2010-11-21

When things go sideways


I have learned a lot in a hurry this Monday.

It was my last track day for the year, running with PDC, a very informal group that simply rents the track and lets the participants drive as much or as little as they want all day.

My past couple events were at Infineon, and coming back to my comfort track, Thunderhill, was great. I felt very confident, and the track unrolled in front of me, corner after corner, so familiar and welcoming.

I just had the car aligned, and taken all the toe-in out of the rear, which made the car so much more responsive and eager to turn in. I was having a blast gently sliding the car around turns two and three, with the car so much easier to keep from pushing out.

I also seem to have figured out turn six at last, and was working my way up to carrying a decent amount of speed through there. That of course meant that I was going faster to begin with, and accelerated all the way through turns seven and eight.

Yes, I have finally overcome any fear of turn eight and was not as much as lifting for it. Coming out of there, with the car pointed at turn nine, I'd drop my gaze for a moment and see my exit speed climbing with every lap.

I was working my way to 100 mph.

I was getting really comfortable, almost complacent, and careless. Got a bit greedy on turn-in to eight shortly before lunch and dropped my outside two wheels into the dirt at about 95 mph. Dirt, as you will know, offers very little traction, compared to pavement, so the two wheels still on pavement tore me to the left, spinning the car violently around.

If I'd anticipated this, I may have had a chance to save it, but it hit me suddenly, and before I knew it, I was a passenger in a car sliding down turn eight, with my ass pointed forward.

Going off sideways on the outside of turn eight is not something you'd want to do, because just beyond trackout there is a ditch, which will catch your leading wheels and make you do a barrel roll. As I was sliding down the pavement, I was mentally prepared to lose my car in the roll.

Thankfully, the car must have scrubbed off enough speed on the pavement, that by the time it got to the dirt on the outside, it slid to a bumpy stop, mere feet from the trackout patch.

I stuck my arm out the window to signal to the corner workers that I was okay, and seeing that the track was clear, I carefully moved forward, back on the track.

My rear right wheel was spinning, not getting traction. In my mind's eye, I saw it bent in and toed in, spinning helplessly, unable to reach the ground.

The rules say that unless your car is on fire, you are not to ever get out of the car, so I had to save the inspection of the damage for the paddock. Until then, I had to limp the car back, my left arm out the window to show other cars that I am going to the pits. Slowly.


To add insult to injury, my gimpy right-rear caused me to spin at a very low speed in turn eleven, where I sat while all the traffic went by. It felt like forever until the track was clear again and I could get going.

Back in the paddock, I parked and got out of the car. Imagine my surprise to see that all my wheels were still attached, not bent even, and that the only visible damage was that my right rear tire debeaded, i.e. came off the rim.

I asked Stuart at the tire shop to mount a good tire, and shortly after lunch I was on the track again. The car felt great!

I spent the rest of the day restoring some of my lost confidence and working on my line more than pace.

Now, what have I learned from this, beside "not to do this again?"

One positive discovery was that even in an off as fast and admittedly scary as I had, I kept my head cool. I was able to get the car to a complete stop and get it back to the pits without freaking out or endangering anyone. I even remembered to wave to the corner workers.

This makes me feel more confident driving the car at the limits, knowing that I have the skill to deal with the situation if things do end up going sideways.

Another positive lesson learned was that my car is quite sturdy, and I will be able to trust it even more in the future.

In addition, I got to talk about my experience with other drivers, some much more experienced than I, and they gave me a number of good pointers. Now in addition to my "Inner Speed Secrets" exercises I have some new homework to do: learn proper left-foot-braking and heel-and-toe technique, and practice controlling my car in a slide.

For the former two, there's not much more than practicing daily, while the latter may require me going to a drifting event to learn.

I have also learned to never lose my respect for the track and the laws of physics. Flippancy when approaching the limits of traction can end up badly, and every lap requires precision and focus.

All in all, a great way to finish a season, which started great, and ended even better.