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.

Just 1 mph faster

I think most people who read this blog would like to go just a little bit quicker around a race track. In fact, that may be your New Year’s resolution in a couple weeks. Rather than trying to make a huge leap, like 5 seconds, focus on something more realistic, like averaging 1 mph faster. How much faster is that in terms of lap times? It depends on the car and track. For example, in the Global MX-5 Cup at Laguna Seca, lap times ran about 1:40 in the ND2 Cup car. That’s a nice round number because it’s 100 seconds. Anyway, it turns out that 1 mph amounts to about 1.3 seconds.

As a complete aside, if you’re wondering how much faster the ND2 MX-5 is compared to the ND1, both models are raced in the Global MX-5 Cup (in different classes of course), and the answer is about 2 sec at Laguna Seca. That’s a pretty significant gap, but there’s a lot more gap to be found among the drivers. The top ND1 driver runs about the same speed as the middle of the pack ND2 driver. The difference between the two cars is 26 hp. It’s kind of amazing that even among very good racers, some drivers are effectively 26 hp better than others. Among HPDE drivers, the gap can be huge.

So back to that 1 mph faster. How are you going to go about averaging 1 mph faster? It turns out there are two ways.

  1. Enter the corner with more speed
  2. Enter the corner with more yaw

1. More Speed

For most people, more entry speed is the low lying fruit. That’s because most people brake too much and enter the corner several mph too slow. To go 1 mph faster, just enter every corner 1 mph faster and everything should sort itself out, right?

Let’s take a look at some real data from my team at a Willow Springs race a couple years back. The driver on the red trace is braking way too much, on the order of 8-10 mph in T1 and T2. That results in a lower speed all the way to the next corner and a lot of time lost. You might think the red driver is a novice, or this isn’t his fastest lap, but he isn’t a novice and this is his fastest lap.

If you’re over-braking your corner entries, as do most drivers, then there’s certainly room to enter with more speed. But how can you determine if this is the case?

  • The best way is to compare your driving to someone in an identical car with identical setup and identical weather. That’s easy to do in the sim world, but hard elsewhere.
  • Have a coach or local hotshoe drive your car so you can compare data between drivers.
  • Compare your data to someone else driving a similar car. Perhaps you both have an GT86/FRS/BRZ.
  • Compare your data to someone else in a different car. If you’re on similar tires, your entry speeds should be similar.
  • Compare your data from different laps. You might find some laps you go in faster than others.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a theme here? You’re going to need some data acquisition gear and do some comparative telemetry analysis on the speed trace. Phone apps like Harry’s Lap Timer, RaceChrono, CMS Lap Timer, Track Addict, etc. work well enough. What if you can’t use a smartphone app? I’m not sure what world you’re living in where you’re worried about lap times and can’t use a phone app, but here’s my simplest advice.

  • If you can get to 100% throttle immediately, without any kind of maintenance throttle mid-corner, you probably entered too slowly.

One of the reasons people enter corners too slowly is that they’ve heard the phrase “in slow, out fast” too many times. Another reason is that going faster would scare the shit out of them. In any case, one of the problems of entering slowly is that being under the limit gives you an invitation to add a lot of throttle mid-corner. Here’s a pretty common sub-optimal control input sequence that’s very common among intermediate drivers.

  1. Mash brake pedal – leads to low entry speed
  2. Mash throttle – leads to mid-corner understeer
  3. Lift throttle – to prevent running out of room at the exit

One of the misconceptions of the intermediate driver is that they should mash the throttle mid-corner. That will get the car to rotate, right? Somewhere in their past the driver not only heard “in slow, out fast”, they also heard “loose is fast”. So they think mashing the throttle will get the car to loosen up. Spinning the rear tires isn’t the same as transferring weight to the front. Drifting greatly reduces the overall grip of the car. Transferring weight does not.

Too much speed

As you get better at optimizing your entry speed, you will eventually run into another problem: you can’t actually enter any faster. Let’s assume that 66 mph is the limit for a specific vehicle in a specific corner. What happens if you try to go 67 mph? The corner radius has to get bigger. The equation that relates speed, grip, and radius is: speed = sqrt(grip * radius). If you decide to enter a 66 mph corner at 67 mph, the radius of the corner will have to get larger to compensate because grip is a constant. In other words, you’ll fall off the track at the exit. If you don’t want that to happen, you’ll have to lift off throttle to tighten the radius and now you’ve basically done the corner backwards (in fast, out slow).

