Things that rule #6: skid pads

What’s the most useful thing you can do to get better at your car control skills? Skid pad! Even if you’re a sim racer, and you can drive whatever track you want, you should still spend time on the virtual skid pad. Why? It’s a great place to do drills. It doesn’t matter what sport you play, part of your training regimen is doing repetitive drills that focus on a single skill or a connection of skills. If that’s true in basketball, tennis, baseball, football, etc., why isn’t it also true in high performance driving? How often do you see people doing deliberate repetitive training? Pretty much never. Maybe that’s because they don’t know what drills to do and why to do them? Here are some of my favorite things to do.

Driving in circles

Driving around in a circle sounds boring, but it’s really useful for 2 reasons: (1) tuning your senses to the available grip (2) changing line by changing speed.

Start by going around in a circle with a fixed radius. Increase your speed and eventually the car will start sliding a little, but too much speed will increase the radius. Congratulations, you have found “the limit”. When on track, it’s often unclear if you’re driving the limit because your speed and direction are changing all the time. There’s also high speed, danger, and some sense of safety that may be keeping you from driving the limit. However, on a skid pad, you can experience the limit at low speeds without fear of crashing your car or injuring yourself. Once you’re driving the limit, you should tune in to what the feels like. Your hearing is a great resource for sensing traction, but by no means your only sense. The more you drive the limit, the more used to it you will get. Once on track, you’ll get better at sensing and driving the limit because you’ve been there before.

One of the best ways to experience the effects of weight transfer is to change speeds while driving in circles at the limit. Deceleration puts more weight/grip on the front of the car. This will cause the car to oversteer a little and tighten its radius. Accelerating does the reverse: puts more weight/grip on the rear of the car, which leads to understeer and a larger radius. When you’re driving the limit, and all 4 tires are sliding, the car is steered with the feet as much as the hands.

Figure 8s

Driving in figure 8s is more fun than driving in circles. I spend most of my time on the skid pad doing this. You can work on multiple skills simultaneously.

  • Hand position – Most people are told to drive with their hands at 9-and-3, and while that’s a good place to start, it’s not the end. You should practice other hand positions too, like hand-over-hand, one-handed, the other one-handed, and even shuffle steer. By increasing your steering vocabulary, you’ll be ready for anything.
  • Trail-braking – Possibly the single most important skill in high performance driving is trail-braking. This is the act of holding some brake pressure while turning into a corner. The longer you trail off the brakes, the more oversteer you get.
  • Oversteer recovery – The key to advanced driving is backing up the corners. However, doing so is a little dangerous because you may spin at the entry. Being able to make steering corrections to prevent oversteering too much is the key to safety and speed. The skid pad lets you practice this over and over without painful consequences.

Variations

Whether you’re driving in circles or 8s, one thing you can do to spice things up a bit is to change the grip balance. The best way to do this is to mount different tire compounds in the front and rear. Putting track tires in the front and all-season tires in the rear will make your car unsafe and hilariously fun. If you don’t have extra tires, you can use tire pressures to change grip (really high pressures reduce grip). This is what I do in Assetto Corsa since you can’t have different tires in front and rear. Another way to change grip balance is to change your brake bias. This only affects your grip balance during braking. The more rear brake you dial in, the more oversteer you get when trail-braking. If you have too much rear brake, you may even spin while braking in a straight line. So if you see a car lose control in a braking zone, odds are they have too much rear brake bias (this can happen from a badly adjusted bias valve, having grippier brake pads in the rear, or defeating the ABS system on an older car). Changing tire pressures and brake bias can alter the handling of a car much more than you might expect. The place to experience and experiment with this is the skid pad, not the track.

Things that rule #5: slow cars

Today, I took my 1996 Z3 to Thunderhill West for a track day hosted by Turn8 Racing. This is the first time I had ever been to a Turn8 event. They have a really interesting event schedule: from 9-1 they run the usual 20 minute run groups, and in the afternoon they have an open pit. There was a last minute deal advertised a few days ago for just $75. How could I not sign up?

