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Old 12-25-2005
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WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Even before heading off to my Advanced 2-Day School, I read a few accounts of various drivers’ first race weekends. Here is my own account. Perhaps some who have not yet raced will be enlightened. The rest of you can be amused.

Day 1 – Practice
Having flown cross-country to Laguna Seca the day before, my brain is still in the Eastern Time zone, so although the bright red digits on the motel clock say 3:40, I am awake. Time to drowse for awhile, and eventually I get up around 5:30 (or 8:30 for those back home in Connecticut). The schedule calls for a 7:30 arrival, but I get there at 7:00 and chat with some of the mechanics before wandering over to the hospitality tent. My mentor, Nick Spencer, arrives at some point, and we introduce ourselves to each other, having exchanged emails a few days before.

There are eighteen new drivers (or at least new to the Skippy series – some of them have significant racing experience in carts, Motocross, and elsewhere). After changing into my gear, I hop into a van for a tour of the track with one of the instructors. Not only are the van-arounds useful for reminding the drivers about the track, but every instructor has something different to add about the preferred line, braking points, shifts, and so forth. Van-arounds are important and are a good way to get into the correct frame of mind.

Back at the hospitality tent, we all gather for general announcements. Opening my packet of papers, I find myself in Group 3 (Sportsman). About fifty drivers have registered for the weekend, broken into four groups (two Sportsman and two Championship). The general drivers meeting commences around 8:15, all of the new drivers are introduced, and several Skippy personnel speak to everyone. Then the new drivers convene for a separate meeting with Tommy Fogarty, an instructor who is in charge of the new drivers. Tommy’s emphasis is on safety, having a good time, and making sure that we keep a level head.

Two groups to watch before me. The practice sessions are thirty minutes apiece, and the first drivers out will be the other Sportsman group. They take off and return, and then the first of the Championship groups does the same. Owing to the time required to get one group out of the cars, refuel the cars, and then get the next group in, approximately an hour passes between the starts of these thirty-minute sessions. Finally the time nears for my group. We meet with Randy Buck and select cars. The process is blind so that no one feels an advantage (the cars are prepared as nearly identically as possible). I pick a car (#97) and head off to get in. This is pretty neat.

The mechanics are great about helping the drivers into the cars, especially with tightening the belts and assisting me with my HANS device. (By the way, read Bobo’s advice on shoulder belts and the HANS.) The brake pedal seems a little too near me, and I worry about hitting the side of it with my foot when I move from the throttle to the brake. The mechanic pops off the nose piece, makes some adjustments, asks me to press full with the brake, press full with the throttle, press again with the brake and move my foot for a blip. Another simple adjustment and everything feels fine. My feet are ready. Mirrors are aimed properly. Helmet is on. Gloves are on. I follow Sy Aryeh’s advice and let my eyes wander over the horizon. Slowly move my eyes back and forth, relax my eyes, relax my mind. Then we get the command to fire them up, and one by one we are sent out onto the track. Down pit lane, a look to the right in the mirror, out onto the track, and I’m officially on my first practice run.

After an early spin into the gravel in Turn 2, a tow out, and a trip into the pits for a check-over, I am back out. There is another driver who is about equally as slow as I am, and I happen to catch her, following for a couple of laps until I pass (whew – a pass at last). Then I have six successive laps where each is slightly faster than the one before, and a final cool-down lap. After the session there are about a half dozen instructors who were stationed at various corners, and they all have great feedback. (There is always feedback.)

During the 3-Day school, the instructors commented that they do not like to have orange cones in the corners when they drive. The cones tend to distract, they said. At the time, I could not imagine trying to drive without the presence of the cones, but I am beginning to appreciate their point of view. In the afternoon practice session, I get to find out, as the cones are all removed except for the turn-in cone for the hairpin (Turn 2).

