Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First race!!

So now that I successfully passed Driver School, I registered and competed in my first race with San Francisco Region SCCA at Thunderhill Raceway this last weekend April 8-10.  It was a "Double Regional" race which means there were two races - one on Saturday and one on Sunday.  I registered for both and also registered for a second race in ITA on Saturday.  I figured I need all the practice that I can get so the extra race would help me practice.

I needed to successfully complete two races to get my provisional license signed off for my full license.  Did I do it? :)

I went up Thursday.  My fellow racer Cliff, had gone up early in the day and saved us some spots in the pits.  We had dinner on Thursday night and relaxed getting ready for Friday.  I went back to the Day's Inn to rest up and wait for John Dirkson to arrive.  Wound up staying awake longer than I should have talking with John and woke up way too early not being able to sleep wondering how Friday would play out.  Not a great start...

Friday was practice and qualifying for Saturday's race's.  Since I had signed up for both Spec Miata (SMT) and ITA, I did two practice and qualifying sessions for the Saturday races.  In Driver School, we only run the short track.  On this race weekend, we were running the full track.  The car performed well and was feeling good.  I kept checking tire pressures and managed to get them at 40 PSI.  I wasn't feeling that hot though.  I was beat.  I kept screwing up Turn 1 for reasons that I couldn't figure out.  Then it finally happened - I screwed up the turn badly and spun!

The spin...

Turn 1 at Thunderhill is a turn taken almost flat out in a Miata.  It is at the end of the main straight - so the fastest part of the track.   Check it out on the track map here: Thunderhill track map.

I got into turn one wrong which led me to exit the turn poorly.  I put all 4 wheels off at the exit and than ran alongside the track for a second and tried to get back on track gently w/o forcing the car back onto the asphalt.  I was doing OK for a moment or two and then it all went pear shaped. 

The car started spinning, I put two feet in on the clutch and brake and hung on for the ride as the car spun across track (thankfully nobody hit me as I crossed) and onto the inside grass between turn 1, 2 & 3.  There was grass flying everywhere.  I could barely see where I was going.  I just kept the brake and clutch down hoping to scrub speed and waited... 

Finally after what felt like an eternity, it stopped.  The sky was still up and the grass was still down so I knew I was right side up.  Beyond that, I had no clue where I was on track!  I saw a car go by and started driving on the grass toward where I had seen it and slowly got my bearings.  I looked for a safe place to get back on track where I wouldn't drag grass and dirt onto the racing line or get hit by a fast approaching car and eventually wound up at the entrance to turn 3 and started driving.

The car felt different at first. The tires were obviously slippery from being in the dirt and grass.  Although the steering wheel was straight, it felt like it took more effort to turn right.  Was it in my head or was there a problem?  I kept driving scrubbing my tires and trying to get my confidence back.  You know what they say about getting back on the horse that threw you?   Yep, I stayed out.  The first time approaching Turn 1, I was feeling uncomfortable but kept at it.  Eventually I was back at my prior speed and felt like I had shaken most of the spin out of my consciousness and decided to pit to check the car.

I jacked up the car and checked the nuts and bolts on the front suspension.  The A arms looked straight and nothing looked bent.  The tires looked OK and the wheels didn't show any bends so it looks like the car took the off w/o issue.

Now remember, this was just the first day.  What a start...

I kept at it with my pit mates, Cliff and John.  It was pretty tiring being out on track that much on Friday and Sat racing 2 classes.  My times improved over each practice and qualifying session but I was still near the back of the pack - which is to be expected from a new racer. 

By late Sat, I had finally figured out my issue with Turn 1.  I was taking the apex too early which was causing me to hit the exit point too early and pushing me off track.  I adjusted my line Sat and Sunday getting better but this is still a turn I'm going to need more work on.  I was doing reasonably well on the other turns and was catching people on 8 and through 2 and 3.  My confidence was coming back and I made big improvements in lap times by about 6 seconds.  So comparatively, I steadily sucked less as the weekend progressed. :)

The most shocking thing of the weekend was just how fast the experienced guys were.  They would catch up to us rookies toward the end of the session and lap us.  They came by like a freight train and were gone.  It was imperative to watch your mirrors and leave space for them to get by.  I would slow down on some spots just to let them by so that I wouldn't screw up their race.