From a power:weight perspective, a 1.9 Z3 is very similar to the original 1.6 Miata. And the on-track performance is nearly identical according to Best MOTORing. My Z3 is a little better than stock, so I was expecting something around NA8 performance. Looking back at previous data, our Lemons Miata used to run 1:32 on a variety of 200TW tires in 205/50/15 (RT615K, NT05, RE11A). Today I was on “new” tires: Maxxis VR1 in 205/55/16. Maxxis has overstock of these tires from the original manufacturing 4-5 years ago, and you can buy them for $59.99 with free shipping. The VR1 was never the fastest 200TW tire, and given that they are 4-5 years old, I expected them to perform similarly to the older 200TW tires. My fast lap was a 1:32.2. That’s pretty much exactly what I expected. I had just filled up the tank, and I’m pretty sure I would have been in the 1:31s with 100 fewer lbs. On a cheater tire, I’d probably break 1:30.

A 1:32 at Thunderhill West is not slow, but it’s also not very fast. I think it represents a fun speed. You can catch fast cars that are poorly driven and hang around most Miatas. In my thinking, I don’t really need to go any faster. You won’t see me mounting cheater tires, stripping the vehicle to remove weight, or adding a splitter. Why don’t I want to go faster?

Slow FTW

  • Safety – If not for speed, I’m guessing the main danger in motorsports would either be the car falling off jack stands or towing-related accidents. The faster your car, the more dangerous it is, and the more safety equipment you should have installed. I see a lot of novices in really fast cars, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. You’re less likely to die or cause someone else to die in a slow car.
  • Economy – Faster vehicles use more fuel, tire, brake pads, etc. Faster cars are generally more expensive to fix too. Swapping out brake rotors on a new Corvette will cost more than my car. I’m having just as much fun as the guy in the Corvette and my rotors are under $100 for a complete set.
  • Challenge – Driving a slow car fast is a great challenge. One of the reasons it’s so much fun to race my Yaris is because it’s fun beating up on much faster cars. Now I’m sure driving a fast car at the limit is an even greater challenge, but that comes with a lot of financial and physical risk.
  • Perspective – I think the whole point of driving is to play around at the limit of grip where you’re balancing engine, brakes, and steering. You can have that at low power, and it’s safer and cheaper than at high power. If you can’t make it happen with low power, it’s probably unsafe for it to happen to you at high power. You can have more fun for less money and be safer too. Just get a slow car and change the tires to tune how much grip you want.

Video

Here’s some video of the event. This segment has a little traffic, but as you can see, the advanced group wasn’t very crowded.

Things that rule #4: HPDE coaching

Didn’t I just make a post a little while ago about how HPDE coaching sucks? Yes, yes I did. I even went as far as making a video that pokes fun at HPDE coaches. That’s because HPDE coaching does suck. Yet it also rules. Let me tell you why.

Coaches are altruistic

Your HPDE coach isn’t there for the money. After you figure travel, room, and board, it’s still expensive even if the coach gets some free laps. No, coaches are there because they are passionate about the sport they love and they want to see it thrive. They know that getting in a vehicle with you might be dangerous. There have been incidents where coaches have been killed. Still they do it.

I’ve been behind the closed doors of coaches meetings, and I can tell you what that the conversations are about.

  • Safety concerns with aggressive drivers
  • Making sure drivers are having a good time
  • Giving support to timid drivers
  • Coaches helping other coaches

It’s all so unbelievably wholesome. Your HPDE coach is probably one of the nicest people you will meet.

Students want to learn

As a Professor, I see a lot of kinds of students. Not all students go to college to learn. Many of them are there for the party. Some students sign up for classes based on what mom & dad said rather than following their own interests. So not all students are passionate about class material. But at HPDE events, most students are really excited about learning how to drive on track. As a coach, it’s really fun to have a passionate student.

Coaching is fun

Coaching takes effort and is a bit draining, but it’s also a lot of fun. One thing I get to do as a coach is to drive other peoples’ cars. I’ve driven some really great cars over the years and I have a much better appreciation of sports cars in general because of that. But probably the best part about being a coach is when a student says to you “I never thought I would be able to drive like that”. Being part of someone else’s success is a great feeling.

Coaching makes you a better driver

Nobody learns more than the teacher

Despite making fun of this in a video I made, I actually believe it. Coaching makes you a better driver. When you have to explain something to another person, it forces you to reflect on your own knowledge. When you do so, you sometimes find holes in that knowledge or new insights. Teaching forces you to be more introspective, and from a learning perspective, that’s a good thing. You can also write about driving. That’s why I have a blog and a book. Writing also makes you a better driver.

