Cliff Notes

Ever since I started track driving, some 6 years ago, I’ve watched videos of people driving Thunderhill. It’s the closest track to me, and also my favorite (the West side is actually my favorite, but the East side is near the top of the list). In the beginning, I was just trying to learn the track. Later, I wanted to see how my lap times stacked up against other drivers. Today, I mainly watch to analyze driving technique.

When watching videos at Thunderhill, I like to focus on Turns 1-3. Each turn exposes specific driving errors and the entire sequence from the tower to the apex of T4 is under 40 seconds.

The video I have for you today features Cliff, a coach with Audi Club. His YouTube channel features a video from 6 years ago with HoD A and S stickers, so it looks like he got started track driving around the same time as me, or possibly earlier. Cliff is driving a 2015 Golf R with a shitload of upgrades. The Golf R has 292 hp stock, and the Stage 1 tune upgrades this to over 350 hp. The car also features Ohlins suspension, StopTech brakes, and 200TW rubber. The car is properly built for track duty. The description of the video says it’s his fastest lap of the weekend. The video doesn’t feature a lap timer on screen, but from the video timestamps I estimate 2:13.9. Seems like he should be able to go faster. So let’s dive in and see if we can figure out why.

Watch the video and then follow along below.

Some of the things I like about this video are the picture quality and overlays. It’s too bad the camera isn’t mounted inside the car, because it would be great to get an idea of what the driver is doing. Given that most overlays don’t show steering data, it’s useful to watch the driver’s hands to see if he’s fighting understeer or oversteer. I also like watching shifting technique. Oh well, not today.

One of the most useful tools for analyzing drivers is a speed trace. Ideally, your data acquisition system updates at 10 Hz or better. Phone-based apps like Harry’s Lap Timer or Track Addict typically record at only 1 Hz unless they are provided with an external antenna. Since I don’t have data for the lap in the video, I made my own by recording the speed of the car in 1 second intervals using the video timestamps. This provides a low-resolution speed trace (blue) very similar to what you would see from a phone app. I’ve also drawn a theoretical speed trace based on my own imagination, which I’ll discuss below.

Turn 1

In the first few seconds, you can see a major problem. The speed trace has a very rounded top. The car is coasting into the brake zone. I don’t actually subscribe to the phrase “you should always be on throttle or brakes” because people who hear that think it means 100% throttle or 100% brakes. And there are also instances when coasting is actually appropriate. But 2 whole seconds of coasting on the main straight is not one of those times. The amount of time lost is only a couple tenths, so it’s not that big a deal in terms of lap times. But it is a big deal in terms of technique. One should drive the car all the way to the brake zone.

The next thing to note is the deceleration. It’s not very steep. A car with 200 TW tires can decelerate at 1.0g. From observing the G-meter, the car never gets close. It spends most of the time at less than 0.5g. Technique-wise, I also brake more gently in high speed corners. My mindset is that I’m trying to set the corner speed at a specific value rather mash the pedal. But the braking here is just too timid. Looking ahead at other corners, he appears to always brake gently. The car and tires are capable of much more.

The final thing I want to point out is the location of the apex. This is the black arrow. The slowest part of a corner should be before the apex, not after. He’s coasting through the corner trying to hold speed. In the overused phrase “in slow, out fast”, the in slow happens before the apex and the out fast starts occurring a little before the apex. Here, the slow is still after the apex.

Turn 2

Like T1, there isn’t enough commitment to the brake pedal in timing or pressure. But the overall shape is pretty good. I see a lot of drivers mash their brake pedal and over-slow the car. Not so here. He’s using the brakes to set his speed, and then he drives through at the speed he set. Good.

Unfortunately, the mid-corner speed of T2 on 200TW tires is not 61-63 mph. Looking back at some of my data, I drive a couple mph faster in the pouring rain or when joking around on 185/60/14 Douglas Xtra-Trac II tires ($38 Walmart tires with a 420 treadwear rating). On a dry track with 200 TW tires, I’m around 72 mph. Why is he driving so far under the limit? Probably because he doesn’t like the feel or sound of sliding tires. Tires are supposed to slide a little on track. That’s where the optimum grip is. Driving a sliding car can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. The way to get used to it is to do it.

While T2 is a carousel with a constant radius, it is almost never the case that one should drive a constant radius. On a long corner like T2, you should use the first half for braking and the second half for accelerating. You may be slightly slower on the way out of the corner, but you gain a lot more by using the first half as part of your brake zone. Since there’s such a short straight from T2 to T3, it’s better to take this as a double apex rather than single.

Turn 3 and Turn 4

T3 is tricky because it’s off camber. There are lots lines through the corner, especially when racing wheel to wheel. Although Cliff’s overall grip level isn’t where it should be, the shape of the speed graph is just fine.

T4 is a typical 90, so the minimum speed should be before the apex. Here, like in T1, the minimum speed is actually after the apex. If you’ve got a car with 350 hp, you should use a driving line that optimizes the power of the vehicle. That means getting the braking and turning done early so you can throttle on a straight line. This is doubly true for FWD cars.

