost en route to our tire shop. Being the good teammate that I am, I asked Brad if he thought I could race and not die on his 10 year old tires. When he replied, “Probably,” I offered to let him race on my rain tires, which are 7 years old, hard as rocks, but have lots of good tread. He agreed.
My intentions for the event
Focus on feeling the car in the rain. One reason I perform well in the rain is because I’m very familiar with driving without grip. The first 17 years of my driving life were lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where snow and ice coat the roads for half the year. Ironically, this experience didn’t leave me with exceptional car control skills, because Minneapolis is a big city with lots of cars and walls to hit, so there was never any margin to let my car get out of line. Instead, I learned to resign myself to the lack of grip. I learned to feel how much traction I had and how to drive as fast as I could without losing control. This skill alone doesn’t enable me to win a race in the rain, but it does enable me to survive one. I wanted to tap into that ability, and race like I was late to work on an icy morning in Minneapolis.
Initiate slowly, react quickly. This meant driving as smoothly as possibly but making quick corrections. I wanted to be tuned into the car so well that I could catch slides as early as possible, when they were very small, so I only would need make tiny corrections with my inputs.
I qualified 12th on bad rain tires. There was a deluge of rain when we went out to qualify. There were rivers streaming across the track everywhere. I relaxed and stuck with my intentions and ended up 12th out of 16 cars!
I made it into the top ten during the race. After starting 12th, I was able to pass two more cars, putting me in 10th. That’s the furthest up I’ve ever run in a field of that size. After a few laps running in 10th, the car behind me passed me back, inspiring my competitive side and shifting my brain from “running late to work on ice” mode to “driving fast at Road Atlanta”mode, which was my undoing. I unconsciously switched from the rain line to the racing line heading in to turn 6. The polished asphalt of the normal racing line caused me to lock up my brakes and slide right off the track into the gravel trap, where I stayed until a sufficient contingent of the field had also slid off the track in various turns and race control threw a caution and sent the wreckers out to rescue us all. But still… I was running in 10th at Road Atlanta in the rain on bad tires!
I got a trophy at the awards banquet. I wasn’t expecting to get a trophy, but this was the first awards banquet I’d ever attended, so I wasn’t aware of all the trophies that were awarded. It turns out there’s a handmade “Less Brake, More Throttle” trophy that’s awarded each year, and I was this year’s recipient. The regional race director described it as a trophy that goes to, “Someone who’s worked really hard without a lot to show for it. This is someone who’s had back luck and had to work really hard just to be in the race, but doesn’t get results.” That sounds a lot like my 2018 season. My brakes failed. Electrical gremlins kept me out of five races. I discovered I’d been racing for a year on backwards springs. I crashed into the woods. The award made me feel validated that I did have a remarkably difficult season season. It also made me feel better that this is an annual award, so I’m apparently not the first person to have an award-winningly bad season.
Brad won the race in the rain and clinched 3rd in the championship. I feel like I get a little teammate credit for this because I let Brad use my tires. Brad qualified first by two whole seconds, not just in Spec Miata, but out all four classes that were on track, all of which should be faster than Spec Miata. In fact, Brad was the fastest of any car in qualifying that day, including Corvettes and Porsche 911s. Brad started the race from pole and lead every lap of the race to bring home his first Spec Miata win. (You can watch his video here.) All on my rock hard seven year old tires! Since Brad obviously finished ahead of the driver who was 4th in the championship, he won the third place season championship trophy, too.
Things I learned
Anti-fog products alone won’t keep a race car from fogging up in the rain. My car doesn’t have the HVAC blower or controls in it, which means it doesn’t have a defroster for the front windshield. And that means the windshield gets really foggy in the rain. I tried to be proactive and applied Rain-X Anti Fog, which was completely ineffective. My windshield was so foggy after two laps in the warmup session that I could barely find my way back to the pits. At one point during those two laps I desperately tossed my helmet blower hose on the dash. I noticed it did clear part of the windshield, just not the part I needed to through. So, before qualifying, I zip tied my helmet blower hose to my phone mount to keep it pointing through the part of the windshield I needed to see through. The helmet blower actually worked really well to keep the important part of the windshield clear! I do think the anti fog product helped the helmet blower work better than it otherwise would have, so it wasn’t a complete waste.
All about hydroplaning on the track. I was familiar with hydroplaning in a straight line from driving on the street, but Brad’s worn old rain tires taught me about hydroplaning in turns. I discovered I couldn’t avoid hydroplaning through turns without over slowing, so I decided to embrace the hydroplane. The faster the turn, the more my car would hydroplane, which meant it hydroplaned the most in turn 12, the fastest and most intimidating turn on the track. There was no way around hydroplaning on the exit of 12, so I adjusted my line to leave myself room to hydroplane out to the edge of the track. Now that I learned how to do this, I’m hoping I can use this same technique on better tires so I can hydroplane the same amount with more speed!
More about how my car handles at the limit. One of the things I love about the rain is that it lowers the limits of my car, allowing me to experience driving at the limits of grip at much slower speeds. I’ve struggled to understand the new, higher limits of my car since I got my springs fixed, so I was excited to feel the rain make those limits more accessible. This gave me a chance to unlearn some of the coping mechanisms I’d developed to manage my car when it had backwards springs. For example, when felt the car start to understeer, I found that I could lift off the gas pedal a tiny bit and the front tires would regain traction. This was a huge improvement over the snap oversteer I’d experience any time I lifted off the throttle with the backwards springs. This gave me confidence to carry more speed through the turns because I knew I had a means to make a correction if I was going too fast.
