GHIT extra: everyone sucks at racing

I was recently interviewed on the Garage Heroes in Training podcast and they asked me a lot of really interesting questions. I want to follow that up in a series of posts on YSAR where I get into a little more depth on a few topics.

I suck at racing

Guess what? I suck at racing. Most people do. There simply isn’t enough money to get the track time to be really good at it.

How many hours do you think it takes to become good at any of the major sports like basketball, tennis, football (either kind), etc? Playing 2 hours per day for 300 days per year for 5 years sounds like a good start. That’s 3000 hours, which includes some mixture of unstructured time, coaching, drills, and games. How many racers do you know that have even 1/10th of those hours on track? Very few. How many of those hours feature coaching? Next to none. Drills? Nope. Wheel-to-wheel races? Some. If you’re a basketball player who plays h-o-r-s-e and shoots free throws a few weekends per year, you probably aren’t going to do very well in the neighborhood pickup game much less any kind of league play. But driving is different from basketball because you drive to work every day, right? Not so much. Biking to work every day doesn’t prepare you for riding a half-pipe any more than driving to work prepares you for track driving.

Good news

Since everyone sucks at racing, it doesn’t take much dedicated work to be better than average. Racing isn’t usually measured against some absolute criterion. You don’t have to be the best, just faster than the next driver. The good news is that you can be the fastest driver on track and still suck at racing! So how do you move from the lower levels to the higher levels of suckiness?

  • Knowledge
  • Skill
  • Confidence

Knowledge

Racing is a complex activity because it involves optimizing the driver, the vehicle, and the interplay between the driver and vehicle. If you want to get out of suckville, you need to understand what driving data looks like. It doesn’t look like a stopwatch. At a bare minimum, you need to be able to understand what a speed trace is telling you. Is the driver braking too much? Is the driver fighting understeer at the exit? You can ask and answer these questions and many more with a speed trace.

GPS-based data loggers are not that expensive when you consider the costs of track time or car parts. It’s one of the best investments you can make to improve your driving. Should you get a dedicated unit (e.g. AiM Solo) or use a phone app with a 10Hz GPS antenna? Up to you, but using your phone without an antenna doesn’t give you enough resolution. If you have a modern car, your car is spitting out data for throttle position, brake pressure, wheel speeds, steering angle, etc. Capturing these requires a more sophisticated data logger that connects to the CAN bus (e.g. AiM Solo DL). These extra channels are really helpful, but also a little confusing to the novice. So start with the speed trace.

Video is also very useful because you can see driver activities that don’t show up on a graph (e.g. hand position while steering). The best place to put the camera is on the roll bar so you can see the driver’s hands and legs. If you don’t have a roll bar, a camera mount that attaches to the head rest works well. The picture below shows a mount I made from some box section aluminum, j-hooks, and a RAM connector.

Bottom line: if you’re not using data to improve your driving, you will keep driving around suckville for the rest of your life.

Skill

You’re not going to make it out of suckistan unless you can drive a car near the limit. And by limit I don’t mean your limit. Everyone drives their limit. In the speed traces below, you can see that the red driver and blue driver have very different ideas about what the limit is. In most corners, the blue driver thinks it’s much lower than the red driver.

Regardless of whose limit is higher, the real question is if your limit is close to the actual limit. How do you know the actual limit? Math. Find the radius of the corner and the grip of the tires (from data) and you can estimate the corner speed. Well, that only works to a degree because the real racing line doesn’t have a constant radius (see previous post). But a little math is good for the brain and will give you some feeling for what should be possible.

The very best way to measure your skill is to compare yourself to dozens of other people driving the exact same cars with identical setups and weather conditions. This is generally impossible in the real world, but is trivial in the virtual world. In other words, sim racing is the best way to compare your technique to other drivers.

Bottom line: If you’re not using data to compare your skill to other drivers, you might as well start buying real estate because you’re never leaving suckistan.

Confidence

Most drivers enter fast corners 10-20 mph too slow. Look at the speed trace above. The minimum corner speeds are the same for slow corners but not fast corners. Why? Because people fear losing control of the car at high speed.

Exiting a corner on the limit is like walking on a tight rope. Entering a corner on the limit is like jumping onto a tight rope blindfolded. — Mark Donohue

Walking a tightrope takes bravery/confidence/commitment. Jumping on blindfolded takes more. And yet this is what it takes to drive a car at the limit. If your confidence isn’t the equal of your skill, you will enter corners 10-20 mph off pace and your lap times will suffer. On the other hand, if your confidence is much greater than your skill, you will probably wreck your car.

If you’re not driving the limit because you lack confidence, you will always suck at racing. However, I’m sure your loved ones appreciate your extra margin for safety, so don’t feel bad about it. Also, no matter what you do, you will always suck at racing anyway, because there isn’t enough time and money not to. So lighten up, be safe, and have fun out there! There’s a lot more important stuff in the world than how fast you drive around a race track.

GHIT extra: racing lines

I was recently interviewed on the Garage Heroes in Training podcast and they asked me a lot of really interesting questions. I want to follow that up in a series of posts on YSAR where I get into a little more depth on a few topics.