Rant on

It’s not really Cliff’s fault that he under-drives his tires. The E in the HPDE system is totally broken. If you haven’t read “Optimum Drive”, by Paul Gerrard, I highly recommend you do. He talks about how backwards the HPDE system is. I won’t repeat that here. Go get his book. Paul also says that if we want to solve a problem, we need to get to its root. The problem isn’t that Cliff coasts into brake zones or drives at 0.8g. The problem is that he’s not comfortable driving a sliding car. Fix that problem, and all the symptoms go away.

What’s the first lesson we usually teach new students? The racing line. As if that fucking matters. The line is a result of optimizing grip. Teach drivers to feel grip and the racing line will follow. The reverse isn’t true. Fuck the fucking racing line. I’d much rather have students drive in the middle of the track. There’s less chance they go off track and roll or hit something.

When drivers get comfortable just under the limit they reach a performance plateau that’s hard to break through. And the better they get, the harder it will be to unlearn later. Stability control, sticky tires, and 500 hp monsters all conspire against acquiring actual skill. But the students show up in Hellcats and Vipers, and I’m not getting in the right seat of one of those things without nannies.

If you really want to get better at driving, you have to have the right environment. Thunderhill in a 500 hp monster is not the right environment. The consequences of crashing at 130 mph are just too great. There’s a reason that the Kenny Roberts school is on dirt and why the Skip Barber school uses all season tires. Learning car control is safest when tires are slippery and speeds are low. Simulators are cheaper and safer still.

Rant off

On the other hand, not everyone needs to be a driving ace. Lots of people enjoy listening to music. Fewer people play music. Even fewer compose. If someone is having a great time driving around a track at 6 tenths, do they really need to turn it up to 8 or 10? As a coach, my #1 priority is safety. The #2 priority is to make sure the student is having a great time. For novices that probably means teaching them the racing line and “advanced techniques” like heel-toe shifting. As students graduate to intermediate and advanced, they need level-appropriate instruction. And just like with music or anything else, the lessons become less entertaining and more work. Drivers who didn’t start with a foundation of car control will take longer to reach whatever level they are trying to attain because they will have to unlearn a bunch of bad habits along the way. Who cares? It’s just time, and last I checked, time on track is a lot of fun.

Conflicted

Personally, I’m really conflicted about driving education. I firmly believe that car control is the only thing that matters, and if I ran a driving school, it would be mostly drills on a skid pad or simulator. However, I also believe that as long as drivers are safe, they should do whatever optimizes their fun. If I ran an HPDE organization, we’d do burnouts, drifts, jumps, and of course, the racing line.

Coaching report

Corvettes

Last week I did a coaching event with Hooked on Driving at Thunderhill. It was a special “Hooked on Corvettes” day. I arrived right before the coaching meeting and therefore got the last pick of cars. To my delight it was a 1980s C4. If there’s a choice of vintage and modern, I generally go for vintage. I would have picked this car had I been the first to choose.

The student was a first-timer. We started out on the figure 8 drill and he was the only one who really got the drill. He spun a couple times, which is good, because I wanted him to spin so he knew what going over the limit felt like. At one point he commented “I feel like I’m driving a lot faster than the others”. My reply was “you are”.

On our first on-track session, I got to drive it for 2 laps. I had to lean on the throttle to get it started. It’s been decades since I’ve had to do that. The gauge cluster and cockpit in general looked like it was inspired by Star Wars. I absolutely loved it. Then we switched and he took over the driving duties. I encouraged him a little too much and he ended up spinning in T3. Well, that’s not so bad. I did that my first track day. Sadly, that meant he lost some confidence in the second session and he ended up giving a shit-ton of point-bys. I was pretty pleased by his track awareness. By the middle of the 3rd session his confidence was back and from there until the end of the 4th session we were one of the fastest cars in the novice group.

Michael, if you’re reading this, great job and awesome car.

Dangerous roll bars

One of the coaches showed up in a Miata with an unusual roll bar. I didn’t recognize the pattern so I took a closer look.

There is no way this passes any kind of safety scrutiny. These are the things I noticed but I’ll bet there are more issues.

  • The bar is welded to the package tray, not the frame.
  • The angle of the back stays are way too steep.
  • The bottom of the diagonal bar attaches to the back stay rather than the main hoop.

I asked him about it and he had this to say in his defense. “Have you seen Miata roll bars? Half of them are below the driver’s head”. This is largely true. Lots of roll bars don’t pass the broomstick test. He also said “it’s not a track car, I just put the roll bar in so I could drive it on track”. He further elaborated that he “just drives it around at 6/10ths”. So why are there Toyo RRs on there?

An interesting conversation

The driver in this video was required to do a check-out ride with a PCA instructor because he missed seeing a red flag in his previous session. The video in question was posted earlier this week but has been taken down. After 1 lap, they come into the pits and have a conversation about his driving. At which point the instructor gives him a complete dressing down, telling him he’s driving way over his head. Video has been removed, sadly.

