The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is a twisty and hilly 2.2-mile road course located in (as the name implies) the middle of Ohio. Near Lexington, to be exact. The beautiful park-like-setting racetrack has been home to IndyCar racing for years and has also been used by IMSA, Grand Am, and NASCAR. This year, it is also the grounds for the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) 2019 National Championships, September 19-22. The racetrack is also home to The School at Mid-Ohio which puts on multiple high-performance driving courses.
Living in California, I had never been around the Mid-Ohio track, and I am planning on competing at the NASA National Championships, September 19-22, 2019. I didn’t want my first day of racing at the Nationals to be a “learn the track day,” so I signed up for a “High-Performance” course to get some much-needed track familiarization.
I’ve learned over the years; if you want to really get the peculiarities of a racetrack, you need to take advice from the guys who instruct a racing school at that specific track. Nobody laps a particular racecourse over and over again more than these folks.
Get With The Program
The High-Performance school curriculum included lecture, autocross, threshold braking/turning exercise, skid cars, and full-course lapping sessions (which is what I was interested in). The school also offers multiple-day courses with more track lapping and passing exercises. My calendar only allowed me to make the one-day High-Performance school, so I jumped on a plane and headed to Ohio for one full day of whipping on cars.
Mid-Ohio is a Honda track, which means all of the vehicles we would be using are Honda or Acura products. For autocross, the school uses the extremely fun to drive Honda S2000. The skid cars are Honda Civics, and the full lapping sessions are run in the Acura ILX. I was excited to get a chance to run the track in the front-wheel-drive Acura ILX because when I come back to Mid-Ohio later in September, I will be running in the NASA Honda Challenge class in an FWD Acura Integra. Thank you, Honda, for sponsoring the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course!
The instructors at the school were people with legitimate racing pedigrees. The chief instructor, Brian Till, is a veteran IndyCar driver. Other instructors were SCCA National Champions. They certainly understand car control, and they also were great at improving student’s skills through a watchful eye and encouraging advice.
Brian Till was an outstanding instructor and had me laughing through his entire lecture. One of my favorite quotes from him was, “Dudes all think they are inherently good at driving cars, shooting guns, and making love . . . but the reality is, they need coaching!” That was what the instructors at The School at Mid-Ohio were there to do — coach us to be better, faster drivers. We were on our own for tips on making love.
“Fast racecar drivers use 100-percent of the car, 100-percent of the time,” said Brian. He spent a lot of time discussing the contact patch between a tire and the track surface, weight transfer, and how that affects the contact patch and the concept of the friction circle.
Friction circle is this: A tire can only do so much. If you are using all of the friction of the tire to accelerate, then there is no more friction for the tire to provide lateral forces for turning. If you want to turn and use some of the available friction for turning, then you need to give up some throttle or braking.
To display this concept for the students, Brian placed a rope on the bottom of a steering wheel and attached it to his foot. As he turned the wheel, the rope moved his foot up, off of a pedal (either brake or throttle). It was a nice visual for people to understand what the friction circle is all about and how driver inputs affect it.
Brian talked about the most important thing for a racecar driver to possess, and it wasn’t fearlessness or huge testicles. “The most important thing for a driver is their eyes,” said Brian. “The car will go where the eyes look. It’s crucial to keep the eyes up and looking down the track.”
This was a familiar theme that students heard the entire day during different exercises, “Eyes up! Eyes up!” It is a critical concept to grasp, especially when speeds increase in racing.
Hands-On Training For Novice To Expert
So the instructors could understand the baseline of each student’s abilities we headed out to an autocross course set up in the paddock. Each student had the chance for one lap, and the instructors kept track of the times. At the end of the day after tons of seat time and training, we would hit that same course again to see how much each student improved.
Students attending the school varied from racers looking for an edge at the upcoming Nationals, parents and their new teenage drivers (a terrific idea), corporate team-building groups, and car guys who wanted a chance to run around the same track as an IndyCar. One gentleman was dropped off that morning by his wife as a surprise on his birthday. Great wife!
The next exercise was to run some skid cars and learn how to deal with understeer and oversteer. The instructors described oversteer as “when the taillights pass the headlights.” The skid cars were entertaining to drive as the instructor riding shotgun could raise or lower the vehicle taking away or adding tire contact patch (and thus control). This was extremely beneficial because as we were driving the instructor was watching where we were looking and seeing how smooth our driver inputs were.
We got instantaneous feedback, which was great for helping improve some bad habits. And we all have some bad habits. I don’t care how much racing you’ve done, or how many championships you have won — we can all improve.
There were two different styles of Honda Civic skid cars. One could raise all four tires (simulating ice-driving) and the other raised only the rear tires (for some awesome drift madness). I had never drifted a front-wheel-drive car before, and it was fun! Not a single person got out of the driver seat of the skid cars without a massive smile on their face.