The Racing Line vs. the line you drive while racing

Several of the questions were either directly or indirectly related to the racing line. When most of us think of the line we imagine the path we take through a corner that optimizes our lap time, and in the typical 90° corner this would be the standard outside-inside-outside late apex line that we all know and love. However, in an amateur endurance race, this is almost never the line you want to take. When there are 100 cars on track, there are much more important things to think about than optimizing your lap time.

Grip, line, awareness: pick two

When I’m racing, awareness is always at the top of the list. The only time I’ll let that go is if I look behind me and I can’t see any cars at all. But as soon as I’m in any kind of traffic, my mind set is “how do I position myself in case the drivers around me do something unexpected?” If I’m optimizing awareness, it means I generally can’t drive the typical racing line as I’m positioning the car to avoid potential disaster. But wherever that line happens to be, I’m driving near the limit of grip. Ultimately, when racing, I almost always throw away the line and optimize the other two.

Does the angle at the apex matter?

Another question I was asked was if I thought the angle at the apex was important or was it just good enough to be at the apex. The angle is critical. In the picture below, both cars have reached the apex. Car #1 is going to have to do a lot of steering in order to finish the corner. Car #2 may have to make some steering corrections to prevent itself from spinning. In other words, Car #1 is understeering and Car #2 is oversteering. The angle you arrive at the apex determines how much throttle and steering you can use in the 2nd half of the corner.

If Car #2 doesn’t spin, it will win the race down the following straight. Car #2 is ready to go to full throttle very soon. Car #1 will have to wait a bit. If Car #1 gets impatient and adds throttle too soon, it runs the risk of understeering off the exit.

Most novice and intermediate drivers position themselves like Car #1. Why? Because in order to position yourself like Car #2, you must have oversteer in the first half of the corner. Not throttle-on oversteer, but throttle-off oversteer. Most novice and intermediate drivers spin under such conditions. Because spinning will earn you a black flag and the humiliation/penalties that go along with it, intermediate drivers may find themselves perfecting a driving style that prevents the rear from stepping out. You can be a pretty fast and safe intermediate driver but unless you learn to drive with oversteer, you won’t be as fast or safe as the advanced drivers.

It’s easy to see why driving with oversteer can make you faster, but why safer? Because shit happens on a race track. Shit you can’t foresee, like being forced off track, having a tire blow out, getting hit, or driving through oil. When shit happens, your car control skills save you, not your work-arounds. If you’ve learned how to drive a sliding car, your muscle memory and experience will help you navigate a perilous situation. However, if you’ve learned how to avoid sliding at all costs…

GHIT extra: decreasing vs. increasing radius

I was recently interviewed on the Garage Heroes in Training podcast and they asked me a lot of really interesting questions. I want to follow that up in a series of posts on YSAR where I get into a little more depth on a few topics.

“Increasing or decreasing radius?”

That was the question. Which do I prefer? Decreasing. And off camber if possible. Why? Because I like the challenge of balancing traction, and there’s more challenge to do that with brakes (decreasing radius) than throttle (increasing radius). Later, as I was thinking about this again, I came to an important realization: all corners are decreasing radius. Also, all corners are increasing radius.

Geometric line is a fantasy

The geometric line described in nearly every racing book is (a) not possible (b) not optimal.

There is no way to instantaneously go from driving in a straight line to a curve with constant radius. If you turn your steering wheel super fast, as would be required, the car doesn’t respond at the same speed. If you took a snapshot in the middle of a corner, you would see the rubber in the contact patch twisted to some degree and the suspension have a certain compression. But they had to get there somehow. It takes some time for the vehicle to take a set. During that time, the radius is probably not constant, but tightening whether you want to or not.

Not only does every racing book describe the geometric line, they also show the late apex line. The reason why the racing line is faster than the geometric line is because cars have engines. If they didn’t, the racing line would look very different. In fact, it would be decreasing radius. But since cars do have engines, and sometimes very powerful ones, the more time you can spend using that engine, the better. The late apex line trades corner speed at the beginning for corner speed late. In other words, the radius at the start is tighter than the radius at the end.

Every corner is decreasing radius (and increasing)

Let’s break up the corner into 2 parts.

  1. The first half of the corner. This is defined as the moment you turn the steering wheel until the moment you release the brake.
  2. The second half of the corner. This is defined as the moment you step on the accelerator until the moment you are no longer actively steering.

The point between the two halves of a corner is sometimes called the EoB or “End of Braking” but I call it the “nadir” because if every corner has an apex (top), it should also have a nadir (bottom). In some corners, the apex and nadir are really close to each other. That’s because the apex is the point at which the car is closest to the inside of the track and the nadir is the point of lowest speed. Usually, the nadir is a little before the apex. In really long corners, or two corners connected by an inconvenient distance, the nadir may be a stretch of track rather than a single point.

If you’re taking the usual racing line, the first half of most corners has a decreasing radius. You start out with the steering wheel straight. As the car trail-brakes to the nadir, the corner gets tighter. As grip transitions from braking to steering, more steering gets done. Also, speed is decreasing, so it’s possible to drive a smaller radius with the same grip. At the nadir, all grip is use for cornering at the slowest speed. Therefore, the radius is tightest. Even if you weren’t aware of it, the first half of the corner is supposed to be decreasing radius.

