Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stay Cool FTW

When one gets a run of continual improvement going it has a sort of magic of it's own. Each time out there is the dual hope that it will continue, and fear that the bubble will burst, and the streak will be broken. I have a streak of improvements with each event this year, and as a result I am already bursting through my wildest expectations at the beginning of the year.

Two events ago, I went into the event, more or less having achieved my goals for the year, with several events putting me in the top 20-25% already. Then I ran 22nd of 139, just one place (and 0.091s) short of my top 15% stretch goal. It was fabulous, but how on earth could I top that? How do I keep the streak going?

Well, my tires were mostly toast, ending the last event at 120 runs and 138 after the last renegade event. The 70 run tires I took off just before the tour went back on. Changing setup and car balance during the season can be disastrous, if the car behaves different and you can't adapt, cones and slow times will often result. But, I was facing elimination in the points race. If I lost, I would be mathematically eliminated and the final event of the year would amount to a test and tune/fun runs. With this in mind, I decided to fix the front splitter.

Over the course of the season, the plywood splitter I had added had become warped. Attached at the front and the back with foam to seal the air in the middle, it the middle was bowing downward, and the car had started to push. Both Ben and Brian remarked on it, and I felt it too.

This warping is a result of my insistence on not attaching the splitter to the fiberglass. Attaching to the frame in the back with supports on the front was fine when I was using a carbon fiber splitter, but not so fine with plywood, especially after it got wet.  I needed a stiffener. I didn't want to add more aluminum angle along the bottom. The front already scrapes on the occasional curb cut if I'm not ultra careful about where I drive. Adding something that hangs down further would not work, and of course I always want to minimize the weight. Thin, light and stiff made me think Carbon Fiber. I found some economy 5mm 6"x30"  carbon fiber for under $100. 5mm CF is rock solid. When I got it I could barely flex it at all. So I applied that along the top, eliminating the aluminum bar that hung down in the middle previously

I probably gained a few ounces, but I only have the "feel" of it since I forgot to actually weigh it. In any event it worked marvelously...

Much straighter, much tighter to the bottom of the car. But would it mess up my driving, or help it?

SCCA points Event #8 was a cool, blustery day to start, Morning runs for the 3rd run group were in the low to mid 60's. My first run was messy and slow. On my second run I spun in a slalom, but I got a good practice run at the finish. Both Dan and I noted that the car felt different and that the push was reduced, or maybe gone. Sounds like a disaster in the making...

BUT here's where the seat time this year paid off. I didn't panic. Instead I set about trying to figure out how to adjust my driving. I said to myself... "If it's not pushing at high speed anymore, that means I should be able to nail the sweeper hard. I need to set that element up so I can take advantage" and I also said to myself, "I need to be extra careful on my entries to the slaloms...." My 3rd run of the morning was faster and clean... and came in just 0.4 sec behind Leafy, whom I needed to beat to remain in the hunt for a season championship.

While I was fairly happy with the first part of my 3rd run, I knew that the finish had been a near disaster. I had become late on the angled walloms, and then been forced to focus on controlling the car rather than putting power down at the finish. I only just barely touched the rev limiter at the finish line. When I checked the numbers, my run was fairly decent. After the rest of the morning runs finished. I was 2.8 seconds off top pax, which usually equates to a top 30 finish. But of course folks will find time in the afternoon, so I need to find time as well. I said to my co-driver Dan, "I need to put the finish of my 2nd run on the first 3/4 of my 3rd run."

Then came the afternoon runs... Temps were up by about 5-10 degrees. The tire blankets were not needed, but it was still cool with somewhat less wind. On my first run, I more or less did what I set out to do. I pasted together the front of run 3 with the end of run 2, and managed to find half a second, enough to put me in the lead vs Leafy's morning time. But I knew that Leafy would likely find time too. Reviewing the run in my head, I decided that I still wasn't working the first part of the course hard enough.