By the time that my group gets back onto the track for the second practice session, the sun has moved from directly overhead to a lot closer to the horizon, and the track has cooled. My first car (#97) accumulated too much gravel from my off-course trip in the first session, so I am in another car (#66). I carry too much speed (well, not the right amount of braking) into Turn 2, and I’m four off, but barely off. Ugh. I wave to the corner people, who wave back. I wave in the direction of the next turn, and they look down the main straight, see no one coming, and wave me on. Nice to have good communication. I get back on, move a little off-line to get the grit and rocks scattered away from the racing line, and then continue with my lap. This session I am not as consistent as in the mid-day run, but everyone else is a little slower too. The seat time is helpful, however, and I am still working on things at various places around the track. (From my 3-Day school, I learned that for me the best approach is to learn the line and then practice the line, the line, and the line. Speed can be added later.)

The evening after the practice sessions, there is a gathering at Baja Cantina, a local Mexican restaurant (an excellent restaurant), that Tom Roberts organized. This is a great way to cap the day, meet some of the other drivers, exchange ideas and experiences from the day, and enjoy the camaraderie. All race weekends should have an event like this.

Day 2 – First Race Day
Qualifying. The first order of the day is qualifying. This will be a long day, as there are four groups as well as a Triple Crown event to be run. That means five qualifying sessions and five races. I head off to Turn 5 with one of the instructors to watch the first drivers out (the other Sportsman group). Observing a corner is a great idea, and I have been early in my entry into Turn 5. One of the other drivers is early with his entry too, and I see where his car goes relative to the lines of the others who enter correctly. The session ends, and I hop into the car with the instructor. We head around the track, and when we arrive at Turn 6, I see my car (#66) crunched against the inside wall. The back is looking ugly. The driver is not happy. He gets in and we all ride back to the pits. Sometimes saying nothing is the best thing to do.

I will now be in my third car of the weekend, and it turns out to be the one I end up liking the best (#31). In the qualifying session, there is a reward for being careful. Anyone who goes four-off or otherwise has a significant loss of control moves to the back of the grid, regardless of fastest lap. My practice laps from the previous day indicate that my best strategy is to work on technique during the qualifying and not go for an all-out lap. After a warm-up lap, I do a couple of laps to get familiar with everything, drop a few seconds off the next lap, then do a solid lap, and lastly complete four more reasonable laps. Nothing fancy, and four seconds slower than my fastest from the previous day, but I am feeling very good. During the practice sessions, there had been aspects of my driving that I was happy about, but there were also things that seemed awful. In some ways I felt that I had taken a step or two backward from my 2-Day school performance. The practice day in the car was what I needed, however, and the qualifying session feels complete. What was weak yesterday is much better today. Even though I have the slowest qualifying time, there are four other drivers starting behind me on the grid, due to loss of control during qualifying.

My first race. To my right and directly behind me on the grid are much faster drivers. Before the race, I speak with them and make it clear that I will not vary my line at the start if they want to pass me on the front straight when the green flag drops. No point in holding them up, and I want to continue to work on my driving technique around the track. Well, my generosity also lets the other slow driver around me, so I am last going into Turn 2. But that is ok. I stay behind the other slow driver for three laps, and then she lets me pass, and I reel off a couple of nice laps, one of which is two seconds faster than my previous day’s best (and four seconds faster than my qualifying). The next lap is more conservative, primarily because I am by now running alone, having left my only competition and being unable to catch up to anyone in front of me. I work on technique some more, especially developing some speed out of Turn 2 toward Turn 3. And that is when my adventure occurs.

Entering Turn 3 (a right-hander), I have a bit more speed than my usual. The rear gets loose, and I turn the wheel left. I also add some throttle in an attempt to get more grip to the rear tires. For a little bit (things happen quickly under these circumstances, so a “little bit” is so many fractions of a second), I am uncertain about whether I can save this slide and keep the tires on the track. Just as I am sensing that maybe I am not going off the track, the next thing I am aware of is the fast-approaching tire wall on the left side of the track. Hmmm. What is going on? At this point my foot is on the gas too. That changes quickly, with both feet swiftly going in on the brake and clutch. Gravel is odd. At slow speeds it gobbles a car, but at sufficient speed the car skims the surface. I am in skim mode, and that tire wall is getting closer. Fortunately, I am slowing, and there is some mud a few feet from the tire wall.