I think if you miss a red flag, you’re lucky if you get to drive again that day. But the instructor was way out line both with what he said and his attitude. If you want to kick someone out for missing a red flag, that’s completely valid, but telling a driver he’s “hacky” is over the top. The driving was 7/10ths not 10/10ths. It’s weird that the instructor had his HANS on, but maybe he didn’t have a chance to remove it between getting out of his car and doing the check-out ride.

The video was discussed at length on the HPDE Instructors Facebook group. There were lots of different opinions but the most common sentiments were that the driver was actually driving 7/10ths and that the instructor was out of line. It’s completely understandable to kick a driver out for missing a red flag. But telling the driver he’s driving with his dick is not only bad manners, it’s totally incorrect. It seems the instructor had a particular narrative planned before even getting in the car and didn’t want to stray from that. He didn’t appear to be observing anything the student did and gave no feedback.

One of the things that irks me most is the way the instructor talked down to the driver. Is the instructor actually better? The driver in question was the 2018 SCCA ITA champion. What accomplishments does the instructor have? I looked him up in Race Hero and he doesn’t appear there. So he hasn’t raced with PCA, SCCA, NASA, etc. in recent history.

You know how I’d like to see this resolved? Trial by combat. Let’s let lap time sort this out. To make it fair, they shouldn’t be driving their usual cars. I’ll offer up my Toyota Yaris for this. Anyone want to bet who wins?

Taking responsibility

Jim McClelland of the Golden Gate PCA took the high ground (see text below). While I think this is an admirable stance, it doesn’t change the facts that a PCA instructor chose to behave like a total ass.

After much review of all available information and “in-house” discussions regarding what transpired respective to Joe’s red flag infraction at GGR’s DE event on Saturday, I have come to the conclusion that I, as track chair, am solely and completely responsible for placing our instructor in a situation with Joe that was doomed to be have an unsuccessful outcome.

I did not do my job.

The following facts were not confirmed by me to properly prep our instructor prior to delegating the post-red-flag communication with Joe.

1. There is no reason we cannot, as event staff, request and obtain information from the corner workers describing in detail the infractions observed. Had we verified the actual number of observable red flags passed, the context of the instructor’s discussion would have been commensurate with that accurate information.
(When we hear “three red flags,” that gets our full attention. A dozen or so years ago, a 964 driver missed a red flag and subsequently impacted the rear of a 951 at 50+ mph, sending everything up in flames. That’s our reference point when it comes to red flags.)

2. Every registered driver’s driving experience is available on MotorsportReg. There is no impediment to my reviewing that information prior to the event, or having that information on hand at the event to refer to. Had I informed our instructor of Joe’s extensive driving experience prior to the instructor meeting with and riding with Joe, he would not have assumed Joe to be more toward the “beginner” end of the driving experience spectrum, and would have assessed his driving much differently, and the subsequent conversation in the paddock would have had a more productive outcome.

There are other aspects of our level of preparation for addressing incidents such as the red flag violation on Saturday, as well as overall control and execution of our events. While it is unfortunate that it sometimes takes a conflict to produce a wake up call, a solution and/or a better way forward, please be confident that we are constantly seeking to improve, even when we think events go well.

A few of GGR’s attributes I am entrusted with as track chair are our reputation for safe events, fun events, as well as excellent instruction. I will state that I did not provide my best effort needed respective to our instructor’s interaction with Joe. As a result, Joe understandably felt that he was not being treated fairly, the instructor is understandably upset at how my failure to properly prep him now shows him in a negative light all over the internet, and GGR does not want to lose him as an instructor, nor Joe as a customer.

GGR is certainly taking this as a very important learning experience – with me in a front row desk.

But wait, there’s more

Brad Kellet, President of the Golden Gate Region PCA, took action.

“After investigating the situation and gathering all the facts, including discussions with all involved parties, GGR has removed the instructor in question as CDI for future events and has revoked his certification as a PCA instructor. We take situations like this seriously and took swift action, but wanted to make sure we had all the facts before making any conclusions. We’ve learned a great deal from this situation and we will continue to think deeply about it, and will use our learnings to make our events and instruction even better moving forward.”

At one point, my thought was “I’m not going to do track days with PCA because I’m not into parade laps”. My thought now is “I’m not going to coach with them either”. There’s too much cover-your-ass going on.

Coaching Report (-ish)

Last week I posted about the Lucky Dog sim racing series I attended. In the post-race FB chat, I offered to help a slower driver get faster if they were willing to look at telemetry with me and didn’t mind me blogging about it. The only person who took me up on that offer was actually one of the faster racers. The next race on the schedule was Summit Point, so that’s what we would work on. I haven’t run Summit in ages and I’ve never driven the ND MX-5 there. Sometimes I wonder why I keep an iRacing subscription. My laps wouldn’t be ideal, but I logged a couple sessions to get some telemetry for comparison. One expected difference is our setups. He downloads setups from aliens whereas I drive the baseline like a rookie. Setups are critical when looking for tenths of second, but not 1.6 seconds, which was the gap between my fast lap and his. My goals were (1) to figure out why he was 1.6 seconds off and (2) to see if I could offer some advice that would help him get faster. In a perfect world, I’m such a good teacher that he ends up faster than me. I can dream.