On my second run of the afternoon I found another .8 seconds which firmly cemented my lead, but I FORGOT to turn on video! DOH!! However SoloStorm did start it's data logging, so here's a video of my 3rd run of the afternoon which was as fast or faster than my fastest until I botched the finish (if you ignore the cone). Overlayed on that video is a video of the solostorm comparison playback with my fast run (run 5). The paragraph that follows is my from memory description of run 5 (not 6 which you see in the video)

So here's my "in-head video" of run 5, (the green line on the above video):

I made a more agressive start and it felt good but I slightly under broke in the turn before the big sweeper, so my sweeper was a tad slow, however I kept my foot in and built good speed, barely taping the breaks to get through the following slalom. As I did so, I realized I probably didn't even need to touch the brakes, and I felt I slightly over broke on the turn towards the taxiway too. As those thought flitted by, I immediately said to myself, well if I'm a little slow, I should be able to get a good turn onto the taxiway to compensate. I remember feeling that I did a good job of the turn, but didn't really get on the gas until the end of the taxiway. The surge of power as the cams kicked in at the end of the taxiway reminded me of some other times I had overshot breaking points, so I laid into the breaks as hard as I could, and then let off and just turned the wheel where I needed to and prayed it stuck. It did stick, but just barely. The back end slid just a tad and then hooked back up, putting me in a pretty good position entering the main runway. Even as I was noticing this, I found myself thinking "GREAT, lets take advantage of this!" and I accelerated out of the turn as hard as I could. This actually put me just slightly shallow on my entry to the first slalom on the runway, but I realized I was not getting a great entry and with a quick stab to the breaks managed to rotate the car and get in half way decently anyway. I knew I was immediately facing a cut back across the runway at the end of the slalom, so I only fed minimal throttle to avoid making that turn too difficult. This worked well, and I got a more comfortable entry into the second slalom. With a good position on the second slalom I was able to be on the accelerator at the cone before the end of the slalom and gained a lot of speed through the slanted six pack. Much like the exit from the taxiway, this left me slightly shallow and I again compensated with a stab of the breaks. Then through the walloms I worked on being patient and getting ahead of the cones in preparation for the finish. I was able to mash on the accelerator and I knew I was going to be all over the rev limiter so I tried to go to third and missed (oops).  As I crossed the line, I wasn't quite sure how I had done, it felt clean and fast, but I'd been so busy thinking and adjusting through the run I wasn't sure. When the display read 50.9 I was shocked and elated, and prayed it was clean, which it was.

In retrospect this run was a huge achievement, but not because of the time or the PAX position. It was huge because I had retained focus, and adjusted on the fly effectively. In essence, I had successfully implemented the advice Eric Chiang had given me a year and a half ago. I drove the car as it was on course. I drove based on the feedback the car was sending through the steering and the seat of my pants and by the status that my looking ahead was giving me. A year and a half ago I was falling prey to driving based based on my expectation of the course. Eric had noticed when he road with me that I accelerated in some spots beyond what made sense, and guessed correctly that I had been thinking to myself  "I should be fast here, I should get to the rev-limiter." He said it was a common problem and hard for some people to overcome.

I also felt that the run was a huge achievement in that I went from coning and spinning in a car that was doing new, strange things to running my best time ever within a few runs. Even better, it's easy to see from the above video that there was more time out there 50.4 seems very doable, and that would have been top 10 (just barely)!

Here's my thought on all of this... the big thing that seat time gets you is a familiarity with driving at speed. It brings instant recognition of "Oh crap, I'm getting too fast, brake hard NOW!" (e.g. at the end of the taxiway), and the calm analytical workaround of stabbing the brake to help rotate the car on a less than ideal entry. It allows thoughts about where to go faster next time without becoming disappointed or distracted, and it allows you to find the silver lining when you are slightly slow and just keep driving... I finished that run, my fastest ever, and I didn't have the shakes, I wasn't out of breath. I had remained calm and focused throughout, and that's probably why it was possible. Without that calm, the success of the hard breaking would be wasted on relief that I escaped disaster. Without that calm, the timing of the break stab would likely be early or late doing little good at all.

And as I said in my last post... drive fast, and the points will follow. I won first place and I remain alive (if just barely) in my hunt for a season championship. I think my driving at this event this event was championship level driving, but alas, I was not driving like a champ at the beginning of the year. I have to hope that someone beats Leafy, and I beat them. With a result like today, where I was almost a second ahead, it seems like a possibility, but very very far from a certainty. I'll give it my best, but smarter money is on next year at this point.

