Carrying Speed: The Importance Of A Good Driving Coach

A few weeks ago, I mentioned I had started feeling stuck as a driver. My lap times had become stagnant, and for months I felt I’d been pushing hard, but not achieving any new results. I decided that in addition to the mentorship I’d been getting for racing in general, I’d bring a coach on board to help me diagnose issues I’m having and to find areas of improvement.

Enter Andrew Novich. I’m lucky enough to call Andrew a friend and fellow BMW lover. As a coach, he’s an easy going and generous guy who always shows up with a high energy “Game-On” (his words) attitude. He has the ability to get you thinking on a deeper level about what you are actually doing out on the track. Andrew is not just a great coach, he’s a championship-level driver, having competed for years in the VW TDI Cup, the Continental Tire Sports Car Championship, and winning the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2015.

Even if it’s not right-away, when you get to the point that you’ve explained it right for them and you see the light come on, it’s really satisfying. — Andrew Novich

Andrew Novich has always had a passion for racing. From stealing his mom’s credit card to fund his first go-kart at 11 years of age, to winning at the Rolex at Daytona. (Photo: motorsport.com)

Methodical and calm, Andrew has dealt with the highs and lows of motorsport, which is very important when dealing with tempestuous club racers like yours truly. Andrew had the benefit of being coached from early in his career by Gordon Bentley. Gordon is the brother of racing luminary Ross Bentley, but is a serious hot-shoe in his own right. Based on his years as a student, Andrew now feels that one of the keys to a successful coach/driver relationship is understanding the driver. After learning about the driver’s life and other hobbies, Andrew uses analogies to relate what he is talking about on track to something that is familiar to the driver. He’s found this approach helps drivers at all levels reach a better understanding of the day’s lessons.

A few days before the test weekend, Andrew and I spoke on the phone to set goals and discuss potential areas of improvement. I shared with him a variety of thoughts that included holding my breath and panicking at high-speed corners, my desire to find consistency from lap to lap, and frustration that despite pushing hard, I could not break through a plateau. We spent a great deal of time talking about reference points, vision, and kinesthetic feedback from the car. Afterward, he watched some of my in-car videos from previous track days and showed up for the test day with a game plan.

Throughout the test day, we worked on a number of key issues. The first resolution was to stop thinking about lap times. Our objectives were to identify and fix the issues that had caused my plateau from a mental and physical standpoint. Once I conquered a new way of thinking, lap times would drop on their own.

Before any of that though, we needed to fix the car’s ergonomics. I have short arms and had learned to shuffle steer my way around the track. To Andrew’s point, keeping my hands at 9 and 3 would allow for consistency in each turn, which over time would result in better car control. In my case, I hadn’t noticed that my harness adjusters had been impinging my shoulder movement, so we reset the harnesses and in addition, moved the steering wheel about a half inch closer to me. Simple adjustments that I never thought necessary, but they helped enormously. I never took my hands off 9 and 3 for the rest of the day.

One should have clearly defined tasks before going out for each session. “Don’t wreck” is a good start.

From there, we spent the day working on visual input sessions. I’ve driven what feels like a thousand laps at Buttonwillow, and thought I knew its featureless, desert landscape like the back of my hand. But now I’d have to come back from each session and tell Andrew what I’d found out there. A little accountability goes a long way for staying on task, and each session I’d find something new in one or two corners. By the end of the day, I had more visual queues than I’d thought possible, and with more reference points, I could work on consistency in braking, turning, and acceleration.

Jotting down specific visual references helps you create and hit your marks consistently, lap after lap.

I also didn’t realize I’d created a bad habit out of holding my breath and tightening up my body in a number of key turns. This included turns that were slow but technical, and also high-speed turns with a high-pucker factor. It was amazing what focusing on breathing and letting the seat carry my weight did for picking up speed and clarity through these turns.

As the day progressed, we downloaded video and data from my AIM lap timer. Using speed and horizontal acceleration graphs from the data recorder, we started to deconstruct some of the turns. Andrew was able to point to specific technique and timing that added up to tenths-of-seconds saved in each corner.

We spent a great deal of time on things like brake and throttle application points, duration of braking, and the delta (time difference) between braking and throttle applications. Technical, detailed stuff that I really enjoyed working on, we jotted these notes down on track maps which we can refer to in subsequent sessions.

These lines tell a story, and provide insight into what is actually happening in the car. (Look for a future column on reading data graphs).

Each time I went out, I was given specific goals and homework to do. The afternoon was spent working on kinesthetic feedback from the car. What is the steering wheel telling me at turn-in? What feelings come through the steering wheel during understeer? What is the suspension telling me at turn-in? What does it feel like when the rear breaks traction? What does it feel like in my hands when the car regains traction? What about seat-of-the-pants? On and on, the idea was to just get acclimated to the car’s personality, rather than worry about my fastest possible lap time.

Unbeknownst to me, Andrew was keeping time anyway.

The net result of this work was that I had a new-found confidence in the car and in my abilities. Additionally, I set a new personal best that was almost three-full-seconds faster than my previous personal best, in the final session of the day. Huge improvement —  happening almost effortlessly. For me, it was a huge relief to see my blocks disintegrate.

For Andrew, watching me overcome obstacles and achieve a new personal best was worth the payoff of standing in the 110-degree heat. As he says, “Even if it’s not right-away, when you get to the point that you’ve explained it right for them and you see the light come on, it’s really satisfying. The mindset-shift is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to coaching.”

The light certainly came on for me that day and the lessons are ones I can build upon at subsequent test days.

 

About the author

Kasra Ajir

Having competed, raced, or trained with SCORE, SCCA, NASA, BMW CCA, and more, Ajir is well seasoned in the various series that pollinate the grassroots and professional auto racing world.
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