Trackday Diaries: Taking Yourself For a Spin
I didn’t race this past weekend at Mid-Ohio, but it was still useful to me for a couple of reasons.
The first one was that I got to have an argument with the nice but very naive fellow who banned me from competing in the event. That was primarily amusing because his wife kept sticking her face in front of his and screaming at me. And this dude was totally cool with that. Preferred it, I think.
Intellectually, I realize that in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR there are a lot of full-grown “men,” probably raised in a fatherless environment, who need women to defend them from super-mean, scary old cripples like me. But it still makes me feel like Tommy Lee Jones in that movie where that one guy with the great hair kills people with a pneumatic cattle gun. I’m already irrelevant. Already a relic. The national conversation has moved on. It’s okay. I will adapt. In the future, if you have a problem with me, take it up with Danger Girl. She’s much younger and stronger than I am.
The other useful part of the NASA race was that I happened to be holding a camera when a young Miata driver looped his car. I caught the whole thing. Click the jump and I’ll show you how he spun — and how you can avoid a spin like this, both on the street and on the track.
I’m going to start by noting that this particular driver was easily one of the two or three fastest guys in HPDE 1, which is the entry level of NASA driver education. He had good, solid pace. Instructors like that kind of driver because you’re not always watching your mirrors on his behalf, and because it’s nice to see somebody “get it” under your tutelage.
But it’s common for undisciplined, inexperienced coaches to let their more talented drivers run wild, which is what happened here. Mid-Ohio’s Carousel has a downhill entry that reduces grip. The lap before, I’d noticed the Miata slide a bit before the driver caught it. That was a cue for the instructor to rein his student in a bit and explain to him something that you don’t really learn until you start doing trackdays: there is always less traction available to you when you are going downhill.
Since the instructor didn’t do his job, here’s his student, turning the wheel too much on the backside of a hill and experiencing an oversteer moment as a result. Note, however, that by the time I get my camera out of my pocket, the driver already has countersteer applied.
Let me see if I can focus this camera and catch up with the kid …
Here we go. He’s slid all the way down the backside of this hill with major steering applied.
Now, steering is not free. What do I mean by that? Simple. Any time your front wheels are not straight, you are scrubbing off forward momentum and using it to steer the car. In this case, the driver is scrubbing forward momentum off and using it to keep the front end ahead of the back end. As long as he’s going down the hill, the momentum that he picks up from gravity is enough to make up for the momentum he’s losing to his front wheels. But as you can see, the track is about to flatten out.
Uh-oh. The Miata isn’t going downhill anymore, which means it’s slowing down. Two things are happening as a result.
The first thing is the back end isn’t going too fast to grip any more, so it’s snapped back into line. The second thing is that the cranked steering is now really slowing the car. So we’ve gone from having a car with a sliding rear end to a car with a planted rear end that is slowing rapidly.
An experienced driver recognizes this is happening and unwinds his steering in a big hurry. But HPDE 1 is for novice drivers, so he doesn’t know to unwind. Even if he knows he has to unwind, he’s not doing it fast enough. Meanwhile, the car has slowed down enough that the front end is biting very well. What happens next is exactly what would happen if you hucked the wheel a full turn and a half while you were driving down the road at 40 mph.
And now we’re going to loop hard. Note that our driver is a sharp kid and he is unwinding his wheel. He’s just too late. In fact, he’s going to continue to try to countersteer his way out of it for the whole spin, always a few ticks behind what the car is actually doing.
And now he’s a passenger, as is his hapless coach.
The car is now bleeding out its momentum in a classic 360.
And this all seems pretty harmless, right?
Oops. Not quite as harmless as it seems.
There’s about a 40 mph closing speed going on there — enough to total both cars.
I was really happy to capture this on camera as it happened because it’s such a classic example of how people loop their rear-wheel-drive cars on a track. Rarely do they spin off from the original slide. It’s usually the correction of the slide that causes the spin. They apply countersteer correctly, or nearly so, not realizing that the heavy countersteer is slowing the car to the point that the back end is going to grip in a big hurry, causing the car to snap the other way.
How could this have been prevented? Well, the instructor should have had command of the car and the situation. He’d been given plenty of warning on the previous lap. This spin was, strictly speaking, his fault. But it would really be a dick move on my part to assign a lot of blame to a guy who is basically doing volunteer instruction for a very small amount of compensation, just trying to help new drivers. Ross Bentley wouldn’t have let this happen, but the cost of a whole NASA weekend gets you about ten minutes of Mr. Bentley’s time. I wouldn’t have let it happen — I think I’ve been party to two spins in the course of coaching well over 250 drivers in the past decade — but my time isn’t all that cheap nowadays, either.
So let’s assume the slide was bound to happen because the instructor didn’t know to put the reins on his kid. If the driver had unwound the steering earlier, he’d have been fine. He could have done a catch-and-release, the way the handsome bastard in the below video does:
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I appreciate this article for two major reasons. First, it's great to have this issue illustrated. Even though most people don't drive RWD cars and they certainly don't turn off traction control, understanding what can happen during situations where there just isn't much traction (snow, rain) is extremely useful. My guilty pleasure is watching russian dashcam crash videos and they almost always follow the same pattern. Someone cuts right to dodge something/someone, they overcook it, end up crossing the centerline often into oncoming traffic. Sometimes they overcorrect into a ditch, but the pattern is the same. It's also interesting to see it in 'ring videos where you see the same accident over and over from a specific corner (I'm not cool enough to know corner names). The second and most important reason is the reference to No Country For Old Men. It's a cinematic gem and if I weren't at work right now, I'd be watching it. The gas station scene is just so good.
Proud to say I was one of those spins with Jack (2012 Shenandoah, blue S2000). Great piece though, it really points out how much a driver needs to pay attention to weight transfer. It's great when it's working with you, like braking uphill, but when it works against you it can really bite you in the ass.