Exactly a year ago, I started writing an article titled, “How to trust your learning process when it seems different from everyone else’s.” It was a post about trusting the process when the process doesn’t seem to be working. (By “the process” I mean the process of slowly working away at something over time and eventually seeing results.) I never finished it because I didn’t have any proof that the process did work. Lots of things happened in the year since I started that piece, but one thing that didn’t happen was getting faster at Roebling. No matter what I did, my lap times were stuck in the 1:31s, which was perpetually about eight seconds slower than the front of the pack.
Until this event, where I ran a 1:28.7, which was 2.3 seconds faster than I’d ever gone before. In racing, that’s an eternity. The curse of Robleing was broken, and somehow I unlocked a year’s worth of progress in a day. Aside from that progress, it was just a good weekend. The weather was finally warmer, and I spent less time huddled by the heater in the trailer and more time outside laughing with friends. I finally had the kind of weekend I imagined I’d have when I first decided to become a race car driver.
My intentions for the event
Focus on getting faster in turns 6 and 9. I ran the test day on Friday, and this was at the top of my list of things to work on. When I compared my videos to Brad’s, it was obvious I was losing the most time in these two turns. I had a hunch that I struggled with these turns because they’re high speed turns where my car had felt very unstable when my springs were backwards. My plan was to finally take the time to pay attention to how my car felt in these two turns now that the springs are fixed.
Practice stabilizing the car with the throttle. This was another thing I wanted to take the time to master now that my springs were sorted. Counterintuitively, adding throttle (which means going faster) when exiting a turn transfers the weight back to the rear of the car, giving the rear wheels more grip, which means the car is less likely to spin. This is something I’ve been working since I got my springs fixed nearly a year ago, but I wanted to take advantage of Roebling’s long turns to really internalize how this felt.
Improve my communication with my car in high g-load turns. This goes along with getting faster in turns 6 and 9. I wanted to pay attention and learn how my car communicated that it was near or over the limit in fast, high g-load turns.
Relax and have fun racing. No matter how my test day went, I just wanted to have fun on my subsequent race days. I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself about how fast I went or where I finished. A successful weekend meant having fun and nothing more.
Gave driver feedback to my crew chief and got a setup I liked better as a result. I ran my previous two race events with my ride height unusually high while I was repairing the crash damage my car sustained in January. The ride resulted in less front camber, which meant my car understeered more, and yet I went faster on that setup. After the bodywork repairs on my car were complete, I dropped it off at Racing Analytics to bring the ride height back down and asked them to set the car up to tend towards understeer at mid-corner and corner exit. When I got the car on track, I could actually tell the difference in how the car handled! My car was more stable coming out of turns, which gave me the confidence to get on the throttle sooner, just as I’d hoped!
Dropped 2.3 seconds off my personal best lap time. Brad deserves a lot of credit for this. In advance of this event, at my request, he set up a car to feel just like our Spec Miatas in Gran Turismo 5 (an old Playstation 3 racing game), and found a good track for me to practice corner exits on in the simulator. During my test day, he reviewed my videos with me between sessions. And he bump drafted me down the front straight during practice, pushing me to my fastest lap time ever. But even on my own, in the one dry qualifying session I had that weekend, I ran a 1:29.5, which is still a full second and a half faster than I’d ever gone before. Considering I’d been stuck in the 1:31s for over a year, that’s still a massive improvement.
Closed my race pace gap to the front of the field. In addition to my lap times, I like to keep track of how my lap times compare to the fastest laps in a given qualifying session or race. Track conditions can change, but the drivers at the front of the Spec Miata field are very consistent at using all the available grip. In my race on Sunday, I closed my gap to the race leaders by more than two seconds!
Went faster on better tires. This sounds obvious, but before this event I never went faster when I put on newer, stickier tires because I wasn’t hitting the limits on the older tires. During my test day, I practiced on older tires. I wasn’t running a lap timer, but when I timed some laps from my video, the fastest lap I could find was a 1:30ish. On Saturday morning, I put on a newer set of newer tires with only 10 heat cycles and went out and drove on them until I felt them near the limit, just like I had on the older tires the day before, which meant actually I went faster!
Passed lappers. Ever since I started racing, I’ve always gotten lapped by lots of out of class cars. At this event, I got lapped by a few out of class cars, but also lapped a few myself!
Finished 11th out of 15 cars on Sunday. To be fair, a few of the cars I finished ahead of had mechanical issues. But even if they hadn’t, I think I still would have been 12th or 13th, which is still a big improvement at a track where I have previously finished last or not at all.
