Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Easy would be Booring

So Now I've learned about slaloms carousels, sweepers, offsets, chicago boxes, increasing radius turns, decreasing radius turns, more offsets, long slaloms, looking ahead, visualization and verbalization... Enough school! Time to see if it helped!

Or so I thought... Mother nature had other ideas...

Points event #2 was not what I envisioned. Everything had been going just grand so far this season. Every one of the 4 days of autocross so far had had good or excellent weather. Dry conditions all day, nothing too cold for the clothes I brought, some days were even sunny and warm. I even managed to use sunscreen every time. Golden.

Not so for Points event #2. My dreams had imagined a day with glorious weather dry and 75 with sun and occasional clouds. My dreams had imagined a day where everything went smoothly and we all got 7 or 8 runs on a 60 second course. A day with conditions comparable to my previous two competitions so I could see my times drop dramatically due to all the recent practice and training. Here's the blow by blow of what really happened...
  • 6:30 am - Leave the Hotel, pavement wet and dry in spots, no rain... looks hopeful!
  • 7:00 am - Arrive at Devens... it's sprinkling the pavement is definitely wet.
  • 7:15 am - The rain is steady and puddles are forming, scratch the slicks, keep the AO48's
  • 7:30 am - I'm using my poncho as a tent by shutting one end of it in the door while taping numbers on my car.
  • 7:45 am - Windy wet, cold I bite the bullet and take off my poncho and windbreaker long enough to put on my sweat shirt.
  • 8:00 am - Course walks open. No chalk... they have to use crayon.
  • 8:45 am - Starting my 3rd walk of the course... not changing tires and stuff has at least one benefit. I'm wondering what happens to the car when it hits a puddle in a slalom...
  • 9:30 am - first run, the rain has dissipated to occasional sprinkles, but wind-shield wipers still on. I have to wipe my feet dry with a towel so that they don't slip on the pedals (much). I have no idea where the limits of traction are. I'm so distracted by figuring that out that I get 102 seconds + DNF for cutting off a cone. The top times at this point are in the low 80 and high 70 second range.
  • Second Run - The rain has stopped, there is still a moderate wind, conditions are drying rapidly. The pavement is still wet, but no where near as wet as the first run. How does that help... I have no clue, I push it further, and shave 7 seconds off my time, but so do the leaders. Top times are now in the low-mid 70's. I get a 95.101
  • Third Run - The pavement is mottled dry and wet, more dry than wet. I probably could have put my slicks on. But hesitated and didn't have time. So this one is mostly dry, but still on Ao48's... I shave another 6 seconds off. down to 87.451 + 1 cone (effectively an 89.451)
  • I console myself with the fact that the morning runs are worthless anyway given that the conditions are going to be so much better for the afternoon runs.
  • Then comes the second heat... complete chaos... Timing troubles cause half a dozen re-runs. A car breaks down and has to be pushed off course. We get a red flag for no good reason... and then 3 more cars are red flagged because one corner hasn't got the message that all is clear... this heat takes twice as long as it should. Meanwhile Russ runs times in the low 70's proving that I am still really really slow today. A Modified is running in the mid-60's...
  • Lunch is 20 minutes... I have peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches... I forgot the bread. So it's peanut butter on cliff bars with Gatorade and a tiny swig of what's left of yesterday's coffee for lunch... gourmet at it's best. The announcement comes down. only 2 runs in the afternoon because the second heat took so much time.
  • Run 4 - I have the Kumho V710's on now. The pavement is dry, time for some real autocrossing.
  • Out of the gate, I forget to shift into second. I remember part way through the first slalom. I do shift but it distracts me and I get late on the last cone, which puts me late on the next element. I have to slow down to get back on line and I'm so releaved when I do that I don't look ahead and enter the next element at completely the wrong angle. Again slow down, get back on line, By the second half of the course I am settled down a bit. I brake a little to late at one point, but not catastrophically so. The back half of my run is almost ok. I shave another 6 seconds off my time... 83.560 with no cones. Finally I am (by my quick estimate) at a time that is better than the very first time I ever autocrossed.
  • Waiting for the second heat I practice my visualization over and over again, analyzing the mistakes I made, and walking myself through the course repeatedly in my head. I know I can do a lot better than the last run. I remember the NER school where I spun on my last run, and caution myself not to over do it either....
  • Final run... I shift early and pay attention in the first slalom. I stay on line and gather noticeably more speed before the first big turn. I remember that I need to brake earlier because I am going faster. I make it down the far stretch beautifully and take a good line into the second big turn... Since I'm on line I can gun it and I get my car up on the cams in the following sections (probably as much as 50-60 mph full throttle), but I remember to brake earlier than last time and get a good line through the next element. I've just corrected ALL of my major mistakes from the first run! Awesome!!!
  • O wait... I haven't' finished the course!!!... I should be heading for the other side of that cone!!!! $#!^!!!! I almost DNF by going around the wrong side of the cone. I nearly have to stop to correct and stay on course.... right before the big sweeper. Now I'm slow on that long element, and going into the offset slalom, very risky to put on speed in that slalom, so I just try to run it clean and then finish fast. I do finish fast, but my time is 83.9 half a second slower... despite almost stopping... CRAP. I know I could have been under 80 seconds... or at least close. Oh well... time to go shag cones for the second heat and curse my early celibration repeatedly...
  • At the end it turns out I came in # 5 out of 6 in SSM. The person who I beat was co-driving the car that broke down on course... They did fix it and run it and it broke down in heat 2 again, but there's a good chance that it wasn't performing well even when it wasn't breaking down.