In the second half of the corner you’re mixing steering and throttle. As the steering is unwound, more throttle can be applied. The radius increases both because there is less steering and because there is more speed. From nadir to exit, the corner is increasing in radius.

Here’s an illustration to help you picture what I’m talking about. Whether you’re taking the single late apex or the double apex, there is decreasing and increasing parts, even in a carousel. The circles represent the halfway point of the corner as described above. The A’s represent the apexes on the single apex (blue) and double (red) apex lines.

Donut HiLo

If you haven’t watched Donut Media’s HiLo series, it’s worth watching. There are two teams, the Hi team that gets to spend a lot of money and the Lo team that uses the cheapest parts available. Both cars start as 350Z street cars and then get upgraded to make them “daily drivers that you can take to the track”.

I think a lot of the budget endurance racers will identify with some of the shenanigans these guys get up to. There’s a lot of custom fabrication work on stuff that’s supposed to fit and a lot of mistakes from not knowing shit about cars. That’s me every time I work on my car! My budget is a lot less than Donut Media, so I can’t burn cash the way they do, and it’s sort of fun watching them fail on a more epic scale. Here are some of the episodes and take-aways.

  • Suspension: $2500 KW vs. $300 eBay
    • The expensive suspension works much better for daily use. The eBay coil-overs are low and harsh
    • Both cars are about the same speed in a slalom test
  • Wheels & Tires: $3764 Advan + RE-71R vs. $1052 XXR + 595 RS-RR
    • Skid pad test shows Hi car at 2 mph faster than Lo car – probably suspension not tires
    • Braking distance shows Hi better than Lo, but tests were highly variable
    • An AiM Solo (or whatever) would have made testing much more accurate
  • Brakes: $4400 Willwood vs. $450 unnamed
    • Braking distance is unchanged
    • Endurance test made a huge difference – they didn’t say what pad compound though
  • Differential $1200 Kaaz LSD vs. free welded
    • LSD install labor was very long
    • Welded diff wasn’t that bad on the street
  • Turbo: $8100 Jim Wolf twin turbo vs. $3500 eBay single turbo
    • So much labor for both cars, installation nightmares
    • Hi 334 hp, Lo 302 hp (stock is about 220)
    • Lo car ended up with no AC
    • Neither car was reliable after turbo installation
  • Roll Bars: $4000 welded vs. $2000 bolt-in
    • They keep calling roll bars “roll cages”
    • An attempt at using $200 universal roll bars failed
    • Hi team had the roll bar installed professionally
    • Lo team installed their roll bar with some difficulties and had to modify
    • Used 4-point harnesses for some stupid reason
  • Cosmetics: some interior and exterior shit I don’t care about

At the end of the day, they spend about $50,000 on the Hi car and $20,000 on the Lo car. Some of that is cosmetic, and they had an intermediate build at $33,000 vs $13,000. The ultimate results? Neither car was reliable enough to be a daily driver, and both times they took the cars to the track, they had major problems that would see many people going home.

They tested the cars at the Sandia track in Albuquerque where the Hi car was 3-6 seconds faster than the Lo car depending on the driver. After more modifications, which resulted in re-tuning the turbos to make even more power, they took the cars to Buttonwillow. From the video, it looks like they were running CW#13 (there’s one frame where you can see cones in front of Star Mazda). They didn’t get very many laps in because both cars ended up breaking down. But at the end of the day, these were the figures.

  • Hi 2:13.9
  • Lo 2:14.3

The Lo car was driven by Aaron, who is described as “like a pro driver, literally”. I’m fairly certain he would have shaved a few seconds of the Hi time had he driven that car. Regardless, a 2:14 is a terrible lap time for #13CW on 200 TW tires. The 86/FRS/BRZ drivers are 5-10 seconds faster in the Stock class with narrower (225), less sticky (SX2) tires.

Let’s forget about the drivers. This series was about modifying cars. The results were pretty entertaining and informative. Cheap parts and DIY often ends in failure. Expensive parts installed by professionals results in a much better car. But spending $20k or whatever to professionally upgrade a car may still end with a car that doesn’t run very well.

While OEM generally results in a much more reliable car and fixable car, there are some parts that are definitely worth upgrading if you’re headed to the track on a regular basis.

  • Brake fluid – Buy the good stuff because even the expensive stuff is still pretty cheap. If you cap it right away, it keeps for a long time.
  • Brake pads – Get a sport pad that doesn’t fade at high temperature, but don’t get a race pad because they don’t work well when cold (e.g. street driving). I like StopTech 309s. All of my cars have them, including the race car.
  • Suspension – A lower, stiffer car is more responsive on track but harsher on the street. Don’t go overboard when upgrading or tuning. Softer might actually be faster.
  • Tires – Sticky tires make a car faster, so if you think faster = funner, get sticky tires. However, you’ll learn more driving on less sticky tires, so if you’re working on your driving, try something around 300 TW.
  • Neck protection – It’s possible to die on track, and a neck brace is one of the things that could save you. If you’re using stock seat belts, then a Simpson Hybrid is the way to go. The other way is with a roll bar, race seat, and 5-point harness.