Telemetry

The “student” has done some racing in the real world and has been on iRacing for a little over a year. Good, that means we could dive right into the data without troubleshooting rookie problems like how to set up controllers or drive the typical racing line. In the telemetry traces below, you can see panels for Brake, Speed, Steering Angle, Throttle Position, and Time Lost. iRacing reports over 100 channels, but you don’t need more than 4-6 to figure out what’s going on. The image is a screen capture from TrackAttack. One of the things I like about TrackAttack is that it is available on PC and Mac, imports a variety of data formats (e.g. iRacing, AiM, Apex Pro), and stores its data on the cloud. Viewing and sharing telemetry data has never been so convenient. Click on the image to view it full size.

The student trace is yellow and mine is purple. Let’s look at the obvious things first: brake and throttle.

  • He brakes a little later and a lot harder than I do
  • He gets to 100% throttle sooner than I do

In a lot of peoples’ minds, the formula for speed is braking as late and hard as possible followed by accelerating as early and hard as possible. But if that worked, why are my speeds higher pretty much everywhere on track? It’s certainly not the setup. Given that I’m using the baseline and haven’t even bothered to move some weight to the right side of the vehicle, he should carry more speed in the right hand corners, which is most of them. The clue to this mystery comes from the steering angle: he turns the wheel more than me. So when we struck up a FB Messenger conversation, that’s where I started the dialog.

Conversation

I looked at your traces… the more you turn the wheel, the more speed you scrub. How does one get around a corner without steering as much?

Better racing lines. Lol.

No, it’s not the line.

Oh?

(At this point I sent him a TrackAttack screen cap showing the steering angle trace).

Wow! Minimizes the sudden weight transfer by being smoother and only turning as much as necessary….

We both have to turn the same amount at the end of the day. My car is turning just as much as yours believe it or not. The difference is that I’m not using the wheel to do it.

Ahhhhhh….gotcha. Skinny pedal. Lol.

Middle pedal.

Earlier brake? Or trail brake?

Yeah and yeah.

Both. Roger that.

Your current style is to brake late and hard. When you do that, you can’t rotate the car.

Little earlier on, later off, but less overall pressure.

Earlier on, less pressure, earlier off actually. You can move the whole braking sequence earlier in the corner and carry more speed through the corner.

Oh gotcha. Makes sense. That’s probably why I struggle with a real car that way as well…

The harder and later you brake, the less time there is to set up the ideal corner speed. The less time there is to feel the balance of the car. There’s nothing wrong with threshold braking. But it takes away your time to sense speed. So until your speed sensing skills are exquisite, it’s better to give yourself more time at the corner entry to find the optimal entry speed. I brake pretty softly in real and sim life. I haven’t figured out how to threshold brake and sense speed.

I see. So by braking earlier, you can rely more on the momentum of the car and the suspension instead of sending it in hot and praying that the tires can soak up the forces.

Braking too hard will also see you below the optimal corner speed. The natural reaction to that is to stomp on the throttle. But if you do that, all the weight goes to the rear and the front starts understeering. So if you find yourself pushing, it’s probably because you’re also using a lot of throttle. And that’s because your corner speed was too low.

Got it. That’s exactly what I feel like I am doing, too….

So next time try braking a half marker earlier and trail off the speed to keep as much momentum as possible. It takes a while to change driving style. Don’t expect miracles. Things get worse before they get better sometimes.

Misconceptions

The student knows a lot about driving and is a pretty fast driver. It’s great that we can have a conversation about racing line, weight transfer, understeer, etc. without having to define terms. What’s holding him back are some misconceptions about the fast way around a track. He’s probably had these misconceptions for a while and has a driving style that optimizes them. In order to get faster, he’ll have to unlearn some of what he currently knows and re-train himself to drive differently. Let’s talk about his misconceptions in a little more detail because everyone goes through this.

  • Brake as late and hard as possible
  • Get to 100% throttle as soon as possible
  • Oversteer is generated via the throttle pedal

On the surface, all of these are correct in their own context. If you’re trying to get as much out of the straight as possible, you should brake as late as possible. And if you’re trying to slow the car, you should be using all the traction you have available, not part of it. The reason we drive the typical racing line is to maximize the exit speed. So it makes sense that you want to get on throttle as soon as possible. It’s also true that you can initiate and control oversteer with the throttle. So if all of these things are right, what’s wrong?

I think there are 3 phrases in common usage that improve the novice driver and shackle the advanced.

  • In slow out fast
  • You should always be on throttle or brake, never coasting
  • Whoever gets to 100% throttle first wins

All of these phrases emphasize the speed of the vehicle. By any objective criteria, I’m doing the speed things worse than the student. I brake softly. I’m late to brake and throttle. I coast. What am I doing right that makes up for all that I’m doing wrong?

