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!
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.)
This is a difficult topic to write about, which is probably why I couldn’t find anyone else who’d written about it when I went looking for information. And that’s why I’m writing about it, because I know I’m not the first woman to have gotten behind the wheel of a race car and felt like a total fraud. Or the first person, because some of the things that made me feel like an impostor have nothing to do with my gender.
Spoiler alert: this story has a happy ending! After I figured out I was experiencing impostor syndrome, I did my homework on it and got to the root of my fear that “I don’t have what it takes to be a ‘real deal’ race car driver.” As it turned out, I was holding a few inaccurate beliefs about talent and abilities that were getting in my way.
“Ooh! I know what brake pad knock back is!”
When I started doing HPDE events, I brought the same overachiever, goody-two-shoes attitude with me that had made me so successful in school. Even though it had been ten years since I graduated from college, that “Smart Girl” in me just can’t help but come out any time I’m in any kind of class.
But HPDE isn’t wasn’t like the other classes I’d taken. HPDE is first and foremost about making sure everyone is safe on track. That means instruction is often geared toward keeping overconfident drivers safe from themselves and others, while information on how to improve driving performance is deprioritized. That’s understandable, because drivers who overestimate their skill level and drive over their head are objectively more dangerous than rule-following drivers who politely lift and point faster cars by, but may never reach their full potential as a driver. Continue reading
When I was in the beginner HPDE group (where I spent what felt like an eternity before getting promoted up), I noticed that there were these guys (and they were always guys) who would show up for their first HPDE event, spend a couple of events in the beginner group, and then get quickly promoted to the intermediate group. When I talked to them, they’d all say, “Yeah, this is my first track day, but I’ve played a lot of racing games.”
This was a strong enough pattern that I had to investigate. I hated video games, but I discovered that you don’t have to like video games, or even be good at them, to use them to your advantage as a racer.
This is me learning something in iRacing that I won’t have to learn on the real track now!