Monday, March 17, 2008

(7) Grounding

I think that, especially after the last post, I should explain that I still don't really have a clue about what I'm doing. I went and spent a day learning a few things on karts. A good place to start but I'm not a racecar driver yet.

So I'm still trying to really get a handle on what exactly I want to race. I watched the ALMS 12-hour on Saturday and that's more or less what I had in mind. GT cars and maybe prototypes. F1 looks really nice but it's too political. I'm sorry but it is. Besides, that's a really long, hard road for people like me who don't have money.

I like the ALMS series. It's cars you can recognize. Stuff you can buy. They're going to Laguna Seca, but I'm not sure when. Gotta look it up.

The SCCA is gonna be doing a two-day deal at Infineon at the end of this month. I'll go up there and poke my nose around. They also have a book on their site that supposedly has everything you need to start racing in the SCCA. I'll give it a read and see if it does.

As I mentioned before, I don't have any money. So a driver-owner deal might be a little out of reach for me. I think my best bet is to join a team. But I'm not sure how that works. I know that over 10 years ago to join a team you usually had to bring money to pay for the car. And for me that would mean I have to persuade rich people to give me money for a sticker on the car, since I don't have 20,000 bucks to just chuck around. Once you joined a team, you raced and hopefully did well. If the team liked you, you got a deal for the next season when you'd become a paid driver.

But as I said, that's how I know it worked 10 years ago. It's probably different now. Maybe it's like the NHL, where teams pluck you out of karting or SCCA autocross for a rookie season. Who knows.

I can see it now. I step down from the podium, hefting my 50-pound golden trophy from getting first place in the Jim Russel karting season, when the owner of the ALMS Corvette team comes up and offers me a 5-year, 50-million dollar contract.

Back in reality, I really would like to be noticed in the JR kart season. Someone should be watching that. Hopefully. Even if no one from motorsport is watching, it'll still be good to win or even do well. It would appease the sponsors at the very least, to be able to say that yeah I've won this or that.

And that brings me to another thing. I think my biggest weakness is what I expect of myself. I expect a certain quality and I very rarely ever match it. I'm easily discouraged. Very enthusiastic at first, but then I can sometimes lose steam after I consistently fail to meet my very high expectations. I'm going to have to find a way to abolish that if I'm going to spend any amount of time in racing. That's definitely going to be one of the big things I work on during the JR season. That and driving.

This is probably going to be the last entry for a while. Those of you who read me rambling on in the massive tubes of the web (all 5 of you), I would recommend you subscribe to the blog just in case something big happens, because I probably won't update until after the advanced karting course on April 5th. Those of you who are actually reading, and why am I addressing you because obviously you are, thanks for doing so. A great man once said "a race car driver can dine out for a month on a compliment". Just to know that there are people that read this blog means a lot to me.

See you after the 5th, most likely.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

(6) Learning by not doing

With a bit of luck, it turns out there is another advanced karting session on April 5th, and I'm in it. Then the season starts on April 12th.

The season itself is split into two groups of 15, the A group and the B group. It's based on laptimes so the slower racers will be in group B and the faster guys will be in group A. Hopefully I'm in group A. It's 1 race a month for 7 months.

With that out of the way, I can get to the real reason why I'm writing this in the wee hours of the morning. Well, the first reason is that I can't sleep. But I digress.

A lot of emphasis is put on simulation these days. Whether it's simulation for education, training, or entertainment, there is a huge demand for it. U.S. Army and Marine recruits take their first shots at armed enemies in front of a video screen. Pilots, both military and civilian, have been using simulators for as long as I can remember (which isn't very long ago, to be honest). Simulators are also used for medical treatment. Depression sufferers can be treated using methods involving memorizing locations within a virtual space, or a war veteran can have PTSD therapy by which he is planted in a combat situation virtually and the intensity scaled up. NASA also use simulators heavily.

