I suck at aging

I’m currently visiting family in Ithaca, New York. I thought it would be a good idea to get some exercise while here. Normally I bike to work as part of my exercise, but not having that, I thought I would turn to skateboarding. It turns out that was a bad idea. I was pushing the board to get some speed and my Achilles/calf popped. There was no warning. One second I was riding, and the next my leg was hanging behind me with my foot at an odd angle.

A couple of the people there helped me get back to my car. I found I had enough mobility that I could drive. It was painful and weak, and probably a little unsafe, but I drove myself to the emergency room. My mother has a handicapped placard, so I was able to park right in front. I hobbled toward the entrance and a kind woman fetched me a wheelchair. A minute later, she was bringing in her husband in another wheelchair.

I checked into their triage and then admitted to a bed where they did a few tests on me. They put a splint on me, gave me crutches, and a referral to see an orthopedic surgeon. I hobbled to the car and made it home. The entire ordeal from leaving the house, driving to the skateboard park, to getting injured, to getting medical attention, to arriving home, took a total of 90 minutes. I find that kind of amazing.

It’s been a couple days since the injury. It’s not as painful as I thought it would be. I guess there aren’t that many nerves down there. Also, I think the Achilles is only partially torn. I don’t think I’ll need surgery. I’ve been doing some mobility-based rehab to keep the blood flow high, and working with a theraband makes it feel better.

While this isn’t any fun, I’ve had much worse injuries in my life. This is a painful reminder that I’m getting older, and I need to do a better job of taking care of this body.

Big lies of the racetrack: part 1 of 6

6 Big Lies

We’re half way through 2022, and in the middle of the racing season. Seems like now is a good time to talk about some of the stupid shit people say to novices and intermediates in the guise of offering helpful advice. I’m sure you’ve heard some, if not all of the phrases below, and sometimes from highly reputable sources. But these weren’t meant to be laws. They were just introductions to the topic. In this series of posts I want to dig deeper into each of these “helpful” lessons and show why they can be bad advice.

  1. Drive the racing line
  2. In slow, out fast
  3. The first driver to full throttle wins
  4. You should be on throttle or on brake, never coasting
  5. Imagine a string connecting your steering wheel and throttle pedal
  6. Separate braking and steering

Drive the racing line

Every introductory book gives a description of the racing line. The geometric line is the outside-inside-outside line that gives you the maximum circular radius through a corner. This is in slight contrast to the racing line which has a later apex. Here’s a picture of the racing line from before I was born (and I’m 55).

One good way to think about the racing line is that it’s made up of 2 circular radii, the first one has a tighter radius than the second. This means you do more turning in the first half of the corner and more accelerating in the second half.

So what’s wrong with the advice to “drive the racing line?” I see two problems.

  1. Safety – the racing line puts you as close to the edge of the track as possible. It’s not the safest place for a novice to be.
  2. Intent vs. Result – the racing line shouldn’t be something you intend to drive, but the result of having the correct inputs.

I’ve heard some coaches say that one reason to drive the line is that it serves a kind of check-out role. That is, if a student can’t drive the line, they aren’t ready to go on to the next stage, whatever that is. That’s a pretty low bar. If you can’t drive outside-inside-outside around a track, you probably also have problems changing lanes on the highway or parallel parking.

What’s your line?

What’s your line through Turn X? This is probably the most common conversation at the race track. Drivers ask and answer this with such interest and passion that you’d think that this was the most important part of driving. Well, it isn’t. Any driver worth their weight in clag can find a decent racing line. The racing line is generally not what separates fast and slow drivers. What does is mostly competence, but also confidence.

Let’s take a look at the racing line as drawn from above, since that’s the way it’s usually discussed. Here are two drivers going around the same turn in the exact same car, on the same day, in the same hour. The direction is anti-clockwise (Thunderhill T2 in case you’re wondering). Which driver do you think is going faster?

It’s kind of hard to determine the faster driver from the racing line. They both enter the corner very similarly but they have different ideas about how to do the middle and exit. What do you imagine the speed difference is here? One mph? Maybe two? I know, let’s look at a speed graph because it’s a hell of a lot more useful than an overview of the racing line.