I really hope I can keep my cool like that in future runs. The results are waaaay cool :).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Just get faster...

Hi folks, I've been a bit busy and so I haven't gotten around to posting for a couple weeks. I've got a backlog of a couple events but let's start with a review to draw a clearer picture...

This season I started the season saying "Don't worry about points, just get faster and let the points follow" To that end I committed to running 50% more races than last year, finding a co-driver and attending an Evo School. So how's it working out?

The first half of the season went by quick, and my relative pax rating climbed 2 points vs the previous year by July, with the highpoint being the National Match Tour with a .938 (which was also fresh Hoosiers). Seat time and more regular participation had already started to pay off by the time I got to the EVO School.

At the Evo School I was lucky enough to get 20 time National Champion Mark Dadddio as my instructor. He spotted my difficulty easily and I learned a very key lesson about the correct way to look ahead. I also was reminded to be patient in the slow parts. After these lessons one of course looks for signs that they helped...

Since the Evo School, there have been hints of some improvement. The first SCCA race after it, I had a scratch time that would have been a record setter for me... but I had hit a cone, so it didn't count. It was a scratch time only and scratch times just don't really count in the end. What counts is the fastest clean run. Still scratch times are an indication of what is possible with a little more attention to detail...

On the next event I finally had a genuine win over Leafy, and I was 14th in PAX with a (personal) record shattering 0.949 pax rating. However New Hampshire Motor Speedway courses are atypical for our group with only 40% of the normal attendance. Certainly it sounded good, but it's very difficult to figure out how that compares to the regular full length courses at Devens.

Ok so that's the review, now into the new news

The next weekend we were back at Devens, and some solid signs of improvement came through. I placed 22nd in pax, 8 places higher than ever,  and almost scored a second win against Leafy. I came up a quarter second short on my fifth run, but it was pretty clearly my best performance to date at Devens, and to beat me Leafy had to score his highest ever pax rank as well. So he beat me but he had to run his best ever to do it. This is a nice contrast the same mid-august event as last year where I lamented missing the opportunity to catch him when I hit a cone on my single hero run at the end following a spin and a DNF. This time I laid down 2 runs at the end, one within about .25 and the other within .1 but with a cone. This time it wasn't a fluke.

Furthermore, I ended that day on tires that had 120 runs vs tires that had 37 runs the previous year. I probably had a tire advantage last year and did better at a disadvantage this year. The other thing that was encouraging about this event was that it was a difficult course with some tough elements. I can see some folks did worse than usual on it. In the past I used to be one of the ones that fell down on the more difficult courses. This time I did better on the difficult course.

Then, at the end of August, was the next Renegade event. In this event I pushed my scratch times to a new level, but had some cone trouble. I have never before run scratch times let alone clean times as fast as Scruffy in his Porsche GT3 type RS. This time, on tires with 135 runs on them I posted a dirty (+1 cone) time that was only .05 seconds slower than Scruffy's clean runs including the 2 second penalty for the cone. On his very last run scruffy found the extra .9 seconds I was pretty sure he should, and I ended about a second behind him unable to find a fast clean run, but in fun runs I cleaned it up and posted a time more or less equal to his fastest, another first. So Grant usually runs a second faster than scruffy, and my scratch time therefore was (possibly) competitive with Grant on raw times. Grant often has FTD... If I had run clean, and I hadn't handed my car to two super star drivers, I would have had the fastest time of the day. I've never been so close... Brian and Ben are superstar class drivers and so they proved that there was another 1.3 and 1.8 seconds out there respectively vs my scratch times, but again I've never come within 2 seconds of either Ben or Brian before.

So guess what? It's just like the experienced drivers always tell you... seat time, and Evo School pays off. I like the shape of my curve this year...

Now all I have to do is keep it going! As for the points. They came, but not quite enough. I'm in  almost the same position as last year, BUT Leafy's car was in working condition from the start this time, unlike last year where he didn't really get it going until the 4th event and then killed me for the second half. This time, I've stayed close. Theoretically I could still win, but the odds are against me. Perhaps next year... or perhaps not. As long as I drive faster I'm happy!

Let's end with some video...

And now... side by side of Brian and me.... (Damn I wish I had video from Ben too!)