Sunday's race was most memorable.  I had improved.  I started the race behind Cliff and was hoping to run a good race with him. I was keeping up for a few laps but then made a few mistakes which caused me to lose time.  Then I had a smaller spin in Turn 9 when I went in too hot and lost it.  My head bobbled side to side a bit and I felt my helmet hit the bar alongside my head.  Thankfully it was padded in SFI 45 padding so no harm to anything other than my pride.  I lost a few positions there and started clawing my way back.  I can't remember if I passed anyone after that but whatever, I had fun, I raced cleanly, I didn't have contact with anyone and I got my provisional license signed off which was the biggest goal of the weekend.

What a awesome time!

SCCA - Getting licensed to race - Driver School

So in order to race with SCCA, you have to get licensed - a Race License.  Here is a link to the details on SCCA's website: SCCA Driver School

I submitted my application in February and was accepted.  SCCA Driver School is a two part class.
  1. The first part is what they call the Ground School.  This takes part in a class room setting where the newbies / rookies sit and listen to a lecture the school coordinator prepared.  You can also have your car tech'ed or inspected at Ground School.
  2. The second part is a Race School weekend at the track (Thunderhill Raceway) where you are participating in various exercises on track, two races and learning how SCCA manages their race events.  
 I attended the Ground School in February.  Since my car was ready to race, I decided to have it tech'ed at Ground School as well.  Better to know if there are any issues before heading to track so you can fix them at your leisure.  My car passed tech with the only issue being some missing stickers which I bought there.  The lecture was pretty interesting.  The lecturer described what the on track test would entail and explained the history of the SCCA.  It was pretty painless and helpful experience.

I was impressed by the diversity of my fellow students at Ground School.  There were some younger people in their teens and some older people in their 60s from all walks of life.  There were even quite a few women there.  I met a couple of people at this event that I would meet and race with at the Race School

After borrowing a trailer from my buddy John Dirkson and getting my recently purchased tow vehicle (Ford F250) serviced and ready to tow, I towed my Miata up to Thunderhill and was ready to go. 

Race School was an exhausting and exciting 3 day event at Thunderhill.  It includes both formal lectures and on track sessions for 3 solid days culminating in 2 races on the last day.  A group of 1-4 students is paired with an instructor for the weekend who is chaired with helping you come up to speed on track and helping you keep it safe and learn.  In the formal lectures, the lecturer describes the exercises and discusses any general mistakes we made during our session. 

After each lecture, we would meet with our instructor and get his impressions about how we had done and what we needed to correct.  We would talk about race lines, braking, passing so that when I would go out for the next session, I could try and implement the next lesson at hand and correct any mistakes. 

Given that this was only my second time driving the car, I was struggling with a few corners and learning the car's capabilities.  I was chasing a problem where the car didn't have any traction on the front tires - understeer.  It was both annoying and a bit embarrassing as I was slower than many of the other students (more on this later). The instructor helped me through the weekend and I drove cleanly trying to hit my lines and be aware of the other cars so that I could pass and get passed w/o incident.  I maintained awareness of other drivers and the flaggers at the corner stations on each session.  Some of my other students didn't maintain awareness of flaggers and did things like pass under yellow flag, missed red flags and black flags.  Thankfully I did not. :)

Over the weekend, you talk to your fellow students and make new friends.  Everyone's primary concern was making it through the weekend w/o incident or contact with any other cars.  We all drove as fast as we could but were cautious to try and not do anything stupid like crash.

The last day of the Race School was 2 races.  This was the most exciting part of the whole weekend.  All of the students got on track at the same time and went for it.  We were finally wheel to wheel, making passes, getting passed - all at race pace and speeds.  There just isn't anything quite like being side by side with someone testing your skills against another driver.  Very exciting.

I learned a lot over the weekend about how an SCCA race weekend went and what to expect and how to be prepared for it.  I learned the race line.  I learned a bit more about passing and I learned a bit more about what I still needed to learn - like car setup.