10 MPH

The difference between the blue driver and the red driver is about 10 mph. TEN MILES PER HOUR! Do you think that by adopting the blue driver’s line the red driver will suddenly be 10 mph faster? No. Driving on the racing line doesn’t mean you’re driving anywhere near the limit. Each point along the racing line has several dimensions in addition to the longitude and latitude, such as speed and yaw. If you’re positioned on the line but not at the right speed or yaw, you’re not really driving the racing line.

The reason these two drivers are at such different speeds has nothing to do with the line. So stop asking about it. It doesn’t fucking matter.

The question you should be asking

So if you’re not supposed to ask about the racing line, what are you supposed to ask? Ask yourself how close am I to the maximum corner speed? If you can’t answer this question with actual data, there’s no point in giving an answer because your feelings don’t mean shit. The only way to get an answer is to do both of the following:

  • Record data
  • Compare data

Recording data is easy. Your smart phone will work just fine. Even at 1 Hz, it will do an okay job of recording your minimum corner speed. However, just because a smart phone will work, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a better product. Dedicated devices like an AiM Solo are great, but I have to say that the Racebox Mini I just bought is more convenient, cheaper, and has a higher sampling rate.

The second part is harder. Where do you find data to compare yourself? Ideally, you’re using Track Attack, Race Studio Analysis, or something similar and you have some friends who also record data. But maybe you aren’t using these or don’t have friends to compare to. You can still make comparisons via YouTube. Find someone on similar tires and examine their corner speeds.

Another way to determine if you’re close to the limit is to examine your corner Gs. This requires knowing something about the friction of your tires. If you like math, you can measure the corner radius and then calculate the theoretical maximum corner speed. This too requires knowing the Gs of your tires. For 200TW tires, you can usually get a little over 1.0g.

Wrapping up

There are a few times when it’s normal to talk about the racing line:

  • Novice driver who doesn’t know anything
  • First time at an unfamiliar track
  • You’re searching for another tenth of a second

But most of the time, talk about the line would be better used to talk about just about anything else. Here are some ideas of alternative topics:

  • Reference points
  • Corner stations
  • Tire pressures and temperatures
  • Brake compounds
  • Sim racing
  • Weather
  • Dinner plans
  • Disapproving rabbits

More post-race thoughts

Let’s take a look at some more observations from the last race.

Daniel & David

Two of my drivers in the last race, Daniel and David, have been out of racing for a couple years. Neither of them has much time in the Yaris. So they took a little while to get warmed up. Their average lap times dropped by 10 seconds overnight. They didn’t drive off track or get into any trouble.

  • 4:17 Daniel Saturday
  • 4:07 Daniel Sunday (3:57 fastest)
  • 4:21 David Saturday
  • 4:10 David Sunday (4:01 fastest)

Tiernan

Tiernan drove the first stint of the race, which is usually slowest as there are cars and drivers that get weeded out later. His improvement from one day to the next was 22 seconds. Tiernan hasn’t been racing that long, and he’s now at the point where he’s getting more confident dicing with other cars. In other words, he’s at the dangerous stage of driver development. He stayed out of the penalty box both days, although he probably should have been flagged on Saturday for contact. Averaging 3:59 through traffic in a Yaris is pretty good, and a 3:52 fast lap is respectable.

  • 4:21 Tiernan Saturday
  • 3:59 Tiernan Sunday (3:52 fastest)

Mike & Danny

Mike and Danny are both confident and fast. They also tend to pick up a black flag every race, and this was no exception. Danny got black flags both days, which turned his 2:54 and 2:50 average pace into 4:03 and 4:04 lap times. Mike had a black flag on Saturday but not Sunday, and this turned into a 20 second difference in lap times.

  • 4:03 Danny Saturday
  • 4:04 Danny Sunday (3:44 fastest)
  • 4:15 Mike Saturday
  • 3:55 Mike Sunday (3:45 fastest)

Black Flags

Black flags are very costly. Over the course of a stint, they can add 10-15 seconds to your average lap time. Mike and Danny are consistently fast drivers, capable of putting down 3:45 laps. But if you average up all lap their times, their pace is only 4:07 and 4:08. In addition to loss of laps, each time you show up in the penalty box, you lose favor with the judges. If we ever want to win one of these things, we’re going to have to run a clean race from start to finish.