Email from Alex

I got the following email from Alex P and I thought it would make a good blog post (he agreed).

I’m a novice motorsports hobbyist (5 track days, a bunch of autox). I read your book / blog and really enjoyed the material and learned a lot. Thank you for putting this out there.

You mention simulator drills as a way to get better at car control and give a few examples (drive without brakes, drive in top gear for the course, etc…). Do you have a more concrete list of drills that you think are helpful and in particular ones where there is an easy feedback loop (other than just time around the course) to see whether one is improving or not? If it matters I have access to iRacing and AC.

Also, given the way things are right now, there is no right seat coaching at basically any event I go to, is there such a thing as simulator based coaching and do you have any recommendations for that?

Simulator Coaching

Yes, there absolutely is simulator coaching. If you want one-on-one coaching, there’s a lot to be said for e-coaching (for lack of a better term). Prices go from about $50 to $250 per hour. I paid $100 for about 2 hours of iRacing e-coaching and it was a great experience. I learned a lot about data analysis. There are a lot of advantages to e-coaching.

  • You can drive as hard as you want and you won’t get a black flag or wreck the car.
  • You can switch driver and passenger really easily.
  • You and the coach can hear each other without the engine, wind, and other noises interfering.
  • You won’t get coronavirus.
  • You can make setup changes very quickly.
  • You can compare data to your coach with 50+ data channels if you want. Most people don’t have much more than speed and g-forces, but on a simulator, pretty much everything is available. You can learn a lot about data analysis because the data is so easily accessible, but on the other hand, it is a bit daunting to have so many channels at your fingertips.

Where do you get e-coaching? I would love to try out all of the services and report back on which one I liked best. While I haven’t done that yet, I started the homework for it.

  • Driver 61 – $100 for 2 hours or $43 for 45 min.
  • Pure Driving School – $100 for 2 hours or $60 for 1 hour.
  • James Burke Racing $75 / hour
  • Virtual Racing School – $99+/hour depending on the coach (and you have to subscribe $9.99 per month).
  • Coach Dave Academy – $150 / 60-80 min session
  • Cosmo-Sport – $250 / session
  • Jonathan Goring Motorsport – $275 / hour

So who are these coaches? Some of them are pro racing drivers or pro sim racing drivers. You can also find people who will “coach” you for $30 / hour. There are services that have group coaching if you subscribe monthly. You can even get free coaching if you join a team/league.

My advice is to try some e-coaching. Sim racing is just as complex as real racing. If you’re not a computer nerd, editing files can be even more daunting than turning wrenches. If you’re using sim racing as training for real racing $100 or whatever is a lot cheaper than anything in the real world.

Simulator Drills

There are two ways to think about sim driving (1) I’m doing it to get better at sim racing (2) I’m doing it to get better at real racing.

3 Drills for sim racing

The most critical difference between sim racing and real racing is relying on reference points. Since you don’t have accurate depth perception or g-forces on your body, you have to use your eyes so much more. Ultimately, you will use reference points for brakes on, trail-braking, brakes off, throttle partially on, throttle fully on, shifting up, shifting down, etc. Nobody can think about all of those things at once. Eventually your reference points become automatic. But at the start, you have to make them deliberate.

Find a simple track like Brands Hatch Indy or Lime Rock Park. Practice it over and over in the same car. Repetition is a key part of training, so don’t mix things up too much.

Drill #1: Braking reference

The first reference point to learn is your brakes on reference point. Choose a track with sign boards on the straights. Make sure your delta timer is showing. Experiment with various braking points and watch your delta timer once the corner is over. Which braking point optimizes your lap time? It may be earlier or later than you first imagined. This drill is just about your eyes.

Drill #2: Trail-brake to apex

In this drill, you want to keep notice of your brakes on and brakes off reference points. The goal is to try to extend your braking all the way to the apex using a soft release of the pedal (your initial application will probably also be softer). This means you’ll be overlapping your braking and turning through the first half of the corner.

Drill #3: Crash a lot

Drive as fast as possible and crash over and over. You’ll find that some parts of the track are a lot more dangerous than others. If you want to succeed in sim racing, you have to know which corners are the ones most likely to ruin your race. Identify those corners and treat them with extra respect.

4 Drills for real racing

#1 Hand position

Do you plant your hands at 9-n-3, shuffle steer, or something else? Whatever you’re doing could use some deliberate practice. Find a track with lots of hairpin corners. You may find hill climbs are better than closed circuits. You can also use a skid pad or figure 8 track.

  • Drive entirely with hands at 9 and 3 even if you have to cross your arms
  • Shuffle steer so that your hands stay at the sides of the wheel and never cross each other
  • Use hand-over-hand technique as you turn the wheel
  • Drive one handed through the entire corner, (practice both hands)

How long should you do each of these? A long time. I used to practice hand drills for 30 minutes continuously a couple times per week. I still do these drills on a skid pad in real life.

