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!

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