Then you have your entertainment simulators. I'm sure you're all familiar with those. Those can be anything from video games to laser tag.

It is these that I'm looking at. Obviously a big, industrial kit like a fighter jet simulator isn't exactly within our everyday reach. And I think it's safe to assume that those professional simulators do their job very well. So, how can everyday people like you and me get in on the benefits of having such training? Are consumer-level simulators effective? Specifically, can I learn to race on a video game?

A few posts ago, just before I went to the first karting class, I made the point that I'd been practicing analyzing my racing performance using a video game. The method I used was purely psychological and had nothing to do with actually gaining raw skill from the game. I think it helped, because it got me in the right mindset for self-deconstruction. I was simply racing lap after lap and getting in the habit of looking at where I can improve the time. The result of that, was this:

That's me, MadCat360, ranked 63rd in the world for that track (well, out of the 500 thousand or-so people that play the game online). So it's undeniable that it helped my game performance. How couldn't it? Practice at game, get better at game. But did my practice help me in the real world?

Well, yes and no. No, I did not gain any raw skill from playing the game. But, I think the analyzing practice helped me learn more than I could have normally in the karting class. But I could have done that doing anything. I could have sat down all day and analyzed my speed-reading skills. It would have had the same impact. Like I said before, it's just being practiced at self-deconstruction. The process of learning; abolishing bad habits, and rebuilding good habits.

Now, that's not to say that I think you can't learn how to do things with everyday video games and simulators. There are some things that simulators are ideal to learn from the getgo.

A while ago, a friend and I both bought a game to play, called Falcon 4.0. It's a flight simulator, and it's about as realistic as you can get for 50 bucks. You can set it so that you go through a 30-minute startup process before you can even take off, flipping all the switches and spooling the turbines and managing the power and turning on all the displays and lights. And for that kind of thing, sequential learning, simulators are great just by themselves. You can learn all the basics from a simulator.

But, this is where it gets complicated. And I'm going to stick solely to racing sims because I have no idea if it's true for anything else. Tactile learning, feeling the car under you, feeling the wheel, and the Gs and the speed, that's pretty tough to get out of your living room sofa. You don't feel your organs being pushed into a little ball at the base of your spine when you floor it in a video game.

If you play one of these things without any kind of former experience, you have no idea what you're doing. Even if you become the best in the world at the game, if you stepped into a real car you'd probably be creamed. It's tough to explain. It's like you learn, but at the same time you don't. In the game, you can learn about understeer and oversteer and how to brake and what line to take, but you don't have enough sensation to actually ingrain that stuff into your brain. Like you know exactly what to do, but not how to do it.

Like, if you can imagine, while you're racing in the game, and lets assume it's a perfect simulation and everything acts exactly like the real world, and while you're playing you're carving a block of wood with indented words in it like "brake this hard" and "countersteer this much". So now you're done playing the game and you've got your block of carved wood with your indented words in it, and you start to go out and race for real. Now you're carving actual letters, and you're fitting them into your block of wood and filling it out. And now the carved letters fit perfectly in the wood to form the words, and now your block of wood is whole again, perfect and solid.

I know that's really philosophical and all, and if it doesn't click I'll explain simply: it's like pre-learning. A foundation. Building your web of knowledge and then filling it in.

Now, once you've really learned how to race, this is where I think simulators really shine. Once you've got the skills, you can play your simulator and stay familiar with them. No, not proficient. I think it would be impossible to stay proficient on a consumer-level simulator. It would just slow the rate of decay. Just familiar.

Because, lets face it, no video game, no matter how realistic it might seem, gets everything right. Maybe one game will have messed-up drifting behavior, or another will have bad grip behavior with no suspension loading, etc. But once you know somewhat how to race, it becomes really easy to tell where the sim is wrong. And that stimulates your brain to recall what is right, thus staying familiar.

