Trying to crack the mid-pack: NASA-SE Race for the Pi at Road Atlanta, March 9-10, 2019


Here I am in the middle of the pack! If only it had kept raining, maybe I would have stayed there.

I’m getting so close to the mid pack now, I can almost taste it. Almost. (I imagine it tastes like a locked up tire smells.) And for a moment at this event, I was there. I qualified 10 out of 15 cars in the rain, but then it dried up before my race and I finished back in 14th. After Saturday’s race I bolted on a new steering wheel spacer I’d picked up at the track, and spent Sunday’s qualifying session adapting to it. It made me faster in Sunday’s race but not quite fast enough to keep up with mid-pack on dry pavement. It’s so frustrating to be so close.

I’m still getting my car back to normal after the big wreck in January, and my car was still a work in progress at this event. I’d picked it up from the body shop with a fresh new right rear quarter panel a few days before the event, but I didn’t have time to lower the ride height back to normal. Racing Analytics had set my ride height way up to keep my right rear tire from rubbing on the damaged bodywork. I didn’t have time to to take the car back to them after getting the bodywork repaired, so I was still racing with an unusually high ride height. That means my car had very little negative camber on the front wheels, which makes it tend to understeer and excessively wear the shoulders of the front tires. It turns out that wasn’t the thing that slowed me down though.

My intentions for the event

Focus on getting the most out of myself and my car. Because I’m so close to running with the mid pack, I was really tempted to put a lot of pressure on myself to improve my results at this event. But pressure is never fun, so I decided to focus on just getting the most out of myself and my car and let go of my expectations of lap times and finishing positions. If I maximized my own and my car’s abilities, that would be victory enough.

Try taking less square lines. When I was practicing Road Atlanta in the simulator before this event, Brad pointed out that I was straightening out the wheel too early on the exit of turn 12, which was causing me to run wide. When successfully I held the wheel in a little longer on my next lap, I had an epiphany. I was squaring up my lines so I could straighten the wheel out as soon as possible everywhere. It was a habit formed when I was doing HPDE events on hard 460 treadwear street tires and reinforced during the year I drove my race car with the stiff front springs on the rear. Now that my race car has the springs in the correct places, the slick tires have enough grip that I can take more smooth, arcing lines through the turns. This should help me carry more speed through the turns and get on the throttle sooner. 

Have fun! Once again, this was my top priority. Road Atlanta is my favorite track and there was a big Spec Miata field with lots of competition for me. If I wasn’t having fun, it was my own fault and I needed to do something about it.


Qualified 10th out of 15 cars in the rain. On Saturday morning, the track was damp in qualifying. It was almost, but not quite, wet enough for rain tires, so I was on slicks along with most of the field. I went out in my “running late to work in the snow” mindset, cultivated from years of driving in Minnesota, where I feel for traction and go as fast as I can while keeping the car under control. With that mindset, the inconsistent and changing levels of grip felt comfortable and familiar. Without the foreign feeling G loads that race slicks generate on dry pavement, I felt like I understood my car’s behavior completely. Plus, with all the time I’ve spent on Road Atlanta in the rain, I’ve learned its secrets and know where to find traction. When I got off the track, I was surprised to see that I’d not only qualified ahead of the two Miatas I’d passed on track, but also ahead of three other cars, putting me in 10th out of 15 cars. That’s the furthest up the field I’d ever qualified straight up. I had finally cracked into the mid-pack!

Ran my fastest ever race lap. There’s always a lot of traffic in races at Road Atlanta, which makes it difficult to run as fast in a race as I can in qualifying. I’m usually two to three seconds slower when I race than when I qualify at Road Atlanta, which is a bigger difference than at any of the other tracks I run. But in Sunday’s race, when the track was dry, I turned a lap that was only 0.16 seconds slower than my fastest lap ever, which had been a qualifying lap. I was also able to run multiple laps within a second of my fastest lap in that race, which represents a huge improvement in my race pace at Road Atlanta.

Got my tires to squeal in turn 1. Ever since I moved from street tires to race slicks in advanced HPDE, I’ve missed the satisfying way street tires squeal when they get close to the limit. Brad has always insisted that our slicks do squeal, just more quietly and at a higher limit. In Sunday’s dry race, I was able to carry enough speed through turn 1 that I could hear my tires squeal very quietly! I’m sure my car’s suboptimal setup helped me find the limit more easily, but I’m still thrilled that I was able to find a limit at all.

