Monday, April 28, 2008

(12) Nailing the exit

I've got a testing session set up on the 8th so I can get used to the new chassis from Italy. It'll make the kart different. Maybe better, maybe worse. Depends. Hopefully I'll be able to adapt to it quickly enough to get an edge in the next race. I'll make a request and see if I can keep the same kart for the season.

Karting is the playground. It's the place where you learn how to fall and how to fly. I'm starting late. For instance, Micheal Schumacher's son just started karting, and he's 9. Basically I have to approach this like a passing corner. I have to set it up, flow through, and commit to getting to the next corner as quickly as possible to catch or pass the guys that have the lead on me. I may not have the horsepower (money), or the crew (background), but if I don't make many mistakes and keep my cool, I'll get to where I want to go.

And I'm very sure I know exactly where I want to go. American Le Mans. But the problem with ALMS is, unlike F1, there isn't really a pre-cut way of getting there as far as I know.

So if ALMS is the finish line (or just the lead on to the next lap), I'm gonna have to plan my corners. Problem is, the only maps of the track I've been able to look at are drawn on napkins, and they're all different. Some guys say stock cars, some say dirt track, some say clubsport or get lucky in autocross and go from there.

But the problem is, and this is consistent with almost everyone I've talked to, is that all of the "bottom rung" series' have almost no sponsorship interest. Sure, you can get paid entrance fees and maybe some tires here and there, but not enough to pay for a car, let alone a team. It doesn't sound very good to a sponsor if you say "you give me 5k to run a styled livery with big letters for 9 races in a field of 60 or 70 other small, girly* cars where the attendance is limited to friends and family". Would YOU give me the money? No, you would not. If you are sane.

*Girly being limited to pre-2007 Mazda MX-5s.

That and I don't like the clubsport mentality. Nothing against the guys that have the money to run it for fun. You get your kicks, and that's great. Kudos. But if you're serious about it AND impressed by an M3 with a great big turbo and a huge spoiler, I don't think you'll go too far as a professional. Don't be offended if you are. And nothing against someone driving an M3 with a big turbo and a spoiler, use what you can to win (I saw an M3 beat a Viper Competition Coupe last month at Infineon). But if you want to be a professional you have to buck up and shoot high. You can't afford to be impressed by what someone else has. That will destroy your mindset and hurt your confidence.

There's more, but I won't go into it. If you really want to know then leave a comment an I'll be happy to debate it with you. Feel free also to ask how a kid with no professional experience knows anything at all.

So, anyway, now that you know I don't really appreciate clubsport, I'll get back on track. But the track ends in 5 feet. Where do I go first? I don't know. I've talked to a lot of guys at the last event. I really need to find a true professional that's been up and down the ropes (in sportscar racing).

Towards the end of the last race day I caught whifs that Tony (one of the instructors, funny guy) was a drifter. But I didn't really see him the rest of the day. So maybe I'll talk to him about it next time I see him, see if he can give me some career advice.

What I really want is a series big enough to get some sponsor interest, but professional enough that I can get in with "my own crowd" and start climbing the ladder. I want to be a professional. That's my mantra right now. Professional, professional. I'm drilling it into my skull.

So, testing on the 8th, don't know if the ProKart guys will be out as well. If they are, great. I'll continue my search for a "megamentor" (all the instructors at Jim Russel are already really inspirational and supportive). Probably won't update or anything until the 8th or 9th, unless something happens. If you have raced sportscars and have any career advice, feel free to get some comments up. I seriously haven't got a clue where to go after karts. I need a target for my corner exit.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

(11) Well, I wasn't last... Technically

The good news is that I didn't crash. Much.

We started the day by drawing groups hat-style. I got landed in group B. There were 10 guys in group B and 7 in group A. Next race we'll be grouped by laptime so it'll be more even. By the end of the day group B was all running within a second and a half of each other in best times.

Most of these guys are a lot more experienced than I am.

The cool thing is that we're technically part of the NorCal ProKart Challenge. That means we get laptime reports on their site.

So we had a 5-lap qualifying session. I went out, warmed the kart, got everything tip-top and blasted down the straight. Broke late and turned in early to corner 1, but I had a drift and set myself up good for coming at the next straight. I used a new technique for going through combo corner 2 (or tic tac toe) and in general was doing really well through the lap. I chewed on the brave pill dissolving in my mouth and floored it through the S turns and the final kink. But, alas, the final kink left me going more quickly than usual. I broke at the normal point, which wasn't enough, entered the final turn too quick, then gassed it far too early. The kart four-wheel drifted off the rumble strip and dropped the left side wheels. I heard the chassis knocking on the curbing and the kart bounced into a spin.