The intermediate level of driving is a mixture of too little and too much entry speed. In both cases, drivers are fighting understeer at the exit, but for different reasons. In either case, if you have to lift at the exit, you’re killing your lap time. The whole point of the typical late apex racing line is to optimize the power of the car in the second half of the corner. Lifting ruins that.

Even if you’re not lifting at the exit, you might still be in the “too much entry speed” category. Some drivers have enough discipline not to mash the throttle, so they don’t have to lift later. Instead, they spend a lot of time coasting in the mid-corner and are late on throttle. The time to add throttle is actually before the apex, but mid-corner coasters add throttle at or after the apex.

The high intermediate performance plateau

There is a very natural performance plateau associated with optimizing entry speed. Eventually you can’t go any faster and you learn the exact entry speed that maximizes every corner. If you accidentally enter 1 mph slow, you add a little extra throttle mid-corner, but not so much that you run out at the exit. If you accidentally enter 1 mph too fast, you coast a bit mid-corner, and end up a little late to throttle. This style of driving, where you modulate mid-corner speed with the throttle can be pretty fast and consistent. It isn’t actually the fastest or safest way around a track, however. Breaking out of this style of driving can be difficult, especially if you’re good at it. If you’re a racer whose been hard stuck 1-2% behind the front runners, this is probably the reason.

Brace yourselves, another tennis analogy is incoming…

One of the greatest tennis players of all time was Steffi Graf. She had a huge serve, killer forehand, tireless legs, and a consistent slice backhand. But no matter how good your slice backhand is, it is a liability against a serve-n-volley player who loves slow rising balls. In order for Steffi Graf to beat Martina Navratilova, she had to learn how to hit a topspin backhand. It’s a completely different stroke requiring changes as fundamental as how she held the racquet. Eventually she learned the stroke and the rivalry ended shortly thereafter. A similar situation existed with Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. In case the analogy isn’t crystal clear, slice backhands are like intermediate driving. If you want to get to the advanced levels, you’ll have to learn how to rip a topspin backhand.

2. More yaw

The other way to lap 1 mph faster is to enter a corner with more yaw. There are two main advantages to this technique.

  • The front wheels do less steering
  • The drive wheels are pointed towards the exit sooner

Steering slows the car. The phrase “in slow, out fast” is not nearly as important as “the driver who steers less wins”. Having the drive wheels straight sooner leads to opening throttle sooner. Entering a corner with more yaw means less loss of speed and more gain of speed. It’s a win-win scenario. So why don’t more people do it?

  • Yaw leads to spinning

That’s reason enough. Spinning is dangerous. It wrecks cars, injures people, and gets drivers kicked off track. Lose-lose-lose. So why bother learning how to do it? Safety, paradoxically. A driver who can deal with yaw can deal with other adverse conditions such as rain, dirt, oil, and off track excursions.

How are you supposed to learn to drive with yaw when practice may endanger people or property? Thankfully there is sim racing. Your body can learn how to drive with yaw without breaking stuff. All you need is a sim rig and the motivation to unlearn your bad habits. But wait, what about that blog post a couple weeks ago where I was giving 12 reasons not to buy a sim rig? Those reasons are good reasons. But training your muscle memory to automatically correct for oversteer? That one positive is worth a few dozen negatives.

Neck braces don’t make you safe

Yesterday, I was at Sonoma Raceway for a 24 Hours of Lemons race. I wasn’t racing, but I was working as staff at both gear tech and pit-out. At pit-out my job is to ensure the following:

  • The car has the proper event sticker
  • The driver is wearing a driver’s wrist band
  • The driver’s helmet has an inspection sticker
  • The harnesses are tight
  • The neck brace is attached appropriately
  • Other shit looks okay

Not all racing series do these checks. In fact, I think it’s kind of rare. A couple weekends ago, I was at the Lucky Dog race at Thunderhill, and the only checks were for stickers and wrist bands. Nobody put their head into the car or tugged on straps. We do that in Lemons, and I think it’s a good idea. I personally noticed the following:

  • ~5 fire systems still had their safety pins inserted
  • ~10 drivers didn’t have their neck devices connected
  • 1 driver didn’t have a wrist band
  • 2 cars had harnesses buckled way too high (stomach instead of hips)

I saw a lot of cars over the weekend, and I’m estimating that ~3% of cars have done something egregiously wrong. Nobody was wearing tennis shoes this time, but shit like that happens if you look for it.