Fun vs. Winning

My team has a lot of fun on track. We chase down BMWs with twice our power. We pass Miatas on the outside of corners. We dominate in the rain. We also tend to have a bit too much internal competition. Mike & Danny like to compare lap times. To be perfectly honest, I like comparing lap times. I like pushing myself, and I like being the fastest. But that kind of attitude doesn’t win endurance races. The really good teams stay out of trouble, they don’t make trouble. WE MAKE TROUBLE.

Is it more fun to race safe and win or race fast and fail? Don’t ask me, I don’t know what winning feels like.

Race Weekend

I’ll update this post with things as they happen.

Thursday

My race preparations are pretty streamlined at this point. It takes about 12 minutes to pack up everything I need for the weekend.

I arrived at the track to find that Lemons HQ is now under the far awning. So I’m parked right across from the main building. That’s pretty convenient for bathrooms and such.

Friday

It was an unseasonably cool day with a light breeze. Perfect for sitting around and doing mostly nothing.

We got the car inspected in just a couple minutes and got classed in C with 0 penalty laps. We’re pitted next to a 90s Accord with the C0 classification on one side and a Jeep-themed Miata on the other side that probably got B class despite being a little slower.

As the day wore on, we decided to inspect the brakes. I use StopTech 309 brake pads, which have the annoying feature of being good for about 20 hours. A Lemons race lasts about 15 hours, so I have a lot of pads with about 5 hours left. The mizer in me can’t throw away $50 brake pads, so I have a whole bunch of them. We picked through to find the best ones and decided we would use those Saturday and then do a full pads & rotors job between race days.

Towards the end of the day, Jason Simms, the Jeepiata owner, asked if I wanted to take a few laps in his car to give some driver feedback. Jason is the owner of Argonaut Garage in Berkeley, so he knows some shit about cars, but he’s not as confident about the driving part. I wasn’t planning on doing any driving, but I had my gear in case I was going to help fuel. So I got in the car and drove it 3 laps. The out lap starting from the pits was a 3:57, which was apparently faster than anyone did last year. I dropped it down to 3:53 on the second lap, and then brought it in. 3-ish laps was enough to get a feel for the car. It was typical Miata goodness. The only odd thing is that they had de-powered the brakes. I’ve never been in a car without power brakes and I can tell you that the first time I went for the pedal it was a bit of a surprise. I got used to it eventually, and I found it a really fun experience. There’s a lot more feel on brake release. However, if I had to stop in a panic situation, it would be a panic situation. Compared to the Yaris, the handling is better, but the acceleration might not be as good. It’s too bad we weren’t logging data.

Saturday

It wasn’t the best day. The first driver got in a tangle and and suffered damage on the front left. The second driver went to the home pit instead of the hot pit, which burned a lap. The 4th and 5th drivers got black flags. And so we ended the day in 4th position, 4 laps behind the leader in class. If not for our own incompetence, we would be vying for first. But of course, that’s always the case.

After the race, we did pads and rotors. The only other maintenance we needed to do was to repair the front quarter panel.

Sunday

We started the day with some body repairs and got on track on time. Despite clean driving all day, we ended up 3rd in class and P21 overall. Not bad. I have video to watch and edit, but it will be a few days before I can get to it. Check back for that.

How could we have won? Honestly, it would have been hard this race. We ran 5 drivers through the car every day when a smart team would have run 4 the first day and 3 the second. We also had a few mishaps as explained earlier. Overall, it was a good performance from the team and a great way to hang out with friends.

RATTY

How well did RATTY work? It worked fine until the shifter became loose and cut the wire. I have to figure out a different placement for the button. Also, it would be better if there was more than one button. But it was nice being able to check in on the driver. Even when the button wasn’t working, we could still send text messages to the car.

Race countdown… 1

1 week from now we’ll be in the middle of a race. The weather outlook is sunny with highs around 88F. Not everyone likes wearing a coolshirt, but I certainly would be if I was driving. Let’s take a look around the interior.

