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Category: Racing Schools
Posted by: Mike
The atmosphere of the practice today was totally different from lapping. Between formula cars and MX-5 cup cars, there were five groups and probably 60 or so drivers participating. After the driver meeting, new driver meeting, and group driver meeting where we drew cars, I was on track in the first group of the day.

I was reminded in the new drivers meeting to check the pedal positions. I did so and noticed the throttle was significantly further forward then the last car I drove. If I braked like I did in the other car, I would catch some throttle, but if I pointed my knee to the left more (as is suggested) it was fine. I decided to leave it as is. That's what I've pretty much always done. I don't have a lot of experience in these cars, and maybe I'd like it better. Maybe it would make it easier to blip without releasing brake pressure. If I didn't like it I could adjust it for the next session.

As soon as I got out, I noticed my braking distances were way longer then yesterday; at first I didn't know what was going on but after a lap or two I realized I was catching major throttle during heavy braking. I focused on pointing my knee inwards and that solved the problem. But I'd already lost my confidence in braking. Braking with a different foot position, was a little weird; I didn't feel like I had quite the same control over brake pressure as before, and I had to focus to brake like this while also trying to pick up speed elsewhere. Into turn three, which isn't even a heavy braking zone, I broke a little too late, added brake pressure, locked up, realized I was not going to make the corner and decided to drive straight off. Turn three is a mid speed corner but there seemed to be decent run off straight off. I thought I might be able to stop the car before the tire barrier, but as I pushed the brake harder in panic, I caught more and more gas and by the time I realized it contact with the tires was inevitable. I was not traveling that fast and barely felt the impact, but it was enough to knock down the row of tires. After screaming expletives, I was able to back out and drive back to the pits without being able to see what damage there was to the front of the car.

Fortunately, the mechanics were able to check over the car, adjust the pedals and get me back out in only a few minutes. I was able to make the best of the rest of the session. I picked up speed in a few places but continued to struggle with braking. With the pedals adjusted, now the brake was so much further up, I struggled even more with modulating the pressure and was locking up a lot. Also fortunately, after the session I was able to see the damage and although the nose cone was off and the front wing was bent, it was not that costly.

Regardless, when we got the time sheets I found I did improve my time after the incident. Although I was somewhere around midpack, there was a large variance in times and my best time was almost 8 seconds off the fastest of the session a few seconds off where I wanted to be at this time. Obviously, I felt like an idiot after the session. It felt like it was the most ridiculous place to crash and way to crash. I regretted not having a mechanic check my pedals before going out, and not coming in for an adjustment once I realized I was not comfortable with them. I'm obviously wondering if I would have gone off and/or hit the tire wall if I had gotten the pedals adjusted and how much the incident effected my progress during the rest of the session and rest of the day.

After a long time to think things over with 4 other groups going out before my second session, I adjusted my seat one position back which helped a lot with the braking. The second session was more uneventful then the first, although I did barely run off the track after another big lockup under braking. At this point I'm guessing my front tires are flat spotted pretty good, which could provide another additional challenge for the rest of the weekend. I was able to chip away bits of time here and there and knock of a few seconds off the gap to the fastest drivers, but with no major breakthroughs I still have a ways to go to a competitive pace.

I still feel like I know what I need to do, it is just a matter of execution. Obviously, with a limited budget I don't have much track time to learn and perhaps I am rushing myself too much. It wouldn't be racing if it wasn't a challenge though. In my limited experience, I've found racing to be more physiologically intense then anything else I've ever done. The highs can be high, the lows can be low and that can all change quickly. Who knows how tomorrow will go.
Category: Racing Schools
Posted by: Mike
I'm currently at VIR for my first Skip Barber regional race weekend. Today I did a lapping day, tomorrow is practice and Saturday and Sunday are qualifying and races.

I was certainly hesitant this morning since I hadn't driven the Skip Barber car at all in a year, and even then it was only for two days, so I'm likely the least experienced in the car of anyone here. However my two lapping sessions went well. Right out of the box, I felt surprisingly comfortable. Although it's not perfect, I think the iRacing sim helped. I'll have more on that to come. There was a vast speed differential between the fastest and slowest people in the first session, and I was somewhere in the middle. By the second session, things were feeling even better and an instructor even timed me (unofficially of course) as the fastest of anyone in one split. Of course, I capped off the session by spinning off in that turn. I guess there's not much more to pick up there.

Every time I've gotten in a race car I get more comfortable, more confident and feel like I know more and more what's happening, why it's happening, and what I need to do to go faster. The instructors at skip barber provide great feedback, and I'm at a point now where I feel like I know during the session and after the session what I need to work on, and a lot of the feedback is like confirmation to me. My first few sessions in a racecar, I got out with adrenaline pumping but almost in a daze; I struggled to remember much of what I did in the session, even when I felt I was doing well. Now when I get out of the car I have a decent idea of why I was fast in one section slow in another, and am able to absorb and learn much better.

All the formula cars ran in one group (since VIR is 3 miles long, the 20+ cars wasn't much of an issue) and with only one group of MX-5 cars as well, that meant the two 30 minute lapping sessions finished up around lunch. For the rest of the day, drivers can sign up for additional practice, lead follow or computer car sessions. I stuck around for a bit to listen in on a few drivers and instructors going over lead follow and computer data. I took some notes and jotted down what I need to focus on tomorrow. I also walked around and watched from a few corners; VIR is such a beautiful facility and with the great weather and being the only one out there, it felt really peaceful and tranquil.

