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.
You can smash me, but you can’t stop me!
No matter how I performed, it felt like a huge win just to be able to run in this event. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it after my car was in a huge wreck less than a month beforehand. Luckily, the wreck that totaled two other cars didn’t total mine. My shop, Racing Analytics, was able to bolt a new rear subframe right in, meaning my suspension was all back to normal for this event. My right rear quarter panel, however, was not back to normal. It was still bashed in and couldn’t be pulled out any further because it was tearing away from the unibody. (If we tried to pull it out to make more clearance for the tire, it would just tear off from the car instead of bending back to shape.) It would need to be cut out and a new quarter panel would need to be welded in. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to take my car to a body shop between repairing the suspension and this event. The crew raised the ride hight on my car up as high as it would go in an attempt to keep the fender from rubbing on the tire. We had no idea how badly it would rub, but I promised my crew chief I’d be extra careful. If there were any possible way I could race, I was going to race!
There I am, with my new sparkly car numbers, amid the chaos.
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?
Look at me running in the top 10!
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.
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.
It was a big crash, but I was completely unhurt and the car is fixable.
Roebling has become my unlucky track this year. Our season includes three races at Robeling. In January my brakes failed in practice, and then I got punted off the track during the race. In April, the electrical gremlins that dogged me for three events first appeared, just as I rolled onto the false grid for my first race. And now, at this most recent event, I experienced my first big crash that seriously damaged my car.
I was really excited to get back to Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) now that I had my front springs in the front and my rear springs in the rear. I’d spent a whole test day practicing at AMP before I got my springs fixed, and I was hoping that the proper springs plus my previous practice would lead to some big gains in pace.
But, as my coach reminded me, progress doesn’t work like that. I only went a little bit faster. But it worked out, because that little bit was all I needed to be exactly as fast as two other drivers. Literally, I was only one thousandth of a second slower than the car ahead of me in qualifying! There were several cars that were running a similar pace, which made for some really fun racing for everyone. I finally got to experience close racing, which is what Spec Miata is supposed to be all about.
Look at me! Mixing it up with the mid pack!
First of all, I have to thank the Racing Analytics crew for all the hard work they did on my car that made this event possible for me. When I left my car with them after my last event, it wouldn’t start due to an electrical problem and it had a mysterious and severe handling issue that we’d just discovered. In just four days, the crew discovered the source of the electrical problem (the O2 sensor wire was touching the exhaust, which caused the ECU fuse to blow) and the handling issue (the front springs were on the rear, and the rear springs were on the front) and fixed both problems! As soon as the crew had the car back together, I loaded it up to take it to Road Atlanta for my next race.
It turns out I’d been racing my car with the springs backwards for the entire year I’d owned it. (The front and rear springs look identical except for a tiny engraving of the weight on each spring, so neither the crew or I had spotted the issue I inherited from the previous owner.) Since I didn’t have any time to practice with the springs on the correct corners before my race, Saturday was all about relearning the car. It was so different, and I quickly discovered I need to unlearn all kinds of weird habits I’d developed trying to keep the previously compromised car from killing me.
By Sunday, I had started to wrap my head around how a Spec Miata was supposed to handle. All of the sudden, the progress that had been eluding me for months began to materialize. Things finally started to click. Instead of searching for tenths of seconds, I started dropping entire seconds off my lap times. I felt more confident than I ever had before. I finally felt, without any doubt, that I belonged on the race track.
I oversteered into the tire wall, but more importantly, I learned WHY I oversteered into the tire wall.
What would you do if you had a whole race track and a professional driving coach to yourself for a day? I’ll can tell you what I did; I worked my ass off. As part of our business-consulting-for-driver-coaching deal, my coach made a stop in Atlanta to coach me for the weekend. Racing Analytics got us on track at Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) (where their shop is located). I worked so hard and I saw so much progress! And I learned a lot, too.
The biggest thing I learned was that my car had something wrong with the suspension all along. In my first session on track, as I was warming up and gradually picking up my pace, the car snapped oversteered on me faster than I could catch it. I shot right myself into the tire wall. (Lucky for me, the damage minimal, so we quickly pulled the fenders back out and got an alignment from Racing Analytics, and I was back on track.) Towards the end of the day, my coach talked Brad into driving my car. Brad assumed it would feel just like his, since they are, after all, spec cars. My coach seemed to have a hunch that might not be the case. When Brad came in, he said, “Now I see why you hit the tire wall. Your car is twitchy and really lose. I think something is wrong with it.” There was no time to dig deeper before our race on Sunday, but my curiosity was piqued. What did that mean for me if there was something wrong with my car? (It turns out a lot. More on that in a minute.)
My hands are getting faster! Progress!
When I posted the recap of my last event, I was feeling dispirited and frustrated by my lack of progress and my race car breaking. I figured I could either sit around feeling sorry for myself or I could channel my frustration into something productive. I went the productive route and channeled my frustration into lots of simulator practice to see if I could get to the bottom of what was holding my driving back.
I didn’t even know if I’d be running this event until 5 days before we were scheduled to leave. Racing Analytics had to rewire my entire car after they discovered the body wiring harness was damaged because a previous owner had spliced into it and crumpled it up under the dash. They got the work done in plenty of time, but when the car finally started again it had an engine knock that inexplicably went away the next day. This required more work to assess the engine’s health, which was mysteriously totally fine. I picked the car up on a Sunday, and we left for the track the following Friday.
This event had a different format from any of the other NASA-SE events I’d previously raced in. There was another race in a different NASA region going on the same weekend, so fewer racers than normal registered for this event. The officials decided to put all 54 racers that did sign up in one race group, which would have a “qualifying race” and a “points race” each day, making the event a four race weekend for everyone.
My car made it through one practice session, one qualifying session and almost all of one qualifying race before the electrical gremlins returned and ended my weekend. On one of the last laps of Saturday’s qualifying race (which was to set the grid for the points race later that afternoon), my car spun off track, stalled, and refused to refire for the rest of the weekend. Even though I now have two more empty spaces on the points sheet, I was on track long enough to see that my practice paid off, and that I was, in fact, making progress again!