Thursday, May 28, 2009

(76) Inside the mind

I have a lot of practice being introverted. I think a lot, I think about myself a lot, I think about things that happen to me a lot, and I think about things I'm doing a lot. I don't think about other people a lot, I don't think about what other people are doing a lot, and I don't think about what people say to me a lot. My one great failing; I don't listen. I'll have to work on that.

But I do listen to some things, most of them being my instructors, one of them being a sentence I've heard a few times: play to your strengths. So that's what I'm going to do.

Not a lot of people get to drive racing cars, even serious karts. There are hundreds of millions of people out there that would love nothing more than to be or experience being a racing driver, yet I'm sure very few of them have actually tried. If you count serious karters and club racers and all professionals, I'd bet there are less than 2 million people worldwide with experience in wheel-to-wheel racing, and I'd further wager that there are even less of a fraction of them with extensive experience, definitely less than a million. Note that I'm not trying to shoehorn myself in with that group as I've only had 1 and a half years of experience. Once I stop counting half-years I'll count myself experienced.

What I am going to try to do, though, is quantify racing wheel-to-wheel using my current understanding, since I've never really heard it done so. I have no doubts that I'll fail miserably since there are many much more intelligent and experienced people that have tried to do so over the years and have also failed, but I'll give it a shot. Maybe through our collective works we'll eventually cover it.

Lets start off the track. What's it like hanging around your other competitors? Well, a racing friendship is definitely under a lot of strain. Racers, I've found, are all pretty friendly by nature, even if first impressions sometimes suggest otherwise. Racers like to hang around people that don't know about racing because they can continually impress them, fulfilling the racer's (harmless) egotistical ways. They also like to hang around other racers because they can be absolutely sure that every other racer they talk to shares their drive and their passion, and when you think about it, that's a pretty big draw to friendship, especially for a serious racer, because a serious racer lives and breathes racing - he doesn't know how to do much of anything else.

Which makes it all the more complicated to have friends that you race against. On the one hand, you have the ingredients for a very long friendship, but on the other, you have to beat your friend, and those of you who play sports seriously will understand that. So the racer's friendship is constantly being pulled one way or another. That's why a lot of racers have the helmet theory; anything that happens with the helmet on stays inside the helmet. Anything that happens with the helmet off stays outside the helmet. I agree. It makes a complicated situation simple.

I think we're pretty privileged at Jim Russell. It's a pretty friendly atmosphere. We get out of the karts and no one gets into fights about who blocked whom or who crashed out whom. But that doesn't mean it's not complicated. I would describe most of my competitor friendships at Jim Russell as "tentative". It's a lot easier to have a friendship with someone who you are not racing against, partly because you can root for each other, mostly because you're not withholding any information, because you don't want to let your competitor friend have any advantage over you, via your personality or knowing where you're turning in for turn 3. So a racer's friendship with a person in another class or group is ideal.

Now what happens when you step into a kart or car? Well, thankfully, that's not complicated at all.

You start with practice. I still remember what it felt like stepping into the kart for the first time. The kart was way ahead of me. I didn't know what I was doing. And I wasn't even moving yet! My goal at that point was simply to survive the first session. That feeling didn't really go away for the first 2 or 3 days on track.

Now, thankfully, it's a lot less scary. When I step into a kart now, my mindset for the first session is to build a mindset. My first order of business is to warm or scrub the tires. After that I have to play it by ear out on the track. Where am I apexing early or late? Am I early on the throttle? How's my braking? Etc, etc, etc.

Once I'm back in the pits after my first session, I know where I stand, and in the time between runs I build my plan for the next session. Where do I fix what was going wrong? What WAS going wrong? Was what I was feeling the result of this, or of that? And so I build a road map for my next session. At first it took time, I needed my instructor's input to build my map, but now that I've got all the land marks, I can usually come up with what I need to do before I get my helmet off. Pending correction from the instructors, of course.

The mindset for a practice session is very objective. Go down the list. Fix turn 2 by either trying this or that, try this or that in turn 4 and see what effect it has, etc. And you always, constantly have to do that, because while you may know, intimately, which way to go on a configuration, you never truly know the track that you're driving on that day, since the temperature will always be different, and there will always be different conditions affecting part of the track, such as dust or dirt, or debris, or wind, or the track itself coming apart, or incompatible rubber from another class, or lack of rubber, or water, or a changed race car, or differing fuel loads, ad infinitum.