Part of my usual routine is to tug on the front harness straps and then reach around the helmet to tug on the neck straps. About 1/4 of the time, the harness straps are too loose. As noted above, every once in a while one or both neck clips are not connected. But then I started to notice that there is quite a bit of variability in how loose the neck straps are. So I started a new routine and asked each driver to “nod your head forward” or “pretend you’re in a crash”. If the neck device is installed correctly, the helmet’s range of motion will be stopped as the tethers reach their limit. Sometimes the helmet isn’t stopped by the tethers even when the clips are in…

HANS

All of the HANS brands devices worked as intended. When you bob your head forward, the tethers stop the head from going too far. The tethers are anchored on a collar that extends above the shoulders. I like this design because the tethers go straight back when engaged. Also, you can turn your head side to side freely as you drive. However, the downside of HANS is that they offer zero protection from side impacts. If you have a halo seat, your head is protected by the seat wings. However, I estimate that only 10% of cars have halo seats. Should everyone use a halo seat? As long as you can still get out of the car easily, yes. But if the halo means you can’t get out of a burning car, I’m not sure I’d get in there. Alternatively, use a neck device with some side protection.

NecksGen

I’ve owned 2 NecksGens, the Rev and the Rev2 Lite. The former was non-adjustable and the tethers were really restrictive. You can turn your head only a little side to side.  This takes some getting used to, and I can imagine some people feeling claustrophobic. On the plus side, they provide protection from side impacts. Yay! The newer units are adjustable. That flexibility allows it to fit people of various dimensions, but it leaves the user to choose the proper length. I use the shortest setting to provide maximum protection. But I noticed that not everyone else does. I saw a couple that were so loose that they probably didn’t provide any protection at all.

Simpson Hybrid

The really cool feature of these are that the neck restraint attaches to the body rather than the harnesses. So you can use them with 3 point belts in your street car if you want to (probably a good idea for HPDE). The straps are adjustable both down and back. I saw one where the down straps were tight and the back straps were so loose I could have rolled them around my fist. Certainly that’s not how it’s intended to be fitted.

Z-tech

There are 2 selling points for Z-tech (1) the hardware itself is adjustable, not just the straps (2) they are the least expensive. These are popular, and because of that I probably saw the most too-loose straps on this device. Like the NecksGen, they offer side protection when the straps are properly adjusted and no protection when the straps are loose.

Simulate a Crash

Neck braces don’t make you safe, you do. After you strap in and are good to go, make a final check for your own safety. Nod you head forward to simulate what your head would do in a crash. Ensure that your helmet is restrained by the tethers. If you find your range of motion is unlimited, please don’t go on track. You could lose your head out there.

Silliness

This was the extent of my driving at Sonoma.

Lessons Earned

Guest post and 3rd place in the 2018 YSAR Author Contest. This one from my twin brother Mario. Editorial comments in red.

Lessons Learned Earned

I’ve been endurance racing for six years now, which is that middle ground where I’m no longer a noob, but I still don’t know shit. I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two, but if I add up the time and money spent, I think it’s fair to say the lessons have been earned, more than learned.

Alignment first – When we got our 1997 Miata it was set up with toe-out in the rear because the previous owner wanted to drift it. I found out really quick in Sonoma by spinning in T4. The instructor with me said “this doesn’t handle like a Miata.” I skipped a session, got everything aligned to zero, and it fixed everything. Another time our MR2 got sideswiped and it would crab sideways through a corner thereafter. Our teammate Ben Dawson could drive it like that, but I couldn’t get through two corners that way.

It wasn’t sideswiped. The axle broke from metal fatigue and the only replacement we could find on the day was from a previous year MR2 whose suspension geometry was slightly different. You had to saw the wheel just to keep it going straight. Mario got out of the car after one lap and said something like “I value my life too much to drive this”.

