If you drive fast on a racetrack, whether it is for HPDE, Time Trials or racing, you will encounter “plateaus” in your driving. A plateau occurs when you can’t seem to find a way to go faster, when you can’t seem to make your lap times any lower than they already are.
In the earlier stages of your driving career, a plateau is easier to overcome. Your “aha” moment could stem from something as simple as input from an instructor, some words of wisdom during a download or even something you stumbled upon while you were out driving. “Hey, that actually worked!”
However, as you begin to develop as a driver, a plateau becomes more difficult to overcome. Why? You’ve already picked up all the biggest chunks of speed on the more obvious and important turns on a racetrack on your way to becoming the driver you already are. Now you are looking at trying to mine nuggets of speed from all the not-so-obvious places, using advanced, more nuanced techniques. Now, finding speed becomes more elusive. Now, you need data, but if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you need a coach.
At the end of last season, a friend of mine, John Mueller, former NASA National Spec Miata director, and I split the cost of a coach for the day. We learned after years of spending money on our cars, we probably should have been investing in ourselves as drivers. In fact, that’s one of the most important things we learned that day: Hiring a driving coach sooner rather than later is a better plan than waiting till someday. Someday never comes. If you think you are ready for a driving coach, get one. Now. We’ll go into more detail as to why later.
Finding a Coach
For me, finding a coach was easy. John Mueller did it for me, and he came up with a pretty good one. Kenton Koch is a development driver for Mazda. Mueller was acquainted with Koch’s mother through his involvement with karting organizations in Southern California.
Koch was successful in karting from 2003 to 2011, when he entered the Skip Barber summer series. He scored one win in two podiums in 2011, then won 17 of 20 Skip Barber races in 2012, never finishing off the podium. He won the championship in 2012 and competed in the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge in 2013, where he won nine of 11 races. That vaulted him into the Mazda MX-5 Cup in 2014 where he took the championship, with six wins in 12 races, nine pole positions and three track records. He also was the data analysis judge for the Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout in 2014. In 2015, he advanced to the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda, where he won eight of 10 races and took the championship. Oh, and just last month, the team Koch was driving for won the Prototype Challenge class at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
We were in good hands.
It might be hard to find a coach with that kind of racing resume in your region, so the best approach is to ask around the paddock at your local NASA race. Your Regional Director probably could point you in the right direction. Find out as much as you can about a coach, his or her teaching style and determine whether you think you can learn from it. Chemistry between a driver and coach is important, according to Koch.
“The driving part, it’s easy to see what a person is doing wrong. That’s one side of it,” Koch said. “That’s the easy part.”
The challenge, he said, lies in learning how to approach a student and understand ways he or she learns best. That can be difficult to achieve in one day, so there is measurable benefit in having the same coach for multiple days throughout the year, Koch said. Not only does it reinforce the lessons the coach is trying to get across, but it also changes the relationship.
“In my personal opinion, you have to find someone that you like, and then stick with that person,” Koch said. “The things you look for in a coach are someone you get along with, but someone who matches your personality because there are different personalities out there.”
Being A Student
You might be one of the quicker drivers in your class. You might have a few podium finishes and maybe even a few wins. You should be proud of those accomplishments, but to become an effective student, you need to forget about them when you submit to coaching.
I use the word submit deliberately because it sums up what you must to do to get the most from your coaching day. If you expect to rise above the plateau, you must be willing to accept to the coach’s input. You have to be humble. You have to understand that you’re there to learn, not to impress the coach.
“A student should always be open. That’s the thing,” Koch said. “You have to knock yourself down a step. You have to be level-headed. You can’t have an ego about yourself. You have to make sure you’re willing to learn. The thing is, a coach who is very good can easily knock you down a level if you have a big ego. Sometimes they don’t necessarily like to do that, but sometimes it’s a culture shock that some drivers need to be coachable.”
Koch used the word ego often in describing how not to approach a day of coaching. Ego gets in the way of learning. Ego obstructs. Ego obfuscates. You must be willing to set your ego aside and take instruction from a coach, even if he is 20 or 30 years your junior, as was the case with Koch, Mueller and me.
Koch said women are the easiest to coach because they either don’t have an ego or can handily set it aside. After that, teenagers with a shiny new license are the most receptive. On the more difficult end of the spectrum, it’s older drivers and fast drivers coming out of the karting ranks and into cars who can be a little resistant to a coach’s help.
“Younger drivers think, ‘I’m the badass. I don’t need you telling me what to do,’” Koch said. “It’s being able to reel them in and get their head small again and be able to tell them that they have something to learn. Some kids go out there and wrap it around a pole because they think they’re Superman.”
It might be best to hire the most accomplished coach you can find to help you adopt the mindset of learning. Even if it means additional costs, the more you respect your coach and what he or she has done, the more you might be willing to learn.
What To Expect
Having only had one day of coaching, I can’t really tell you what all coaches will do or how they will approach the day, but maybe I can deliver a few crumbs of information that will be helpful.
We started the day, which was a regularly scheduled test day in advance of our last 2015 event at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Koch wanted to set a baseline lap in one of our cars, and because he and I are a similar height, he used mine.