Getting It Right By Repetition
After the skid cars, we moved on to an exercise that concentrated on good car position for a turn (high entry), some threshold braking (maximum braking without lockup), hitting an apex (the inside center point of a curve) and smooth acceleration out of a corner. All of that in just one turn. It sounds like a lot because it is a lot, but it is what makes one racecar driver faster than the other.
They had us run the Acura ILX through the same single corner over and over again. An instructor stood in the corner and critiqued every component of the turn via radio. Sometimes we didn’t brake late enough. Sometimes we turned in too early. Sometimes we got on the gas too soon or didn’t carry enough speed through the curve to track-out to the outside edge of the corner. We ran that corner over and over again until we got it perfect.
After taking in what we gleaned in the lecture (“racecar drivers use all of the track because racecar drivers are extremely greedy people”) and the skills we honed in the skid cars and cornering exercise, it was time to put it all together on an autocross lapping session.
Three of us headed out onto the autocross course and attacked. While we lapped the course, an instructor watched with a keen eye and provided advice through the radio: “go deeper” or “get on the gas sooner out of that corner.” Running a car at the limit spikes your adrenaline. It is incredible how quickly you can get tired — just driving a car hard in a parking lot.
After the autocross exercise, we had a nice lunch provided on the top floor of the tower at Mid-Ohio, with picturesque views of the beautiful racetrack. Next, we headed back into the classroom to learn the different turns of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Mid-Ohio has famous corners like Madness and The Keyhole.
Brian talked about how “exit speed is important to racers,” and how apexing early can hurt exit speed. His advice, “Don’t be a lowlife sleezeball early apexer.” Mid-Ohio has a lot of sweeping curves that connect to each other, and the line through each curve can help or hurt the exit speed toward a long straight. The instructors coached us up on the fastest way around Mid-Ohio.
Learning The Gray-Green Rule
Helmets were handed out, students were divided into groups (based on skill level/speed), and we were back in the Acura ILX to run around Mid-Ohio. An instructor would drive a lead car and use a radio to communicate with students the different visual cues and the names of corners as we went around the track. The instructors did an outstanding job of explaining exactly where the car should be around every inch of Mid-Ohio.
Mid-Ohio is an interesting course that can suck you into being in the wrong position if you aren’t careful. My instructor for the lead-follow session, Max Gee, told me, “Follow my tire tracks as if we were driving in the snow.” Wherever Max went, I followed.
He showed me the flow of the track, and after a couple of reconnaissance laps, we were up to speed. Max Gee is an SCCA National Champion in STL driving a Honda Prelude. I’m a NASA National Champion in Honda Challenge 4 driving an Acura Integra. The race was on.
“The best racecar drivers in the world are the best with the brake pedal,” said Brian. Mid-Ohio is undoubtedly a track where the “whoa” pedal is utilized. There are easily visible brake markers on the side of the track to help drivers hit their marks, but if you miss your braking zone, you are in the gravel trap. Mid-Ohio has a very famous gravel trap at the end of the back straight (entrance to Madness) called China Beach. You don’t want to be on the beach; you want to be on the podium. You can’t win races at Mid-Ohio hanging out at China Beach.
The racetrack is beautiful and surrounded by lush green grass lawns, which brings up a point the instructors harped on, they called it The Gray-Green Rule, “The car works better on the gray asphalt than it does on the green grass.” To go fast, you need to use all of the track at Mid-Ohio. But if you make a mistake, you’ll end up in the slippery grass or worse, on the beach. Being buried up to your hubs in gravel is not a good day at the racetrack.
Prepped For Competition (And The Nationals)
At the end of the day, after some great lapping sessions around Mid-Ohio, we headed back to the autocross track to see how students improved (and for a little competition). It was incredible how much speed each student picked up. People really gained confidence behind the wheel after going through one day of The School at Mid-Ohio.
It was the perfect balance of lecture, driving skill exercises, and lapping sessions to give a driver more confidence behind the wheel. Regardless if a person was a novice teenage driver or a professional licensed racing driver, everyone improved.
They took the top three drivers and put us in the Honda S2000 to rip one final lap around the autocross course. I revved the engine, dumped the clutch, and drifted the squirrely little S2000 all the way around the track, didn’t touch any cones and picked up the win for TURNology. The school gave me a $50 gift certificate to Summit Racing. Everybody can always use $50 at Summit!
I had an outstanding time at The School at Mid-Ohio. I love the facility, the Honda cars, and especially the staff and instructors that make up the school. I feel much more confident heading to the NASA Nationals now that I have had the hot-shoe instructors at Mid-Ohio show me the ropes around the track. My suggestion: Go to the school, it’s a great experience!