As I near the tire wall, a huge spray of mud covers my helmet and anything else in the vicinity, and the mud seems to turn the car a bit away from a direct hit. The first hit dislodges the small nose cone and bounces the car counter-clockwise off the tire wall. My general momentum toward the tire wall continues, however, so then the back of the car hits the wall. Somewhere between leaving the track and hitting the tire wall, I realize that contact is inevitable. The things crossing my mind are “Darn, this is my first race” and “Darn, this is crash damage” and “Darn, this is no good.” I say something stronger when I finally come to rest. The good news about multiple impacts is that they distribute the force. The bad news is that there are multiple parts of the car in need of more than a band-aid. I wave to the corner people so that they know that I am all right, and I wait for the tow truck.

The tow truck arrives, and the guys raise their eye brows and give a tentative thumbs up. I reply with a thumbs up (yep, I am ok, even if the car and my pride are not). One guy pulls the tow strap over and hooks up my car. I am pulled back on the track and head for the pits (off the line). In the pits, the mechanics look over the car and replace the front portion of the body (including the nose cone). After a pretty thorough inspection, they duct tape the replacement bodywork on, pronounce the car fit to drive, wipe the mud off my visor, and send me back out. My final four laps are done fairly cautiously, and on the last trips down the hill through Turn 9 the western sky presents me with an absolutely gorgeous sunset. I see the checkered flag. My first race is over.

That night I go through the Turn 3 incident in my head, trying to figure out what I did and then what followed. (The veteran Skippy drivers reading this of course know what happened.) The next morning I track down Jeff Rodrigues, the instructor who witnessed my excursion, and speak with him for several minutes. I think that perhaps I had dropped a wheel, but he says no, that I actually caught the slide. My problem was CPR without the R. In the 3-Day course, the Skippy instructors teach CPR, which means Correction, Pause, and Recovery. My turn of the steering wheel to the left was the proper Correction (“spot on” in Jeff’s words). The Pause occurred, but I was not looking for it, still being focused on the Correction. And then I completely missed the Recovery, when I should have been turning the wheel back to the right. After the Pause, when I neutralized the slide, the rear of the car swung around to follow the front tires, which were turned to the left. And aimed at the tire wall. So when the Recovery phase finally did occur, the car got a lot of grip and headed where it was pointed. At the tire wall. For those of you who did not absorb the CPR lesson from the 3-Day school sufficiently well, be on alert. The rebound occurs much more swiftly than does the initial slide. Although I missed the Recovery and subsequently found the tire wall, I am pleased that I managed to catch a slide that was beyond my abilities during the 2-Day school, so I have made some progress. There is a car control clinic in the near future for me.

Before heading to Laguna Seca, I spoke with Sy Aryeh, who stressed to me the importance of maintaining a proper attitude toward my weekend. I am there to have fun, not to try and become an F1 driver. The crash dampens my spirits a little bit, but not as much as my spirits are lifted by having a fastest lap that is two seconds better than my best in practice. Thanks, Sy, for keeping my focus where it needs to be. This is definitely a lot of fun.

Day 3 – Second Race Day
The second race. Today my goals are simple. Drive sensibly. Stay on the track. Finish cleanly. Practice my driving technique. I start last and essentially remain there until people spin and deposit themselves in the gravel. By doing nothing more than driving safely and consistently, I finish two positions better than last place and see a checkered flag without incidents. During the race, I work on suggestions that the instructors have given me for improving my line. The seat time is productive, and even though my time is not fast, I am gaining confidence.

