Passing Thoughts: Part 1

There are basically 3 kinds of passing: HPDE, endurance, and sprint. HPDE passing is generally done with a point-by even if not required in the run group. Cars aren’t supposed to be racing and the drivers may not have full safety gear (e.g. HANS devices) or roll cages. That said, there are crashes that occur in HPDE sessions due to poor passing etiquette. If you’re the faster car, wait until it’s safe, like on a straight. If you’re the slower car, you’re supposed to drive predictably, which means staying on the racing line. Let the faster car work around you. You can make some room or lift, but not so much that you become unpredictable or put yourself in a dangerous situation. Here’s my favorite video of HPDE passing gone bad.

 

Endurance races are sorted out over many hours. Position doesn’t matter nearly as much as running consistently fast laps. Cars running at different paces should make way for each other. A slower car can help itself by orchestrating a pass and then holding on to a fast car for as long as it can. Passing in endurance races is not that different from HPDE. The main differences are (a) more traffic (b) more driving off line.

Sprint races are very much about position. Passing is aggressive. You see a lot more dents in sprint races than endurance or HPDE. I’m an amateur driver who pays for everything. So I’m not inclined to do much sprint racing. Turn 1 is often an adventure, but the jockeying for position can lead to wrecks even before you get there…

In the next few posts, the focus will be on how to pass and be passed. In the past 5 years, I’ve done over 20 endurance races and there’s only 4 times I’ve had contact with another car. I recall each one. No real car damage, and none were black-flagged, but they could have been.

  1. Driving an MR2 with asymmetric suspension (a quick paddock repair with the wrong model year parts). It lurched to the right in every left-hand corner. It lurched into another car and swapped a little paint. Avoidable by not going 2 wide through corner.
  2. Passing on the outside of a corner, the slower car tracked out to set up the next corner and we rubbed doors. Avoidable by making myself more visible.
  3. Rear bumper hit when I slowed for a yellow flag and the person behind me did not. Possibly avoidable.
  4. A car behind me went off track and drove into my side. Not avoidable.

Upcoming… rules vs. best practices, the inside line, favorite strategies

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Backing up the corner

When you first start driving on track, the most common phrase you hear is in slow out fast. That’s generally a good idea for safety and lap times. Some drivers think they can go faster by holding more speed, but if they have to lift at the exit, it’s an overall loss. Another misconception is that one can reduce lap times by braking harder and later. This is only true for the novice who has no confidence in braking.

When people talk about advanced driving techniques, the most common topics are heel-toe shifting, trail-braking, and left-foot braking. All of these are physical things one does. All can improve lap times. They are considered advanced because they take some physical coordination and practice to apply. Doing them badly can get you into trouble. But the upside is lower lap times and a greater feel for the car. Myself, I trail-brake almost every corner and heel-toe shift every time. I don’t left-foot brake because I haven’t practiced it enough.

What about advanced techniques on the mental side? That’s the topic today. I want to talk about backing up the corner. You may have heard that phrase before and wondered what that was about. It means getting the braking, turning, shifting, and throttling done earlier in the corner. This technique is especially important for low powered FWD cars like mine.

There are two things to consider when backing up the corner, the mental discipline to do it, and the physical ability to execute it. Let’s talk about the mental side first. You must first recognize the nadir of the corner. As far as I know, that’s a term I made up. If every corner has an apex (top) it should also have a nadir (bottom).

The nadir of a corner is the point of lowest speed.

Where exactly is the lowest speed in the corner? Usually at the place where your cornering G-forces are highest. If you think back to your traction circle, the traction of your tires can be used for braking, cornering, accelerating, or some mixture. So max cornering is not under braking or accelerating, but strict cornering. If you’re trail-braking into a corner, which you should be doing most of the time, the maximum cornering should be at the time you’re taking your foot off the brake and moving it to the throttle (assuming you right-foot brake). If you want to back up the corner, you need to move the nadir earlier on the racing line.

That seems simple enough, right? Just do everything a little earlier. Well, it’s not that easy. If you want to be on the typical racing line, you’ll need to get the car pointed straight earlier. Simply braking and turning earlier will see you hitting an early apex and running out of track at the exit. You have to rotate the car early in the corner without losing speed. That means you have to slide the rear of the car out, countersteer to keep it on line, and add throttle before you’re fully straight.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like in telemetry. You’ll probably want to click on this image to see it full size as it’s pretty large. The track is Laguna Seca. The panels are speed, RPM, throttle, and time going top to bottom.