Things that rule #3: Best MOTORing

Even though I love high performance driving, I don’t actually watch much racing. I once went to a NASCAR race, but I’ve never watched one on a screen. I’ve never seen an F1 race in any form. Part of that reason is that they aren’t driving the kind of car I drive. If I am going to watch racing, I want to be able to relate to it. The cars I best relate to are budget endurance racing cars, so basically sporty or non-sporty cars from the 1990s, and 2000s. The best source for track-driven street cars from those eras that I’ve seen is Best MOTORing. These were a series of videos released every month in Japan. My favorite episodes are multi-car track battles at Tsukuba or Ebisu. Here’s a selection of some of my favorites. Turn on Closed Captioning to read in English.

 

Things that rule #2: 24 Hours of Lemons

History

Here’s a brief history of amateur road racing in the US as I understand it.

  • The SCCA formed shortly after WW2 and became the major racing organization for amateurs. In the 1960s they started having national championships, which they continue to run today. Over the years, the SCCA has become increasingly bureaucratic, complex, and expensive. Some people got annoyed enough that they started a new series.
  • In 1991, NASA was formed. Unlike the SCCA, which is a network of regional clubs run largely by volunteers, NASA is a business. While NASA started out with inexpensive slow cars, like the Pro-7 (Mazda RX-7), most of the cars that run today are neither inexpensive nor slow. From an outsider perspective, racing in NASA and SCCA appear pretty similar: expensive cars and hundreds of pages of rules.
  • In 2006, the 24 Hours of Lemons was created. One of the biggest differences between Lemons and SCCA/NASA is that you don’t need a racing license. Considering that a racing license usually costs several thousands of dollars, that’s a big barrier for the general public. Another big difference is the cost of the vehicles: in Lemons, the base vehicle without safety equipment is supposed to be under $500. Looking at Lemons cars, many of them look like they should have another zero added to the price tag. What’s going on? Another big difference is the rules themselves. They are sometimes loosely interpreted. It’s okay to bring a Rolls Royce to Lemons. It’s actually very Lemony.
  • When hundreds of cars show up for endurance racing, people notice. ChumpCar, decided to offer a similar product but with more rules and less humor. ChumpCar eventually fractured into World Racing League and Lucky Dog Racing League. And then American Endurance Racing added themselves to the mix. Now NASA and SCCA are also trying to get in on the action. Meanwhile, in Canada, they had their own series, first branded with Chump, and now branded with Lucky Dog. Overseas, Lemons invaded Australia and New Zealand.

Thanks Lemons!

Today, you can race on world class tracks for less money than you might expect. Everyone owes the 24 Hours of Lemons a huge thank you as they were the ones who figured out the formula. While all of the budget series are seeing speed and cost creep, Lemons has stayed very close to its original conception. People still show up in terrible cars and dress their cars, if not themselves, in silly themes.

Myself, I started out racing in Lemons. After a couple years, I decided I wanted to take driving a little more seriously. So I built a car that could compete in as many types of events as possible. After a couple years of that I realized that I didn’t really want to be serious about racing. The culture of winning is full of cheating, bad tempers, and open checkbooks, none of which appeal to me.

If you’ve never tried Lemons, I suggest you check it out. The racing on track will keep you on your toes as you dice with a mixture of professionals and rank amateurs. And the atmosphere in the paddock is uniquely Lemons.

I’ve worked for Lemons a few times, but this last weekend was the first time I was a judge. That means I helped class cars, dole out penalties, and decide on awards. The whole process is really wholesome and the staff’s #1 concern (well #2 if you count safety) is making an enjoyable event.

Things that rule #1: driving the limit

Reading the last series of “things that suck” posts, you might think I’m a negative person. Yes, I’m a curmudgeon about things I’m particularly curmudgeonly about, but as a general rule, I’m a very positive person who is more half-full than half-empty. So let’s flip the script and talk about some things that rule. The logical place to start is the emotional place to start. What do I love most about high performance driving? That’s easy…

Driving the Limit

First off, what does it mean to drive the limit? Exactly what limit are we talking about?