If you get stuck in the gravel, you should always at least try to get out. I didn’t learn this in the race. I learned it after the race when Brad saw my video where I got stuck in the gravel trap. I had felt the car sink in to the gravel, so I didn’t try spinning my wheels to get out because I thought I was stuck. When Brad saw that he said, “You should always try to get out! Especially in the rain!” Apparently, gravel is different when it’s wet. This lesson was reinforced a few days later when I saw a highlight video of the very wet 2015 Petit LeMans At Road Atlanta where several cars drove right out of the same gravel I thought I was stuck in. Lesson learned!
Unsolved mysteries revisited
A year ago, I had been thoroughly mystified by the Sunday “Fun” (no points) race at this event. I didn’t understand why it had freaked me out but not other people, and I didn’t understand how other people thought it was fun. Last year, the no points race was more aggressive than a normal race and drivers seemed to take more risks than they do when results are on the line.
I hadn’t decided if or how I wanted to participate in this race. I wasn’t sure what the weather would be like, how many drivers would participate or what the format would be. The day of the race was warm and sunny and the field was large. Plus, not only were all the slow momentum cars we usually race with going to be on track, but the faster horsepower cars would be on track behind us. I was uncomfortable with it, but I let myself get peer pressured into running. The Spec Miatas were starting ahead of all the faster cars in a somewhat reversed grid, and I was listed to start third. The race director made a joke about my staying on track in reference to my crash in September, and all the other Miata drivers were participating. I kind of wanted to start from the back and see who I could catch, but I felt like everyone was expecting me at the front of the field and I felt foolish for being nervous, so I took my assigned place on the grid.
Brad had offered to be my bump drafting buddy and help me by pushing me from behind, which I thought would be fun. And it was fun for two laps. And then all the faster cars caught us. Not only was I overwhelmed by managing the traffic, but I still had Brad pushing me (literally, his front bumper was pushing my rear bumper so I was going faster than I otherwise would have been) and I had to mentally account for that additional speed, too. Being overwhelmed meant I slowed down, so Brad went around me. Once Brad was by, all the faster cars got around me too, and I felt better at that point. I saw some of my other Miata competitors had also gotten slowed down in traffic and I started gaining on them. Shortly after that the race was red flagged and temporarily stopped due to a wreck. Once we started moving again I started getting really high water temperature readings from my engine, which was both concerning and a handy excuse to pull into the pits before the madness of the restart.
Even though I still don’t get why the “Fun” race is fun, it was less traumatic this year, which feels like an accomplishment. I also got a little bit of insight into my fun race mystery:
Managing traffic in the fun race is still too challenging to actually be fun. This year the traffic didn’t feel panic-inducing, but it did feel frustratingly challenging. It’s hard to keep track of all those cars when they move past me so quickly.
It will probably get much easier when I’m able to run a faster pace. Not to say that I don’t need to improve my situational awareness, but I think that the key to managing this kind of traffic is to stay ahead of it as much as possible. The faster I run, the smaller the speed differential to other cars will be, especially in turns. That should make it a lot easier to keep track of the cars around me, since fewer will catch me in any given turn.
It’s still possible I might not like this type of racing, and that’s actually fine. I’ve made a mental note to check back in on how I feel about this next year. It’s possible that even once I’m skilled enough that the fun race isn’t difficult for me, I still might not get why it’s fun. Regular points races require me to stretch to be sufficiently aggressive, so this sort of thing just might not be my jam. And that’s okay. There are 17 other points races on the schedule to enjoy during the rest of the season.
My plans for 2019
I learned a lot in 2018, and as cliche as it sounds, my challenging season made me stronger and really did build character. Here’s what I’m planning to do to make 2019 a better season.
Prioritize having fun. Even though racing is my hobby, I don’t think I did this well in 2018. There were many times where I unintentionally prioritized making progress and achieving results over having fun, and as a result I often didn’t make progress or have fun. I want 2019 to be about fun first and foremost. I still want to improve as a driver and achieve results, but not at the expense of enjoying the sport I love.
Accept where I’m at in the process. There were times in 2018 where I was down on myself because I wasn’t as far along as I wanted to be. I want to run up front, and I still believe I’ll get there, but in 2019 want to have fun wherever I’m at. My racecraft and speed have improved to the point where there’s almost always someone running my pace to race with, so I should be able to have fun racing at every event. There’s no reason to wait until I can win to have fun.
Use less data. I don’t spend a ton of time analyzing data, but I do have a data app on my phone that I’ll use for lap times and to check things like minimum and maximum speeds and to compare laps. I haven’t found that I’ve learned much from my data, though. It tells me what I’m doing wrong, but it doesn’t give me the skills to do things right. As a result, my data mostly just disappoints me. And that’s not much fun. Instead of measuring myself with data and judging myself accordingly, I want to focus on building car control skills and learning to feel what my car is doing so I can gauge my performance in the moment, when there’s still something I can do about it. I want to drive as fast as I can because driving fast is fun, and chase thrills instead of lap times. 2019 is going to be all about having fun.