I changed the Lithium battery in the front to a lead-acid in the rear. The battery box is a kitty litter container strapped to the floor. I got approval for this from JP, the tech chief. It’s just there in case of an acid splash. The battery is actually held down by a hefty aluminum bar.

Inside the cockpit, the biggest change is the addition of RATTY. The shifter has a button in the top. The base screws into the stock shifter threads. Yes, I tapped both the button and shifter. The metal in the base wasn’t as thick as I would have liked, so there’s a nut internally that screws in from the top. I didn’t have a very tidy solution for the wiring coming out of the shifter knob, so there’s some tape around it.

You can see the DIY cold box in the background. This is simply a marine bilge pump sitting in a standard cooler. The tubing and wiring come out of the top. It takes about 5 minutes to make one of these since the only thing you need to do is put a couple holes in the top.

The brains of RATTY (Arduino) are in a black box fixed to the base of the passenger seat with a hose clamp. There are 2 wires coming out of this, one for the shifter button (black), and one for USB power (white).

RATTY talks to my old iPhone 6S Plus via WiFi. Depending on how you press the button, it sends canned messages to a Discord channel. It takes 3-5 seconds for a button click to show up in the channel.

  • 1 click – Yes
  • 2 clicks – No
  • Many clicks – Bad shit has happened
  • Hold – I need to talk

The idea is that the pit and spotters can send status messages to the driver such as “Yellow in T2” or ask questions such as “is everything okay?”. The driver then responds mostly with yes/no answers.

In the picture above, you can see several devices in view.

Just to the left of the red stripe on the steering wheel is a RumbleStrip lap timer. Despite much fancier stuff on the market, this is still my favorite delta timer.

The stock gauge cluster is above the RumbleStrip. We don’t use it for anything other than the warning lights. The speedo doesn’t have a needle, and it isn’t missed since the RumbleStrip displays current speed.

To the left of the RumbleStrip is the tach. The car didn’t come with one, and honestly doesn’t need one. There’s no reason not to run it right to the rev limiter. It’s pretty conservative.

The rectangular screen to the left of the tach is an UltraGuage. This is an OBDII reader that displays up to 8 different things at a time. We use it to track engine temperature, stint time, and fuel usage. It works very well and is not expensive.

The car is also outfitted with a radio. I have spare NASA and IMSA headsets as well as adapters. I haven’t had great experiences with radios, but having redundancy is always a good idea. The radio mounts to the rectangular aluminum bar to the lower left of the UltraGauge.

The iPhone mounts on the far left. It gets fed power from a USB port on the passenger side of the car. Speaking of power, there are 2 12V outlets as well as 4 USB ports (half in front and half in back). The USBs power the iPhone, RATTY, and 2 cameras. The 12V outlets are not used, but exist in case we need to power something else (in the past this has been a Raspberry Pi and a monitor). The UltraGauge is fed power through OBDII and the RumbleStrip and tach are powered directly from 12V.

Yaris & Z3 @ TH3

I just got back from a Golden Gate Lotus Club track day where I brought both my Yaris and Z3.

Z3 on East

I’ve owned my Z3 for about 2 years, but due to a variety of issues, I’ve only driven it on track a handful of times, and never on Thunderhill East. So I was pretty eager to see what it would do. Today, we were running the Bypass configuration, and my best lap was a 2:15.7. I was using the bargain 205/55/16 Maxxis VR1 (old stock from 4-5 years ago) that are still on sale direct from Maxxis for just $60 per tire.

Racebox Mini

I just received a Racebox Mini that I purchased when it was in its Kickstarter phase. The hardware and software are very simple. Shown below is a screen grab of a lap comparison. I think the Racebox Mini is very well designed with a self-contained battery and a magnetic base. It was really easy to take from car to car. It’s surprisingly inexpensive. I highly recommend it.

Yaris

The testing plan for the Yaris was two-fold: make sure it is running well, try a couple tire configurations.

The Yaris felt great on track. The steering is even better with the hard-mounted front suspension. It’s 100% ready to race.