Point 1 is turn 1. The blue driver has shifted to 4th gear here. That’s why there is a 4 in the RPM panel. The time panel (bottom) shows there isn’t much difference switching to 4th briefly vs. banging off the rev limiter. When I saw this, I drove in 4th for my second stint as it’s nicer to the engine.

Point 2 is turn 2. The two drivers have very different approaches to this. The red driver does a double apex while the blue does a single. As you can see from the time graph, the double apex loses a bit of time and then makes up for it. Double vs single apex isn’t really the conversation today. Instead, I want to focus on the three 90° corners that follow. As you can see from the time panel, the red car gains a lot of time here.

Looking at the speed graph (top panel) it looks like the red line is shifted left compared to the blue line. This is especially apparent at points A-D. This isn’t a GPS alignment issue. It’s the red driver backing up the corners. Unfortunately, I don’t have a brake sensor on the CAN bus, but one can infer that the red driver must be off the brakes much sooner than the blue. He doesn’t necessarily get to full throttle sooner than the blue driver, and in some cases later, but he’s applying the throttle sooner. The points marked W indicate wheel spin in the RPM graph. The red driver is clearly trying to maximize throttle and steering because he’s at the limit of both (sadly, the car has an open differential).

How important is backing up the corner? Like other advanced techniques, it’s something that can drop lap times when done properly and a bit hazardous when not. It’s fun to work on. Like other advanced techniques, I suggest working it out on a simulator rather than a track session, and never on the street.

How expensive is racing?

Back to back racing weekends? An endurance race at Laguna Seca with Lucky Dog followed by a sprint race at Thunderhill with the SCCA… Being able to race on world-class racetracks is not something I take for granted. I’m living a dream and I fully recognize it. It saddens me that not everyone has the chance to do these things. Auto racing is an expensive hobby. But exactly how expensive is it? Let’s investigate with my B-Spec Yaris as an example of a really cheap car to build and run.

Initial Build

The initial build cost me about $7000. I saved a lot of money getting the cage built by students at an Evil Genius Racing fabrication workshop. Sometimes I think $7k for a hobby is too much. But it’s also a completely legal street car that gets 45 mpg on the highway. So it does have some utility. Note that none of the costs below figure in my time. I spent and continue to spend many weekends working on the car.

  • 2007 Toyota Yaris $3040 (used)
  • Cage fabrication $1080
  • Fire system $370
  • Kill switch $40
  • Interior net $90
  • Window net & mount $90
  • Driver seat $100 (used) & bracket $100
  • Harness $140
  • Seat brace $200
  • Roll bar padding $60
  • Steering wheel quick release $130 + adapter $70 + wheel $30
  • Convex mirror $20
  • Front tow hook $12
  • Crash bolts $20 (for alignment)
  • Hood pins $10
  • Cold box $50 (cold therapy unit used from ebay)
  • Exhaust pipe fabrication $20
  • Wheels $400
  • Cold air intake $300
  • TRD suspension $520
  • Fuel testing port $80
  • Numbers $50

Operating Costs

In addition to the initial build, there’s the stuff that costs money on a regular basis. This includes alignment, motor oil, filter, diff oil, brake pads, brake rotors, brake fluid, and gasoline. Less regular, but still expected, are things like the engine, transmission, clutch, and body work. All of this amounts to about $65/hr. But we haven’t gotten to the big ticket items: event fees and tires. Endurance race fees are roughly $100/hr and 200 treadwear tires are about $25/hr ($500 per set and they last 20 hours). Sprint race event fees are about $300/hr and tire costs are $200/hr ($800 per set and they last 4 hours).

Endurance racing: $190 / hour

Sprint racing: $565 / hour

Other expenses

The build and operating costs do not include my personal safety equipment, cameras, radios, or telemetry. That stuff adds another $2500 or so. Those items are good for 10 years and can be carried from car to car. In addition, there are expenses for transportation, room, and board. I camp at the track and subsist on sandwiches, so those expenses are pretty low.