#2 Heel-toe shifting

There is some setup before doing this drill.

  • You need a relatively firm brake pedal for this drill. If you’re serious about using a sim to train your real driving skills, you should get a load cell brake pedal. If I was buying new, I would probably get either a Thrustmaster T-LCM or Fanatec Clubsport. You can also buy load cell modification kits for Logitech, Thrustmaster and Fanatec pedals.
  • Although it may help immersion a little, you don’t need a shifter for this drill. You can use paddles or buttons on your wheel to change gears.
  • Your pedals may not be arranged at the optimal height or spacing. Ideally, when you apply your brakes hard, your heel is planted on the floor, and the level of the brake pedal is still slightly higher than the throttle. If your brake is beneath the throttle, you won’t be able to press the throttle with the outside of your foot. You will also have problems if the throttle pedal is too far away.
  • In order to get the proper ergonomics, you may need to physically modify your pedals. I removed my Logitech pedals from their plastic housing, put a load cell on the brake pedal, arranged the pedals inverted, and put a metal tab on the throttle. All of this was to replicate the environment in my car.

The goal for this drill is to coordinate your clutch, blip and shift. One of the most common mistakes is pressing the clutch too soon. If that happens, the revs will fall and you’ll find yourself having to feed out the clutch slowly to prevent over-revving. Using the engine to decelerate makes you slower. Try to delay the clutch as long as possible.

  • Examine your brake pressure trace. Ideally, heel-toe shifting should not affect your brake pressure
  • Examine your RPM trace
    • The point of highest RPM should not be during the blip!
    • The RPM should not climb gradually while decelerating

#3 Off-track excursions

One thing you can do in the sim world that is really hard in the real world is putting 2 or 4 wheels off track. In HPDEs that will get you kicked out pretty quickly. But if you were in a real race, this is a survival skill you need to practice. The behavior of having 2 or 4 wheels in off track is really different depending on which track and which sim you are in. Grass and sand feel completely different from each other and not every track is modeled authentically. That said, I think iRacing is a good training environment for this drill. Most of the grass is really slick, so if you put half a tire in the grass, you may find yourself spinning.

  • Drive off
    • On a straight
    • At the corner entry
    • Mid corner
    • At the exit
  • Drive back on
  • Don’t spin

The key to not spinning is having the wheels pointed in the direction of travel. Most of the times, what this means is going off in a straight line and coming back in a straight line. Go gradually without a lot of hand or pedal input.

Outside of a drill setting, if you feel like there’s a 50/50 chance you’re going to drive in the grass, just commit to it and do it intentionally. Opening the steering wheel and driving straight through grass isn’t a big deal. However, keeping the wheel turned and trying to pray your way through a corner might end in disaster.

#4 Rally

I think the most important thing you can learn from sim racing is steering wheel muscle memory. Having the muscle memory to automatically control a sliding car takes hundreds of hours. There is no cheaper or safer way to acquire those hours than on a simulator. If you want to learn how to control a sliding car, it helps if the car is sliding a lot. That means rally.

A force-feedback steering wheel is essential. I use a Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer. I have owned Logitech G25, G27, and DFGT, and have used a variety of Thrustmaster and Fanatec and direct drive wheels. Logitech wheels are okay in iRacing, rFactor 2, and DiRT Rally, but terrible in Assetto Corsa. I don’t need a $1500 wheel, but apparently I do need a $500 one.

Driving on simulated dirt is the best way to hone your muscle memory. The original DiRT Rally is practically free these days (and I prefer it to the sequel). Assetto Corsa has some good dirt circuits and rally stages. iRacing doesn’t have many rallycross circuits, but what they have are uniformly good.

Drive as much as you can on dirt. That is all.

Handicapped Pro Racing?

I just got this advertisement in my email, which describes Handicapped Pro Racing. What makes this “Pro”? Um, cash prize for winning?

The rules are interesting. Is it a time trial, road race, or bracket race? Well, it’s a little of each. You’re supposed to practice throughout the day to figure out your dial-in time. Once you decide on that, you never want to beat it in the race because you’ll be disqualified. So there’s the bracket aspect. For the event, slow cars start ahead of fast cars and the winner is first car over the finish line after 10 laps. In order to win, fast cars must pass slow cars and slow cars must prevent that. So there’s the race aspect. What’s the time trial part? The minimal safety requirements.

While this sounds like a fun format with all of the cars competing for final positions near the finish line, is this really a good idea without roll cages, neck protection, and fire systems?

Regardless of safety, the math doesn’t work out. Fast cars at Thunderhill lap at around 2:00. Slow cars are around 2:25. After 10 laps, that 25 second differential is 4:10. That’s a couple laps. Put another way, after about 17 minutes, the 2:25 car has completed 7 laps. But after 17 minutes, the 2:00 car has completed 8.5 laps. Meaning, that even if you release the fast cars at the last possible moment, they still lap the slow cars somewhere in lap 7. There are a couple ways around this problem.