While we're on the subject of game vs. reality, I think there are a lot of core differences that you might not expect in a simulator. For one, there is less feedback in the game (even if you have a fancy steering wheel that gives jolts and bounces). So you don't really feel the limit of the car. It's a lot easier to push too hard in a game, because you don't have any reference other than what you're seeing, and that's only about 10% of it.

Then there's the obvious lack of fear. And that's probably a bigger factor than feedback. Fear is what keeps you from flooring it through the follow-through. Fear is what keeps you from taking the blind corner as fast as you should. Fear keeps you from braking where you should.

By the same token, lack of fear in the game is what makes you go too fast on the blind corner. Lack of fear makes you take the follow-through too aggressively, and spin. Lack of fear makes you brake too late.

And once you understand all these differences, I think it's pretty safe to say that there is a lot of value in consumer-level simulators (for racing). You can learn a lot from it. But you just have to keep it in the back of your mind that what you're doing isn't like real racing.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

(5) Loose ends and the future

So you may have noticed that I didn't write about the advanced class on Saturday. That's because I didn't go. Think me a pansy, whatever. I was tired. Not physically, but mentally. There is only so much you can learn in a short amount of time.

So, as a result, I may not even complete the advanced class before the school's "arrive and drive" season starts. It all depends on when the next advanced class is.

Instead, on Saturday, we went back down to Infineon to watch the Northern California Karters run the main road track. We walked through the "garages" (trailers) and I was surprised by some of the set-ups. They were basically downscaled versions of the trailers for F1 cars.

On the track, they were pretty fast. The 125cc karts (the ones I learned on) looked like they were getting up over 100 MPH. The 250cc superkarts were easily breaking 130. Pretty loud, too. For lawnmowers.

I can't see myself staying too long in karts. They're great to learn on. But I just don't want to spend a lot of money and commit to something I don't really want to do. I want to drive sports cars. If I have to take a year in karting to get there, so be it. But any longer and I'd feel too stationary. And if I bought a kart, and a trailer, and tires and a suit and a helmet and gas and entrance fee, I'd be up over 10 grand for a year in karting. If I move to sports cars, I can get sponsorship and join a team, and that would prove to be much less expensive. Bigger classes mean bigger and more sponsors, which means more money.

Earlier I mentioned the Arrive and Drive Jim Russell season. Basically, for a set fee (about 3k) you get a series of 7 races, a coach, a mechanic, a kart, gas and tires. It's the most cost-effective way to spend a beginning year in karting. But, I need to complete the advanced course before I can do that. And the season starts in April.

So, in the ideal situation, I complete the advanced course before the end of this month, I do the JR karting season (and hopefully get at least 5th overall), then join the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and get my license in the off-season. Then in 2009 I do the Mazda MX-5 Cup.

In May, the GT cars are going to be down at Laguna Seca in Monterey. I'm going to get tickets and go down there. Maybe I'll meet someone. Basically, I'm going to start hanging around all the sports car oriented races that I can. I don't wanna be a fly on the wall; I wanna be a fly buzzing around in your face. If I can get enough reputation even just by hanging around, just to get my name out there, someone will take notice. Persistence pays!

Oh yeah, I finally bent Windows Movie Maker to my will and with a lot of whip-cracking I made it churn out a video. Here it is: (be nice, it's not the best)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

(4) When the first hurdle is jumped, twenty more await

I'm back! Man, what a day. I guess I should just launch right in huh?

Firstly, the damage report. My neck, abs, brake leg and forearms are all sore. My wrists are stiff. So are my fingers, and I find that it's hard to clench my fists.

Now, the day.

My dad, my mom and I got there around 8am and went into the classroom, where I got my helmet, gloves, suit and neck restraint. There was another class for the shifter karts. I was the only one in the sprint karts. The sprints are faster at high speed but slower acceleration. As you can guess the shifters have gears and the sprints have just one, so no shifting. The shifters are about setting up a corner for maximum acceleration and powerband whereas the sprints are more about maintaining momentum and RPM through corners.

