2010-11-23

Working my way up


Seeing as my blog is turning into some sort of a travel journal on my way to becoming a better driver, I'll share with you some of the newest discoveries I have made on my journey.

One really interesting thing I am discovering is that martial arts, racing, and yoga have almost more in common than they have differences. For starters, I have learned the importance of mindfulness, which is a fancy word for living in the present, focusing on the task at hand, be it sweeping of the temple floor or hitting every apex just so.

Another big discovery was how crucial proper breathing technique is for any challenging activity, on the track or off. Balance and integration of your body also come to mind.

All in all, I have made more progress in my driving working from within, than I could have done doggedly chasing apexes.

I have had a great season and am already looking forward to the next.

This month was quite eventful, with two track weekends at two different tracks. I have already covered Thunderhill in an earlier post, so let's talk about Infineon now.

That weekend was remarkable for a number of reasons. My friend was there for his first track event, I was running my first Time Trials and also attending the instructor seminar on Saturday afternoon. Yepp, I am aiming to become an instructor next season!

I was really excited about having a friend come out and play with us at the track, and he was doing great in HPDE1 in the morning. I could see that he was catching the "going-fast" bug. Then after lunch, I popped out from the instructor seminar only to find out that his car broke down on track. It had to be towed back home later that night, and I lost my track buddy for the weekend.

The instructor seminar was really good. The guys leading the program have tons of driving and coaching experience, and they make it available to all instructors, so we can continuously improve our skill. We had a few good discussions and did a mental exercise in which you close your eyes and drive the track in your imagination, visualizing everything.

It is a great way to train your brain to execute the line and all the inputs perfectly each time, and certainly much cheaper than driving laps in a real car. I have been practicing the technique since, and my improved lap times are in large part a result of doing this.

Over the weekend, I was able to shave off two full seconds off my time.

The magical moment was when the imaginary laps I have driven and the reality on-track merged into one, augmented reality. The track was unrolling in front of me, familiar and inviting, and I could see the line I was going to take as a dotted red line connecting the apexes of each turn and stringing them together into one. If there was a blind turn, I would see the dotted line through the side of the hill or whatever happened to be obscuring the view. It was almost like playing back a video, that's how predictable and clear the whole experience was.

Source: NASA TT

I started out on Saturday being last, and finished on Sunday two positions higher. It's not much, but it is a tangible improvement.

What also helped was that Sunday started wet, and we had to stay off the line, because that's where Infineon is the most slippery in the rain. The first two sessions I spent gingerly navigating my way around the course, spinning out once at a very low speed, and trying my best to visualize the line so I could work my way around it.

HPDE4 lead, Albert, said that the best way to cross the slippery line is to try and hit it at 90 degrees. In order to do that, you have to a) know where the proper line is, and b) plot your rain line in such a way that you can still go fast and cross the "dry" line at a right angle.

I think spending two sessions doing nothing but that has finally seared the line into my brain because when the rain stopped and the track dried up in the afternoon, I suddenly went two seconds faster without trying any harder.

Still, Albert drove only 2.5 seconds slower in the wet than my best ever time in the dry. I got ways to go.

2010-11-22

The art of racing in the rain

Many people have recommended that I read this book. And I have. And it turned out not all it was cracked up to be.

Not very deep. Just your regular sobby novel that throws road racing jargon left and right without a deep understanding. Probably enough to fool an occasional Sunday driver.

Turns out the author got into track driving at some point, and sitting around over beers bench racing he got an idea for the novel.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not bad, it's fairly solid, just very shallow. And really not about racing. Driving and racing is only used as a metaphor and a weak backdrop.

Kinda disappointing.

Jinba Ittai revisited

A good while ago, when I was still autocrossing my C-Street-Prepared NB Miata, I wrote about how excellent Mazda is to people who compete in Mazda cars. They are still just as excellent, but I have found new appreciation for the feeling of unity with my car.

These days, I run a 1990 Spec Miata (very few original 1990 parts though!) on track, and never before have I trusted a piece of machinery more in my life.

It's almost eerie. When I drive my little Miata, I can tell what each of the four wheels is doing, whether any of them are slipping, how much more the car could turn, and how much more it can accelerate without breaking loose.

When I drive the little car, I don't really think of it as much as driving. It's more like "wearing" the car on track. I don't think about the car as separate from myself out there, much like you would not think of yourself separate from the pair of pants you put on in the morning. They're just there. And you move together.

Autocross is really not scary. Track can be. Having been in moderately scary situations now with my little white number Fourty, I can say now that I trust this car with my life.

Literally and figuratively.

Walking in circles

A beautifully-made animated film!

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.

2010-11-04

Cool pants

As many of you driving enthusiasts will know, fireproof clothing is required for racing. That includes a fire suit, as well as undergarments, such as long-sleeve turtlenecks and long-johns, balaclavas, and socks. You may also know that the weather during racing season gets pretty hot at times, and as a result, all your multiple layers of fireproof clothing get soaked in sweat.

There are different ways to deal with the heat. Some people choose forced air pumped into their helmet and passenger cabin, some have cooling shirts, where cold water is circulated through tubing attached to the shirt's front and back, others opt for lightweight suits and sweat, and then there's mentholated underwear.

When I was shopping for my racing gear, I opted for the mentholated shirt and underpants.

The other week, I was running with the NCRC in my first race, so I decided to try on the new garb. Turns out, the menthol works. Very well, actually. I hope it won't wash out after the first use.

So of course after the event it was time to wash the clothes. I had procured a bottle of special "technical fabric detergent" called Molecule that's supposed to help fight odor while you perspire in your suit for a whole weekend.

So I throw the suit into the washer, then the shirt and longjohns, my balaclavas and socks, and it still looks pretty lonely in there. I think "What the hell!" and throw a couple pairs of my black office pants in there too. It's going to be washed on gentle cycle, and if the Molecule detergent is good enough for Nomex, it'll be good enough for viscose, I figure.

So everything comes out of the washer smelling minty fresh. Including my pants. Which I have been wearing at the office today, and every time I move they would release a waft of mentholated freshness mixed with Molecule odor-fighting fragrance.

Really makes me want to hop in a car and drive stupid fast.

Patience.