If practice is objective, then qualifying is somewhat more subjective. The mindset going into qualifying is very static. You're taking all of your trial and error in practice and molding it into what you hope is the ideal lap. That is, of course, impossible, since if Niki Lauda says he's never driven a perfect lap, then no one else has in the history of mankind, and you're certainly not about to right now. But you must try, because if you don't try for perfection then you won't be very close to perfection.

You must take your competitors into consideration. Your immediate goal exiting the pits is to be at the perfect gap from the guy in front, so that you won't have to waste laps either getting around him or spacing him out.

The key to the mindset in qualifying is discipline. If you just go out and push like it's the last lap of a race, then you won't get a very good lap in. You need to steadily build your speed so that you always have that one, ideal, smooth lap in the bag. If you've had the first 3 laps and all of them were messy, it's going to be much harder to calm down and do a smooth one.

The feeling for qualifying is very static, since all you're doing is taking your combined experiences from the morning and putting them to use. If you didn't have very successful practices (ie, you didn't try many things to figure out which was best), then you'll have a bad qualifying.

When you get your times and you find out where you placed, it really depends on your personality, like most of this does, I guess. Some guys go ecstatic over pole, some guys get depressed when they're at the back. I do neither. Oh I feel happy or sad depending on my position, but I always try to tell myself that it can change dramatically in turn 1. Qualifying results aren't set in stone the same way race results are.

The feelings before a race, sitting in pit lane, really depends on where you qualify. At the back, you're very much along for the ride. You just hope that nothing bad happens in front of you because of the accordion effect. At the front, it's a similar thing. You're thinking about what pace you're going to bring the pack down the front straight, and what tactics you may employ depending on your competitors tendencies, but you also hope that no one rear-ends you.

Being in the middle is hardest, because you really have the most power there. It's usually the middle guys that effect the race start the most.

When everyone fires up, and you start rolling down pit lane, your heart rate jumps to at least 150. It doesn't matter where you are - you're chomping at the bit at this point. You're anxious, anxious not because of potential failure, but anxious because you know anything can happen, and you can win.

For me, the race start is all business. Some people say they get super excited, some people get angry, some people get timid. I like to think I do none of those things, that I take it as it comes and the opportunities along with it, but that's probably not the case.

During the race, a lot of things can happen. In watching the helmet cam footage I have, it's a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, some things seem faster, and on another, some things seem slower. Being passed, for instance, seems like it takes an eternity. Passing, on the other hand, seems like it takes a microsecond. Crashes and avoiding crashes seem to take longer on camera. All the time, I'm always thinking about the points - I'm a points racer. When I get passed, I usually have the points implications worked out before the track-out. When I pass someone, it takes a couple corners before I relax and then figure out the points. Before I pass, I always analyze my place in the race and my pace as well, and make a calculated risk vs gain assessment. Racing is risky, but that doesn't mean we don't think about risk quite a lot. The racer is good at taking calculated risks.

Crossing the line is absolutely subjective. What place did I finish in? What was the talent like? Was this one of my better tracks, or my worst? How many places did I gain? Did I crash? These all add up to give you your end emotional result. For instance, I was more happy with my 5th place finish than I was with my 3rd place finish last weekend, simply because I feel like I drove a better race, given the circumstances.

Of course, I still don't know what it's like to win. I'm sure you'll hear about that soon enough.

Did that do it justice? I don't know. I hope it's given you a better idea of what being a racer is about. Racing, at the heart of it, is a very selfish affair. It's entire existence is dedicated to gratifying one person - the winner. Yes, there is a team element in that the mechanics and engineers prepare the car for the driver to use to win, but the race itself is for the racer. Racing would be a fairly distasteful thing if it weren't for the millions of fans and followers worldwide who take glee in our indulgence. Does that facet offset the selfishness of it?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

(75) Offroading

Well, that was an eventful day.

Upon arrival for round 3 and 4, I found trace amounts of suck in the weather. Namely, dense high fog and cold temps. It didn't burn off till about 30 past noon. The first sessions were... interesting. It was difficult, nay, impossible to get the tires up to temp. I'd estimate a running temperature of about 60-80f, barely enough to cause a grain. Normal running temps are about 150f to 180f I'd estimate, on a warm day.

As a result of this lack of temp, every single morning session felt like I was going out on brand new tires.

But, all for the better I suppose. We had a lot of running ahead of us. I got about 2 hours in the kart today. At 48 MPH (my average speed), that's a hundred miles of 10/10ths driving. 100 miles, a third of which is spent at or near 3.0 G.