So the instructors went over the track, then the flow of the day, then over the karts, and then finally flags. Then I met up with Ric, my instructor for the sprint course, at the pits.

Ric and I talking about how the kart should handle.

Ric then went over the basics of the kart, how to start, how to step in, etc. The first few laps I would be behind Ric and just following him at slow speed to learn the course. The track itself was just the outside ring layout to start with. 3 turns, 3 long straights. Then, we hopped in our karts and went out pit lane.

The morning was cold and foggy, so the track was pretty cool. The kart didn't turn as well as it should have, as the tires were also cold. I took the first lap real slow and easy, just to learn the layout. On the second lap Ric's kart died for some reason. He waved me on to take the rest of my laps.

On the 3rd lap, I decided to floor it through the long straight. At first, it wasn't bad. But as I neared what I guessed was about 40 MPH, I started to back off. It was really, really quick. Imagine taking your Civic or what have you, accelerating at full throttle to 40 miles an hour, while sitting on the front bumper. But lower to the ground. After a few laps the butterflies went away, but I still wasn't using full throttle. I wasn't sure what the kart could do and I wanted to wait until I got more comfortable with it.

As I picked up more and more speed, I started getting more acquainted with it. The steering was really heavy, but you don't need to turn the wheel much. Full lock was about 90 degrees. The kart also has no suspension, so you can imagine driving your own car, but having every twitch of the wheel amplified by about 200%. It gives you very acute feedback. All this means you have to grip the wheel very hard, and there were a couple of times where I came back to the pits with claw hands. I couldn't move my fingers. Then I got in the habit of stretching my fingers on the straights.

Finally, I did get to full throttle down that straight, and wow. Just wow. 70 MPH with your butt half an inch off the ground feels fast. I mean really fast. Faster than a roller coaster. Faster than most sports cars. It's slow to start, because with one gear the kart has to build RPM, but once it really gets into the powerband (about 40MPH) it just takes off. 40 to 70 takes much less than half the time of 0 to 40.

Full throttle down the start line straight. 50 MPH, quick enough to inflate my suit!

At that point Ric pulled me in and went into the classroom while the shifters had a go. He walked me through the first drill: braking. The goal is to lock the wheels and spin. Then just tone it down until you get ideal "threshold braking".

I found this hard. The brakes on the karts don't work like normal car brakes. You don't have any hydraulics in between your pedal and the brake pads on a kart. Not only that, but the disk on the kart has to flop around just a bit. Not sure why. It just does. So the pads have to be positioned an inch or so away from the disk. In a normal car, the pads are millimeters away from the disks. So in the normal car, you get brake pressure right away. In the kart, the pedal has to travel about 2 inches before the pads make contact and you start slowing down. Once the pads make contact, there are no fancy hydraulics to fine-tune your brake pressure for you. On a kart, the brake pedal doesn't move once the pads have made contact. The only way to vary your brake pressure is to apply different amounts of force to the brake pedal. It doesn't move, you just press harder. And the differences are tiny. If 60 pounds of pressure is full wheel lock, then 57 pounds is not enough. You need 58.5 or 59 pounds for maximum braking.

A good way to explain it is just put your foot on a hard floor and press down gently. Now press down harder. You've just changed your brake pressure by a lot. It's all just muscle memory and that is the purpose of brake drills.

As I said, I was having trouble with the brakes. I kept either spinning, or not braking enough. Under ideal threshold braking, the kart's rear should jiggle back and forth. I spun maybe 3 or 4 times before I found the threshold. After that it was a matter of hitting it. Braking is definitely my weakest point in driving these karts.

Having finally got the kart up to more or less ideal braking almost every time, we went back into the classroom. Next Ric explained the racing line. Racing line is something I'm already pretty familiar with.