Arrive-n-drive fee

I haven’t loaned my car out for sprint races, but if I did, it would be something like $1200 per weekend and more if they wanted trackside support. I charge people $200/hour to drive my car in endurance races. Given the $190/hour plus other expenses, I’m not making any money at this rate. Here’s some of the races on the 2018 schedule I’m considering. I plan to do 5-6 events. Drop me an email if you’re interested. I always enjoy driving with new teammates.

  • January 13-14 Laguna Seca, Lucky Dog
  • February 16-18 Sonoma Raceway, ChumpCar
  • March TBA Buttonwillow (a 24 hour race!), Lucky Dog
  • May 19-20 Thunderhill 5 mile, Lemons
  • June 2-3 Pacific Raceways, Lucky Dog
  • July 7-8 Portland International, Lucky Dog
  • July 13-14 Laguna Seca, Lucky Dog
  • July 29-30 The Ridge, Lemons
  • September 15-16 Oregon Raceway, Lucky Dog
  • September 29-30 Buttonwillow, Lemons
  • October 27-28 Portland International, Lucky Dog
  • November 17-18 Autoclub Speedway, ChumpCar
  • December 8-9 Thunderhill 5 mile, Lucky Dog

The only race I’m actually signed up for at this time is a Lemons event at Thunderhill. We conceived of a funny theme in the last race and now we need to do it. Since the Yaris has a complete sound system, the plan is for drivers to listen to an audio book on tape during their stint and then quickly summarize it between driver changes. At the end, we’ll have a video of racers giving a synopsis of a novel. I’m calling this the Auto Book Club.

 

Race Report: Thunderhill

I had originally planned on doing a pair of posts about the Laguna Seca race but then I decided to go SCCA racing 5 days later. This was my first SCCA race, so my first opportunity at real racing with higher quality cars and drivers. I was a little nervous because of that, but the practice and qualifying were like an open passing day in an HPDE so it seemed there was nothing to be worried about. The race was another story.

I was the only entrant in the B-Spec class. I believe this was the only B-Spec entry in California in 2017. Depressing. I had originally built the car to satisfy several different goals (1) SCCA legal (2) rally legal (3) street legal. It is all those things, but as a compromise, it doesn’t do any of them that well. The class has matured a little since I built it. I can now use better suspension, a rear anti-roll bar, K&N cold air intake, and more camber. Refreshing the build will probably cost $1500. And it still won’t be that competitive. The class is getting faster by opening up the restrictor plates in the faster cars. The Yaris’ engine can’t get any stronger. And with 170,000 miles, it’s not a very good example of the breed. Building a competitive car will not only cost a few thousand dollars, but also a lot of labor in moving as much weight to the bottom right of the car. I talked to one of the competitors at the race and he told me to put in a fake battery and put lead shot in the frame rails. I told him the class forbids such things and he looked at me like the noob I am.

Yeah, I suck at racing.

This point was further brought home during the actual race. Turn 1 saw the usual shenanigans as several cars kicked up dust as they went off track. This also happened in turns 2 and 3. I decided to stay well back from that crap and let the pack get ahead. A sweet yellow Lotus 7 had a similar idea. Later, as we approached T5, one of the Miatas that had gone dirt-tracking caught up with us and decided it would pass us on the inside. This is not a passing zone. It’s a sharp left at the top of a hill with a 40 mph top speed. I watched in horror as he locked up all 4 wheels and started skidding into me. Both the Lotus and I tried to evade him, but we ended up making contact with each other.

After a few uneventful laps, the race was over. When I returned to the paddock, they sent me to impound to discuss things. We all agreed that it was 100% the fault of the Miata driver. Although he agreed, he didn’t come over to apologize. See, he’s a real racer, and apparently they don’t do that. I looked him up later. He’s a career mid-pack SM driver whose been racing SM for at least a decade. Why would an experienced racer ruin the weekend for 2 people who were so obviously off pace? Because he has more money than sense I guess. How else do you explain driving like that? The race stewards levied some points penalty on him and asked us if we were satisfied with the result. Hell no. How about if he writes us checks to cover body damage? Oh, and then kick him out for a year. That would do it.