Hopefully the rest of the weekend goes well. I'll try to post after each day.
Category: Racing Schools
Posted by: Mike
Although I've only done one NASA HPDE (High Performance Drivers Education) event so far, I thought I'd compare how it stacks up against the pro racing schools (such as Skip Barber or Bertil Roos) that I've done.

The NASA HPDE allows you to take pretty much any car, from an all out race car to a fully stock street car on the track for un-timed lapping sessions. Drivers are grouped by skill level and the beginner and intermediate groups require you start with an instructor in the car. There are also several classroom instruction sessions throughout the weekend. There are many organizations that host HPDE type events at almost every road course in North America, including NASA, SCCA, Trackdaze and marque clubs such as BMWCCA.

The differences between the track day/HPDE and pro racing school formats are vast. Probably the biggest similarity between the two is the classroom sessions. I run in the level 2 group, so the instruction was not fully comprehensive, but the topics covered were similar.

On the track, things are very different. First off, since drivers are grouped by skill level and not by car, there is a vast range of different cars in each group; a majority of the cars I was running with had two to three times more power then me, although some were on stock or near stock brakes, tires and suspension, so I could carry significantly more speed through the corners. I was concerned about the safety of this going in, but it really turned out to be a non issue. I did have to be aware of when to point someone past me on the straight, but it did not significantly distract me from driving the track, and although sometimes the closing speeds are massive, I did not see any unsafe maneuvers by anyone. Sure, car to car contact is possible, but from my experience I think it is a pretty rare occurrence.

Secondly, having an instructor in the car took some getting used to. I was worried about being distracted from the instructors comments, but in turned out his level of talking was appropriate and not distracting at all. Certainly there are pros and cons to having an instructor in car; an in car instructor can watch your steering and pedal inputs, and provide real time feedback. However, if you've never attended a pro racing school, it is pretty amazing how much a good instructor can see just from standing at a corner or following in another car.

Although I mentioned the range of different cars did not present a significant safety concern, I do think it inhibits drivers progress. Having to slow down to let another driver pass can kill your momentum for half a lap. It is hard to find the limits of braking in a race car when you've got cars with much longer braking distances ahead of you. And naturally with such a huge difference in lap times, there are going to be trains of cars that form and it could take several laps to find clear track. In short, a dozen or less identical cars on the track that I've experienced at the racing schools produces a lot more valuable track time then two dozen or more cars of vastly different performance all getting in each others way.

Another concern I had was the level of instruction I would get with NASA, and the ability of my instructor to help me drive my car. I've mentioned before the excellent quality of instruction I've gotten from both racing schools I've attended, and I believe any pro racing school should have excellent instruction. However, with track days being on such a larger scale, I'm lead to believe the quality of instruction can vary a lot more. During my first event though, my concern was unfounded. I found that NASA does try to assign instructors who have experience in the type of car you are running. And my instructor was also knowledgeable about the track and and able to communicate effectively, both during and after the sessions.

I should also mention the difference in the environment of a pro racing school and a NASA type event. The combination of a lot more different things happening at the NASA event, the varying mentality of the drivers (some are serious about racing and some are just there to have fun or push there street cars to the limits) and having to worry about running my own car meant I found it more difficult to focus on improving my driving during the HPDE vs. the racing schools.

In closing I think that HPDE type events do teach you performance driving and can be a lot of fun as well. However, if you are really serious about racing, I would highly recommend you attend a pro racing school as well.
Category: General
Posted by: Mike
So a few months ago an opportunity came up and I'm now a co-owner of a race car. A year ago I wouldn't have thought I'd be down this path but I believe it would be stupid to not take the best opportunities you have and for me I believe this is my best chance at starting/continuing racing and ultimately moving up.

The car is a 1984 Mazda RX-7, built to and previously raced in a regional SCCA class called Spec RX7. With a low start up cost (buying the car) and maintenance cost, it is one of the best values in road racing. Our team consists of me and two friends and for the first year I will be the primary driver. The future plans for the team are still undecided but there are certainly a lot of possibilities and opportunities with the team.

I just drove the car for the first time this past weekend at a NASA event as Summit Point Raceway in HPDE. Driving/Racing your own car in an event like this is way more involved then a fully arrive and drive program like Bertil Roos or Skip Barber. Unless your paying for full trackside support, you'll need at least some basic tools and basic knowledge to get the car ready. Then you have to worry about braking the car, if something is wrong with the car or is it just the driver, etc. etc. There also a lot of little things like making sure you know when your supposed to be on the track when there are over a hundred cars and a dozen groups instead of a few dozen guys and one or two groups.

For my first session, I had never driven the car, never driven the track, never driven any production car on a track before, never driven with more then a dozen or so cars on the track at once, and never driven with different types of cars on the track at the same time. Needless to say the first and second sessions were a little sloppy. But by the third session, I started picking up speed and confidence. The car handles phenomenally and is a blast to drive, although there are still some issues to sort out before racing it.

People say a racing budget is always double what you think, or something along those lines, and I've found this to be true, and I've only run one event! And I knew about this rule before I made the budget as well!

The plan now is the run at least one or two more track days to get familiar and sort out the car, and get a provisional SCCA competition license.

Much more about my experience with NASA(National Auto Sport Association), track days vs. pro driving schools, racing budgets, and choosing a class to race in to come.