How Things Change

The idea for this column has been bouncing around inside my head since I started racing in 2013, which is about as long as I have been editing this magazine. As I began work on each new issue, I’d entertain the idea of putting down on paper the notion of how things change when going from HPDE to racing, but I never felt like I could do it justice.

It’s taken this long for it to crystallize in my head to the point where I feel I can take it on — well, that and the welcomed benefit of new information and experiences, on track and off.

When I used to watch Formula 1 races, I’d listen to the engines as the cars rounded the corners. I’d hear how late the drivers were getting back to the throttle and think to myself they were doing it wrong. They’re supposed to be getting back to the gas as soon as possible. And in natural human fashion, I just assumed they were wrong, not me — never mind that these were the best drivers in the world.

Then along comes my driving coach, Kenton Koch, for a day of coaching at Willow Springs International Raceway. I had things I wanted to work on that day, and we did work on the turns and techniques I was targeting, but he pointed out something that switched on a light bulb in my mind. It demonstrated to me how wrong I had been all along about my observations of F1 drivers.

Koch wanted me to work on turning in earlier and carrying more speed into the corners. I — and my poor car — have fallen prey to turning in too early in the past, so I asked him to explain why. It took a few minutes of him explaining it for me to get it.

The gist of what he was saying was that it was OK to turn in earlier because I was more familiar with rotating the car, that turning in earlier would scrub speed so I wouldn’t have to brake as hard, but that it would allow me to carry more speed into a turn. I wouldn’t be able to get back the throttle as soon as I could with the slow-in, fast-out, later-apex method, but that overall it was faster.

There it was in a nutshell, or at least part of it, what I had been thinking about during the three years since I started racing: that things change when you go from HPDE into racing. The techniques NASA instructors teach when you’re first learning to drive on a racetrack are the safest ways to go fast, but there comes a point that those techniques get upended a bit.

Slow in, fast out? Not anymore. Fast in, faster out. Brake in a straight line? Nope. Trail-brake everywhere and use steering angle to help slow you down. Late apex? Nah. Turn in early and rotate.

Of course, seasoned racers reading this are probably nodding their heads thinking, “You’re just now figuring this out?” Well, yeah. I’m not that quick a study.

The week after that coaching session, my copy of Skip Barber’s book, “Going Faster” arrived in the mail, and what does it cover in the first chapter? Carrying speed into corners and why it works.

By the time someone gets to HPDE4, the NASA system has produced a pretty good driver, but at that point the learning curve begins to ascend again. The fundamentals learned early in one’s driving career are essential, but they are just that: fundamentals. There is a litany of advanced techniques if a driver is open to it. It means loosening your grip on long-held fundamentals, and as I have found, it can be difficult and uncomfortable.

It took a long time for me to understand that enough to write about it. I hope I’ve done it justice.

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