Racing lessons learned:
  • Be aware - check flagging stations and check your mirrors for faster cars
  • Comparatively, I am not the next Senna :( but I have some skill and am a safe racer
  • Some people don't pay enough attention to their mirrors so don't assume they know you are there when you attempt to execute a pass.
  • Blind spots - be careful how you execute your pass.  It is your responsibility to execute it cleanly which means being careful that you aren't in your competitors blind spot trying to pull off a pass to avoid contact.

Car setup lessons:
  • Remember the problem I mentioned a few I kept adjusting tire pressures on the Toyo RA1 to around 38 PSI measured hot after each session.  38 PSI isn't enough for these tires.  They like to be at 40 PSI hot.  I chased this 'problem' all weekend and it wasn't until the last day, 2nd race that I finally increased starting/cold tire pressure sufficiently that the tires would warm up to their proper operating temps.  Once they did, I finally picked up a lot more speed and handling and could pull off some passes.  I was totally stoked that we had resolved this issue.
  • Visibility - My mirrors needed to be better adjusted so that I could see approaching cars better and could see competitors in my blind spots.  Need to fix that before the next real race.
  • Driver positioning - Turns out the racing seat that I had recently bought new had "broken in".  The seat foam had taken a set to my body and I was now a good inch further away from the steering wheel and pedals.  This made it non-optimal for fast driving.  I was going to have to adjust the seat before the next race.
  • Belts - The crotch belt was not adjusted properly.  Unfortunately, I had to pull the seat out of the car after the second day so that I could adjust the submarine belt tighter.  That was a challenge since I had never done it before.  I was struggling for a good hour until I got some help from my pit mate - Dennis Golden.  He was there helping a fellow rookie who was racing an RX7 in ITA.  Great guy who I learned was a professional racer with Mazda earlier in his career.  Thank you Dennis!

So, in the end, I graduated and successfully received my provisional license.  Yippee!

We were all exhausted and very very happy with the experience.

A special thanks to John Dirkson (SM #88) for coming up to Thunderhill and hanging out with me to help me get through the weekend.  There is so much going on that it is helpful to have someone else looking out for you and making sure all is well and giving you some tips.


Hello and welcome to my blog.  I will be using this blog to tell my story as I get started racing my 1990 Miata in SCCA's Spec Miata and ITA racing series. 

A little background on me - I'm a married, 40 year old technology professional.  We live in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

So how did I get into this crazy activity you ask? 

I have been into cars all my life.  I spent my youth playing with Match Box cars, remote controlled cars and bicycles, snow boarding and other fun, adrenaline filled activities.  When I turned 18, I started participating in High Performance Driver Education events (HPDE) with various organizations including NASA, BMW CCA - and anyone else that would have me.  I kept doing these events over the years in my mildly modified street cars over the years but always thought that I would eventually go racing.  While my friends were screwing around on the street and getting into trouble, I was doing track days and autocross and having fun and learning about driving and car control.

In my late 20s, I started racing karts with my buddy Marco.  This was when I still lived in New York (Long Island) and the kart track in Westhampton was still there.  Marco is a fellow automotive enthusiast and we had done track days together for years until he finally talked me into racing karts.  This was an incredible learning experience.  This is by far the best bang for the buck racing out there.  I stopped doing track days during this time since wheel to wheel racing in identically spec'ed race karts was far more exciting than track days.  This further fired up my desire for continued wheel to wheel competition but that had to wait thanks to the events of 9/11 and its affect on life in NY.

Eventually, I got married and my wife and I moved out to California.  Here I started doing track days again and finally decided to take some of my savings and pursue my dream to race cars.

So I faced various questions:
Which car to race with?
What class?
How do I get started?
How much is this going to cost me?
Can I afford it?

There were some books, websites and forums that helped me to answer these questions.  I will happily elaborate upon the answers that I came to if you, the reader, would like me to.  But for now, I will end this post by summarizing that I decided to race a Miata in Spec Miata with SCCA and will probably race with NASA as well. 

Some excellent references that helped me to take the dive include:

Now I will move on to my next blog posts to catch up on the activities of the last 2 months getting my racing license so I can finally do something with the car - Race!