By on June 19, 2010

For only $195, you can run a “twilight” session at Mid-Ohio on Wednesday evenings. Given that I wanted to turn respectable times in Thursday’s Grand-Am test day, it seemed like a no-brainer. Until, that is, my ride in the Continental Challenge fell through due to the unavailability of my co-driver. Since I’d already paid for the Wednesday, I loaded up, (with a set of Hoosier A3S05 autocross tires) headed out, and arrived on Wednesday night to find precisely three cars signed up for evening practice. Neither of the others (a track-prepped M3 and a Nissan GT-R) would be running quite at my pace, but they wouldn’t be far off it, so once I passed them I wouldn’t see them again for most of the session.

Driving around a track all by yourself is an interesting thing to do, particularly if you honor the request of the Mid-Ohio School and do not directly time your laps. How do you know if you’re doing well? How do you determine how hard to push? And when you see a Viper come in on the flatbed right before your session with the rear end basically torn off (I have photos, but I want to protect the driver’s privacy), what does that do to your mindset? As it turns out, there’s another situation which is very similar to this one: amateur endurance racing.

Every racer can point to one drive and say “That was my best.” For me, it was a NASA enduro I ran at Mid-Ohio last year. I elected to drive by myself for the ninety-minute race (most endurance teams are two-driver affairs) and led my nineteen-car class from the first corner to the pitstop, where I fell about two minutes behind the leaders. (This ain’t Formula One; pitstops are slow in amateur racing, and I had a car without a quick-fuel rig.) I came out and methodically made up the time, regaining the lead with about twenty laps to go. Ten laps from the finish, I started to run out of fuel. I drove the whole track in fifth gear, stalling briefly in every right-hander, while the second-place driver made up the gap. I crossed the line with the second-place guy about a hundred yards back. Not only was my 1989 Honda Civic first in my “E2” class, I was also fourth overall, ahead of Porsches, Corvettes, and one particularly incompetent, loud-mouthed hack in an SCCA Touring 2 Mustang.

For the vast majority of that race, I had no drivers in my class around me to judge my performance. I also didn’t have a working lap timer because said lap timer had been installed in the team’s other Civic. Still, I turned fast lap for the class. How did I do it?

Reaching a so-called “9/10ths” lap without timing equipment isn’t that tough. If you are driving in the “sing” zone of your tires through every turn (I’ll write more about the “sing” zone of tires in the future) and you are consistently braking as late as possible, you’re pretty much there. Ross Bentley tells us that a driver operating the car close to the limits slightly “off-line” will be faster than a car that is “on-line” but being driven well below the limit. So we don’t even have to get right on the proper line to hustle.

There are certain warning signs that we are approaching the fabled “tenth tenth”. If the car has to be fought all the way through the brake zone, you’re on your way. If you are making fingertip-sized corrections with the wheel to arrest oversteer in the midcorner, while applying constant throttle on a reasonably proper line, you are on the way. If your exit carries you to within an inch of the grass on the exit, and you couldn’t change the course of the car for love or money because you were at max speed all the way through and max power on the exit, chances are you are there.

I know that I am on pace when I feel lucky to escape each corner. At Mid-Ohio, Turns One and Eleven are the “lucky” turns. If you drift to the corner of the dirt where the service road meets the back straight at the exit of One, you’re doing the business. If the light touch of the curb right where it ends at the end of Eleven keeps you from going into the grass, you’re on pace.

I hadn’t been at Mid-Ohio for a while, and I didn’t feel much like wrecking my precious little Boxster, but once I realized that there were people from various Continental Challenge teams just sitting out enjoying the evening and watching the track, I forgot any notion of taking it easy. I watched my revs at corner exit (a good way to understand your relative pace when you have no timing equipment) and kept adding fifty or a hundred spins. The good-natured Porsche became progressively more annoyed with Turn Eleven, finally biting me with a bit of a slide and half a tire width’s worth of turf collection. Now we’re doing something.

I had to quit the evening early because my tires were shot, but I felt pretty good. I knew I’d done some good times, and it didn’t matter to me. Really, it didn’t. I saw someone I knew. He said, “I had my stopwatch and…”

“PLEASE TELL ME,” I said, before he could tell me. So much for quiet satisfaction. Turns out he wasn’t timing me. He was timing the other cars. After some discussion about the gaps between me and the other cars, we figured out that I was running somewhere between 1:44 and 1:45 on the Club Course. That’s good enough to win Time Trial C — the Boxster’s natural habitat — on most weekends.

The moral of the story? When you think you’re hustling, chances are that you are hustling. Some drivers can get into a zone where they are driving quickly without being conscious of it. I envy those folks. For the rest of us, going fast means fighting for every inch on the racetrack, every time.

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6 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: All by myself....”

  • avatar

    I once drove my brand new 1960 Ford convertible around Watkins Glen with J.C. Argetsinger urging “faster”. One lap was enough.

  • avatar

    When the tires on my Vic get in the “sing zone” you better believe I know something’s gonna happen. Something bad usually…

    Oh, and thanks Jack for making that stupid Eric Carmen song loop endlessly in my brain for the rest of the day. I didn’t have anything else planned. :)

  • avatar

    Based on my experience with simulation (and I’m talking best-in-the-world level motion platforms that let me feel half-degrees of slip angle here, not a desk with a plastic steering wheel clamped on), another good indicator is that you stop feeling the steering wheel, and stop even remotely being aware of any of the technical aspects of driving. You just trance out; the world disappears around you, and when you snap out (to either enter the pits or visit your local gravel trap) it’s like waking up.

    You don’t have to take it from me entirely, either; Senna said something similar about qualifying at Monaco.

  • avatar

    As I recall from reading about professional rallies in my 1960’s youth, it was said that most rally drivers started out at 60-70% and pushed it up to 90-95%. The crazyeffinbastid Finns would start out at 90% and push on up….to crash and burn.

  • avatar

    Good read.

    I hope to see you in the Continental Challenge again sometime. I’ve been watching on Speed since I heard about the series through meeting Billy Johnson at Bondurant a couple of months ago. Good racing.

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