Don’t be obsessive about tire pressure – 200TW tires seem to work under a variety of tire temperatures. At a Hooked on Driving day I was at the center of a fairly volatile conversation between a Spec Miata guru and a tech from Tire Rack who completely disagreed on what my tire pressure should be. The former said to run my tires at 38-40 psi, the latter at 28 psi. The comments went from “You’ll fall off the track,” to “the tire will fall off the rim,” and back and forth.

Grassroots Motorsports recently did a 200TW tire test and tried a range of tire pressures. They found out that it didn’t matter much.

It was a bit shocking to find that the lap times were all the same. I think pressures start to matter more when you don’t have square setups. When goofing around I pump my rears up absurdly high. Also, off road so that the tires stay on the rims. 

Safety wire your oil drain bolt – I ruined half an HPDE day for everyone because the oil drain bolt came loose. If the corner workers had flagged me there would have been less cleanup, but for sure it was my fault. I now drill and wire the drain plug, and you should, too.

Get an infrared thermometer – If you’re a pro driver then you need a pyrometer to measure tire temps, but if you’re reading this blog, you can use a $20 infrared gun. It’s great for checking tire temps, seeing how hot your rotors get, checking track temperature, and various things under the hood.

MR2s are great endurance cars. Not. – Our MR2 spun every other race. No, it didn’t spin from snap oversteer like everyone wants to tell you, but it spun bearings all the time. And that requires rebuilding the bottom end. If you want to have a couple really great races and then replace the engine, the MR2 is an ideal platform. If you want longevity, look elsewhere.

Black flags matter – After too many black flags and unnecessary pit stops, we calculated the amount of time lost for a single pit stop vs different lap times. I wrote a whole blog post on this subject, but I can sum it up by saying the fastest driver with a single black flag is the slowest driver.

On some tracks where the stewards are outside the timing loop, a black flag can cost an extra lap.

Don’t trust a racing resume – We’ve had arrive-and-drives with impressive racing resumes, but they don’t mean much. One guy was slipping the clutch on purpose to keep the revs up (and bragging about that being the fast way around), and another had his hand on the shifter the whole time. He also downshitted and put our car to 9k revs, fucktard.

You need a coolshirt – We ran our first couple races without coolshirts and could manage 40-minute stints before we were a danger to ourselves and others (it was over 100 degrees and probably 114 off the pavement). One time we used dry ice to super-cool our ice, but haven’t done that since because most of the energy is locked up in the phase transfer from solid to liquid, and so it’s not worth the hassle of cooling ice further. A big block of ice is better than ice cubes.

Pit stop strategy – No battle plan survives contact with the enemy; no pit stop strategy survives the weekend. But it’s fun to plan them anyway. Also, you can make up time in the pits easier than on track. But like black flags, an unplanned stop takes more time than driving slowly.

Miata is always the answer – They handle, there’s always spare parts at the track, and they don’t break too often. They are underpowered and a bit too common, but still the answer.

Wear a diaper and a big hat – It took me a few races to get to where I could comfortably drive a two-hour stint, and when I was finally ready, my bladder wasn’t. Forty minutes into it and I was weighing the pros and cons of a pit stop vs peeing in my suit. I pitted and ruined our race strategy, but at least I didn’t soil the seat for everyone else. Now I wear a diaper (Depends) every time, and weirdly, have never had to use it.

I also wear a big hat because the sun can tire you out as much as anything. We were racing at Willow Springs one day and it was 108 degrees IIRC, and I had just finished my stint, so I was wearing nothing but a diaper and a big hat. I thought it was funny, so I texted my two sons a picture. One said “I can never un-see that,” the other said “Now I have to burn my phone.” It was so worth it.

Pit board > radios – We’ve had terrible luck with radios and headsets. We now run Boefang radios, but at the lower, and legal, 2w setting. And they still suck. Have a pit board on hand.

Bring a skateboard – Skateboards are great pit transportation, and if you have a longboard, you can carry a gas can on the front.

Don’t race on untested components – At the 24 hours of Buttonwillow, Ian put on tires we’d never used before, and the best brake pads we could find, but also hadn’t tried before (the Yaris has a dismal selection of brake pads). The tires sucked. And we ran out of brakes in the 8th hour. Of a 24-hour race. We only had one extra set of brake pads, and so the last 8 hours was pretty much downshifting and coasting with no brakes. Still placed third overall, tho!

Me culpa.

Put your most aggressive driver in last – I flew across the country for a race weekend. Our most aggressive driver went first. Nobody went next.

