Whether you learned to hit a ball, slap a puck, shoot a basket or even succeed in life, many of us can thank a coach. If we are willing to listen, a coach can give tips, educate, cheer us on, scold us and improve our skill set to whatever level we want to take it. That said, despite that motor racing seems such an individual sport — aside from a team who prepares the car — the driver sits alone, operates the controls and focuses on the drive. But without the objective observation of a second set of eyes, most drivers — aside from the very rare naturals — will not progress to the next level.
This is the story of two drivers and coaches. The first is me, a journalist/racer who gets lucky opportunities to drive a variety of race cars and run race weekends. The other is an up-and-coming professional driver in the Mazda Global MX-5 Cup, Ashton Harrison. Both of us have benefitted individually and graciously from having the coaching of Rockstar/Driver Mitch Perry and Mazda Factory Prototype driver Tom Long.
On Track Without Being On Track
Having been invited to drive the very first Sportscar Vintage Racing Association’s (SVRA) Spec Miata race weekend, it was important to me to do well, or not embarrass myself in an unfamiliar car and a circuit where I had never turned a wheel. I made arrangements with Chris Considine at CXC Simulations, who generously offered to “virtually” put me on AutoClub Speedway in a Spec Miata. The second call I made was to friend Mitch Perry, who’s resume as a rock guitarist is even more impressive than his driving (which is pretty darned impressive too), and asked him to be my driver coach.
Ashton Harrison is racing in her first full season of The Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires. She is a very focused and driven person, who has her eyes on the prize—and in the case of MX-5 Cup, a $200,000 scholarship towards the next season and possibly the next step. The goal for many young racers who step into these cars is to ultimately work their way to the top rung of the ladder—a Mazda DPi Prototype drive! Ashton’s driver coach, Tom Long, is one of those drivers. Like so many before and after, Long has paid his dues in the lower rungs to the big show. He has a competent and patient personality—a very good mentor for anyone who wants to work hard and improve.
So here’s the download on Perry: He is what many in show business call a “hired gun,” a virtuoso guitar player who has spent a career filling gaps in some very well known bands. He has successfully replaced heavyweight names and toured as a guitarist with everyone from David Lee Roth, Edgar Winter, Cher, Michael Schenker and currently tours with famed ’70s rock band Sweet — remember “Fox on the Run” and “Ballroom Blitz?” While he was setting the world on fire as a rock guitarist he had a dual life as a race driver and instructor. Having grown up at racetracks and riding in the backseat of the station wagon/tow vehicle, watching his dad Steve Brownstein compete in Formula B in both the US and Europe, he always had the bug to race. In the 1990s realized his dream, running Formula Mazda and Tin-tops. He would go on to instruct at Skip Barber and Dale Jarrett’s Racing Schools from 1999-2008. His analytical attack on most things in his life made him an obvious choice for me—that and he kicks my ass at the karting tracks.
Perry has a natural ability to teach and his attitude follows suit. “It’s racing. We all want to go fast. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to improve the weaknesses and maximize the strengths. The clock doesn’t lie. My best students will take the debriefs and apply them to the next session.” Fortunately for me, before and after each session, Mitch analyzed the attack on the track. But that process began at CXC on the simulator. Finding the way around the track was very important. A few hours on the sim gave great point of reference for steering, braking, gearing. It allowed me to get on the track and immediately recognize the landmarks and flow. Mitch worked with me, and demonstrated techniques as we took turns.
“The simulators are very good for learning where you are on the track,” Perry explains. You can sort your lines out and get a feel for how long it takes to get through certain corners. However, you can be the world’s best simulator driver and it doesn’t mean you are going to get in the car and go as fast right away. You have a reset button on a simulator, the car is the real deal. You also don’t get the feel of all the weight you get in a car. Most of all you can be a lot braver in the simulator than you can in real life.”
The Real Deal
After all a tank slapper certainly does not feel the same in the simulator. The real deal stuns you right into reality. Speaking of the real deal, once I got on track at AutoClub Speedway in the Vintage Spec Miata, Mitch was there the entire weekend. We did not have radio communication during the sessions. Whereas Ashton Harrison and Tom Long use sophisticated radios to provide real time feedback. He would just walk up the stairs of the back straight bridge, which gave a very good vantage point of the entire infield road course. The oval portion was partially visible, but that ultimately was on me.