He then asked about were thought our problems were and what we needed to work on. He would tuck that information away for later.
In terms of preparation, I was ready, but my car was kind of on its last legs. Because we were at the end of the season, it wasn’t in the best shape. The front pads were getting thin and the front hubs were on their last weekend. In fact, I had to change the front pads and one front hub to be able to race the weekend after our Friday of coaching. Oh, and the battery was dying, too, so Koch and his girlfriend Dani Ferrara had to push start me each time I went out on track. So, a helpful tip would be to ensure your car is in an appropriate state of repair so you can get the most out of your coaching.
As it was, I found myself having to dial it back later in the day because the hubs were starting to vibrate under braking. Also, be sure your radios are working. I hadn’t used mine in more than a year, so something was amiss and we didn’t get to use them, which I think would have been helpful.
To be the best student you can be, make sure you have lots of protein snacks in your trailer and lots of water to stay hydrated. We were busy the whole day. We’d come in from one session, download and look at the data, discuss ways to correct the problems, then head back out. We were out on track five or six sessions that day and by the time 4:30 rolled around, we still had daylight and a half-hour of track time left, but I didn’t have anymore steam left in me. We busted our tails with our coach, and it showed at the end of the day.
What We Learned
In our case, Koch was a data-oriented coach. We never looked at one moment of video. When we came off track, he pulled the data onto his laptop from our AiM Solo loggers and compared it with the baseline lap he set first thing that morning. He drilled down till he found the problems.
What he found aligned for the most part with the problem areas we told him about earlier. In my case it was the Bus Stop and Phil Hill, two devilishly tricky corners, one with a blind apex and a rapid rise and fall in elevation — and each corner will accommodate more speed than you think. Mueller’s issues were largely the same, and they showed up on the data, as did other areas.
That was the big surprise, that we were having similar problems in other corners. That was the bad news. The good news was that the solution was the same, and it was something Mueller and I were kind of aware of, but at a bit of a loss as to fixing it. The culprit? Not our line work or that we were late to get back on the gas or weren’t braking late enough. No, the solution lay with the application and release of the brake pedal. Yes, how we were getting off the brakes.
“I never even considered that this is where the time is, the way you release the brake pedal,” Mueller said. “It just made no sense to me. I knew that’s where I had a problem, but I had no idea how to fix it and never would have guessed that’s what it was.”
It’s funny, I had read that Sir Jackie Stewart said the reason he was able to win so many races was because of how smoothly he released the brakes. I was always aware of that quote, and I always knew the value of smoothness, but Koch was able to show us in the data what were doing wrong. He laid our speed graph lines over his own.
Koch’s speed line dropped precipitously, showing aggressive initial application of the brakes, then trailed off smoothly and gradually. Mueller’s and mine weren’t as pretty, nor as consistent. The lines had more aberrations on the application and the release. Koch’s data also showed a higher minimum cornering speed than ours. And it was showing up in two corners that we hadn’t identified as problem areas. No matter, the solution was the same.
I have had a number of instructors over the years who said, “You’re driving well. You just need to go faster through the corners.” I already knew that. I need someone to teach me how — which is really the most important part, the “how.” After we reviewed the data, Koch explained how to brake, how to go faster through those problem corners.
“I’m starting to take that same approach to corners that weren’t necessarily a problem and finding that wow, there’s a lot of speed that can be gained even in corners he didn’t identify as a problem,” Mueller said. “He (Koch) told me, ‘You can use this everywhere and you’ll improve everywhere.’”
The interesting thing, in my case, was that when I started employing Koch’s braking techniques and demonstrably carrying more speed through the corners, I started to make other mistakes in those corners, like turning in too early. But that’s a problem that’s easy to identify and probably easier to fix once I get a grip on the new braking techniques, which brings me back to why you should hire a coach now.
Getting over the plateau is the goal, but it takes a great deal of effort on the part of the student to get over it. The plateau, it’s frustrating when you look at the time sheets. However, it’s difficult to break through because the plateau is a place in which you as a driver have been comfortable. Unlearning things is hard. Learning new things is hard, which is why you should hire a coach sooner rather than someday. Someday never comes, and if and when it does, the learning curve is steeper.
Because our coaching day took place on the last day of race season last year, I haven’t been to the track since. I have been karting as often as I can and I have been working on my brake pedal release every time I drive my five-speed street car. I think I’m improving, but we’ll find out soon enough.
I can’t really say there was a palpable “aha” moment that day, but I know I learned a great deal. I did improve my lap times by a little bit and my best lap was within 1.5 seconds of the Spec Miata winner that weekend, and his lap time was the new track record, so I have to feel pretty good about that. I’d call it money well spent. Mueller agreed.
“I think my light bulb moment actually came the next day when I went out for the practice session, and I just told myself I don’t care about anybody else around me. I’m just going to work on this thing, two corners,” he said. “The rest of the track, I’m not really going to pay attention to. I’m just going to drive. But on the first turn and Phil Hill, I was going to work on what Kenton was talking to us about. That’s when it all started coming back together.”