  • The winning driver is the driver who turns less

So how does one get around a race track by turning less? It starts by learning how to control oversteer with the brake pedal. That’s it. Just one little thing. The brake pedal. And fuck all if I’m not still working on it.

Didactic vs. socratic teaching

Reminder: you could win a Rumblestrip delta timer by entering the YSAR author contest. See the Contest link above.

On Facebook, I belong to the HPDE Instructors group. I like this group because nearly all of the content is nice people genuinely trying to make a positive difference in the world, in as far as improving high performance driving instruction makes the world a better place. One of the topics that has come up several times is the difference between coaching and instructing. The dictionary doesn’t make much of a distinction, but the group members do. Instructing, they say, is like lecturing or demonstrating while coaching is more active and probing. I believe most of the group thinks they are coaches. The distinction between the two types of teaching is actually very old, at least 2,500 years. Given that this is the case, I will use their proper names, and not those of the HPDE Instructors group.

  • Didactic method – Presenting information to the student with materials prepared ahead of time. Examples include books, track maps, videos, seminars, etc. In the didactic method, the student is a vessel into which knowledge is poured. Most classroom education is didactic because there is an efficient student to teacher ratio.
  • Socratic method – Challenging the student with questions about their own beliefs and experiences. Examples include asking students where and when they brake, where they are looking, how they think they can go faster, and which corners they think are most dangerous. In the socratic method, the instructor and student engage in a dialog in which the instructor provides prompts. This is relatively labor intensive as it is difficult to parallelize for multiple students.

Last week, one of the coaches wrote in with the following problem.

I’m in the middle of the toughest instructing day I’ve ever had in 15 years of doing this. My student, with trailered-car autocross experience, and go-karting experience, is driving a 2014 GTI and cannot grasp the concept of tracking the car out on exit. He says he understands what I’m telling him, but he simply won’t do it. He’s also divebombing corners with his shitty-ass HP+ pads despite agreeing wholeheartedly that we would spend the session focusing on line instead of speed. Lap 2, he’d warped his rotors. I have never not been able to get through to a student and I’m about at my wits’ end. So…tips/tricks/advice?

So what kind of advice did the group give him? Here are some ideas, some of which were mentioned several times.

  • Take him as a passenger in your car to show him the line
  • Make the student put a tire on the exit curb (even if it means going out of the way to get there)
  • Let him make mistakes if he’s not endangering others, mistakes are learning opportunities
  • Narrate every aspect of the track while he drives it
  • Tell him, “you’ve paid for the track, use all of it”
  • Warn him that if he doesn’t do as you say, he’s done for the day
  • Don’t be afraid to get out of the right seat, it’s your life
  • Give him maximum RPM and MPH limits
  • Have him draw the track on paper from memory with his eyes closed, he probably doesn’t know it
  • Slow him down and make him stare at the exit
  • Explain track-out with the string method (an imaginary string is attached to the steering wheel and throttle pedal – no throttle without unwinding)
  • Establish an end-of-braking point
  • Send him home?
  • Agree on what you’re working on before the session and if the student deviates, take them back to the pit and discuss
  • Autocrossers have a different driving style… he may be too set in his ways to change
  • OSB – other sports beckon, as in, some students aren’t worth the time
  • Trade students with another instructor
  • Smack him in the back of the head

How much of this advice is didactic vs. socratic? Or in the groups’ words, how much of the advice suggests instruction vs coaching? Drawing the track on paper from memory is definitely socratic but the rest? Not so much. For a group that is keen to provide coaching, their advice is mostly to bully the student into submission. I don’t subscribe to that way of teaching. Here’s what I wrote.

I suspect the problem is that he thinks performance driving is about mashing pedals. Two drills that might work are (1) drive some laps without using the brakes except for emergencies (2) drive some laps in 4th gear only. In both these cases, mashing pedals doesn’t make you go faster. You have to think about line and momentum. Instead of telling him what to do, you can make him figure it out by posing a different kind of problem.

I would never throw up my hands and say “other sports beckon”. One part of my job is to be a teacher, but another part is to make sure my student is having the best day of his life. I’ve had a few students who couldn’t drive for shit and didn’t improve at all from one session to the next. I can only think of one time where we didn’t have a great time, and for that I blame myself. I think the day could have turned around but he left early and I never got a chance to make up for my early impatience. It’s a learning process for the coaches too.

Coaching in an Exocet

Have you heard of an Exomotive Exocet? I’ve sort of drooled over photos of these and other kit cars for some time. They look so damn cool. Exocets are built from Miatas, which are a personal favorite. While Miatas are pretty light cars, tipping the scales at around 2200-2300 lbs, an Exocet is only around 1500. At the start of the day, I was trying to choose between an ND Miata and an Exocet. I haven’t been in an ND on track yet, and was eager to check one out. I imagine I might own one some day. But how often do you even see an Exocet? Almost never. So I decided to choose the student with that car. It turns out it’s not his car, but a buddy’s.

