I’m not going to lie, I was nervous about going back to Roebling Road Raceway. I’m not usually a superstitious person, but it was hard not to feel like this track was cursed for me. I hadn’t finished a race without incident there in over a year. In that time I’ve had my brakes fail and gotten punted off the track, missed races due to mysterious electrical gremlins and crashed into the woods. But I was also determined not to let Roebling get the best of me. All I wanted out of this weekend was to just participate in the races.
My weekend started out well. I ran the test day on Friday, and I started to feel comfortable and relaxed on this track for the first time ever. I had fun and improved my driving on Friday, and was able to repeat the performance in qualifying the next day. In the first few laps of Saturday’s race I had fun battling for positions and was feeling like maybe, just maybe, the curse might be broken. But this is racing, and even if you do everything right to stay out of trouble, trouble can still find you. And once again, the curse struck. A Porsche 944 blew a motor right in front of me and dumped oil all over the track, sending cars sailing in every direction. And one car sailed right into mine, smashing my carefully repaired right rear quarter panel and bashing in the glittery numbers I’d just applied to my door.
What is it going to take to break the curse?
My intentions for the event
Have fun. This was my top priority for the weekend. No matter how I performed or how much I improved, I decided the weekend was only going to be a success if it was fun.
Find my car’s limits mid-corner and on acceleration. I knew the limits on my car were higher since I’d had the backwards springs fixed, but I hadn’t found out how high they were. I’ve always had an easier time finding the limit on the brakes when entering corners than at mid-corner or when accelerating out of a corner, so I wanted to take my test day to focus finding the limit in those two areas.
Improve my communication with my car. A big reason why I struggled to find the limits of my car after getting my springs fixed was that I didn’t trust my car. Even though I intellectually knew that the car shouldn’t snap oversteer like it did with the front springs on the rear and the rear springs on the front, I still struggled to believe it in the moment while driving. I’ve learned at work and in my personal life that trust issues can be solved with good communication, so I figured I’d try that approach with my race car. I wanted to really pay attention to what my car was telling me about how close it was to the limit. I also wanted to see how it was responding to my communication through the wheel and pedals. I hoped that learning how my car communicates about its limits would make me feel more comfortable pushing them.
Lean into the thrill. Last season I tried to “get outside my comfort zone” and “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which I think mostly resulted in flat spotting tires and hitting tire walls. It turns out that my comfort zone is a pretty expansive place. In order to feel uncomfortable, I was driving so hard I scared myself because I was driving over my head. Instead of making myself uncomfortable, I decided to lean into the thrill of driving fast. After all, my love for the thrill of speed was what started me on this journey. My plan was to drive hard enough to feel the thrill, but not so hard I was uncomfortable. My hope was that this would be easier on my equipment and also reinforce my primary goal of having fun!
What actually happened: Wrecking. Again.
I was having fun battling another Miata when I saw smoke coming out of a Porsche 944 that had just passed me. This wasn’t the first time a 944 has blown up in front of me and I knew what would happen next. (Fun fact: In the video of the Ferrari F1 Road Atlanta track record you can see the oil stain of the 944 that blew up in front of me on the back straight the previous weekend!) I lifted off the throttle in anticipation of the oil slick caused by the 944’s engine explosion. I still spun when I hit the oil and came to rest at the edge of the track, narrowly avoiding hitting the now-disabled 944. I was stopped at the outside of turn 4, perpendicular to the track. I knew I had to get out of there before more cars slid off the track, but the disabled 944 was blocking my escape route. If I pulled forward, I’d drive right back through the slippery oil and into oncoming traffic. Getting T-boned by an oncoming BMW Spec E30 was not a good option. I radioed a warning to Brad in hopes that he could avoid my fate. I briefly considered backing up, but I saw cars sailing behind me in my mirrors. I was a sitting duck.
When I saw a friend’s E30 sliding sideways at about 50 MPH right in my direction, I knew I was still under Roebling’s curse. The only thought in my head was, “I should have never raced here again!” Then, WHAM. The E30 slammed into me hard, bounced off me, and then flipped over. The hit was much harder than when I had crashed into the woods. Things that had been securely attached to the inside of my car were dislodged. I could only image the damage to the outside of the car. The initial impact had hurt, but the pain quickly subsided.
As I sat in my car waiting for the race to be red flagged, I wanted to cry. Not because the crash had been scary, but because I felt so powerless. Not powerless against the onslaught of flying E30s, but against fate. I’d worked so hard to fix my car, to overcome my fears of this track, and to get myself in the right mindset to improve and have fun here. And for what? Here I was, with my car possibly in worse condition than when I’d last left this track, watching my friend climb out of his upside down race car.
When I was sure it was safe to get out, I first checked on my friend who had crawled out of the overturned E30. Once I confirmed that he was okay, I checked out my car. The right front fender had more damage, the whole right door was dented in, and the right rear corner panel was very smashed. The right rear wheel was pointing hard to the left, indicating that all my new suspension parts were broken again. The front wheels were both pointed straight, though, so I was able to crab my car back to the pits under its own power.
When I got out of the car, I declared to the small crowd that had gathered around me, “I am NEVER racing this stupid track again!” Our friend Jason, whose teenage son races Spec Miata with us, bent over and examined my deranged right rear wheel. “I think we can fix this,” he said. “Do you want to try and fix it?” I felt a surge of relief and hope. Could it be that I wasn’t completely at Roebling’s fickle mercy after all? “Yes!” I cried. “Let’s fix it!” I ran into the trailer to change out of my driving suit and emerged with my jack and jack stands and got my car up off the ground.