So did the school help? If you just look at some relative measures on the hard numbers below I got worse after 3 days of school. But what the numbers don't show is the difficulties I overcame... and they also don't show the potential that my final run had until I started celebrating too early... I am sure I lost 2-4 seconds because of my near DNF... which means on the first half to 2/3 of the course I was running 1.5-3.5 seconds faster... I am pretty sure I could have run an 80. That would have put me at a sharp increase in all the % based statistics and nearly level in the factors...

I figure that if I had encountered these obstacles before all my schooling, I would have run my worst times ever. I know that I was able to make improvements... except for the last run, my times improved by leaps and bounds...

We'll see what the next one throws at me on the 30th...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to School

One of the fears I had about doing the NER Novice school right after the Evo-school was that it would be redundant. Luckily the morning talk was the only redundant part. The first part of the day was working on a course full of offsets. This was really good because the Evo-school courses only contained one offset.

The second course was the "kidney bean." What that is is a pair of increasing and decreasing radius turns that face each other. This way you drive from one into the next repeatedly... we went around a couple of times each and this was another element that the Evo-school didn't use.

The third course of the day was a pair of long slaloms with a cross-over and big turn at one end. This was in the Evo-school, but the slalom was longer.... longer is harder, mistakes accumulate... something I didn't appreciate, until now.

All in all it was another good learning experience... and complimented the Evo-school nicely. Just wish I hadn't spun on the last run of the day :)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Phasing in Some Speed

This past weekend I finally got some serious seat time, and some serious instruction. I went to the Evolution Performance Driving School. Actually to be more accurate the school came to our area, which it does once a year, hosted by the Boston chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. It was a complete blast! I learned so much that I think it melted my brain :). I attended both days, and have now completed Phase I and Phase II of their course. Phase III and the Challenge school will have to wait for next year, but that's good because I need some time to practice what I learned.

The first day was Phase I and it featured a short 30 second course where we got many many runs and had the opportunity to really refine our technique on the elements. In regular events this is difficult to do since only 3-6 runs are available, sometimes as much as 8 but that's kinda rare. The course included a Slalom, a carousel (circle) a large, sweeper some offsets and a Chicago Box.

Things I learned in Phase I:
  • My car can Slalom! FAST! I had been dogging it and didn't realize it...
  • Sometimes Slow is fast. Staying in control, and cutting a tight/smooth line around the carousel and sweeper was a lot faster than sliding around, traveling more distance with only slightly more speed and then being forced to wait for the car to settle down before applying throttle.
  • Long, ill defined sweepers seem to have this feel to them that I think I started to get by the end of the day...
  • Looking ahead helps a lot. I learned to do this a little bit on the first day...
  • There was this neat tap the breaks and go technique that I managed to do a couple of times going through the offsets... I'm hoping I learned that (at least somewhat). It felt really good when I did it right.
  • Chicago boxes are annoying. Mostly because they are slow and tight, and it's real real easy to run over the final cone.
So how much did that stuff help? Well at the beginning of the day we got 3 runs to show the teachers what we were already capable of. I ran a 39, a 38 and a 34.6. I was one of the faster times, and I was feeling pretty good about it. I figured, I had shaved 5 seconds off and that further progress was going to be difficult. Little did I know how much I sucked :). By the end of the day my fastest clean run was 30.7 and my fastest time was 29.6 +1 cone (the last cone in the Chicago box, which I apparently just barely clipped) That's right, I shaved another 5 seconds off of my time (holy crap!).

The next day was Phase II, and in Phase II they screw with your head... The course design is much more challenging, and they emphasize looking ahead. The Phase 1 course was a series of relatively clearly defined elements, only one element in Phase I (the sweeper) had any lack of definition for the (approximate) line you should take. In Phase II the course was much more open. The speeds were faster, and the sweeper was ridiculously undefined. Furthermore they keep changing the course, and the direction you run the course... No dialing in exactly what to do over 20 runs like the first day. Things keep changing, so it's key for you to be looking ahead... not driving by memory, which is the point!