Driver: Everyone has their own limit. So part of driving the limit depends on the driver’s abilities. Two drivers may be a couple seconds apart and both could be driving their limit. The slower driver might be having just as much difficulty extracting more performance from the car as the faster driver. The slower driver could also be having just as much fun as the faster driver. On the one hand, you don’t have to be driving the car as fast as physically possible to be driving the limit.

Grip: On the other hand, there is a limit defined by how fast it’s possible to drive. And that’s really dependent on the grip of the vehicle. So one important definition of driving the limit is using all the available traction.

So how does one know one is driving the limit? Here are some thoughts.

  • You can’t really know you’ve hit the limit until you go over the limit
  • If you’re 100% in complete control of the vehicle, you’re below the limit
  • If you never make steering corrections, you’re below the limit
  • If you never make throttle corrections, you’re below the limit
  • If you can go from brake to full throttle immediately, you’re below the limit

Do you really have to go over the limit to know where the limit is? Yes, I think so. If you don’t go over the limit, how will you know you’ve seen it?

How do you know you’ve gone beyond the limit? Because you’ve lost control of the vehicle to an extent. That doesn’t mean you’re spinning out of control and about to crash. Racing drivers go over the limit all the time, they just recover quickly. Recovery is the key to driving the limit. The faster you can recover from going over the limit, the closer you can drive to the limit. The raison d’ĂȘtre of driving (for me) is walking the tightrope between control and out-of-control. There is no feeling quite like it. I absolutely love it, and I put up with a lot of shit to experience it.

Practice

In order to drive the limit, you have to practice driving the limit. It’s really not practical to do this on the street because it’s illegal to drive like that. Also, you might hit something like a curb and ruin your car (or worse). An HPDE track day is also not the place for novices and intermediates to practice driving the limit. Losing control of your vehicle may endanger the other people on track. Autocross would be great if you could get an hour of driving per day, but a half dozen 1-minute runs isn’t training. You need a place where you can practice loss of control safely for a decent amount of time. I have 4 suggestions

  • Private track day – expensive though
  • Skid pad – ideal if you can find one
  • Kart – that’s how the real racers started
  • Simulator – better on high-end equipment

Things that suck #6: Internet experts

One of the great things about the Internet is that it has democratized content. For example, when I was a youth, if your family was wealthy enough, you may have had an encyclopedia in your house. If not, you had to go to the library. Today, there is Wikipedia. It’s free, constantly updated, and pretty darn good. Another example is YouTube. Some of the best entertainment media is made by independent creators rather than industrial media giants. We have more access to more stuff than ever before.

Of course the downside of having lots of content creators is that the quality is variable. In the sim racing world, iRacing is the megacorp. It produces really high quality content, but you have to pay a subscription to access it and there are lots of additional expenses. The more democratized version is Assetto Corsa. Here you have cars and tracks created by a worldwide community. There are tons of obscure cars and tracks made for AC that will never get made for iRacing. That’s great. And while some of the content is as good as iRacing, some is inaccurate. How do you know what is good and what is bad? If you’re coming from a place of zero experience it’s hard to tell if the car or track you’re driving is authentic.

In my day job, I’m a professor and scientist. My specialty is computational molecular biology. I write software to study the mechanisms that link genotype to phenotype. You can’t just jump into my field with no training. You have to study genetics, biochemistry, computer science, statistics, software engineering, etc. I’ve done that, and I have some well-informed opinions about how life works. But that doesn’t make what I say more impactful than some pseudo-expert on the Internet. If you have a big following, what you say becomes the truth or at least becomes more important than the truth. That’s how we end up with people doing stupid shit like taking de-worming medication for a virus during a pandemic. I’m not sure why I care if stupid people take themselves out of the gene pool (not only does Ivermectin not do anything for COVID-19, it has a good chance of sterilizing you). Maybe it’s because those stupid people end up doing real damage.

Let’s get back to driving, since that’s what this blog is about. There are a lot of videos on YouTube about how to do this or that with a car. And so many of them are full of shit. I’ve shown a bunch of them here in the past. How is one supposed to navigate the world of high performance driving when there’s so much misinformation?