My car got suspension surgery over the next couple of hours. In a twist of luck, a competitor had hired Panic Motorsports for track support, and the Panic crew came over to help Jason and us, bringing parts and tools. One of those tools was a SAWZALL, which was required to cut through a severely bent bolt in the damaged suspension. After pushing several body panels back out, Jason said the car was ready for a shakedown on track. The right rear tire was still toed inwards a little bit due to a bent subframe that would have been too time consuming to replace, but Jason and the Panic crew thought it might handle well enough I could still race on Sunday. And before the end of the day, my car and I were back on the track! The toed in right rear made the car feel a little unstable in right turns and less willing to turn left, but very stable once it was turned in. My car wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to race. And I was going to race it. That had to be the way to defeat The Curse of Roebling Road. I had to finally stop it from ruining my weekend!
Got back on track and raced after a big wreck. In a testament to how much character last year’s challenging season had built, I got back out and raced on Sunday without any trepidation. My car was about 3 seconds a lap off pace, but racing a slow car was still way more fun than watching the race from pit lane. I’m deeply grateful for the all the help I had getting back on track. I couldn’t have broken Roebling’s curse without a ton of help from the rest of the Spec Miata paddock.
Got significantly more consistent. Before this event, nearly all my fastest laps at this track seemed to happen accidentally and not because I’d actually made a conscious effort to turn a fast lap. In fact, I was never able to get within a second or two of that pace when it really mattered. That all changed when I focused on communicating with the car. When I paid attention to my inputs and the way my car responded to them, it became clear what worked and what didn’t. With that knowledge, I automatically started doing the things that worked more consistently. The consistency was a happy side effect of being tuned into the car. While my overall fastest lap of the weekend was only a few tenths better than my previous personal best, I was now able to run that fast lap time consistently whenever I wanted.
Slowed down less in traffic. Since I knew my car was wasn’t going to be competitive with one of the wheels pointed in a different direction and I was going to be passed a lot, I set a goal not to slow in traffic in Sunday’s race. I drove as fast as I could and didn’t go any slower just because someone was passing me. Although slower than usual, my lap times were almost all within two seconds of each other, even though I was off pace and constantly getting passed. This felt like a major victory, especially since I’d been struggling with traffic at my last few events since I crashed into the woods. And as I expected, the less I slowed down, the easier the traffic was to manage because other cars caught me more gradually and took more time to work their way around me.
Finished my first incident free race at Roebling in over a year. This felt like the biggest victory of my weekend. Even though fate had thrown an E30 at me at 50mph, I still achieved my goal of finishing a race at Roebling. I think I was more excited about fishing that race than Brad was about finishing it in second place!
Things I learned
My car gives me all the data I need in real time. My biggest takeaway from working on communicating with my car is how much information my car gives me, right in the moment when I can do something about it. I didn’t bother running my data system for this whole event, and I didn’t miss it. By paying attention to my car’s RPMs, shift points, steering feel, rotation, and everything the tires were doing, I could tell when I was on a good lap and when I was getting more out of the car. And because I was processing all this data while it was happening, I could make adjustments on the fly. For example, when I paid attention, I could hear and feel when my car’s RPMs drop when I over-slowed for a corner, and I could get back to the throttle sooner to make up for it, minimizing the time lost. I’m certain this is where my newfound consistency comes from. In fact, this was such a huge breakthrough for me that I might write a whole ‘nother blog post on it!
I don’t need to get out of my comfort zone to improve my performance. I was really happy with my performance at this event. I was more confident carrying speed into turns, getting on the gas sooner and running closer to other cars. I attribute this confidence to staying in my comfort zone. Being uncomfortable just isn’t confidence inspiring for me, and I’m going to stop pushing my driving until I feel uncomfortable.
Race car safety equipment works incredibly well. When that E30 hit me, it hurt. When I got out of the car, sides of my neck were a little sore, and I was worried I was going to be even more sore the next day. But when I woke up on Sunday morning, I actually felt better. And I continued to feel better for the next couple of days until nothing hurt at all. This is because race cars are so much safer than then even the safest street cars. When you wreck in a street car, your body bounces around all sorts of soft surfaces and airbags in the car, leading to weird injuries that might take days to make themselves known. In a race car you’re strapped tightly into your seat with a 6 point harness, and your helmet, HANS device and containment seat keep your head from moving more than an inch or two. When I got hit, my body made one small movement and then stopped. The small bumps and bruises I had were very straight forward; the muscles on the sides of my neck were sore from my head’s quick movement into the containment seat, and I had a small bruise on the top of my left foot from hitting the clutch pedal. The damage to my body was incredibly minor, considering the car that hit me was totaled and my car had lots of bent steal. On Monday when I got into my street car to battle Atlanta traffic on my way work, the lack of safety equipment felt inadequate. Getting hit hard in a race car has really made me reconsider my willingness to show up at work with helmet hair every day!
What to work on for next time
Get my car fixed. Again. With less than a month between this event and my next event, my only goal is getting my car ready to race with all four wheels pointed in the same direction. I got really lucky that my car’s frame didn’t get bent after a second big hit to the same corner. My crew at Racing Analytics was able to bolt up more new suspension parts and another new subframe to get the car properly aligned. The only remaining issue is that the right rear corner panel is now so damaged that it can’t be pulled out any further without tearing away from the unibody. The only solution to this is to take it to a body shop where they can cut out the damaged quarter panel and weld in a new one. Because I won’t have time to get the car to the body shop before my next race at CMP, I raised the ride height all the way up and I’m crossing my fingers that the right rear fender doesn’t rub on the tire. Worst case scenario, I should still be able to turn a few laps and get some points for the event and then I’ll show up at Road Atlanta in March with a shinny new quarter panel!