Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.

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