Seek Mechanism

When we ask questions, we shouldn’t be seeking answers. We should be seeking understanding.

Question: What is the fastest way around the track?

Answer: The racing line.

Does that mean if I follow the racing line my lap times will be just as fast as a professional racer? No, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. The racing line is the product of a whole bunch of compromises. Unless you understand all of the nuances, you won’t really understand the simple answer.

The way to seek understanding is to ask questions about the mechanism of action. If you don’t understand the components and how they interact with each other, you can be easily fooled. Imagine you have a friend who tells you he is training his car to consume water instead of gasoline. Every time he fills his car up with fuel, he adds just a little water. He’s done it 2 times so far and it’s working, so he thinks that eventually he’ll have a car that runs on water. But that’s not how cars work. Similarly, if you have a mechanistic understanding of biology, you don’t do stupid shit like drink lots of water to drown a virus (this was literally one of the suggestions at the start of the pandemic).

On the GHIT podcast I was asked if I thought it was better to drive on the line off pace or to drive off the line on the limit. There is no such thing as driving on the line off pace. The line is the result of balancing grip, speed, and yaw. Focusing on the line is like memorizing exam questions instead of learning the material. It may look like you know what you’re doing until you get into a situation where you have to apply your knowledge in an unfamiliar context. Then you’re fucked.

Oh right, the video

 

Things that suck #5: HPDE coaching

OK, so I’m probably going to get into trouble with this one, but YSAR is nothing if not irreverent.

Most coaches aren’t paid shit

Do you know how much coaches get paid? Sometimes minimum wage, sometimes nothing. Given transportation, room, and board, a weekend of coaching doesn’t balance the books. Which is why many of the coaches are old, retired, white guys with enough time and money that they don’t care they are being taken advantage of. That said, if you wanted an actual racing coach to work with you, you’d have to pay them actual money. When drivers have a choice of spending $1000 on upgrading their car vs spending $1000 on coaching, 99% of them choose the car. It’s no wonder that the most popular car events take place in parking lots. No, I’m not talking about autocross, but car meets.

Most coaches don’t care enough

Why do coaches put themselves in dangerous situations for no money? It’s not because they are angels. It’s because they get to drive free or with a discount. Coaches who spend part of their day on track aren’t fully committed to coaching. They’re thinking about their car, their interests, and their time. Want to know how much they care about you? If they are parking in the shade and you are not, you have your answer.

Most coaches have limited teaching credentials

Most coaches have very little training in how to teach. Teaching skills are earned just like other skills: study, practice, and time. Just because a coach has been driving on track for 10 years doesn’t mean he’s a good teacher. Doing some MSF level 1 and 2 training isn’t very difficult and yet most coaches haven’t even done that. How important is it for a coach to have training? Maybe not much. Many HPDE participants have so little high performance driving experience that they don’t need much more than someone to tell them “in slow, out fast”, “imagine a string connected to the throttle and steering wheel”, and “look through the corner”.

Most coaches have no racing credentials

Would you go to a basketball camp and be coached by some dude whose resume is “I play basketball a few times per year but I’ve never played an actual game”? No. And yet that’s the experience a lot of HPDE coaches have. Most coaches picked up driving rather late in life and have never raced wheel-to-wheel in competition. Do you need a racing driver as your coach? Probably not. If your introduction to basketball is shooting free-throws, you probably don’t need Michael Jordan coaching you. That said, if you had the choice of MJ or me, you would choose MJ.

Guilty as charged

Who me? Yep. I don’t get paid shit. I sometimes drive my car on coaching days. I’ve done a little amateur racing but I’m more of a sim racer than an actual racer. I’ve never even done MSF Level 2 training. And yet when it comes to coaching, I think I’m one of the better ones. Why? I never park in the shade.

Oh yeah, the next video

Things that suck #4: Shitty software

Why does it seem like all of the software I use for racing stuff is so shitty? The AiM software suite looks like it was developed for Windows 95. Optimum Lap has a crazy interface and crashes a lot. Updating the firmware on my (Russian) Racebox is bizarre. But so far, one of the worst things I’ve run into is nawmal. This is video animation software from the people who created ultranormal. There’s a very famous video “flat out” that was done with that. Part of the charm is how low-tech everything is.

