I have been really, really frustrated with my racing season so far. The first two race weekends of the year were plagued with mechanical issues. Coupled with driving in a new chassis, and spec racing for the first time, I have found myself significantly off the pace. Add to it my own on-track mistakes, and my inner competitor is shaking his head and wagging his finger at me.
I swear, it wasn’t supposed to go down like this. I had planned everything out so I could take delivery of the new-to-me racecar in early February and get some test-and-tune time under my belt. With a race approaching in March, a good few hours of testing to find the car’s quirks, limits, and general personality would really help get me up to speed. Unfortunately, delays in the build and subsequent mechanical issues that took some weeks to fix, found me at my first race weekend never having taken the car over 25 mph. So much for test and tune, and so much for planning!
My first race day of the year was at Willow Springs International Raceway in the rainy, early days of March (I know, rain in SoCal?). My first session out, I realized I was cooking the brakes, resulting in a deep and soft pedal with almost no feel, and a corresponding lack of confidence in the car. With an inconsistent sponge underfoot, I pulled off and discovered a frozen caliper. The day was spent sorting braking issues and surviving on track.
By Sunday evening, all the track time I was able to put together was one short, rainy practice session on slicks, a couple of crappy qualifying session, and two races where I was a back marker. The good news is that I recorded my races and found places in my racecraft that could use improvement, so something learned is not a weekend wasted, even if I wasn’t laying down new lap records and making sick passes on the outside of Turn 9.
I’ll spare you the details, except to say that between fixing missing and broken parts, I didn’t get a single test-and-tune lap before the next event in April at Buttonwillow, and that race weekend turned out to be pretty crappy as well. What I’m missing is some time at the track — without race conditions.
I’ve noticed in all the years of doing this, that having consistent speed requires consistent seat time. If I’m lazy between race weekends, my Saturdays at the events are typically slow, and I’m usually throwing around tools and expletives trying to find time. The following day, I see around a 2- to 3-second improvement in lap times, somewhat magically. That seat time from Saturday translates to comfort and speed on Sunday.
In my early years, I found durable street tires that gave me some level of high-performance which would last me a few track weekends. Falkens, Dunlop Direzza Star Specs, Nitto NT01s are just some of the decent ones out there. Next, I found the safest and still-affordable track day organizations I could find that had events year round. I put the dates into a calendar, and went to the track every two weeks. Seriously, I spent as much time in that car as I could.
During the weekdays, my buddy and I would go to the electric go-kart place about 30 mins from us and fight for the monthly track record. I know they are supposedly toys, but it really didn’t matter. Going flat out towards a wall and learning to breathe, look ahead, and to turn-in to maximize corner speed were some of the many benefits that came from spending time behind the wheel of these “toys.” Being smooth and finding that extra hundredth of a second is very hard to do in an inconsistent battery-powered go-kart, so technique and touch became very important. Additionally, I read everything I could regarding race driving — from Senna’s book, to all things Ross Bentley, to the Skip Barber training manual. I immersed myself in learning, whether it was conceptual or just plain old math. Now with a new racecar, I am reminded that I’ve gotten complacent and am not spending enough time in the seat.
Since that second race weekend, I spent some time at Buttonwillow Raceway Park participating in the test-and-tune day for the VARA race weekend. While I got to spend some time behind the wheel of my white and black brick, I also got to see some pretty sexy eye candy I thought I’d share.
Most recently though, I took a day to hit a rarely used facility at Willow Springs, doing some fun circle-track practice, figure-eights, and sliding the car around the infield dodging obstacles. Drifters are highly-skilled drivers, and working on techniques like right-foot subtlety, breathing, and looking ahead while the car slides is important to creating a high-comfort level while driving at speed.
So make sure you take some time to get out there, especially in non-competition events, and practice, practice, practice. I’m hoping this added time behind the wheel will pay dividends come competition time. I’ve renewed my commitment to getting as much seat time as I can between and during race weekends. I’m supersizing my event this weekend to include not only Spec E30, but also Time Trial competition, and am locking down some dates to race and practice in Northern California for the second half of the year. Like I said, the best way to get faster and more consistent, is to spend time behind the wheel.