My first experience with the car was on the skid pad for the figure 8 drill. Given that the car had the stock 1.8L engine, it wasn’t a tire burner. But the student did get to practice some oversteer and recovery. The car felt safe and fun. Then I went out with the owner in the B session and changed my mind entirely. I had an open face helmet, and the wind was really uncomfortable at 100 mph. It was so loud I couldn’t audibly  communicate with the driver. It didn’t feel at all safe. I made the mistake of hanging onto the frame at one point and got thwacked by a piece of rubber. Ouch.

I decided I couldn’t coach in that car unless I made some kind of change. I switched to a closed faced helmet and put Senna bluetooth radios in both helmets. What a difference. Problem solved. In the first on track session with my student, I drove 2 orientation laps to talk about the flag stations and such. So how does an Exocet feel? Not so different from a Miata actually. It was a little too light in the rear, which doesn’t make for an ideal car for a novice student. The major problem I had with it was the position where the A pillar bar meets the floor. The tube ends up very close to the left foot and there’s no room for a dead pedal. I’m really used to anchoring my left foot on a dead pedal. What was I supposed to do with my left foot? Hover over the clutch? Rest under the clutch? Who builds a frame that prevents proper foot positioning? Exomotive does. Maybe they expect you to reposition the pedals to the right?

Building an Exocet costs in the neighborhood of $20K and takes hundreds of hours of labor. In the end you get a unique car that is a real head turner. But let’s be clear, it’s not the ultimate track weapon. If you’ve already got a Miata, you could run circles around an Exocet with a turbo upgrade. But for the price of a Miata and turbo, you’re also be in the neighborhood of other excellent track cars like Acura RSX Type S, BMW E46/Z3/Z4, Nissan 350Z, or Porsche Boxster.

Over the course of the day, my attitude about the Exocet evolved as follows

  1. Too much wind
  2. Not as fast as I would have thought
  3. A lot of time and money went into this…
  4. It’s like an asphalt dune buggy
  5. This thing is actually kind of awesome

There are a lot of reasons for owning a sports car. I don’t think any of them are about how practical the cars are. In fact, some of their appeal is their lack of practicality. The main appeal of sports cars, in my opinion, is how they make you feel. That feeling should be special. And if you’re the kind of person whose mantra is “built not bought” then an Exocet is going to make you feel doubly special. I would never build an Exocet myself. I’m a driver, not a builder. Heck, I’m not even a sports car enthusiast. But there is a part of me that is 100% on board with what this represents.

Thanks Colin and Mike, the Exocet made my coaching day special.

Coaching 86s

Normally, I coach for Hooked on Driving. I’ve also coached for a variety of other HPDE organizations, but not often. 2 weekends ago I did my first private coaching gig. I was asked by a driver who runs in the GT86 time trial series if I would be interested in doing some private coaching for some of the drivers in the series. I thought that sounded like fun and a good learning experience on both sides, so I agreed.

How much does one charge for such a thing? That’s a very good question! In my day job, I sometimes get honoraria for giving talks or reviewing grants. Those events might run $250-$1000 per day, and usually on the low side. If a company wants my services, I’d probably charge $250 per hour. But that’s my professional side. Performance driving is a hobby. So I decided that I would charge a hobby rate: $400 for the day for a group of 4.

So what does $100 get you? 2 sessions of me in the right seat, some chatting before and after each track session, and a group online telemetry analysis review a few days later (I brought my Aim Solo DL with me each session). Would I do this again? Sure, see my prices in the For Hire link at the top. You can also rent a car from me.

So let’s take a look at what one of the GT86 drivers learned. I’m particularly proud of what this driver was able to accomplish in one day.

The blue traces are a couple typical laps from his first session. The red traces are from his second session. I was in the car both times. Between those, he had one or two stints where he was working alone. The track is Thunderhill West. For some reason, Aim Solo thinks the start/finish line is on the straight between T2 and T3, so that’s where the left hand side of the graph begins.

The first thing to notice is that the red line is higher everywhere in the speed graph. He’s faster everywhere. Well except for 5900-6600 feet. We’ll get to that later. Let’s discuss the turns starting from the beginning (or rather T3).