The mix of 225/45/15 RS4 front and 205/55/16 VR1 rear works very well. There’s just a tiny bit of lift oversteer. I’d like more, but I think the various guest drivers in the upcoming race will find it reassuringly neutral. Mounting the VR1s on all 4 corners wasn’t as good. It’s a change of 1″ higher ride height in the front and a corresponding change in angle. It felt like I was driving a bus. Also, the tires rubbed under hard braking or cornering. So I’m just going to use the VR1s on the rear.

Race countdown: 2…

I can’t believe there are only 2 weeks until the next race. What am I doing to prepare? Not much. The car is pretty much ready to go.

I have a track day coming up on Monday with the the Golden Gate Lotus Club, which is my favorite track day host. What makes GGLC the best for me? It’s a mixture of laid-back atmosphere, low cost, and cool cars. Honestly, there aren’t many Lotus cars at a Lotus Club event, but the cars people bring tend to be unusual.

I signed up with the Z3 because I’ve never driven the Z3 on the East track. On the other hand, the Yaris hasn’t had a test drive since the last race. Not much has changed, just a little suspension tweak on the front and relocating the battery to the rear. While I really want to drive the Z3, as team manager, I think it’s my responsibility to do a bit of testing with the Yaris. I haven’t driven it with the 205/55/16 tires yet, so doing some mix-n-match tires will give me some experimenting to do.

Ideally, if I’m doing experiments, I’d have my AiM Solo DL so that I could compare performance with previous days. However, that unit is sort of on permanent loan with my brother. However, I did just receive a RaceBox Mini. That’s something that needs testing too. Oh, and I should probably do a live test of the Discord-based in-car communication system.

OK, so I guess I do have a few things to do before the race. Check back for a report next week.

Race countdown: 4…

4 weeks until the next race. It’s a 24 Hours of Lemons event at Thunderhill. Every race has something different planned, and this is no exception. The big change is…

I’m not driving

For only the second time in my “career” I’m going as dedicated crew. The last time I did this was with a trio of mad hombres, (no, not the Three Amigos) who played pit crew for XX Racing, an all female racing team driving our Miata. It was really fun focusing on taking care of the drivers and the car rather than thinking about the race, so I’m looking forward to it again.

I’m not sure how much racing I’m going to be doing in the future. I don’t really need to race anymore. I like driving on track, of course, but the part of me that needs to shame faster cars is feeling sated.

Modifications and Fixes

So what’s new with the car? We’re going to race under the Toyota Kazoo Racing name again. I aim to put some rally-inspired thematic decorations here and there, like a roof vent and mud flaps.

At the end of the last race, the battery broke. It’s one of those insanely expensive Lithium batteries that weighs 5 pounds. The plastic literally broke, exposing circuit boards. I’m not buying another one of those, so we’re going back to the original lead-acid battery, but this time it will be located in the back.  I removed the tow hitch, meaning the overall weight will go down a little and the front-rear balance will be a little better. I doubt it will be noticeable, but in theory it’s better.

At the end of the race, the front right top hat pulled through the hole. Not sure how that happened. I’ve replaced rubber with some solid metal mounts I had purchased but never installed. They’re supposed to sharpen the steering.

As I mentioned previously, we’ll be using radios for the crew, but communication to/from the driver will be via Discord. I can’t wait to see how that works out.

Drivers

Let’s meet our drivers.

  • “Crazy” Mike Kimball – Mike has been in Lemons a long time. He races Beetles, Minis (the original ones), Volvos, and whatever else you put in front of him. He’s sort of the chief mechanic these days. His better half, Amanda, serves a lot of great food at Lemons events.
  • Danny Hart – A few years ago I contributed a “come race with us” item for a charity auction.  Danny was the high bidder and he joined us for a Lucky Dog race at Laguna Seca. The next race was a full 24 hour race at Buttonwillow. If you can race in the dark, on a track you’ve never been to, not crash, and help the team to a 3rd overall place, you have spot on my team.
  • Daniel Melters – Daniel used to be a graduate student in my lab. He was one of the original team members and returns from time to time to generate more great memories. He holds the current record for longest stint in the Yaris at 2:43. Pretty amazing considering the car holds 10.5 gallons.
  • David DeFlyer – David has raced with us several times, but has been out of racing for a few years. David is equally at home behind the wheel or under the car. He’s weirdly faster on shitty tires than good ones. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but the rest of him does.
  • Tiernan Armstrong-Ingram – While Tiernan is the newest member, he’s been to enough events that he’s become a regular. He lives a few streets over, so he frequently helps out on the car. He’s one of the lead writers for Donut Media, but don’t hold that against him! A guy’s gotta eat.