The Memorial race. As a way to gain additional seat time, there seems to be no better bargain than a Memorial race. Nine of us enter, and I am content to ride in the back, working on my driving (this time tips from Tommy Fogarty, Jon Morley, and Mark Hamilton Peters). My first four laps are a little better each time, on the fifth lap I slow in a couple of places to let traffic pass me, and then I put together a nice lap, combining several of the things that I have been working on. Although not my fastest lap of the weekend, it feels like one of the more solid ones, and I am learning a great deal. Jon Morley has been trying to get more speed out of me going down the hill through Turn 9, and a couple of laps later I definitely feel the improvement. Gravity alone puts more load on the front tires, and as I motor down the hill I can feel the back end getting a tad frisky. I catch a little movement by some steering maneuvers, but by then I am not in any position to head over to the proper entry for Turn 10, so I opt for a bailout through the runoff area to the right. After bringing the car to a halt and checking for no traffic coming down the hill, I get back onto the track and head into the pits for the mechanics to make sure that nothing is amiss (and this time my off-course trip is inconsequential). A couple more laps, and out comes the checkered flag. I am feeling great, having experienced my first race weekend and coming away with a ton of progress (even if the times do not yet reflect that). The next time down that hill, I will know to apply more throttle, trust my ability, and get more speed.

General Observations
Thanks go out to the instructors who gave me some valuable feedback, including Tommy Fogarty, Jeff Rodrigues, Jon Morley, and Mark Hamilton Peters. Randy Buck was tremendous, and Grant Ryley’s words of encouragement go far beyond what he might imagine. My mentor, Nick Spencer, deserves some thanks too for making my first race weekend more pleasurable and productive by answering questions, giving me hints, and generally seeing that I was prepared. Alan Baia took me under his wing too, and I appreciate his interest and efforts to get me to go faster. That will occur with patience, and by the next time that I am at Laguna Seca, I will be showing him some speed. And one more thing. The large number of friends that I made during those three days was a really rewarding surprise. Hanging around with a bunch of nice people who share a genuine interest in racing cars is a wonderful way to spend three days.

Last edited by sydude; 01-09-2006 at 09:41 AM.
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  #2  
Old 12-26-2005
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MJAmok MJAmok is offline
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Re: WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Newbie...

Congratulations on your first race experience! I remember mine like it was yesterday. It is an awesome feeling isn't it?

The good news is, it just gets better and better. There are so many milestones to achieve and you can revel in each accomplishment. It's a great feeling each time you check off a goal.

I enjoyed your write up, and think you should hold it aside to read at the end of every season. You will be amazed at the amount of progress you can make each year.

There is no substitute for seat time. Regardless of whether it is practice or a race... skippy cars, go karts, or some other type of car. Each experience will build confidence and let you work on the skills you are practicing. The car control clinic you mentioned would be great. Everyone I know who has taken it 'early on' has loved it.


I'm sure everyone on this site will have slightly different advice for things on which to focus. I thought I would throw my suggestion into the ring. Take it for what it is worth. There are others who I am certain are much better at giving advice to people at various stages of development. This is something that, looking back, I wish I had focused on earlier in my learning curve.

Consistency.

This is a topic that Bobo drilled into my head for the last few weekends of this season. It paid dividends in October. But, I should have been thinking about it years ago. I read that your lap times varied by as much as 6 seconds a lap. I'm sure mine did at the beginning as well, but that is far too big a spread.

I think that even if you are (relatively) slow, you should try to be as consistent as possible. Imagine getting feedback on a corner, if you know that you are doing the same thing there over and over. You can work on fixing mistakes much more easily if you know what you are doing as a basis. Knowing where you brake, turn in, release brake pressure, return to throttle, your angle at the apex, etc., will allow you to make the adjustments that are necessary more easily. Granted that may be more than you are thinking about in each corner at this stage, but even having one or two references will help. And, this kind of discipline will pay dividends as your speed increases.


Welcome to the world of racing... hope to see you on the track soon!

p.s. my sympathies on the crash damage... been there done that!
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Old 12-26-2005
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LimeRockRacer LimeRockRacer is offline
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Re: WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Congrats on your first race weekend! Finally! I know you have been looking forward to it for a while. How was Laguna? Just think you just spent a weekend plus running on one of the world's renowned road courses! Where else can you get this kind of an experience and legal high?

Hope to see you out in the Neast series this coming year!