FWD is great – I love rear-wheel drive cars, especially in slow corners, but most of the time it doesn’t matter which wheels are driven. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had racing has been in my brother’s Yaris and Tom Pyrek’s Honda Odyssey minivan (Ninja Turtles theme). FWD is especially fast in the rain, and at the NJMP Lemons race, Tom’s rain laps were within 1% of our team’s best dry laps.

Quit racing – Ian and I keep talking about the day we sell our race cars. Then we’ll buy a couple brand new Miatas (him a Fiat) and do HPDEs and arrive-and-drives. Maybe we’ll still be saying this five years from now? I don’t know, but my wife was ready for that yesterday.

Mine too. Racing sucks most of the time.

Holiday shopping guide

Special mid-week post! Check back in a couple days when the Ghosting the Aliens series resumes.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the holiday shopping season are upon us! Sadly, so is the annoying Christmas music. Some of the deals you can find at this time of year can be really great. For example, last year I bought a new gaming computer. Even though prices always drop on computer stuff, I still can’t find a better deal than what I got last year.

In my family, we have some unusual holiday gift giving practices. Of course we buy presents for each other, but we also buy presents for ourselves. We wrap these up and put them under our tree. Well, it’s not always much of a wrapping, often just the shipping box. And truthfully, it isn’t always a tree, sometimes just a decorated table with cookies. And we don’t necessarily open them on Christmas day. We like the French-style midnight opening and we like how Hanukah spreads out the gifts over several days. So we mix it up and open presents at odd times (breakfast on Saturday, dinner on Sunday, midnight on Monday, whatever). Anyway, part of the fun of the holiday season is opening presents and sharing that joy with others. Believe it or not, the gifts you buy yourself can be some of the most fun for the others to share. “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted that, how cool!” is a lot more genuine than “thanks for the socks” or “just what I wanted” (because I gave you explicit directions on what to buy 2 weeks ago). With that in mind, let’s imagine some gifts to improve the driving of someone you care about (even yourself).

Expensive Stuff

  • Simulation Rig – While it may seem expensive, the return on this investment is huge. High performance driving is like any other athletic endeavor. To get get good, you’ll have to spend hundreds of hours practicing. There’s no cheaper or safer way to put in that time than with virtual training. You can buy a complete gaming computer for under $600 if you shop around. But make sure the video card is has a Passmark score of at least 2,500 (an nVidia 1050 is good). For the steering wheel and pedals, the best place to start is a Logitech G29 (PC + PS4) or G920 (PC + Xbox). These list for $400 but you can find them at Newegg for $200. There are lots of 1080p monitors for $100. If you want a system that can do VR, expect to pay more than twice as much. For more info, see the Simulation link above.
  • Telemetry System – There are lots of choices for telemetry systems from manufacturers such as AiM, Motec, RaceLogic, and RacePak. One of the most popular is the AiM Solo DL. This is a great lap timer and data logger that also reads OBDII data from your vehicle. Works best with 2008+ vehicles with CAN bus. On modern sports cars you get to tap into thousands of dollars of sensors for free (e.g. steering angle, individual wheel speeds, brake pressure, throttle position, RPMs, etc.).
  • HANS Device– There are several head and neck restraint devices available today. Personally, I like Necksgen because the tethers also protect you from side impacts. The Rev2 Lite model is their latest and best design. Generally, HANS devices like these require that you have a roll cage/bar and harnesses. If you don’t, you might consider a Simpson Hybrid, which also attaches to your body.

$400-500-ish

  • APEX Pro – This is a slick lap timer and data logger with an attractive LED interface that shows how hard you’re driving (it’s some mixture of G-forces and yaw I think). It sends data to your phone. You can review with the data with their phone app or download the data to your Mac/PC and view with Track Attack.
  • Aim Solo – The standard in stand-alone lap GPS timers. Rugged design. The Aim Solo 2 now has a color interface but the original unit is still great. The software looks like it was built for Windows 98, but it works well and most of the bugs have been squashed over the years.
  • Yi 360 VR – The latest thing in cameras are those with dual 360 lenses. They capture everything from a single point of reference. After shooting, you decide which camera angles you want in order to produce a typical HD video. I don’t have one of these and I don’t know which one is best, but I like Yi cameras so I’m listing theirs.