Things I learned (at least partly) in Phase II
  • Looking Ahead - I only thought I had learned to do this the first day :).
  • Visualizing - one segment of the day focused on trying to get you to build a mental picture of the course.
  • Verbalizing - It turns out that talking yourself through the course reinforces the looking ahead, particularly coming up with names for the cones that you need to be looking at. If you say the name as you do your run, you can't help but look for the cone!
  • Verbalizing - saying what's next helps you re-focus after a mistake too. One huge problem in Autocross is that if you make a mistake, then your attention gets drawn back in, and you stop looking ahead. Instead, you think about the mistake, and all the funny things the car is now doing because you screwed it up... then suddenly you are at the next element and you screw that up too... and this can repeat over and over. Saying what's next get's your brain out of the cycle, and back into looking ahead and getting the car through the next element.
  • On poorly defined, elements I got two pieces of advice which are different shades of the same thing... Imagine an extra cone that would make the correct line more obvious, or simply imagine the line directly.
Phase II was harder, and I didn't do as well, partly due to some bad "street driving" habits that seem to crop up under stress. Particularly, I tend to take my right hand off the wheel to shift and then leave it on the shifter, Racing one handed is not a very good idea. Secondly, I tend to forget and depress the clutch as if I'm comming up to a stop-light or turn on the street before some elements. This screws everything up because mostly you just want to stay in second gear, and not downshift. Once the clutch is out, then you have to manage to put it back in without upsetting the car... and by the way, all those offsets or other elements that were hard without fiddling with the clutch... they keep coming just as fast, while you're all distracted messing with the clutch! :) One useful trick for fighting the clutch problem is to press down on the "dead" pedal (the place to rest your left foot to the left of the clutch pedal) while you drive.

For the future I need to work on handling speed coming into slow elements. This manifested itself in several near spins on day two and in my tendency to come into the Chicago box, and the carousel to hot on day 1.

And I need to remember all that stuff I just wrote while negotiating turns and slaloms every few seconds... EEK!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Novice Class Conundrum

So in a previous post, I mentioned that I had a busy set of weeks coming up. I am now 3/5 of the way through and at this point when I close my eyes, an army of Orange Cones starts flying by inside my head. Last Sunday I did my second ever Autocross event. This was points event #1 for the NER SCCA autocross series which they ran in the parking-lot of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The event itself was a blast and my times seemed to improve drastically relative to my first event.

This time I managed to class my car correctly... not that this really matters at my experience level, but one of the side-lights of having no way to do anything but think about my Lotus over the winter is I went through it and the Solo rulebook, and discovered that the previous owner has made at least 3 modifications that simply are not allowed in the Stock category. So I must run in SSM (Super Street Modified). I may detail the mods and exactly why they change my racing class in a later post, but the only thing to know is that the modifications I have are a pittance relative to the chages that would take place in a properly prepared SSM car.

In the end I've decided that this is actually likely to be a good thing. In the novice section of SCCA Solo II, the drivers drive all different kinds of cars, and the times are handicapped by a multiplier based on what class the car qualifies for (this is called "PAX time"). A driver that had a Stock Elise that was close to what you get from the show-room would be in the super-stock category and would get to multiply their time by 0.856. However because I am in Super Street Modified I only get to multiply my time by 0.876. In practical terms means if the super stock car runs the course in 60.000 seconds he gets a PAX time of 51.360, but my PAX time for the same 60'seconds would be 52.560. To put it another way, if I wanted to beat a super stock car that ran the course in exactly 60 seconds, I would need to run a the course in 58.629 seconds.

1.371 seconds is an eternity in Autocross. People are reasonably serious about this sport spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to shave a quarter to a third of a second off of their time. In the two events I've been to the top novice was getting a PAX time between the 60th and 50th percential across *all* drivers. Thats in the realm where a half second is a lot of time. To overcome my SSM PAX in my (almost) Stock Elise and win novice in the last event would have required a skill level that would allow me to drive about .7 seconds faster than the person who won given identical cars. That ability level would put me in the top 1/3 of all drivers at the event... I'm not even close to that.

So the novice/PAX competition style puts me at a pretty stiff disadvantage, but in some ways this may be good for me. My focus is now on having fun and improving relative to the folks running in Super Stock. It's my own private little contest. The really good thing about this is there's no points and no season to this personal contest, and if I need to take a break from it to try something new as a learning exercise then there's no penalty for it. So I'm going to intentionally take myself out of all hope of competition, and simply run in standard SSM (no novice PAX timing). So the up side is I can focus on educating myself. Until I've learned a whole lot more, the competition thing is basically out the window...

At some point I'll want to either get a new stock elise/exige and trade this one in... thus becoming eligible for stock category, or... dump a whole bunch of money into modifying this car to the point where it can live up to it's official racing class. But for now have fun and hope for a day when the real SSM cars don't come out to play :).

What's the lesson? Well if you intend to do any sort of racing with a car you are buying used and you *do* want to try to be competitive, research the rules you expect to race under and inspect the car for mods. But you can always just do it to have fun, and then you are free to crush some cones in a learning exercise add a variety of tastey mods to your ride as suites your taste and budget.

Next, Basic evolution...