Enthusiast-ish

I don’t like fast cars, nannies, supercars, ricers, donkers, drag racing, or people doing burnouts in the middle of the night. I don’t follow Formula 1, NASCAR, Indycar, or any other racing series. I would be hard-pressed to identify a car from its silhouette or engine sound. And yet, I am a car enthusiast. I love the interaction of car and driver at the limit. I think that still makes me an enthusiast, just not the common kind. Let me tell you a bit more about my unusual tendencies.

Z3

I consider my 1996 BMW Z3 to be the ultimate track-daily. In some world where I’m much wealthier than I am today, I would drive an electric car to the track where my purpose-built racecar would be waiting for me in a garage. My reality is that my track car doubles as my commuter. That means compromises. On the street, it’s a bit too stiff and a bit too loud to hear my audio books. I have to draft trucks to cut the wind noise down. There’s only room for 1 passenger and a few grocery bags. But when the weather is just right, commuting with the top down is the next best thing to riding a motorcycle (I gave that up long ago). And on track, with the top open and 4 wheels howling, it’s pretty fucking perfect.

One of the things I like about my Z3 is that it doesn’t have intrusive nannies. It didn’t come with stability control, so there isn’t even a button to turn off. It does have ABS and power steering, and I’m okay with that. But I’d also be okay without it.

I think most people would look at the 1.9 Z3 specs and think it doesn’t have enough motor. The weight (2670) and power (138 crank) aren’t very different from a commuter like a Toyota Corolla or Honda Fit. On the street, I have no need for power, because I drive for economy. On the track, I don’t really want to go much faster than I do now. It’s more dangerous, takes more fuel, wears more tires, generates more heat etc. There are economy enthusiasts too! I’m sort of half-way between those crazy hypermilers and those crazy track addicts.

Shifting and Coasting

My Z3 is over 25 years old. In order to extend the life of my transmission as long as possible, I reduce the number of times I shift by skipping gears. If I am at a complete stop, I will usually shift into 1st gear. As I speed up, I’ll switch to 3rd and then 5th. Sometimes I’ll take off in 2nd (especially if I’m doing a rolling stop or pointed downhill) and then switch to 4th and eventually 5th. I try not to shift from 2nd to 3rd or 3rd to 4th. Those gear changes are reserved for the track. What about heel-toe downshifting? Also reserved for the track.

I do a lot of coasting on the street. I’ve driven from my doorstep in Davis to downtown SF without using the brakes. I drive all cars like this, not just the Z3.

Tires

I don’t buy sticky tires. The stickier the tire, the more wear you put on everything: pads, rotors, suspension, bushings, subframes, etc. Z3s are great handling cars and don’t need sticky tires. They should be slid around corners. It’s a lot easier to explore the right side of the slip angle curve in less sticky tires. Let’s review the merits of harder tires.

  • Less wear on the car
  • More fun
  • Better for training
  • Cost less
  • Last longer
  • Slower/safer

Fuck R-comps. They are a scam.

Spirited Drives

I have never taken my Z3 for a “spirited drive” and probably never will. Driving 5/10ths on public roads cannot compete with track driving or even sim racing. What about driving over 5/10ths on public roads? I don’t see the point in endangering the public when sim racing and track driving are more fun.

Exterior & Interior

My car’s clearcoat is pealing like crazy. 25 years of sun will do that. I’m okay with wrinkles on people too. I don’t wash my wheels very often. I don’t care how the wheels look. I don’t like getting my hands really dirty when I swap them though, so sometimes I do break out a bucket of water. I screw/glue RAM mounts into my dash. I’m not saving my car for the next driver.

Also

My favorite racing channel on YouTube is 3D Bot Maker.