PS Wipe that shit eating grin off of your face when you are with friends, family and co-workers. They will think you have just plain lost it!
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Old 12-27-2005
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Re: WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Very nice write-up Ted.

You took advantage of the resources from this site, Sy, Nick Spencer and the great Skippy instructors at the track well before your first race weekend. A tip of the cap for your consistent thoughtful approach to the process.

You also experienced the camaraderie that makes these weekends special beyond the technical challenge of learning to drive a racecar.

The more you do it, the better it gets!

The hook is now set... Enjoy the ride! :-)
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Old 12-27-2005
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Re: WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Michael,
You were the first to respond to my very first post on the TJR site, so it is appropriate for you to be the first to reply to this thread. Thanks for your comments, and I am glad that you enjoyed the write up. I will definitely hang onto it. Many years ago I started playing in chess tournaments. At my first one, somebody told me to keep my scoresheets (the moves of the games) and then replay them in six months. If I had any doubts about whether I was making progress, that would confirm it. And it did. I will do the same with the write up and also with the DVDs of my 2-Day school and my first race.

As for consistency, I agree 100%. When my DVD from the race weekend arrived, I watched it by myself and then again with my wife. She commented something along the lines of "Well, your crash wasn't as scary to watch as I thought it might be." (By the way, that was far down the list of what I expected her to say.) She also noticed that (a) people left the corners faster than I did (note to self -- work on exit speed) and (b) the quicker I went the less track that I used (another note to self -- use those curbs and hit the apexes). For me, the video is like the scoresheet from the chess games. I learned a ton at the race weekend, and I learned more by seeing how I did (as opposed to how I thought I was doing).

Chris,
We met only briefly in October at the Great Flood (umm -- practice day), and I appreciate your comments too. Laguna Seca is a fabulous facility, and I recommend it to anyone on the East Coast. The airfare to SFO or MRY is not as much as flying to many other locations. What a great track to drive! I hope to return many more times. (And as for future stars, a 14-year old kid named Alexander Rossi broke the Skippy car track record formerly held by Mark Hamilton Peters.) With regard to the Eastern Series, my plans are to do the three July race weekends (Road America, LRP, and Tremblant) as well as all of the lapping and practice days that I can manage.

Pat,
I have tried to take a thoughful approach to this sport, although there is little time for analysis on the track. The reading that I had done (and questions I posed on this site) were very helpful, however, when I received feedback from instructors. I just need to translate those lessons and information into performance.

And as for that Turn 3 fiasco ... the DVD reveals a classic case of early entry. I would say early apex, but I never got near enough to the apex to dub it that. The attempt at the save was not so bad, as I did keep the car on the track until the Pause, and my hands actually did whip the wheel back around to the right, but by then it was way too late.

My car control clinic is Saturday, Febraury 4, at Laguna Seca. Those instructors will have another crack at me.
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Old 12-27-2005
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MJAmok MJAmok is offline
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Re: WatertownNewbie at Laguna Seca

Ted

Yes, I was the first to respond to your first post. And we all know how that went! I'm glad this reply went over better!

I am glad (though not as glad as you!) that your wife reacted well to the crash video. I'm sure it helped that you were sitting there in full health as she watched it! My wife says that she is more comfortable with me racing after having seen a number of crashes and how drivers just walk away.

By the way, your wife seems pretty observant! Brava!! She is obviously right... using all of the road is critical, and exit speed is king!

As for the video... GOOD MOVE! You may remember, in the thread about how to equip yourself for racing, I highly endorsed videos. The way you used it is helpful... kind of a 20/20 hindsight review. It is even more helpful next year before you revisit a track. With several race weekends under your belt, you will find all kinds of things to fix as you re-orient yourself with the track in preparation for a weekend. I found that I could often match last year's best times in my first session this year, if I had prepped with one of my own videos!

The most valuable use though, is to watch the videos at night DURING a race weekend! A lot of things become evident that you can fix the next day.

I too will be at RA and Mt T. Both are awesome tracks. I'll see you there!
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