  • Make the race shorter so that the slow and fast cars are expected to finish around the same time
  • Limit the lap times of the cars (floor, ceiling, or both)
  • Release the fast cars after the slow cars have completed a lap and change (I got an email response from them, and apparently this is what they will do)

Even if you can make the math work out, do you really want a bunch of street cars with HPDE drivers all vying for position on the final lap with cash on the line? This is the kind of dumb shit that’s fine until it isn’t. I have to admit, it sounds like a really fun format if the “racers” respect each others’ space.

Book Review: The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles

Last year, I picked up “The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles” at Powell’s Books on a visit to Portland. If you’re ever in Portland, prioritize Powell’s over Voodoo Donut (which was honestly a little underwhelming). Long ago, when I had a motorcycle, I used to own “A Twist of the Wrist”, by Keith Code. I don’t recall that much about it, or why I no longer have it. The biggest impression it made on me was his “attention budget”. If you have $10 to spend on attention, where do you allocate your “money”? On traction? Braking? Speed sensing? Situational awareness? You get very different results depending on how you diversify your attention portfolio. To get a feel for that thinking, try this out.

Choose 2

  • Drive the traction limit
  • Drive the optimal line
  • Avoid trouble

“Soft Science” is Keith Code’s sequel to “Twist”. This translates very well to driving partly because there is very little motorcycle-specific content. “Soft Science” doesn’t concern itself very much with technique. It is almost entirely about the mental side of racing. Keith Code’s content is very similar to Ross Bentley’s. They use different words, but they say the same thing. That doesn’t mean you should only read one or the other. Most racing books overlap other racing books. Read them all.

Let’s talk about the main message of “Soft Science”. Each one of us carries around with us feelings, thoughts, and plans about how to get around a race track.

  • Feelings – our senses and actions at the moment of driving
  • Thoughts – our prior knowledge and experience
  • Plans – ideas about what we want to do

Feelings, thoughts, and plans conflict with each other. We may have a plan to drive around a corner a certain way, such as “don’t lift at the kink”. And then when we get there we have a feeling that we might die if we don’t lift. Alternatively, we may have a thought like “66 mph is the maximum speed around the corner” and the actual value is 71 mph. Optimal performance means getting our feelings, thoughts, and plans in sync.

“Soft Science” spends a lot of time describing one specific lesson. My brother Mario went to a Keith Code instructional day and they did that lesson there. It turns out, it’s also one of my favorite drills: no brakes, no shifting. Yep, drive around the track without using your brakes. This could be in 3rd or 4th gear depending on the track. One of the most important skills to develop is an accurate sense of speed, and this drill hones that skill more sharply than any other. Note that you wouldn’t want to hold up a lot of drivers by coasting through all your brake zones, but if you have some open track, please try this. You might even get a bunch of friends to sync up like they do at the Keith Code schools.

While I love reading old racing books, they all share one weakness: they’re old. While racing technique hasn’t changed that much since Piero Tarrufi’s 1958 classic, The Technique of Motor Racing, racing technology has. The ability to record and display what the car and driver are doing should fundamentally change the way we learn about and teach high performance driving. Where are the modern driving books that teach at the intersection of theory, practice, and data? Patience, we’re working on it…

New Car!

Sold

I recently sold 3 cars: 1991 Ford E350 RV, 1995 BWM 318ti, and 2004 Ford Ranger.

I had big ideas for the RV. I was going to drive up and down the coast towing my Yaris to SCCA B-SPEC races. But I never got to do that in part because I started suffering from chronic back problems (herniated disc & spinal stenosis). An equally important reason was that after doing an SCCA race, I realized it sucks. Well, for me anyway. I prefer the endurance racing mindset and also, I like being part of a team.

The 318ti was my solution to the one-car problem. I like the practicality of hatchbacks and 4 seats. I already have a FWD racecar, so I wanted something with RWD. I also like BMWs. Oddly, I even like the way it looks. But there were some problems with the engine, and I never felt passionate about the car to get them solved properly. The problem with the engine wasn’t the lack of power, by the way. I like low-powered cars.

I was sad to see the Ranger go. I had a lot of adventures in that thing from the daily commute, to towing over mountains, to driving off-road, to drifting, to track driving. It did it all without complaint (or style). I got rid of it because my back doesn’t want me to do anything that requires a truck.

Shopping

Given that I recently cleared out 3 cars, I’ve been looking for the perfect track car for about a month. Since I already had  an ideal daily beater (Hyundai Elantra GT), the track car could be completely impractical. In other words, I was considering convertibles.

While the S2000 or ND Miata would be a natural choice, they are not in my current budget. Some day I hope to purchase an ND RF when the used prices come down. I’ve owned 2 NA Miatas before, and I decided I didn’t want to go down the NA/NB path again. Older cars, like Alfa Romeos, Triumphs, Fiats, MGs, etc. are intriguing to me, but I don’t want to work on my car constantly. I drove a Boxster at Thunderhill and it was brilliant, but I don’t see myself in the Porsche Owners Club. Mercedes makes some beautiful convertibles, but there must be some reason you never see them on track. So that left the following vehicles to consider.