The first track we ran was Reverse National. Fun track, not a lot of work, especially in the cold. I think it's the easiest track, both physically and skillfully. It's very fast, and it's got good pace. But it's not my favorite. Nevertheless, a good race.

We started the day off by coming up with a new grouping system. Lighter drivers in A group, heavier drivers in B group, separate championships for both. That's going to mess with the points standings a bit, but it doesn't affect me. I think, as evident by the footage I have, the change is for the better. Much closer racing. The B group race in the afternoon was basically nose to tail for the first 3 or 4 laps.

The practices felt good. I did my normal thing, coming into my own pace in my own time. I was ready for qualifying for the first race on the Reverse National track. The coaches didn't have much to critique, and that's not in a bad way.

I qualified in 3rd.

You know, I really shouldn't type all these race reports up, since I have the onboard, but I'm old-fashioned and I think it's good to read stories before you see the true vision. Stimulates the mind.

Being 3rd, I started behind pole, with my main championship rival to my outside in 4th. We steamed down the main straight at a moderate pace, me rubbing my brake and revving high in my usual fashion, and as soon as I saw the flag man twitch I popped off the brake. I shot forward and overtook the polesitter in two heartbeats (actually, it took me 4.3 seconds to pass the polesitter, and at 200 BPM, a common number for heartrates at the drop of the green flag, it means that it took 14.3 heart beats to pass him). But, alas, my rear tires were cold, and while my brake disk was warm, the higher pitched, lower frequency chirps told me I did not have as much control as I thought in the braking zone. I slid past the polesitter and understeered wide.

I need to stop doing that.

I rejoined the pace back in 3rd, a huge opportunity wasted and a few seconds behind the two leaders.

I could feel my rival breathing down my neck. I duck my head on the straights to deny his draft.

Lap 2, and I could see up ahead that the two leaders were really at each other's throats. I knew my rival and I were thinking the same thing: "you do that, guys. You keep on scrapping, and we'll just bump draft straight past you".

Alas, the treacherous swine did not have faith in my pace, and decided to come screaming by in turn 1. I returned the favor in the next corner and made it stick for good on the next straight. Now we were even further back! Wasted time! He tried it again on lap 4 but checked up before I apexed across his nose.

Now, I don't blame him for trying to get by; I'd do the same. But it was quite counter-productive to my objective.

Fast forward to lap 7, and we've got lap traffic! In a ploy fit for a Bond Villain, Mr. Lap Traffic slowed for 3 of us (I nearly hit him), but cut off my rival. More internal fist-pumping ensues and I step on it; I see that I'm catching my goal(s).

On lap ten I skip over Turn 8's middle curb and whack the chassis. Steady on. I'm catching him. Stay cool.

Lap 12, I'm on his bumper. I get a run out of the last corner, I draft, he makes a finger-stretch that almost looks like a wave-by, I sense a lack of concentration, I strike. In an instant I'm through into 2nd.

I hold him off for 2 laps, but I slip under brakes, and he strikes not unlike I did to him. I try to get a run but his game is together. It's the last lap, he defends into Turn 2 and I try to cross him over, but it's not enough of a run. I finish where I started: 3rd.

Round 3 On-Board Camera

A minor disappointment, I've still outscored my rival (the two winning drivers are guests), but that's not anywhere near the scale of what happens next.

At least there is a minor morale raiser. After the first session on the new track, Reverse Sprint, the high fog dies in a great fiery fire. Praise the Lord, sunlight! Warmth! I can see my shadow! I love you shadow!

Ahem, where was I? Oh yes. Reverse Sprint. Well by this time we've been driving for about an hour and ten, and now we're thrown onto one of the more physical tracks in the set. There are 3 corners at 3.0 G, and there are no long straights to stretch or catch your breath.

Qualifying goes somewhat less smoothly. I qualify 4th. Now my rival is to my inside, in 3rd.

My start is a little less than good, I lose ground to the top 3 because of conservative braking. 5th place comes barreling down the inside, but he's made the same mistake I made last race. Too hot, too far to the inside. I re-pass him on corner exit.

Now comes the complication. Ahead of me, I see that the top 3 are pretty much level, and 2nd pulls out for a pass on 1st, then 3rd pulls out for a pass on 2nd. They're going 3 wide into a corner that is difficult to take even single file. 3rd place decides to get out, but he locks up and spins. 2nd place drifts, and I think he's locked with 3rd and they'll spin to the inside as locked cars tend to. But, I misinterpret the situation and 3rd place breaks free and comes towards the outside of the track, towards my intended path!