I feel terrible for the Lotus driver. He kept saying “I should have known not to bring the car to an SCCA race”. I guess it was his first experience with the SCCA too. What a first impression! I’m not sure either one of us will be back. It’s not just the incident that makes me say this. It was a very long day for very little driving. And it wasn’t cheap either.

I don’t think I have the sprint racing mindset. I like driving on racetracks and exploring the limits of driver and car, but I don’t need to win a corner if it means risking the vehicle. Endurance racing fits me much better. Now that I know that, I’m reevaluating my priorities. I was planning on focusing all my attention on going to the Runoffs at Sonoma in 2018. I’m not so sure now. Why spend thousands of dollars updating the vehicle to do something that doesn’t fit my personality?

Race Report: Laguna Seca

I just got back from the Lucky Dog Racing League event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. In this first part I’ll tell some of the story and next week I’ll present some more video and telemetry.

LDRL is a great racing series. Fees are rock-bottom at $250 per driver for a 2-day event. I was lucky enough to get a 6 person team entry that was being auctioned at the Derric’s Day charity event held by Hooked on Driving. I also had an item in that auction: free race with Triple Apex Racing (my team). The guy who won that, Danny, came to race at this event. So that made for a tidy story. Danny’s track car is 911 GT3 RS, and you can see that from his telemetry (more on that next week). This was his first race, and he was fantastic.

In addition to me and Danny, there was Thomas (my first racing buddy and a pro mechanic), Sunil (another HoD coach), Margaret (Spec Miata and 25hr veteran), Matt (International rally driver from Ireland), and Kevin. If you’re counting, that’s 7, not 6. We adopted Kevin when the car he was supposed to drive blew a head gasket. One cannot fly from Seattle with the intention of racing at MRLS for the first time and not actually do it!

This was one of the best teams I’ve ever accidentally on purposed assembled. Everyone was fast and clean. We only had one incident. A pink RX7 thought it should steal an apex and the little blue Yaris ended up with minor bruises from the rear bumper to the front quarter panel. Just body work. Still, it hurts. There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t put the car on track unless you’re willing to throw it off a cliff. Despite being a cheap car, I’m not entirely sure I am willing to do that. Does that mean I don’t want to race it? I don’t exactly know. It’s hard to put a lot of work into a racecar and then see it dented. I’ll have to see how I feel tomorrow, next week, or next month.

There’s always some mechanical issue every race. This time was no different. The window net fitting came loose and is lost somewhere. Thomas’ idea was to strap a 15 mm socket to the cage. Worked so well I may keep it that way permanently!

It turned out that I only drove about 7 laps. I was scheduled to drive last. An unfortunate incident with a stinging insect sent me to the ambulance (depending on the species, they can kill me in 30 min). Turns out I was okay, but I told the team I wasn’t driving after triple dosing antihistamines and being anxious about death by insect. But I felt better later and decided I wanted to take the last 20 min of the race. Here’s my fast lap. It’s a little sloppy in places but it was the fast time of the day.

Wait, what happened to part 2?

This was supposed to be a 2 part report, but I changed my mind and the telemetry analysis will go into other posts.

Flocktoberfest

This weekend I went to Flocktoberfest. What the heck is that? The tagline was “Racecars, Beer, and Chickens”. Yup, that about sums it up. The event was held at Faster Farms, a chicken ranch owned by Gavin and Kristen Hembree. It was co-organized by Cathy Fuss, the owner of Lucky Dog Racing. The property has lots of chickens and lots of racecars. Various teams store their cars there. In addition to a few endurance cars, I saw a couple Spec-944s and Spec Miata. People also brought their cars to the event. The iconic UDC (upside-down Camaro) was there along with Tinyvette and the Faster Farms land yacht (pictured)

The event was a gathering for endurance racing folks. Lemons, Lucky Dog, and ChumpCar drivers and cars were there. I met some new people who share the same (silly) passion. I also got lucky and won a couple raffle items. One was a car wash kit. If you know me, this is either the best or the worst gift ever (I never wash my cars). The other was a framed print of the event poster. That’s a nice commemorative piece I’ll be happy to hang on my wall.

IO Port racing had a truck there, and I bought a new window net. They also did a safety demo where they burned various kinds of material. I had never seen what happens when you put a blowtorch to Nomex. It just turns brown, but doesn’t burn. Try that with cotton, nylon, or polyester and you get a very different experience. Cotton burns clean but the plasticky stuff makes a drippy mess.

