GHIT extra: everyone sucks at racing

I was recently interviewed on the Garage Heroes in Training podcast and they asked me a lot of really interesting questions. I want to follow that up in a series of posts on YSAR where I get into a little more depth on a few topics.

I suck at racing

Guess what? I suck at racing. Most people do. There simply isn’t enough money to get the track time to be really good at it.

How many hours do you think it takes to become good at any of the major sports like basketball, tennis, football (either kind), etc? Playing 2 hours per day for 300 days per year for 5 years sounds like a good start. That’s 3000 hours, which includes some mixture of unstructured time, coaching, drills, and games. How many racers do you know that have even 1/10th of those hours on track? Very few. How many of those hours feature coaching? Next to none. Drills? Nope. Wheel-to-wheel races? Some. If you’re a basketball player who plays h-o-r-s-e and shoots free throws a few weekends per year, you probably aren’t going to do very well in the neighborhood pickup game much less any kind of league play. But driving is different from basketball because you drive to work every day, right? Not so much. Biking to work every day doesn’t prepare you for riding a half-pipe any more than driving to work prepares you for track driving.

Good news

Since everyone sucks at racing, it doesn’t take much dedicated work to be better than average. Racing isn’t usually measured against some absolute criterion. You don’t have to be the best, just faster than the next driver. The good news is that you can be the fastest driver on track and still suck at racing! So how do you move from the lower levels to the higher levels of suckiness?

  • Knowledge
  • Skill
  • Confidence

Knowledge

Racing is a complex activity because it involves optimizing the driver, the vehicle, and the interplay between the driver and vehicle. If you want to get out of suckville, you need to understand what driving data looks like. It doesn’t look like a stopwatch. At a bare minimum, you need to be able to understand what a speed trace is telling you. Is the driver braking too much? Is the driver fighting understeer at the exit? You can ask and answer these questions and many more with a speed trace.

GPS-based data loggers are not that expensive when you consider the costs of track time or car parts. It’s one of the best investments you can make to improve your driving. Should you get a dedicated unit (e.g. AiM Solo) or use a phone app with a 10Hz GPS antenna? Up to you, but using your phone without an antenna doesn’t give you enough resolution. If you have a modern car, your car is spitting out data for throttle position, brake pressure, wheel speeds, steering angle, etc. Capturing these requires a more sophisticated data logger that connects to the CAN bus (e.g. AiM Solo DL). These extra channels are really helpful, but also a little confusing to the novice. So start with the speed trace.

Video is also very useful because you can see driver activities that don’t show up on a graph (e.g. hand position while steering). The best place to put the camera is on the roll bar so you can see the driver’s hands and legs. If you don’t have a roll bar, a camera mount that attaches to the head rest works well. The picture below shows a mount I made from some box section aluminum, j-hooks, and a RAM connector.

Bottom line: if you’re not using data to improve your driving, you will keep driving around suckville for the rest of your life.

Skill

You’re not going to make it out of suckistan unless you can drive a car near the limit. And by limit I don’t mean your limit. Everyone drives their limit. In the speed traces below, you can see that the red driver and blue driver have very different ideas about what the limit is. In most corners, the blue driver thinks it’s much lower than the red driver.

Regardless of whose limit is higher, the real question is if your limit is close to the actual limit. How do you know the actual limit? Math. Find the radius of the corner and the grip of the tires (from data) and you can estimate the corner speed. Well, that only works to a degree because the real racing line doesn’t have a constant radius (see previous post). But a little math is good for the brain and will give you some feeling for what should be possible.

The very best way to measure your skill is to compare yourself to dozens of other people driving the exact same cars with identical setups and weather conditions. This is generally impossible in the real world, but is trivial in the virtual world. In other words, sim racing is the best way to compare your technique to other drivers.

Bottom line: If you’re not using data to compare your skill to other drivers, you might as well start buying real estate because you’re never leaving suckistan.

Confidence

Most drivers enter fast corners 10-20 mph too slow. Look at the speed trace above. The minimum corner speeds are the same for slow corners but not fast corners. Why? Because people fear losing control of the car at high speed.

Exiting a corner on the limit is like walking on a tight rope. Entering a corner on the limit is like jumping onto a tight rope blindfolded. — Mark Donohue

Walking a tightrope takes bravery/confidence/commitment. Jumping on blindfolded takes more. And yet this is what it takes to drive a car at the limit. If your confidence isn’t the equal of your skill, you will enter corners 10-20 mph off pace and your lap times will suffer. On the other hand, if your confidence is much greater than your skill, you will probably wreck your car.

If you’re not driving the limit because you lack confidence, you will always suck at racing. However, I’m sure your loved ones appreciate your extra margin for safety, so don’t feel bad about it. Also, no matter what you do, you will always suck at racing anyway, because there isn’t enough time and money not to. So lighten up, be safe, and have fun out there! There’s a lot more important stuff in the world than how fast you drive around a race track.

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