Wednesday, April 28, 2010

(107) Rain school

When I saw the "chance of showers" weather forecast for today, my first practice session of 2010, I figured it would be just a few scattered droplets and at most the track would get a little damp.

Look at how wrong I was.

A boat and oars might have been faster.

It was an absolute downpour. But all was not lost!

The first session was mildly moist. We went out on slick tires since the sun was out and things were drying out. It was my first time on slicks in the wet and boy was it slippery. I have newfound respect for Formula 1 drivers who hold out through wet conditions on slicks. A dry line started forming in most corners, though, and it became faster and faster to stop using the rain lines.

Then the track dried out nearly completely. There were a few scattered patches of light dampness, but it was not in any critical spots. In the 2nd session I set the fastest time of the day, 55.9 seconds, which, considering that I haven't driven in 6 months, and the track was totally green and cold, is kind of impressive.

Then the rain came back. And it let loose a pretty good shower. It got everything wet enough for rain tires, and kept a heavy sprinkle going. Rain lines came into full effect, and I struggled. My entrances were fine, but I kept apexing too early and as soon as I started hard cornering on the rubber line it would just suck me into a vicious traction loss slide that is difficult to overcome at best. I spun a couple times at the exit of tic-tac-toe just trying to put too much power down in the wrong place with too much lateral load on the tires. Our times were a good 20 seconds slower than a good warm day.

A technical malady popped up with all the karts, and mine went first. As I was exiting the pits after a damage inspection from spinning off into the dirt, my engine cut out. I re-fired it and realized that it was missing heavily. I took the half a lap to circle around to the pits. Turned out to be a simple fix in the form of a new spark plug. We were not spending enough time at full throttle and these engines hate that. The karts all started feeling and sounding much healthier after the service (which took all of 30 seconds, since the spark plug is right on top).

Then the vicious clouds really let us have it for the fourth session. It felt like a monsoon. I decided to use the rain oversuit, which made me look humongous since I was wearing my normal impact suit underneath. Kept me very dry though (my hands still got rather waterlogged).

In the fourth session the rain lines needed to be hugely exaggerated. At some points we were almost running a high-side dirt line. My turn-ins for a number of corners were just a few inches from running out of road. Forget simply staying off the rubber line, if you weren't in the marbles, you had zero traction.

Nevertheless, my times improved over the more tame 3rd session. My fastest monsoon time was a 1:13.2.

Still, my kart control got a real workout and I'm sure it helped me overall. I learned a bunch more on racing in the rain. In California, every second of rain time is precious. We just don't get a lot here, at least during racing season. It was fun, too.

Friday, April 16, 2010

(106) The next rung

Over the past few weeks my dad and I have been planning and detailing my next forays into motorsports, primarily focused on getting me transitioned from karts to cars.

The result is this.

At the end of this month, I go back to Jim Russell driving the sprint karts. I'm going to do 3 race weekends from May to July. Originally this was to include 2 single race weekends and a double header, but a scheduling change has reduced that to just 3 singles. I'll get to the reason for this later. I'll probably do the Enduro again this year if it doesn't conflict with anything.

In late August, I'll be going down to Skip Barber at Laguna Seca for a 3-day school in the Formula 2000 and the MX-5 Cup (they will let me drive both cars). I'll mostly be driving the F2000, but I want to get a little bit of time in the MX-5 because I believe that driving a variety of cars is a must for every young driver.

Then late in September I will do the Skip Barber 2-day advanced school in the F2000 again at Laguna Seca to qualify me for the regional race series starting in October/November, of which I may do a full or partial season, I'm not sure.

Now is the reason for the karting races. Originally I had decided to not enter the Jim Russell series because I wanted to focus on cars, but then I got an email about the 2011 Skip Barber karting shoot out.