Thus is the danger of muscle memory.

The good thing was that the pits were right there. I pulled it in for a check (the spin could have knocked the chassis hard or smacked the brake disk). With the kart fine, I hurried out of the pits to go around again and start my last lap. It wasn't that great. I slid out of a couple of critical combo corners and scrubbed a lot of speed. I qualified 10th.

From my experience in the practice race starts a week ago, I do alright at the back. I think people in the middle tend to feel the pressure of the other drivers behind them, and are a little more prone to being impatient and trying bad passes before the first turn. I can use those spots to wedge in.

However, I don't do so well at the back during a race.

I had a nice start. I rolled it on good and got into the powerband quicker. It sounded like the guys in front of me just floored it and that bogs down the engine with too much fuel. So I accelerated faster. But no spots opened up, and I had a little too much brake on the first corner and lost momentum. After the first corner everyone just shot ahead. I got demoralized and wasn't going as quick as I could have. My first laps of the race were just over a minute. Then I saw a couple of guys spin out and that seemed to re-energize me and I started pulling out 58s and 59s. That didn't stop me from being half a lap behind, though.

I was saved the double-digit placing because someone spun and had to exit. Then someone else spun and I caught them up. Well, almost. If the race was one lap longer I would've passed him I think. I was only about 10 feet behind him at the last corner.

So, no points for me. Oh well, goal matched, not last and didn't crash in the first race (unless you count qualifying). Next race: get points (8th and above).

We learned a little bit more about some theory, too. It has to do with smoothness and setup.

Basically, the least amount of input you give the kart the better. In theory, it is possible to go around a track without touching the steering wheel at all. You'd be crazy to try, but you could.

I think of it like a pendulum effect. The more brutal you are when you push, the more you're going to have to correct to keep it where you want it. Turn too sharply and let off the brakes too quickly, and you'll have to be a lot more forceful to get the kart back.

If you are really gentle with the brakes and the steering, you'll go into the corner much smoother at a higher speed. The result of that in terms of what you feel is a very relaxed, almost lazy wheel discipline. You barely have to turn the wheel at all to make the turn. The ideal corner is a 4 wheel drift from entrance to exit. In that case, you don' touch the wheel at all to correct it. You'll come out perfectly lined up to blast down to the next corner. Forget your hands; it feels like you're turning the wheels with your mind.

I had a couple of these zenful corners. And during them I only had to turn the wheel maybe 10 or 15 degrees, even for a hairpin.

The trick is to not mistake it for drastic oversteer. If the wheels step out like they're not supposed to, you'll have to countersteer. If you countersteer, ur doin it wrong.

Now, I leave you with some humor:

Friday, April 11, 2008

(10) Guarded anticipation

Race tomorrow. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. We've done a few practice race starts but still not with a full 15 karts.

I definitely do best on pole. But there's a few guys in the series with more experience. I'm not sure if I'd be able to beat them in qualifying. I actually think I'm doing really well, for one reason.

I have a secret. I don't have a driving license. I have no experience in a car. Last week's advanced lesson was only the second time I've done serious driving, or driving period, with the first time being the beginner class a month before. I think I drove a golf cart once before... and that's it. Only way you could've been less experienced than me a month ago was to be a Neanderthal. And considering that, considering that I'm about middle of the pack (behind the experienced racers and ahead of the learners), is pretty encouraging.

During the advanced class we covered a lot of racing psychology. The biggest point is to think one at a time. Catch the guy ahead of you. Then focus on the next guy. Then the next. Get around the first corner, then start passing. Get to the middle of the race, make the pit stop. It's a constant stream of single-track thinking. As Tony (one of the instructors) put it: "ten tenths". 100%, one at a time. Just like the kart. The kart only wants to do one thing at a time. So should the driver.

So, today and yesterday, I'm just trying to get into that frame of mind. My goal for this race is to just get through it. I just want to finish cleanly and not be last. If I'm 14th, that's fine with me. I just don't wanna be last, not in my first race. The series works on points, and consistency and not messing up is the key. If I can finish 3th or 4th every race, while other people are finishing 1st, then 8th, then 4th, then 6th, I'll be scoring consistent points and steadily climbing the board. Best case scenario you dominate every race, but realistically that won't happen. It's about risk management. Making sure you don't push it so hard you crash, but pushing hard enough that you get the best position you can. Being erratic in your placing will only see your points waver. Getting consistent points is the key.