I thought it might be fun to do a talk show based on You Suck at Racing. My first episode is below. I haven’t decided how many of these I’m going to do. The light version of nawmal is pretty limited and crashes constantly. And you have to pay a monthly subscription to use it. I have some ideas I want to try but on the other hand I feel like my patience is already running out. Let me know what you think.

Things that suck #3: Wrenching

Presumably, as a reader of YSAR, you’re like me and love high performance driving. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t put up with all the time and money it takes to participate. Personally, I take great pride in how little money I spend compared to the average driver. Truthfully, I don’t have the data to make this statement, so let’s look at some details so you can see exactly what I mean.

  • Toyota Yaris racecar, cost $3,040 to buy and about $3,000 more to be fully race legal (it has log books for SCCA, NASA, Lucky Dog, and ChampCar).
  • My typical consumables cost for a weekend of endurance racing is $250 per person for a 4-person team. This includes fuel, tires, oils, pads, rotors, drums, and a slush fund for long-term repairs.
  • The car has raced for 6 years in well over 20 events, 7 of which were endurance races lasting 15-24 hours.

Time

Didn’t I start this post with “time and money”? While I haven’t spent a lot of money, I have spent a lot of time. I do a lot of the work myself, and not knowing what I’m doing most of the time (I suck at wrenching), it takes me more time than an actual mechanic or fabricator. I know that some people actually like working on cars, but I’m not one of them. I got into this sport because I like to drive, not wrench. So why don’t I have someone else do the work? Well, truthfully I do. Sometimes my teammates come over to help, and sometimes I even take my car/parts to a mechanic. The reason I don’t always have someone else work on the car is because there’s a part of me that feels like I should do the work myself. If I want to be able to diagnose problems in the middle of a race, I need to know how everything is put together. But that understanding comes at a price: my time. Is it worth it? I don’t know.

Current status

The Yaris is undergoing major work for the first time since the initial build. Here’s what it looks like as it sits in my driveway.

So what’s wrong with it? Do you see that crack in the middle of the photo below? That was the source of the overheating. Combustion gasses leaking into the coolant is bad. If I knew more about cars, I might be able to explain more eloquently.

The car ran hot for 6 hours before actually stopping. When we tested the compression, it was very low across multiple cylinders. The photo below is looking through the exhaust ports at the underside of the valves (or maybe it’s the intake valves, IDK). As you can see, the valves don’t seal anymore.

So now with the engine undergoing replacement, I thought it would be a good idea to upgrade other parts of the car. The shitty TRD-branded suspension is being replaced with Bilstein B14.

The engine itself is not being upgraded. I got a stock JDM 1NZ-FE. Given that the previous engine ran thousands of race miles after having 150K street miles on it, I think the replacement with 30-40K should go a while before giving up.

One of the problems with the Yaris is inside wheel spin from the open differential. Too much spinning causes excessive tire wear. Also, on short, tight corners you really can’t put the throttle down. The car will be better in every way with an LSD. I bought one a while ago, and was waiting for the right time to install it. With the engine out of the car, that time is now.

Another problem with the Yaris is that the gears are way too tall.  2nd gear tops out at 60 mph and 3rd at 88 mph. There are lots of corners where you’re either at the very top of 2nd or bottom of 3rd. I take these in 3rd and curse as the needle lazily makes its way up the tach. Switching from a 3.722 final drive ratio to a 4.312 should make these corners a lot better. So where does one get a 4.312? From a manual transmission Scion xB. The bell housings are different, so you have to pull the parts out from the guts of the transmission. Easy peasy.

Well, not so much. First, you have to find a manual transmission xB. I’ve scoured Pick-n-Pull multiple times without any luck. Just a couple days ago, I looked dejectedly at 6 autos. Today, I got lucky. The last of another 6 xBs was a manual. Halleluiah! Now I just had to harvest the final drive.

Dropping an engine and cracking open the transfer case by yourself with hand tools isn’t fun. Or easy. Oh, and it also takes a lot of time if you suck at wrenching like me. But in the end, I gutted the beast and returned from the hunting grounds with my trophy in hand. The photo below was taken around the middle of the operation.

Now everything has to go back in. Fuckity fuck fucker. I hate this shit. Maybe I’ll pay someone to do it for me.