Basically, the goal of the line is to maintain speed through a corner. On a simple U-shaped corner, a good line is from the outside of the entrance roadway, across the track, into the corner, over the apex of the curve, out of the corner, across the track and onto the opposite side. It's hard to explain without a pen and paper. But the idea is to make the corner as shallow and high radius as possible. You never want to conform to the curve itself. Take as straight a line as possible. If you're still confused, take a look at this video and watch the way the driver takes the corners:

Back on the track we did some lead/follows through the corners. The track changed. We switched to the infield and that extended the track to 10 turns and about 3/4 of a mile in total.

First I followed Ric and watched his line, and tried to emulate it. I wasn't doing great. When we switched up and Ric started following me, there were a lot of corners that I had bad lines on. We stopped and walked the track, Ric explaining lines for each corner. Then we had another go. I was doing better. My lines were acceptable, so we went out for lunch.

When we came back, we did some braking lessons. The proper technique for braking is called "thirds braking". Basically, you look at the space that you want to brake in, divide it into 3 sections, and use those sections to brake progressively.

Lets say you're going 80 MPH, and you want to slow down to 40 MPH for a corner. Lets say, just for the sake of this example, that you want to do that in 60 feet. So you have 3 sections within that 60 feet, all 20 feet long. For the first two sections (40 feet), you want to slow by 30 MPH. For that you need to use threshold braking. The problem with threshold braking is that it's unstable. You jiggle around. It's harder to set up the corner, analyze your speed and find your marks when that is happening. You will always enter a corner too slowly under threshold braking.

So, we use threshold braking for slowing during the first two sections (30 MPH in 40 feet), then we back off the brakes slightly to slow in the last section by 10 MPH in the next 20 feet before the turn-in point. This is much more precise when you're trying to hit a specific speed, since you're not jiggling. Thirds braking is used at every corner, no matter what the speed or space requirement. Even if you need to brake just for 6 inches, thirds braking is still ideal.

As you enter the corner, you want to use what's called "trail braking" to guide you. Trail braking is the brake pads just barely touching the brake disk. The kart turns much more sharply under braking. Too much brake, and you'll spin. You use trail braking to fix understeer and make your turn-in sharper. You can also use trail braking to encourage the kart to four-wheel drift, but that's getting pretty advanced. Even Ric can't four-wheel drift the whole track, and he's been instructing for over 15 years.

So, we headed out to get all this down. While I was out, Ric put cones on the track marking the ideal line through corners.

Ric put cones out to mark the cornering lines.

I started nailing the lines and felt my lap times tumble. There were no timers, but I could tell I was going a lot faster. I was getting more confident with the brakes, my turn-ins were smoother, and my foot-to-hand coordination was improving.

The rest of the day was spent fine-tuning my lines and turn-ins, as well as slowly increasing my speed through corners. I was joined for a joint-session by the shifters, and although the shifter karts are about 4 to 5 seconds faster each lap than the sprint karts, I was still 2 seconds a lap faster than the shifters, and most of them had prior experience. I made a couple good passes, and would have done more but I didn't want to waste too much track time, so I just cut through the pits while they were in the infield. With this track setup, it was faster to go through the pits slowly than quickly through the infield. You could spend 5 laps focusing on passing a guy and not refining your laps, or you could spend half a lap and go through the pits.

Based on the footage my parents got, I think my fastest lap of the day was 1:04 and that meant that my average speed was about 45 miles per hour. I'm sure I could get that below one minute with more practice. I learned a lot in one day, probably more than most would in a week, and I'm sure it was mostly because it was all one-on-one instruction. That and Ric really knows his stuff. I really couldn't think of a better way to spend a day. It even beats airsoft (which I adore).

If you're near the school in California, do it. It will definitely be one of the best experiences of your life. The only thing I can think of that might top it for pure adrenaline is skydiving. But skydiving isn't just a corner away. Full-throttle is.

Oh, I almost forgot, they give out graduation certificates. This is mine:

There's still a long way to go.

PS, I'm going to be splicing together a few clips from the film my parents got. Hopefully I'll have that for you in a week or two.