The Shoot Out is quite simple. 50 karters head down to Laguna Seca in December (2010), where they will be evaluated over 3 days of driving the F2000. The two drivers that show the most promise will get fully funded seats in the Skip Barber National race series in 2011 (worth more than $50,000), courtesy of Mazda and the FIA. About $100,000 in other prizes are up for grabs: regional seats, half-season seats, etc. In all they award about $200,000 in prizes. Read more about it here.

You have to be an active and current karter, so I need to do kart races in 2010.

I'm confident I can get one of those National seats, but even if there was no prize the coaching and seat time would be a great deal. Plus you get some media and sponsorship training.

Lots to look forward to. I'm going to be very, very busy at the end of this year. My career is really going to take off this fall. But, first thing's first, the karting starts at the end of this month with my first practice. Time to knock the rust off.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

(105) Driving According to the Chump #5: Mental Imagery

Driving fast is incredibly mental. Driving is also all about preparation. Your mental prowess and preparation before an event are probably the largest factors in determining who gets to win.

Combine the two, and you get mental imagery.

Mental imagery is simple. It's an image of you going around the track. A daydream. You sit down, you remember the track, and you "drive" around it in your race car. I do this every night, and it's helped me immensely.

A driver who is good at mental imagery can help himself with a difficult section of the track, he can run laps in his mind before he ever even steps into the car for race day having just walked the track, and he can even help figure out setup problems by running mental laps and recalling what exactly was going wrong. Learning how to do mental imagery will also make you infinitely more sensitive to what the car is telling you.

So how do we start with mental imaging? Well, the first thing it requires is seat time. You need to have a database of various feelings and behaviors from both the car and track. You need to memorize bumps, curbs, lines, and most importantly the visual elements of the track - your reference points. You also need to know how the car behaves in every situation. You can't begin to explore the finer points of car control in your mind if you don't even know what these points feel like. A few days of (attentive) experience is enough.

When you're next in the car, try paying some extra attention to what it's telling you. Try to focus on the information from your hands, or your feet, or the sound of the engine and the wind, or your reference points, or the way the G forces are pulling at you. Try to absorb and store as much information as possible.

The second thing it requires is an active imagination. Not because you're making things up, but because you need to be able to assemble the sensory information. If you are a very "aware" person, in other words if you pay attention to and remember your surroundings, you're already wired up to be good at mental imagery.

This is because the image you're seeing right now, your surroundings, the colors, the brightness (or darkness), is not actually light as it is, just light as your brain interprets it. The brain assembles a "virtual reality" space inside your head based on your sensory information, which is corrected for beforehand. Illusions, like seeing a face in a block of wood, exploit this. Your mind wants to see a face, because the reference points you're seeing are in the right range to be face-like, so your brain shows it as a face in the virtual version of reality inside your head. What you see is as much a factor of your mental disposition as it is the amount of photons passing the lenses of your eyes.

When you dream or hallucinate, the image that you're seeing is using the same vision circuitry that you use when you're awake. So too, when you're using mental imagery.

When you sit down for your first mental imagery session, there are a number of important things to get right.

Make sure you're sitting in as close to your natural driving position as possible. If you drive a formula car with a form fitted seat, it might be best to do this at the next practice day so you can actually sit in the car. It's a huge help at first, but not required once you get the technique down.

Make sure you also remember as much detail as possible. The texture of the wheel, the smell of the cockpit, the feeling of your race suit, the stiffness of the pedals, the way the sunlight reflects off your visor or windshield, the sound of little rocks or bits of rubber striking the bodywork. No detail is too small. Detail is far more important than continuity for your first few sessions.

Your first sessions will be short. Just snapshots of a lap. Don't get elaborate with the scenes. Just run laps, don't race anyone and don't do anything out of the ordinary. Choose the corner that you think you know best, and try a run through it or two, or even just sit in the pit lane with the engine running. Again, detail is important here, not continuity. Get the "simulation" feeling, looking, sounding and smelling right before you start to do full laps. Keep going through that same corner, try a few others as well. Slowly expand the section of track you're using until it encompasses the whole thing. This is how you learn whether or not you have enough information. Not enough visual information and you won't be able to see all of the track (a lot of the fences at Infineon were missing for me for a long time until I started paying attention to them out of sheer annoyance). Not enough car dynamics information and the car won't react or feel how it should.