  • T3 (500 ft) – There are 3 big changes here. The most obvious one is that his minimum corner speed is higher. Over the course of the day, he learned that he didn’t have to brake so much and therefore carry more speed through the entry. He also gained confidence in using the brake pedal to set speed rather than just scrub speed. This is why the shape of the curve is more U-shaped than V-shaped. He’s blending cornering and deceleration. Finally, the upward slope of the red line is higher, meaning he’s getting the throttle down more fully albeit slightly later.
  • T4 (1300 ft) – He brakes and accelerates at pretty much the same place, but he’s going much faster. This is mostly an improvement in confidence. An improvement in technique would also show him backing up the corner. Something to learn for next time.
  • T5 (1800 ft) –  The downward slope of the blue line shows that he used to brake for this corner. But now he just lifts off throttle a little.
  • T6 (2500-3200ft) – The red line starts to decelerate gently and then aggressively. He’s going very fast here and is a little worried about the upcoming corner. So unconsciously, he’s starting to lift before applying the brake. He could easily gain time simply by keeping his foot at 100% throttle. It’s fine with me that he doesn’t. If your self-preservation instincts kick in at the highest speed part of the track, I’m totally okay with it. The more important and impressive thing is that his minimum corner speed is 15 mph higher. Amazing!
  • T7 (4000 ft) – We didn’t really work on low speed corners, and you can see that there isn’t much difference in time from 4000-4500 ft.
  • T8 (4700 ft) – Confidence gets him accelerating over T8 rather than decelerating.
  • T9-T10 (5200-5900 ft) – Although we didn’t work on low speed corners, you can see that his minimum corner speed is higher. Not only that, but it’s happening later. He’s clearly trail-braking to make that happen. Now all he needs to do is move all that deceleration and rotation earlier in the corner. Sadly, it’s much easier to say than do, and he’ll be working on this skill for a long time.
  • T1 (6700-7400 ft) – The blue trace is actually higher than the red trace. Yes, he could go faster, but our attention was on how to drive T1 faster, not how to drag race down the main straight. Honestly, I would prefer if students never used 4th gear. Look what he does here. It’s smashing. He previously applied brakes, then accelerated, then braked again. The red trace shows him turning this complex of turns into a single turn.
  • T2 (8000 ft) – On the way into the carousel, he’s going so much faster that he bleeds a bit too much speed on the entry. Oh well, it’s an overall gain as shown by the time graph. Again, something to work on next time.

Wow, right? He gained 8-10 seconds over the course of the day. Partly it was increasing confidence, but there were changes in technique too. They go hand in hand. You can’t really trail-brake until you gain confidence. And once you gain confidence, it improves your trail-braking.

Dropping 20 seconds in a day

Last week the student I was coaching at Thunderhill dropped 20 seconds off his personal best in one day. I thought it would be fun to investigate how that happened from the perspective of the coach and the student. The statements in blue are from the student.

The student had some previous autocross experience and had been to a Thunderhill track day once before. So he wasn’t a complete novice. The car was more commuter than track weapon. It was quite comfy with heated seats, adjustable bolsters, and nearly silent exhaust. Here’s his description.

2009 E90 328i 6 speed manual with sport package. No modifications except stainless steel brake lines installed by previous owner. Street brake pads and PSS tires (the tires help me to drop 5 seconds). I replaced engine mounts before 2nd track day. (use OEM mounts).

At the start of the day, I asked him what he felt he was good at and what he needed work on. He said his driving line was pretty good but that he should shift to 4th gear sometimes. As it turns out with rookies, perspectives can be misaligned. His driving line wasn’t very good and there was nothing wrong with not using 4th gear. We kept up with the fastest cars in our group using 3rd gear only. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…

Once we got in the car and took a few laps, I could see that, in fact, he does not shift. There are two places on the track where one can downshift to 2nd and three or four where one could get to 4th gear. I made no attempt to fix this. Driving is difficult enough without shifting. I wish all my students would drive 3rd gear only. Less power in corners means you have to learn to drive a momentum line. And less speed on the straights is less wear on the car. I’d also much rather top out at 90 mph than 120 mph in a car I’m not driving. Another thing that didn’t need fixing was his hand positions. He anchored them at 9 and 3 and I never saw them come off. Excellent. I did remind him a few times to relax his grip a little. Thankfully, the most important thing, situational awareness, also needed no fixing. He knew where the cars were around him at all times.

So what did need fixing?

  • Braking was early, excessive, and abrupt
  • Lack of confidence in grip
  • Driving line was circular

The first thing we worked on was trail-braking. What? Isn’t that an advanced driving skill? What am I doing teaching this first? What about the line? FUCK THE LINE. The most important thing you can learn about track driving is how to apply the brake. Hard on, soft off. No, we didn’t work on rotating the car with the brakes. We simply changed the brake pattern from hard on, snap off, to hard on, soft off. This is how one creates smoothness on corner entry, and it’s the foundation for rotating the car with trail-braking (later).

The next thing we worked on was speed sensing. The reason he was braking so hard was that he had no idea how fast one could go into the corner. Self-preservation instincts aren’t bad you know. They keep you safe. But they can also get in your way. One reason to get coaching is to lean on the coach’s experience to increase your limits. He just needed someone to let him know it was safe. The drill we did may seem unusual. I told him he wasn’t allowed to use the brakes at all. He had to plan the corner far enough in advance so that he arrived there with the right speed. Without the brake pedal getting in the way, he drove the entries much faster. With each corner he gained confidence and was eventually going into T2 (a long carousel) at high speed with just a lift, letting his tires scrub off the excess speed.

Lots of people unknowingly drive a circular arc. How can you tell? If the wheel stays at the same position throughout the corner, it’s circular. Some corners can be done that way, but most benefit from a late apex line where the radius of the first half of the corner is much tighter than the second half. And by the way, the halfway point isn’t the apex. The apex is in the second half of the corner. I call the halfway point the nadir. Ross Bentley calls it the EOB (end of braking). In any case, the point where you start to increase the radius is before the apex.