Flocktoberfest is supposed to become an annual event. I hope so. Attendance was pretty good (maybe 100) for a first year, and I expect it to get bigger and better. I’m not a beer drinker, but I’ll return for the tacos, band, raffle, cars, chicken, and most importantly, the camaraderie.

Upcoming

Next week will be the first race for my Yaris. I’m taking it to the Lucky Dog event at Laguna Seca. I’m very excited to finally race it, but I’m also more nervous than usual because I don’t want it to get damaged.

Looking over the page statistics, the most popular posts are on how to drive faster. Well, the next series of posts I have planned are on passing, but after those I’ll get back to technique. Oh, and also more crashes.

Obligatory video

Apparently the Brits love MR2s so much that they have a racing series for all 3 versions. The second and third versions are about the same speed. After the POV car spins out near the end of the video (due to on-track praying), you can see the AW11s at the back of the pack.

Budget Racing Builds

Do you want to build a car for endurance series like the 24 Hours of Lemons, American Endurance Racing, ChumpCar World Series, Lucky Dog Racing League, or World Racing League? Here are my thoughts on that topic.

Cheap, fast, reliable: pick two

This post is about budget racing, so cheap is non-negotiable. Also, in my opinion, the whole point of racing is the driving. That means being on track, not running to the junk yard to find obscure parts. That means reliable is non-negotiable. The good news is there are lots of cheap and reliable cars out there.

BMW or Mazda?

When it comes to budget endurance racing, two brands stand out: BMW and Mazda. Popularity is a good thing. It means that maintenance, tuning, and repair expertise is near at hand and that spare part you need is probably already in the paddock. Mazda Miatas are the most popular track cars now, and have been for some time. They are robust and so light on consumables (fuel, tires, brake pads) that they are very cheap to run. In addition, they have the highest corner speed, which makes them incredibly fun to drive. Before the Miata was the de facto club racer, there was the RX-7, which is also a good choice.

BMW 3-series are rugged and handle extremely well. The BMW 325 in the e30 or e36 platform is a fantastic track car. Each one is almost as popular as the Miata, and e46s are also becoming very popular. Although less common, the 5-series cars also make great endurance racecars. The 2.5 liter inline six is plenty of motor. The 1.8 is very durable and burns very little gas, but few teams are able to make it competitive.

There are lots of other cars that make good endurance racers. Volvos are the most reliable in Lemons. Simple FWD cars like Civics and Escorts do well. If the car is light, which it should be to keep consumable costs down, you don’t need much power.

Build or Buy?

When sold, racecars return about $0.25 on the dollar. An inexpensive $10,000 build is only worth about $2,500. That’s bad news if you ever want to sell a car, but great news if you want to buy one. In order to be competitive in Spec Miata, you need a 1.8 liter engine these days. That means there are lots of 1.6 liter racecars available for cheap. You can also find RX-7s that were former SCCA/NASA racecars. Expect to pay more for an e30 (Spec E30) or e36 (Spec 3) racecar because they are (a) less common (b) more expensive to build (c) BMWs.

As you peruse Craigslist, RacingJunk, racing forums, classified ads, etc., you may come across some can’t miss deals. Some of these will see you spending more money than a Mazda or BMW in the long run, even if you picked it up for free. You know that car that you coveted in your youth? It will break your heart and your bank. Racing is hard on cars. Use your head, not your heart.

Mandatory Upgrades

If you decide to build a car, there are certain things you absolutely have to upgrade or at least replace.