$200-300-ish

  • Rumblestrip DLT1-GPS – It’s just a delta/predictive timer with big red 7 segment LEDs, but it’s also the best thing I ever bought for my car. I feel naked without it
  • Cordless Impact Wrench – Changing wheels at the track is so much faster with an impact wrench. Buy one of the major manufacturing brands so that your batteries interchange with lots of other tools. I’ve got drills, saws, work lights, vacuums, etc. that all power from the same batteries. The tool I use most is the impact.
  • Action Camera – You can learn a lot by watching yourself drive. There are lots of cameras and they keep getting better and cheaper. While GoPro is the standard everyone knows, I’m using Yi cameras for both live streaming and SD recording. In addition to the cameras, you will need a good mounting solution. I use RAM mounts everywhere.
  • Coolshirt – On a really hot day, a coolshirt is a safety item. They are a little over $100. The big ticket item is the cooler. Fortunately you can pick these up used on eBay or Craigslist as cold therapy systems for $50. They both have the same fittings. You just have to figure out how to mount it solidly. I use a lasagna tray and ratchet strap.

$100-ish

  • Joes Racing Pyrometer – The best way to record tire temperatures is with a needle-type pyrometer. The one made by Joes is both inexpensive and robust. It has a convenient 90 degree handle which makes it easier to fit under the wheel well.
  • Bluetooth GPS Receiver – Your phone can be used as a lap timer, but with 1 Hz GPS updates, it’s not accurate enough for comparing telemetry data between runs or between drivers. With a 10 Hz antenna, you’ll get acceptable performance.
  • Dash Cam – Instead of using an action camera, you might consider a dash camera. If used only in your car, you don’t need one with a durable case or big battery. It’s crazy how inexpensive these have become. For insurance purposes, or just to capture the crazy shit people do, you might consider running one all the time in your street car. Some of the high end models have GPS and G-force sensors. Prices vary from $30 to $200 depending on features.
  • iRacing – If you want to learn how to race and stay out of trouble, working your way out of the rookie ranks in iRacing is a valuable experience. Price is normally $12 per month, but with holiday pricing you can subscribe for a whole year for half that. The subscription comes with some great cars and tracks but you’ll probably want to buy a few more.
  • Brake Bias Adjuster – One of the cheapest and most educational performance modifications you can make for your car is to install a prop valve. They don’t cost much but installing could be expensive if you have someone else do it.

Inexpensive

  • rFactor 2 – There’s a lot of people who think rFactor 2 has the most realistic physics. I think it depends on the car. But definitely, the physics are very good.
  • Assetto Corsa – If you want to drive obscure cars on obscure tracks, Assetto Corsa is the best simulator because of all the community created content. It’s also great for everything else.
  • Tire Pressure Gauge – Everyone needs a high quality tire pressure gauge. The simple analog ones from Joes Racing and Longacre are excellent.
  • Wide Angle Mirror – This is a great upgrade for your street or track car. The ones that clamp on top of your standard mirror work amazingly well. If your mirror wobbles too much with the extra weight, a little sugar water will make it stick in place.
  • Gear Bag – I recently started using the Harbor Freight Rolling Tool Bag as my travel bag. It’s so nice having a rolling bag in long airports. Turns out that it fits my helmet and race gear too. The design is more robust than typical luggage and the price is hard to beat.
  • Helmet Hook – Nothing says racecar quite like having a purpose built helmet hook mounted to the roll cage. It’s a bit of a frivolity, but that might make it the perfect little gift.

Books

Check the Library link above for a list of books I’ve reviewed. The following three are highly recommended.

  • Going Faster! Mastering the Art of Race Driving  – Basically the textbook from the Skip Barber school. Nuff said
  • Ultimate Speed Secrets – It’s one of the best book on performance driving. I’ve read it cover to cover several times. Get the kindle version so you can read it wherever you are.
  • Optimum Drive – My latest favorite driving book and the best thing you can listen to while driving to work. That’s right, it’s available as an audio book.

Nannies: good or bad?

As a driving coach, I get to ride in a lot of cars. Most of them these days have really impressive nannies, by which I mean the combination of anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control. These systems are mandatory on all new cars today in the US and EU and have been for a few years. The reason for this is that nannies save lives. While expert drivers may be able to control a car more effectively without such gadgets, I’d guess that 99.99% of drivers are safer with them. Personally, I’m glad all new street cars have nannies.