During the course of my race weekend, Perry analyzed and debriefed this driver to an overall ten second per lap improvement and a race win in one of the three we contested. “It doesn’t matter whether you are playing sports, playing a guitar or racing cars,” Perry reminded me. “You analyze what you are doing, you try to make adjustments to make yourself better and make things work for you. It is important, whether you are a natural or not. Putting in the hard work is key. You can be a natural, but if you are not putting in the hard work, you still won’t get very far. You gotta do both. It’s rewarding seeing results.”
I was glad I listened. Perry spoke of some of the students who didn’t listen and proved to be a disaster on the track. “The definition of insanity is making the same mistakes and expecting a different result,” says Perry. “The worst students will nod, they will seem to listen and say ‘yea, I know, yea, I know’ and go back out and do the same things wrong that they have been doing since they got in the car.”
A few weeks ago, I was sent a video called Ashton Harrison: The Road to 24. The in-depth documentary about an up-and-coming race driver, contesting the Global MX-5 Cup series — the first rung on the Mazda Road to 24 ladder. There were some great takeaways from the film. The most significant being the work the ambitious driver does with her coach, Mazda factory prototype driver, Tom Long. What brought it all to life was actually experiencing their interaction during three rounds and two race weekends at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America.
Long describes Harrison in the video: “What really impresses me about Ashton is she is a driven person. Sometimes she will be so frustrated because she wants to be perfect—and it’s tough, but she has the desire and drive — which is something that is hard to find.”
Live Feedback Or After Race Analysis?
There was a significant difference of a coach working with a professional in a pro series, versus the limited resources Mitch and I had at the club meeting several weeks prior. Firstly, Tom Long and Ashton Harrison are connected by radio and can communicate—and do—throughout the course of each session. Secondly, they have great data analysis. “We have video and data analysis in the car,” explains Long. “It records the speed, the throttle, the brake pressure, the steering—all these different aspects in the course of a lap can make a big difference.” While Perry says “the clock doesn’t lie,” this is a whole n’other world of analysis.
After each session, the data is downloaded to a computer that displays every move Harrison has made during the lap. Speed, braking and gearing can be completely changed strategically for the next session, shaving precious tenths from a lap time. Harrison and Long, during their debriefs will look at specific areas where she has done well, then other sectors and corners where she can improve. Not unlike the more “manual debriefs” Perry and I had at AutoClub, it is about building on the successes and improving on the shortcomings.
Who Uses Driver Coaching?
Driver coaching itself is a more recent phenomenon in racing. There have been racing schools, including Bondurant, Skip Barber, Bertil Roos and many others going back to the early 1960s when Carroll Shelby started his first school at Riverside. But once the school was done, most drivers were on their own—to develop their craft and learn from their own mistakes and strategy. With modern technology, coaching has become easier. “With data acquisition becoming so cost effective, in combination with a high definition camera, has allowed coaching much easier. It allows the driver to really see, clearly, the places to improve,” explains Long. Tom Long has coached several notables who now run in the IMSA GT series and works with a number of different students at a myriad of levels. As he explained, when not racing the prototypes, that is his full time job.
After each session, Long and Harrison watch the video, which is synced up to the data, and are able to analyze the good, bad, and ugly. It really has made an improvement. Her eighth place finish at Road America in June is a testament to that relationship. “The single best benefit of having Tom Long around is being able to call him my mentor and close friend,” reveals Harrison. “He has yet to point me in the wrong direction through my whole racing career as a driver.”
Twelve stories above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Long is on the radio to Harrison, watching her every move, transmitting encouragement and simultaneously spotting her position on a wet, but drying track in a snarling pack of MX-5 Cup cars. Long comments to me, “Ashton will sometimes get frustrated, and it effects her rhythm.” Suddenly Ashton crackles over the radio, “I don’t know what I am doing wrong? I am just getting eaten alive out here…” Long responds “Stay in it, you are doing fine…”
Anyone who plans to race—or for that matter drive anywhere at high speed, in a controlled environment would be well served to not only do a track day school, but a full blown school or private instruction. But once done, and starting out, must also realize you are not Fernando Alonso. Perhaps it is good to check one’s ego at the front gate of a track. We all have a lot to learn—and a coach could very well be the key.