Do this for a few days (I wasn't even running consecutive laps until I had done at least 4 sessions). Eventually, you'll start to be able to adjust your driving using only mental imagery. A very powerful tool.

[UPDATE] I suppose I should mention exactly what mental imagery is used for. I wasn't very clear about this.

Mental imagery is primarily a programming tool. When you're doing mental imagery, you're anticipating potential problems or imagining current problems and finding a good way to deal with them. Like a programmer typing in lines of code into a computer. Mental imagery is the mind's programming code. Example.

You need to take the kink flat. You know the car us capable of it, you've seen and heard other drivers do it from the trackside. But, every time you get to the kink, your foot just always lifts half-way, the rear end skates, and you just barely manage to hang onto the edge of the rumble strip at the exit. You've been lifting at the kink for so long that it's just muscle memory telling you that lifting the throttle is the only way to make it through alive.

Two ways to fix this:

1. Bravery (in which case it would have fixed itself years ago).

2. Mental imaging.

Run through the corner using mental imagery, imagine yourself taking it flat, feel the throttle pedal go to the floor, feel the rear end squat down and keep it's bite, hear the engine RPM stay high. Do this a good number of times and the next time you go out you might find that you keep it pinned in the kink just by second-nature. That's the precision drill method.

Mental imaging can be used like a shotgun, too.

Last year, I was about to go out for my race, and I endeavored to not muck up the start. The only way I could think of to do that was mental imagery.

I simply sat on my left front tire in the pits for about 20 minutes and imagined a number of scenarios. I imagined my row partner getting a better start than me, I imagined body contact, I imagined clean starts, dirty starts, mechanical failure starts, late starts, early starts, starts at various paces, all manner of different starts that I thought could occur on that day with those particular players. In each situation I worked out a game plan on how to get through it with maximum benefit.

Turns out, one of my situations did happen. And since I had done all that preparation, I knew exactly what to do to capitalize on it. In effect I was building pseudo-experience, which is better than no experience at all.

Some people find it helpful to program little arbitrary sequences into their programming. If you've ever watched a golfer you know what I mean - they make all sorts of funny little movements just before a swing that don't actually do anything. Whether or not they're put there on purpose I don't know, but for whatever reason they are part of their mental build up and they are largely the same every time. I once watched a professional speed shooter practicing his reloads, and he always made a funny little jaw movement at exactly the same point in the routine.

I don't think these are particularly useful myself, not for racing anyway. Still, some people may find their programming works better if they work in funny little movements that don't impact anything but help to set you up mentally, like tapping your finger on the wheel or working your jaw. These will probably pop up naturally as a result of mental imagery anyway.

10 tips for mental imagery:

1. Assemble as much information as possible from your real race car.
2. During your sessions, remember as much detail as possible.
3. Start small. Your favorite corner is a good place. Slowly expand the lap after that.
4. Be careful of false information. You can trick yourself into thinking the car is more capable than it actually is. Constantly reality-check yourself.
5. When you get good, try imagining another class of car that you've never driven. You can gain insights into your "real" mental imaging car and you may be able to improve the accuracy of it.
6. Sitting in the car or something that feels like your car helps a ton.
7. The mental imaging state is very close to sleep. Try not to fall asleep while running laps.
8. Try simply walking a track that you've never driven and then run some mental laps. It's a good reality check.
9. Running accurate lap times isn't actually that important. What's important is the ability to analyze your technique. Comparing times is for the real world. You'll be able to match your lap times with enough practice, but don't make it your goal.
10. For the love of God, do not make engine noises while you visualize! Everybody already thinks us drivers are insane, don't give them proof.