As a driving enthusiast and performance driver, what do nannies mean to you?

  • Faster – except for truly advanced drivers, nannies will see you lapping faster.
  • Safer – you’re much less likely to drive off track, spin, or hit something with nannies on.
  • Cheaper – you can read the sensors through the CAN bus and save thousands of dollars on telemetry.
  • Dumber – you won’t know how to control a car that doesn’t have nannies.

In spirit, nannies aren’t much different from an automatic transmission. If you spend all of your time in a car with automatic transmission, you’ll never learn how to operate a clutch or gearbox. How important is shifting to the driving experience? I don’t know. I’ve raced with an automatic transmission and it still felt like racing. Most engines these days automatically advance the ignition timing. Engines didn’t always do that. Have I lost an essential skill of driving because I don’t manually advance timing? I generally don’t think so, but some curmudgeon somewhere probably does.

As a coach, I love getting into a modern car because I know I’m much safer. Even though modern cars have way too much power, they also have nannies to prevent the car from spinning off course. I’ve had several experiences where I thought, “well, this is going to suck” only to have the nannies simply change the shape of the corner and leave me thinking “great car”. I rarely get into such situations and think “great driver” because the driver was the problem, not the solution. However, when I get into a car without nannies and the driver recovers from a difficult situation, all I have is praise for a driver who is learning to “explore the space”.

As a learning tool, bicycle training wheels are both a blessing and a curse. They save a lot of scabbed knees and possibly broken bones. But they have a fundamental flaw. When you’re riding a bike, you steer by leaning. Training wheels prevent that. I feel the same way about nannies. They prevent oversteer. However, if you ever want to be able to control oversteer, you’re going to have to experience it. Eventually, the training wheels have to come off if you’re going to learn how to really drive a car.

That said, if you’re going to your first track day, please leave the nannies on. Consider taking them off on your 3rd track day. However, if the car is your daily driver and replacing it would be financially painful, don’t do it. Leave the nannies on to protect yourself and your investment. An older Miata or 3-series is an ideal way to get a nanny-free experience. And if you brick it, it’s not that big a deal.

Of course, you can also get a nanny-free experience driving in simulation. It seems like I talk about the merits of sim racing every week. Well, that’s because it’s such an inexpensive way to train.

Stay the fuck home

Last weekend I was working at the Lemons race at Sonoma. I’ve stopped racing Lemons events at Sonoma because I can’t afford the risk to my car. There are lots of walls, the weather is often rainy, it’s always crowded, and there’s something in the air that makes people drive like ass idiots. Like take this one for example.

This guy has no business being on a race track. Stay the fuck home until you learn how to drive. The event is better off without you. OK, that’s not entirely true. The more the merrier. But honestly, it’s a lot of property damage and an opportunity for serious injury. I’m sure the driver will be much safer next time. It’s too bad the lesson had to be so expensive.

Speaking of the event, I was working at track-out giving drivers a final check before letting them on track. What exactly does this mean?

  1. Check that the car has the correct event sticker. Most people tech their cars properly, but some small fraction forget to put the sticker on, or put it somewhere we can’t see it. It also sometimes falls off in the middle of the race.
  2. Check the driver’s wristband. Some people forget to put it on or don’t realize you have to register the driver as well as tech the gear. I doubt many people are trying to sneak onto the track, but I have to check just in case.
  3. Check the helmet for tech sticker. This indicates the safety equipment went through tech inspection. That doesn’t mean the safety equipment is worn properly…
  4. Check the helmet strap and HANS tethers. Sometimes the helmet strap is loose or completely off. About 2% of drivers don’t have their HANS connected properly. I saw harnesses under HANS, incorrectly installed posts and one or zero tethers connected.
  5. Quick scan of other safety stuff. I’ve seen people wearing plasticky running shoes, helmets that don’t fit at all, drivers too tall for their cages, fire systems with the safety pin still in, drivers without gloves, etc.

If everything is in order, it takes about 10 seconds to check them out, but if I have to have a conversation it can take a while to sort out. We try to keep the traffic flowing on track as quickly as possible, which may mean shuttling cars with difficulties off to the side. It’s a fun way to spend the weekend. Not nearly as fun as driving though.