Things I learned

I really needed a steering wheel spacer. At my last race I’d developed a hunch that my difficulty with the lack of power steering in my car wasn’t due to a lack of physical strength, it was due to a lack of leverage. Once the pavement dried out on Saturday afternoon, I realized that my inability to turn the steering wheel was, in fact, the biggest thing holding me back. Particularly in turn 10, where I couldn’t go any faster through the chicane because I physically couldn’t turn the steering wheel any faster. I could barely hold on to it as it rotated up and away from me. After that race, I bolted the steering wheel spacer into my car. I don’t like to try new things on my car without a chance to practice first, but it in this case I didn’t think the spacer could be any worse than not being able to reach the steering wheel. It took me a few laps of qualifying to adjust to it, but once I did, the steering wheel spacer felt like a miracle! I no longer had to cheat corners by turning gradually turning in early, and the problems I’d been having with my line quickly cleared up. My car was is much easier to drive when I can reach the whole steering wheel no matter which direction it’s turned. I can’t believe I drove around not being able to reach the top of the steering wheel for three years!

Now that I’m getting faster, I need to be more assertive in traffic. Many of the cars behind me at the start of Saturday’s race were faster than me in the dry, but I think I could have stayed ahead of more of them for long if I’d been more assertive with my driving. The further up the field I qualify, the closer the cars run to each other and the harder they race. I gave other cars more space than I needed to and lost positions as a result. 

I can set up my car to make me faster. When I showed Brad the video of my tires screeching in turn 1, he said to me, “Why are you so much faster in turn 1 than everywhere else on the track? If you were that fast everywhere, you’d be way up the field.” After giving it some thought, I said, “Because I only ever got understeer in turn 1. Especially with my current setup. I was totally confident the car wouldn’t come around on me, so I just drove as fast as I could without understeering off the track.” Brad excitedly replied, “Why didn’t you say something? We can just set your car up to understeer more if that’s all it is!” I was surprised to hear him say this, because he always says understeer is slow. I figured I needed to get better at controlling oversteer to get faster, not make my car understeer. But Brad reassured me, “You need to do whatever makes you faster right now. You don’t have to leave it like that forever. It can be a stepping stone, and you can change it back again whenever it starts holding you back.” That was a revelation to me. I don’t even like understeer. I battled it constantly during the 16 winters I drove front wheel drive cars in Minnesota. I totalled one car and had to replace a bumper cover on another thanks to understeer. But I suppose it makes sense that I find it easier to drive a car that tends toward understeer when I have so much practice going as fast as I can without understeering off the road. (My first car had a bench seat, so I didn’t even learn to do handbrake turns as a teenager!)

What to work on for next time

Finally get my car set up properly. This will be the final step in repairing all the damage from the big crash in January. Now that my right rear quarter panel is fixed, I can have my car lowered back down to a normal Spec Miata ride height.

Try adjusting my setup to improve my confidence in my car. When I was able to run a personal best lap time at CMP even though I was slowing down in left turns, I had a hunch that the understeer that came with the raised ride height was making me faster instead of holding me back. My pace in turn 1 at Road Atlanta with the same setup confirmed it. When I have the car set up this time, I’m going to ask for a setup that tends toward understeer from mid-corner to exit. I’m going to embrace whatever makes me faster!

Practice heel-toe downshifting while turning. I noticed I was still struggling to put my car on the correct line in turn 3 and turn 5 at Road Atlanta, even after I installed the steering wheel spacer. These two turns have one important thing in common; they both require me to brake and heel toe downshift while turning. When I watched my video, I could see that I was holding the steering wheel straight while downshifting in both turns. The good news is, my street car has a manual transmission, and there’s a few turns on my commute where I can carry enough speed to downshift from fourth to third while turning. I should be able to master this skill with some daily practice.

Try to squeeze more simulator practice into my life. On top of repairing the damage to my race car, my life outside of racing has been unusually hectic, too. I haven’t been able to practice much in the simulator in the last several months, even though it makes such a big difference in my on track performance. I feel like I’m so close to making a breakthrough with my driving and it kills me that I haven’t had much time between events to practice. Even though I still don’t really have the time, I’m going to make the time to practice before my next event.