And again comes in the 10/10 theory. Consistency during a race, even if you're a second slower than the guy ahead, will give you a much better chance at catching him. If he's gaining all his time by really powering through one or two corners, then being mediocre in the next 8 corners, you now have a huge trump on him. If you can just go a little bit faster on each corner in the lap, you'll catch him. The best way to find a second in a 10 corner lap is to take a 10th of a second off each and every corner. Then it builds exponentially. You go one 10th of a second faster around each corner in a 10 corner lap, and you'll gain maybe 2 seconds, depending on how long the straights are and how technical the course is. In lapping, 10 10ths doesn't add up to 1, it adds up to 2. Taking a 10th off a corner means you'll accelerate faster and reach the next corner quicker. So what was only a 10 % performance bump, now adds up to the equivalent of 20 or 30% performance bump.

Wouldn't it be nice if the rest of the world worked like that? Give 10, get 30? That's why I love racing.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

(9) Going advanced

I'm back from advanced karts. Obviously.

Unbelievably it was even more fun than beginner karting. We started off the day with a lead/follow session to learn the "International" track. This setup's different. It's more technical and rewards the brave driver. We also had new engines. They felt faster at high RPM but slower to accelerate at the low end. They also need more throttle control. You have to roll it on more. You couldn't just stomp on it like a caveman. We should be getting new chassis by the second race, too.

The difference is that the old chassis are more bendy. A good technique with a broken in frame is to force the outside wheel into the pavement for more grip. Can't really do that as effectively with the new chassis since they're still stiff from the factory in Italy.

Basically it was mostly the same old stuff. We were just refining our technique while learning how to go around the track in a big yellow wad. We learned how to set up for a race start, how to handle ourselves in qualifying and after the flag drops (basically, don't be a dolt).

We also got transponders. Little boxes that send our timings into the computer. Now we could see our lap times. By lunch my fastest time was 1:04, and the fastest overall time was 0:58. There were a number of guys there that had plenty of experience. I'm pretty sure that of the "inexperienced" drivers (drivers that had not done a race series) I was the fastest. I'm pretty sure I was quicker than a couple of Skip Barber grads, too. Maniacal laughter!

As I said before, we learned all the "race craft", starting, handling the first turn, where and when to pass, et cetera. This involved an "open lapping" session (race). We had a 10-car start and by the second corner I had taken 2 karts and was in 4th as best as I could tell. It's hard to remember who's in front, because all the karts look pretty much the same. Well, anyway, whatever place I was in, I was going a lot quicker. Too quick sometimes. Powerslides are fancy-looking, but they scrub a lot of time. And I was doing a lot of those.

The benefit of the race was that I was behind the experienced and faster drivers, and that just cleared my head. I was focusing on catching the guy in front. Then, when I passed him, the next guy. Then the next. I wasn't making quite that many passes, but you get the idea. It took a race and some pressure to actually up my ante a bit. And by the end of the race I was posting decently consistent times and had taken 3 seconds off my lap. I think my final fastest lap was 1:01.3.

Well, race next weekend, and I hear it's going to be a big deal. It's not just the Russel racers, but a lot of different classes and clubs, apparently. A full weekend.

I don't have any pictures for y'all. Sorry. Hopefully I'll have some next weekend.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

(8) Glee!

Okay, lesser news first.

I got a pair of shoes for kart racing:

Pretty nice. I'm happy with 'em.

Now, the real news.

This morning I got a phone call. It went like this:

"Hello, is this Gregory Evans?"

I said, "yeah".

They said, "I'm _____ from _____ and I''ve seen your website [this one] and we're very eager to help you along".

I said, "I'm all ears _____".

He said, "Yes, providing you put on a good showing in your upcoming karting season, we'd like to offer you a $20,000 sponsorship deal for the year 2009... [goes on to outline contract details]".

"Basically, we want you to move up the rungs" he said.

By this time I was pretty much speechless. I knew Jim Russel had been passing my site around a little bit. I guess that's how they got to contact me. You've probably noticed that I'm blanking out their names. I'm not allowed to say who it is until the deal is signed (hopefully sometime this fall, after the season is over). I can say that the deal is for either Formula Mazda or a starting sportscar series.

20 grand is a lot. But I'm not sure it'll be quite enough, so I'm probably going to have to line up more sponsors. But I've got a year to go and there's plenty of time. I can't believe it!

Well, anyways. Have a happy April Fools Day. Try not to get fooled now.