Brad swept the weekend with two race wins. On top of that, he passed two Spec Miatas and all 15 E30s that started ahead of us to win the overall race in the rain on Saturday. By the end of the race, he was 9 seconds ahead of the second place Spec Miata. I just wanted to brag about that.
Things I learned
How much g-load race slicks can handle. I finally felt and understood how my tires behaved near the limits of lateral grip. I felt my sticky race slicks squirm around beneath me but never let go, even though I loaded them up more than I ever had before. I finally internalized that feeling those g-forces on my body wasn’t a sign that I would be imminently spinning. I even got a bruise on the back of my left shoulder from all the g-load on my body in Roebling’s long, fast right turns!
It’s possible to get inconsistent again after getting consistent. At earlier events this season, I found that when I paid attention to my driving, my car and my reference points, I could consistently turn laps within a tenth or two of my personal best lap times. Now that I was able to run about two seconds a lap faster, I found it required a lot more conscious attention to run that new pace. I was now “consciously competent” at my new faster pace, but if other cars or situations on track demanded too much of my attention, I slowed down to my previous pace. I’m hoping that this new pace will become my default soon, and then I’ll be able to build on that to go even faster.
Traffic is so much easier to manage when you’re faster. Brad and my coach had both told me this, but I finally got to experience it. When I drove faster, it felt like the race slowed down. Faster out of class cars caught me more gradually, making everything easier to keep track of. When my pace was slower, packs of faster cars would make desperate moves to get around me as quickly as possible. Now that I’m faster, out of class cars will tuck in behind me for a turn or two until they can motor past me on the straightaway. Racing is so much easier when I don’t have to deal with groups of out of class cars desperately going three wide with me through the fastest turns on the track!
What it’s like to have the same pace as out of class cars. Another side effect of being faster is being exactly as fast as slower drivers in faster cars. Miatas have the less power than all the other types of cars we race with, and therefore usually have slower lap times. At this event I was faster than a handful of out of class cars, and about exactly as fast as several more. There were a few times at this event where another car or I made a mistake, and I found myself running in front of an out of class car that wasn’t faster than me. Or if it was faster, the driver wasn’t skilled enough to set up a pass and get by me. I didn’t defend against these cars, but I also knew I shouldn’t slow down to let them pass. The instincts I’d developed as a backmarker made me itch to point them by, but the competitive side of me knew that if they deserved to be in front of me, they would have to figure out away around me. This felt awkward at first, but I know I’m sure I’ll get used to it now that I’m faster. And I hope to soon be driving away from these cars so I don’t have to worry about them at all!
I have an advantage in any situation that favors courage more than skill. I’ve discovered that I perform the best (and crash the least) when I drive within my comfort zone, and focus on driving as fast as I can while still feeling confident I won’t crash. I do this in every turn on the track, and in all conditions. I don’t want to crash because crashing is slow and expensive, not because I’m scared of crashing. At this event I realized other people might not think like that. At my last race at Road Atlanta, I qualified 10th out of 15 cars in the rain, so I thought I was good in the rain. At this event, I qualified 12th out of 14 cars in the rain, behind some drivers I was ahead of at Road Atlanta. When I raced in the rain at this event, I made ground on other cars in turn 9, so I thought I’d gotten good at turn 9. But the next day when the sun was shining and the track was dry, I lost ground in turn 9. It turns out Road Atlanta and Roebling’s turn 9 have one thing in common: they’re both very fast and have concrete walls close to the track, i.e. they’re scary. The only explanation I have for my superior performance on wet tracks near concrete walls is that other drivers leave extra margin in those “scary” situations. My advantage in the rain seems to be more courage than skill!
What to work on for next time
Turning the steering wheel more. As strange as it sounds, I think I’ve been missing apexes and losing time because I’m not turning the steering wheel enough. I thought this behavior might be a bad habit leftover from my backwards springs days, but Brad pointed out that my car has a rare factory manual steering rack, which we learned when we had to get special, hard to find tie rods for it after I crashed into the woods. Because my steering rack was designed for cars that came without power steering, it has a bigger ratio. This means the wheel takes less effort to turn, but you have to turn the steering wheel more in exchange. (Most Spec Miatas, including Brad’s, have power steering racks that have been de-powered.) The lighter steering effort is probably good for me as a woman who works an office job, but it does mean that my car requires more steering input than the Miata I used for HPDE, my street car, and all the other Spec Miatas in the dozens of in-car videos I watch. Next time I’m on track, I want to see if I can clean up my lines by focusing on turning the steering wheel a little more.
Keep practicing heel-toe downshifting while turning. I made an effort to work on this after my last race, but mid-turn shifts continued to stymie me at this race, too. I don’t commute, I practice!