  • BMW Z3/Z4
  • Mazda MX-5 (NC)
  • Toyota MR-2 Spyder

The main problem with Z3s is that the differential mounts are too weak for the 6 cyl engines. The repair isn’t simple, especially if the sheet metal has already torn. Z4s have a much more disturbing problem: the electronic power steering fails in weird ways and fixing them requires a lot of labor. NC Miatas have limited roll bar options. There is a nice one from Blackbird Fabworx, but it’s $1250 without shipping. MR-2s have very little trunk space. Ultimately, I think I’d be happy with any of them except maybe the Z4.

Purchase

I ended up buying a 1.9 Z3.

Surely 95% of you are thinking “you suck at racecars”. In my defense, I do own an actual racecar. However, it is a Yaris. So part of me agrees. On the other hand, I like low powered cars. They consume far less fuel, tire, and pad. To me, sportscars are about handling not power.

I really like BMW ergonomics. I felt instantly at home in the cockpit. This particular car also came with not-too stiff coil-overs, a bolt-in rollbar, an extra set of wheels shod with Pilot Sport 4S tires, mounting rails for a race seat, a cover, and a bunch of spare parts.

Beating a dead horse

At the last Lucky Dog race at Thunderhill, the following incident was caught on video. This turned into a big debate on the Facebook page Lucky Dog Racers with armchair analysts laying fault to one, the other, or both sides.

YSAR Official

I thought I would give the official YSAR opinion of the incident. By official, I mean armchair-official.

  1. Turn 10. At the start of the clip, you can see that the POV Miata is cornering faster than the BMW ahead. It’s clear from the driving of the BMW in T10, that the BMW driver is not an advanced driver. That’s okay! This is Lucky Dog Racing League, and all levels are welcome. So how do I know he’s not an advanced driver?
    • At the entrance to turn 10, the driver has left a half car width on the right. There’s no reason not to take a larger radius. Even if you were sandbagging so as not to pass the Super Dog time, you would still take the largest radius to save on consumables.
    • The driver chose a late apex line, but given how short the following straight is, there is no reason for this. Experienced drivers at Thunderhill know that T10 is an early apex corner.
    • The driver tracks out to the middle of the track and then steers out to the exit. That’s a low-intermediate level interpretation of the racing line.
  2. Turn 11. The car is way over-slowed at the entry of turn 11. You can see this by how much the Miata catches up in the braking zone. At this point, the Miata driver has some idea about the driver ahead and should be thinking “welcome to LDRL racing, let me give you some room so you can have great race”.
  3. Back straight. The race down the back straight shows that the Miata isn’t only faster in the corners, but also down the straights. It’s a faster car with a faster driver. By the time they enter the braking zone, the Miata has overtaken the BMW and is probably 1 car length ahead. The pass is now complete. At this point, the race for this corner is over. It’s time for both drivers to get through the final pair of corners together as fast as they can, to the benefit of everyone. By everyone I mean the drivers, their teammates waiting for their turn to drive, the car owners who don’t want to repair perfectly good race cars, the drivers’ loved ones who want them to return uninjured, every other team on track who doesn’t want the race shut down for a yellow flag, the organizers who want to deliver a fun yet safe event, the people at Walmart who don’t want to deal with angry customers, etc.
  4. Turn 14. The BMW driver re-passes the Miata in the braking zone. At this point, the BMW becomes the car attempting to make a pass. It is now the responsibility of the BMW to make a safe pass.
    • The Miata driver already knew the BMW driver was inferior and now had knowledge the he is also aggressive and dangerous. It’s time to give that car a lot of room and avoid it as much as possible. I have no idea why the Miata driver continued to race for this corner. He endangered the success of the team by endangering the car. This is the first stint of a 14-ish hour endurance race. What the hell are you thinking?
    • The minor contact between the cars is silly and both drivers are at fault for driving so close to each other.
    • The BMW has entered the corner way too fast. There is no way for the driver to navigate this corner without either braking or going off track. Dive bombing followed by braking mid-corner is no way to make a safe pass. It’s reckless and irresponsible.

Some of the discussion on FB turned to “why didn’t anyone ask if the drivers were okay?” I have to admit that I didn’t. I’m ashamed of that. I should have thought of the drivers first. From the POV of the Miata, it didn’t look like the BMW got hit particularly hard, but apparently the car ended up on its side and the driver was shaken up. After watching the video again, I could see how the BMW might end up in the K-wall at 60 mph. That would suck. So yes, if you’re the BMW driver, you have every reason to ask “how come you weren’t concerned with my well being?” I hope you also understand that by fighting for a corner you had already lost, you endangered yourself, another car, and reduced the race time for every other team on track. We have a right to ask “what the hell were you thinking driving like that?” Where is your apology for driving like a jackass? We all need to own our faults. I’m sorry I didn’t think of your well being. Now it’s your turn to apologize.

I saw a couple comments that said “why wasn’t the Miata farther out on the left?” I’ll tell you why. Setting up on the typical school line in a race with people of suspect skill and intentions is a great way to get punted. Want someone to hit you in the rear tire and break your suspension? Set up on the outside and cross the whole track to the apex. Rather than positioning farther to the left, I would have made the pass and positioned myself in front of the BMW. That would close down the inside line and make the cars go through the corner in a line rather than side-by-side. Yes, that would have ruined the speed through the next corner, but since the Miata was faster, it wouldn’t have mattered.