I throw caution to the wind and attempt to straight-line the chicane. Unfortunately, the wind doesn't really care about racing, so the wind makes sure I clip my right-rear tire on the barrier, spinning me around. I rejoin the track and punch the steering wheel. Luckily they're not made from wood any more, or I'd have a broken hand.

Damage control mode engage.

On lap 5 I catch my first recovery pass. 7th is secure.

On lap 10 I catch my second recovery pass. 6th is secure after a little "I dare ya" through the turn 8 complex.

On lap 12 I catch and dice with 5th. I pass for my last recovery position in turn 9. 5th is secure.

When the white comes out, I relax for a moment, and I realize how beat I am. That recovery drive took a lot out of me, and that track goes out of it's way to beat you. The last lap is one of the most difficult laps I've ever driven. I've just been driving flat-out for two hours and I've spent the last 15 minutes being subjected to 3.0 Gees every other turn while trying to utilize fine muscle memory, analyze acute sensory information at speeds most people can't, and all while seeing the red mist and fully aware of how much my career depends on me finishing well. I feel my heart rate on the way back to the pits and even after a lap of cooldown I'm still at about 190 BPM.

Round 4 On-Board Camera

That was quite a day. I'm fairly sure I'm 2nd in the championship. Definitely one of the top 3 race days I've had so far. I hope this race report was a little more interesting than they have been lately, I'm going to do them more like this in the future.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

(74) Round and round

Had a pretty good practice today. I'm feeling really good on National Reverse. This weekend is a double-header, and we'll be running National Reverse in the morning and Sprint Reverse in the afternoon. Four practice sessions, two qualifyers, and two races. That's a lot of driving, probably about an hour and a half, and the Sprint track is super physical, but the Reverse direction is easiest mostly because you're not hitting the big sweeper at full tilt, which is about what feels like 3 or 4 seconds of 3 gees going the normal way.

There's also talk of restructuring how the groups are divided, but nothing too concrete yet. We'll know more on Saturday, but we probably won't be messing with things for this weekend.

I had a spin in the 4th session, I got it on film. What happened was I tried to pass, went wide, got pickup and then just didn't have the grip to exit the corner at full tilt.

See you Saturday, or Sunday. I might be too beat to post on Saturday.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

(73) Are Koni shocks challenging?

Pretty good day yesterday at the Koni Challenge/Rolex Grand Am weekend. Got to wander around the paddock and see some pretty cool racing cars, and even a couple interesting street cars as well.

I met with Peter Parrott from Speedworks about the Mustang Challenge. We brainstormed a bit about my career and where I might want to go. The Mustang Challenge may or may not be on my path, I don't know at this point. I want to do something in real cars next year, but whether that's Mustang Challenge, MX-5 Cup, NASA regional or Skip Barber MX-5 I don't know. There are so many options for an entry point to sportscar and touring car racing it's hard to know where to go. I guess it just comes down to budget. NASA would be cheapest, but I have trouble believing that would challenge me in any way. Skip Barber MX-5 racing would be next up on the expense-o-meter, and I would learn more, and if I won I'd get a ride in the MX-5 Cup. But, I could just go straight to the MX-5 Cup and save some time, but it'd be more expensive. Mustang Challenge would give me the greatest competition, but it's also the most expensive. Decisions, decisions.

But enough of the realist doom & gloom. We're at the races. Plenty of pics for y'all.

First up are a couple of oddities. The first is a Corvette ZR-1 and the green car is a Ford Fiesta, something they sell in Europe but are bringing over to the US next year. This is one of the first in the country.

The next is Alex Roy's BMW M5, which he and his copilot used to cross the US in 32 hours.

Some paddock pictures:

And here's the inside of a Porsche (Grand Am GT):

And now some racing:

My next practice session is on the 21st, this Thursday.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

(72) Ferraris are challenging, too

I went to the Ferrari challenge today. The only problem is that it was really raining pretty good and it was freaking cold. Those F430 Challenge cars are impressive, even though they're not very loud.

I don't think I'll be doing that, though, not anytime soon. Just the entry fee costs more than an entire year of supported NASA events and I only get half the races. It's definitely not a stop for the budding young talent.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the historic cars completely stole the show. There was a 250 GTO there, doing laps in the rain. The owner was really nice and let me sit in it. As for the rest, I didn't really know what I was looking at, but there was an ancient Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car from the early50's, and it was actually very fast.

I was going to grab pictures, but there was just so much rain I didn't want to get the camera soaked. Sorry.

I should be going down to the Rolex Grand Am event at Laguna on the 16th.