Lessons from the track

Over the past few years, I’ve been able to realize a life-long dream of driving fast.  Er.  Driving fast, safely.  Lots of people drive fast – too fast – on public roads.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about going green on a closed track where your only objective is to go as fast as you can.

It started with my friends Mo and Charlie’s invitation to join them in autocross – a straightforward, come-as-you-are time trial on a flat course, dodging traffic cones.  You spend most of the day helping and preparing at the course, and then take 4 shots at the track – each run only lasting about a minute.  After a couple of years of that, and then a few years off with a work assignment that took me away, I came back to the US and decided to get into a form of auto racing that would get me more ‘seat time’.   Hello, Chump Car.

After turning wrenches, busting knuckles, multiple parts store memberships, and a whole bunch of camaraderie, my race team (myself plus a guy who runs a cancer research lab, and another guy that is a senior software implementation consultant) ran two endurance races this year in a car that was, well, manageable for us newbies.

After some reflection, I have realized that you can learn a lot about yourself, your teams, and your approach to the future from doing this kind of hair-raising sport:

  1.  The teamwork is the cake.  As our team spent time together wrestling engine

    Lots of time in this view.

    mounts into place, fussing with cam shafts and draining and re-draining coolant, I think it was Alex who said:  “This is the cake!  The racing is just the icing!”.   Lesson:  Take time with your teams.  Make the drudgery fun.  Realize the value of team discussions, shared responsibility, allocation of talent, and checking-in whenever big choices are in front.

  2. Make sure you can stop.  I learned this long ago, and we should’ve paid a bit more attention to it at the last race, where we ran out of brakes in the last of 7 hours on day  2.  Lesson:  While the glory may be all about forward momentum, the ability to slow down and even stop if you need to trumps ANYTHING that the engine and power train can deliver.  Slowing down to make turns is essential.  Hitting them hard to avoid a pile up is not only great for your personal safety – it keeps you in the race.
  3. Looks ain’t everything.  Look, there are lots of fancy cars out there.  In fact, there were 45 or more cars in the field when we raced. Most of them had a lot more money in them, were later models with bigger engines, better gear, and even better drivers 🙂  But when it came down to it, our time in the garage paid off.  We outlasted half the field in our last race.  Lesson:  Make sure what’s under the hood and behind the wheel are in good shape.  You may be slower than most, but it’s not about ultimate speed.  It’s about how long you’re there, and how many laps you turn.  (See results – Team Integrenader)
  4. Keep your eyes up!  When you’re really cooking down the track, and there are a lot of loud, fast cars VERY close to you (sorry, Miata, for the paint-trading in Atlanta), it’s easy to completely lose it – your body gets incredibly tense, your head drops down, your grip gets too tight, and your eyes focus, oh, about 20 feet in front of you.  That’s bad.  Lesson:  You drive where you look.  This is so terribly true.  If you only look at what’s right in front of you, you will go there.  No matter what.  And the ‘there’ can be another car, a wall, or worse!  Keeping your eyes above the fray, and off to the left, or right, up and down the straight – that’s where you want to be, and your body (and car) will follow.


    The Integrenader post-AMP race

  5. Hold your line.  There’s a crazy dance that occurs, typically at the end of a straight before the first big turn.  Drivers jockey for position and more or less get in each other’s way to try and get through the turn first.  If you picture the optimal ‘driving line’ of a track, you know what the most efficient, and fastest, route is on the course.  That’s what you want.  The ‘line’.  Some cars that are better equipped can take multiple fast lines, but there is one that is optimal.  Even in our slow-ish car, we had to hold the line and make it our competitors’ job to try and find a way around us.  Lessons:  There is an optimal way to do things that maximizes your speed and conserves your brakes.  It’s a ‘path of least resistance’.  Find it and stay in it as much as you can.  Also, not driving that line makes you unpredictable, and dangerous, to yourself and the other drivers.
  6. Give up your line.  If your mirrors are FULL of grilles, fenders and front air dams, maybe you need to step out of the line and let some faster folks go.  It’s called ‘blocking’ if you don’t.  Lesson:  Know when to yield.  Be a grown-up.  Enjoy the sport and the competition, but don’t deny reality.  Remember the long game.  This is just the icing.
  7. Let the pressure off.  When you first start out on the track, everything’s kind of cold.  You are, the engine is, the track is, your brakes are, and so are your tires.  Unless you’re really fancy with nitrogen in your tires, your tire pressures will change (increase) as you heat them up in the first few laps.  That changes how they, and your car, handle.  It changes how much grip you have on the road, and therefore how fast you can go.  Lesson:  It’s good to check the pressure, and if it’s too high, let some of it out.  This is a simple thing about workplace dynamics, project work and relationships.  When work or relationships get to an intense place, through stressful projects and circumstances, find the time to let some of that pressure off.  Stop the madness for a bit and go get a smoothie.  You’ll have much better grip when you get back into it.
  8. If the track is going sideways, you are now likely just a passenger.  I came over a hill after a fast 944 cut my line off in a turn.  I had too much speed, got my right front wheel over the apex into the ‘gators’, and that was all she wrote.  The rear end came around and now I was going sideways down the hill towards the next turn.  I went from driver to passenger really fast.  Lessons:  Know what to do when you have a different role.  Know what to do in a crisis.  This is talked about – the ‘what to do when’ scenarios – in the drivers’ meeting before the race starts.  Put both feet in

    Drivers’ Meeting

    (clutch/brakes) and try to keep the steering in a direction that will keep you out of trouble.  Perhaps similar ‘drivers meetings’ need to occur to help your team members know when they need to adjust their roles when a crisis or change arises.  (I ended up in a cloud of dust and grass.  Restarted the motor and became a driver again.)

  9. Cut corners.  Use the whole track.  Everyone is (hopefully) going the same direction, so going wide and cutting corners is REQUIRED if you want to be competitive.  Plus that is the fabled ‘driving line’ mentioned earlier.  Lesson:  Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to drive on it.  The driving line is your strategy.  Find the optimal path to streamline things, and then go as fast as you can.
  10. Never cut corners.  I like to have fun, but I don’t want to die (and neither do my team mates).  So when it comes to safety and preparation, don’t cut corners – even if it slows you down.  We added an additional bar in our roll cage, added 3 fire extinguisher nozzles pointed toward the driver (and 2 at the engine), bought new 5-point harness straps, use a window net, bought new helmets, fireproof suits, socks, shoes and gloves.  Most of this is required, but some of this was elective on our part.  Lesson:  What are the practices, equipment, processes, structures that are non-negotiables?  How can you have the maximum fun with the greatest security?


    Team Integrenader:  Mostly cake, and just a little icing!



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