  1. Brake pads. Stock brakes are generally fine but OEM pads are not meant for racing. Brake pads work in defined temperature ranges. OEM pads are designed for stopping you when the pads and rotors are cold. Race pads are for when the pads and rotors are hot. At a minimum, get a ceramic pad designed for autocross. But you really want a pad that was designed for full on racing. Replace all the rubber hoses and replace the fluid with something designed for racing.
  2. Suspension. Replacing tired/worn suspension isn’t necessarily going to make you that much faster, but it will prevent you from getting into some bad situations and help you drive out of those you do get into. It’s okay to have some body roll, but you don’t want the car bottoming out or wandering around on you.
  3. Oils. Replace fluids as often as you can. Frequently changing  engine, transmission, and differential oils prolong the life of those components, which means you’ll have fewer lost days at the track. In endurance races, cars go home early all the time due to failures in these components.
  4. Tires. The simplest way to improve the performance of your car is to upgrade the tires. There are a large number of 200-ish treadwear tires on the market. Some are stickier than others and those also tend to wear out the soonest. See the end of the post for more thoughts on tires.
  5. Fueling. Another really simple way to improve your performance is to spend less time in the pits. Remove the ball valve in the fuel filler neck and figure out how to safely empty a 5 gallon tank into your car in under 30 seconds. Fuel spills can take extra time to clean up, so make your fuel filling routine as foolproof as possible.

Electronics

Every racecar needs at least one camera and some kind of telemetry device. Cameras are important for training and critical to untangle fault in an incident. Don’t go racing without a camera. It should be mounted to the roll bar with the driver in the field of view. Adjust the vertical position of the camera so that it also captures the rearview mirror. There are so many choices when it comes to cameras. You can go with the usual GoPro, but even dashcams are fine. I have a Mobius ActionCamera powered by a USB cable connected to the cigarette lighter. It shoots whenever the kill switch is on. It is set up to record in 1080p and lasts about 10.5 hours with a 64GB card. I also have a Tomtom Bandit for head-mounting and other uses.

To improve your driving, some kind of telemetry device is very helpful. There are two basic flavors: (1) immediate driver feedback (2) data loggers. Some devices do one, others do both. For driver feedback, I like the RumbleStrip DLT1-GPS. It shows your current speed and lap delta (difference between this lap and last lap at this position in the track). For data-logging, I use an Aim SoloDL. While the Aim also does predictive lap timing, I like the big red LEDs on the RumbleStrip. Smartphone apps can also be very useful. They have the ability to do feedback, data logging, and even video overlay. But the quality is usually a little less. An external GPS unit can improve things I hear, but I prefer dedicated devices.

Tires

Budget endurance racing series have converged on tires with 200 treadwear ratings (and some allow 180). There are a lot of tire choices. One of my favorites is the  Falken Azenis RT615K in 195/60/14. Yes, 14″. These routinely go on sale at Discount Tire Direct, and with free shipping and no tax, you can have them shipped to your door for about $85 per tire. They have good grip and are very durable. You can get about 25 hours of racing per set. If you have a Miata you may already have the 14×6 7-spoke rims that weigh less than 11 pounds. If not, you can pick them up cheap. BMW e30s came with 14×6 bottlecaps that weigh about 14 pounds. The nice thing about these rims and tires is that they are a breeze to mount with a $40 Harbor Freight manual tire changer. Wider tires with shorter sidewalls are a pain in the ass. The problem with 14″ rims is that there isn’t much choice for tires (there are Dunlops in 185/60/14, but they are much more expensive). Also, wider tires are faster.

Once you get to 15″ wheels, there are over a dozen that have 200-ish UTQG ratings. The sticky ones, like Bridgestone RE-71R, tend to wear out quickly. Although the treadwear rating is supposed to be indicative of how long they last (and therefore inversely proportional to grip) this number is controlled by the manufacturer (and their marketing department). Some 200-ish treadwear tires are more like 100 and some are more like 300.

  • BF Goodrich Rival – they are on the quiet side
  • BF Goodrich Rival S – never tried them, but they are often equated with RE-71R
  • Bridgestone RE-71R – fastest 200
  • Bridgestone RE-11A – middle of the road
  • Champiro SX2 – no idea, but some time trial folks win on them
  • Dunlop Star Spec II – most popular?
  • Falken RT615K+ – equally most popular?
  • Federal 595 RS-RR – cheapest and surprisingly good
  • Hankook R-S4 – liked the R-S3, and this is supposed to be better
  • Kumho V720 – seen bad stuff happen to these
  • Maxxis VR-1 – more PSI-sensitive than others I hear
  • Nitto NT-05 – lots of audible feedback, cheaper than most
  • Toyo R1R – supposed to be very soft, good for rain
  • Yokohama AD08R – also supposed to be a good rain tire

Obligatory Video

In the UK they race Jaguars as if they were crap cans…