LDRL TH5 2020 recap

Late Start

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we left for the track about 9 hours late. We were supposed to leave Davis at 9 am but David was delayed and he didn’t arrive with the truck until almost 6 pm. We quickly loaded up and then headed for Esparto where the Yaris was vacationing under the care of Mike “Tinyvette” Meier. We made it to the track just about 8 pm when the tech inspection was supposed to be closing, but there were 10 cars still in line, so no problem. Everything checked out fine for us, but my old Miata was getting some extra scrutiny.

Miata #581

Before the Yaris, I was on a team that raced a Miata. It participated in Lemons, Lucky Dog, ChumpCar, a bunch of HPDEs and even an SCCA race school. It went through half a dozen Lemons themes, hosted an all women’s racing team, and was rented out to a friend’s team while their car was getting fixed. During its tenure with us, it grabbed 3rd place in B class in Lucky Dog (Laguna Seca) and 3rd place overall in ChumpCar (Thunderhill). Eventually I started to spend a lot more time with the Yaris and the Miata sat in my driveway for a year with a bad engine. And then we got a JDM engine and it sat for another year doing nothing. I was going to sell it and then instead I donated it to Deaf Power Racing, a new team whose mission is to get more deaf people into motorsports.

Under DPR care, #581 has had a whole host of problems. They inherited an incomplete build and a partial Lemons theme. In their first outing, a few weeks ago, the engine bent a valve. So they went into the Thunderhill race needing to install a new engine, which they did the day before. Their reward for all their hard work was LDRL officials giving them a hard time for the cage. Not only was the cage built by Evil Genius Racing (owner John Pagel is head of Lemons tech), it also had previously passed inspection by NASA, SCCA, Lemons, ChumpCar, and even Lucky Dog themselves! Anyway, their cage issues got resolved but that was just the start of their problems.

When the green flag was thrown on Saturday, they didn’t make it through the first stint before they came in with a broken diff hanger. That never failed on us, but I guess they fail eventually. The next calamity was that the axle wasn’t replaced correctly, so the diff oil leaked out and the diff over heated. So after working for several days straight they had a pile of broken bits to show for it.

Guest Drivers

I run guest drivers on my race team all the time. There are lots of people who pay money to enter a race only to find that the car they were supposed to drive has died for one reason or another. Being the sap that I am, I like to give such unfortunate people a chance to walk on the mild side. I’ve met some really nice people doing this, and that’s probably what reinforces the practice. DPR had 3 arrive-n-drives and no car. So we cut our stints down and made room for them. I would have made room for the owners too, but they thought it would be best to prioritize their paying customers.

Lucky Coincidence!

It turns out that one of the drivers, Taylor, had a rather unexpected connection to me. Not only does he know Ben Dawson, a dear friend and former teammate of mine back at the start of my racing adventures, he had also driven on his racing team. That meant Taylor had actually driven the second car I had given away: my 1986 BMW 325e. That now lives in North Carolina with Winsome Racing. Now if you’re counting cars, you might think that Miata #581 was car #1, but actually that was #3. The first racecar we gave away was our 1988 MR2. Don’t get excited, I don’t have any immediate plans of making the Yaris #4.

Lucky Find!

Guest driver #2 turned out to be a really important person to meet. Ryan is a former StopTech employee. Not only could I share with him my love for the StopTech 309 compound, he also told me what was wrong with my brakes. The Yaris doesn’t use stock calipers because the pad choices were so limited. It was either EBC Red or Hawk HPS, neither of which was very good. So I upgraded to a larger caliper from a Corolla. You have to use a different rotor, but otherwise they bolt right up. StopTech 309s are made in Corolla sizes, which is why I made the swap in the first place. Here’s the problem: the Corolla piston is probably a little bigger. That means it takes more pedal travel to operate the brake and it results in a softer pedal feel. And here I thought I could never remove the last bit of air. Ryan said he would give me a professional brake analysis if I sent him my part numbers and corner weights. How cool is that?

Change Happens

Lucky Dog Racing League is changing. While some change is inevitable, the direction the league is going is away from me. It’s probably better for the health of the series to embrace fast, expensive cars, but it’s leaving budget, grassroots racing behind. Sure there are a few teams showing up with single axle trailers, but there are more with stackers. And while there’s nothing in the rules preventing someone showing up in a 1980s econobox, there’s also apparently nothing stopping people from bringing cars that compete in NASA E0. The speed difference isn’t safe or fun. Next year they will have a B-Spec class. On the one hand, that’s a nice concession for newer cars like mine that are currently illegal because they are too new. On the other hand, B-Specs are rare, and I’d probably be the only one in class. Participation trophies don’t motivate me. I want to dice with cars of similar speed. The growing speed differential between my Yaris and the top cars is making racing less enjoyable for members of my team. As a result, the Yaris is leaning towards more Lemons and less Lucky Dog in the future (I think).

Video!

I drove a half dozen laps at the start of the race on Sunday before the double yellows came out. I got to dice with a few Miatas during that time. Thanks, that was fun!