We spent most of the day working on corner entries. As a result, my student’s entry and mid-corner speeds were so much higher than the others in the group that we kept up or passed many faster cars (M2, M3, M4, 911, Lambo) despite not shifting gears. Nobody went faster in T2 despite having stickier tires and aero. And I guaranty our T8 speed was 10 mph faster than anyone else. After the event I emailed the student to find out how he dropped 20 seconds. Blue text is him. Red text is additional editorial comments.

Q: What was the most challenging thing? Physically became tired after 6 sessions. All that sensory input is exhausting. But you get used to it and driving becomes less taxing.

Q: What was the scariest thing? Saw someone rolled his car on track. This was in the last session of the day. Wisely, my student said he wanted to have a less intense final session.

Q: Was there an ‘aha’ moment or was it very gradual? I think it was very gradual for me. Ian is a good instructor who can explain things clearly. Communication is a 2-way street, and not every student-coach pairing is ideal. We were both mathematically inclined, so we communicated like engineers.

Q: Where do you feel you made the most improvements? On to throttle earlier and understeering out of turns. To get on throttle earlier is not so simple. He had to change his whole approach to cornering to make that happen. his use of understeering isn’t quite right. What he’s doing is adding throttle at the traction limit. This means the radius of the turn increases to compensate. It’s a very mild form of understeer.

Q: What would you tell someone who was going to the track for the first or second time? You may not need to drive a powerful car on to the track at the beginning. A well maintained car can give you as much fun as a Lambo or M3. 

Here are a few things that I learned from Ian:

  1. No braking approach. At second run session, Ian asked me to run a lap without braking.or minimum braking. It helps me a lot but how? I don’t know how to describe it.
  2. My line late apex, early apex, circle arc line. It turned out that some of my lines are just pure circle arc line. My steering input stays same through out my turn.
  3. Gas out approach/understeering. I finally realized that how to use throttle to exit a turn. I will try to use this approach at my next autocross event. I alway thought that understeering is NO good until my 2nd track day.
  4. Learn road/surface condition. It applies to rally racing a lot. At T3, T5, T9, pay attentions to elevation change and bank angle.

Here are a few turn-specific notes he made, some of which are pretty perceptive.

  • During my first track day, I wasn’t sure how fast I could enter T1. To be on safe side, I always braked too early during my first track day. I thought my line was fine but during my second track day, I have learned that my line was actually a smooth circle instead of late apex. At the very last session of my second track day, I began to realize that I could accelerate a lot earlier or during my T1 entry point. In this way, with lots of throttle, my 328i could naturally move to right side of the T1 exit. (using natural understeering)
  • T2 is relatively straightforward. I became more comfortable at higher speed to go around T2 at my second track day. In the afternoon session, I started to appreciate the power out approach to exit the turn. Again, using natural understeering of the car. From the entry point to the half of the turn, I gradually added more throttle to almost full throttle. I feel that my newly installed pilot super sport tires have more grip than my old RE050 run flat tires. That is another reason I could run faster at T2 at 65mph(2nd track day) vs 47mph(1st track day).
  • At my second track day, I started to realize that there is a slight up ramp at the entry of T3. So my get off brake point is at the crest of the ramp right before entry of T3. My entry line is too tight to the right. I could have move to the left in one car width to have a diagonal entry point. This line seems to be better. Compared to my first track day, my speed at turn 3 is 56mph vs 50mph(1st track day)
  • At 2nd track day, my car has gained more speed at T5. My initial braking point was at the top of the hill which makes my car slide a bit. At faster speed, Ian got scared and told me to brake early during uphill ramp and turn in earlier. It makes more sense because braking at uphill gives more traction to turn in.
  • At my second track day afternoon session, I felt more comfortable to brake late at T9. I think we could use the uphill ramp to slow down the car and turn in without losing traction. After the crest, it seems that other more powerful cars can accelerate towards T10 a lot faster than my 328i. This is one of the two places at Thunderhill east that powerful cars can make more difference in my opinion. The other one is the straight finish line.
  • At T10, I tried to trail braking. I used to brake late and turn in. After discussion with Ian, it seems that I could initiate the turn earlier and carry more speed. However, there were couple of times that my car became too close to the track edge during T10 exiting.
  • T14-15 seems to be my worst corner. I feel that I could carry more speed at T14. At the end of 2nd track day, I could accelerate earlier before T15. This helps me to reach higher speed at finish line. At my first track day, I slowed down too much. I had to accelerate my car from lower speed at straight line.

 

Oh yeah, about that car that rolled. It was a brand-new (2018) BMW. The driver had purchased HPDE insurance for the day. Yes, it sucks to wreck a car, but it would suck a lot more if you didn’t have insurance. If you’re taking an expensive car to the track, please get HPDE insurance. It costs about the same as a track day. Driver was fine btw.