Race Report: Lemons Thunderhill

I’ll be updating this post each day.

Thursday – arrival

In the picture below you can see how simple my race operation is. I flat tow my Yaris behind a 3.0L Ranger. It’s a very flat route so the 145 hp Ranger has no problems towing the car and gear. I arrived at the track at 4:30 the day before the test and tech day to try to get a good pit spot. I wanted something under the awning so I could shelter the pit from sun/rain. Mission accomplished.

Friday – test and tech

Tech was a breeze. The car has raced in several other series and all the safety issues are well sorted. We got into the B class with zero penalty laps. That was what we expected.

We had decided that the full test day was too expensive. $349 for 1 driver and $149 for each additional. We considered doing the half day at $249 + $100 but then decided to play a joke instead. People walked by and  puzzled: “why is the wing on the front”. We dead-panned “it’s front-wheel drive”. The look of disbelief on Daniel and Mario’s faces was worth the effort.

The weather forecast changes hourly. The latest news is that Saturday should be dry all day with a high of 78. Sunday may be wet in the morning. I told the team I get to drive the wettest stint. That may screw up driver order, but as team owner, I’m putting my foot down on that. There’s no way I can keep up with the fastest cars on a dry track, but give me puddles and let’s see who comes out on top.

Saturday – race day

The race day didn’t start the way we wanted. Our first driver got 2 black flags. One of them was for going off track to avoid a collision. I’ll take a black flag over dents any day. But 2 black flags pretty much put us out of contention. Also, there was some blisteringly fast B cars we could never catch. Our second driver didn’t like the way the car was driving. Actually, neither did the first driver. When I asked if the rear had no traction, he said neither end had traction. Puzzling. So we decided to turn the rest of the race day into a tuning day.

Mario went out and came back in after a few laps complaining that the car was oversteering badly. We were running Federal 595 RS-RR 225/45/15 15×9 on the front and Falken RT615K+ 205/50/15 15×7 rear. So we decided to switch the rears out for a stickier compound: Brigestone RE-71R 205/50/15 15×7. This time he stayed out a while and had a great race with a pickup. When he came back in, he said the car was much more neutral now and that I should get in to see what I thought.

The first thing I thought was the brakes are still mushy. The pedal starts hard but just mushes out and goes to the floor. That’s really disconcerting because it gives you very little brake feel. And without a firm pedal, it’s pretty hard to heel-toe shift. Oh well, I just did more straight-line braking and eased in the clutch. Not ideal, but I’m okay working around problems. It’s likely an aging master cylinder.

The next thing I thought was that the 225 RS-RRs 15×9 aren’t that much different from the 205 15×7 I had run in earlier races. The tires don’t actually feel very fast. Part of that is because they are miserable under braking. They slide way too easily. They aren’t a particularly loud tire, like say the NT-05, and in 225 they are definitely on the quiet side. I started to understand why driver 2 thought the car had no grip on either end. The RS-RR doesn’t feel like it stops very well, so it appears to have no front grip. But once you get into a corner, it’s side grip is really good and overwhelms the thinner and harder rear tire, leading to oversteer. Mario said it was a lot of work just keeping it on track. I didn’t get to try the 615K+ rear setup, but the RE-71R rears felt pretty well planted.

While the car felt like it had better acceleration at low speeds, surely due to the weight loss, the drag was noticeably higher. This may be because the cut down doors don’t have mirrors or the wind deflectors I added. So the inside of the car turned into a parachute. It meant that top speed on the main straight was just 90-91 mph, or about 5 mph lower than usual. That didn’t stop me from having fun though. I managed a 3:43 in my few laps on track. You can see the entire stint in the video below (quality is not good because Windows 10 Movie Maker sucks. I may re-encode this on my Mac later in the week).

Sunday – race day

The forecast was wrong. We arrived at the track to find it drying. I was expecting a lot of rain early so I could one-up some fast cars but it just wasn’t very wet. Discouraged, I decided not to drive first. Danny drove first and while he was out we got our pit crew member, Tiernan, a driving wristband. He got in the car next and despite all the warnings about the blind turn 9C that connects the East and West tracks, he did what a lot of people do, and drove straight though. When he got to the penalty box, they decided to throw the book at him. My book. I had dropped off about 15 copies of the book to be sold for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand charity. Tiernan’s penalty was to read a passage from the book while being filmed. If it doesn’t make the Lemons wrap-up video, I’ll post it here.

The rain started picking up and it seemed there was enough rain to have a bit of fun. And fun was had. I got my wish and was able to dice with the fastest cars on track… and beat them.

Mario drove next and also had a blast splashing around (in the muck and the mire). But then the track started drying and he decided it just wasn’t as much fun. We wanted to get Daniel and Tiernan back in the car one more time, so they split the time on a mostly dry track. In the end, we were 56th out of 110 entries, or something like that. After we realized we weren’t in contention, we relaxed and had a lot of fun. This weekend reminds me how much fun Lemons is. That said, Lemons is changing, and not necessarily for the better. I’ll comment on that later.

Rev-mashing: part 2 of 2

Are you rev-matching or rev-mashing? Let’s repeat the question from the end of last week. Where in the corner should you downshift and what are the consequences of shifting at the wrong point.

Red Zone

Lots of people start to downshift during threshold braking. As soon as they hit the brakes, they also depress the clutch and blip the throttle. There are several problems with this.

  • The car was already at high RPM and the blip just sent it even higher.
  • The car is currently going too fast to engage the lower gear.
    • If you shift to the lower gear immediately, you may destroy the engine by revving it past redline.
    • If you wait with the clutch depressed, the engine and transmission will spin down, negating any benefit of blipping the throttle. When you do engage the clutch, you’ll have to feed it in gradually to prevent locking up the tires. Congrats, you just ruined your brake bias and made the stopping distance longer. You’re also putting wear on the clutch.

Blip-shifting in the red zone is the worst possible place to shift.

Orange Zone

This is generally the best place to downshift. For really long decreasing radius corners, it’s too early though, as you’re still aggressively bleeding speed through half the corner.

Yellow Zone

In this trail-braking zone, your concentration should be on controlling the speed and angle of the car using a combination of brake pedal and steering wheel. It’s not a good time to take your hand off the wheel or dance on pedals.

Green Zone

This is the point of maximum lateral g-force. Your foot is making the transition from brake to throttle. In longer corners with extended trail-braking zones, this is a fine time to shift.

Blue Zone

You’re balancing throttle and steering as you pass the apex and track out to the exit. The over-rotation you initiated in trail-braking has to be wound out some in here. Probably better to keep both hands on the wheel.

Purple Zone

Although it seems way too late, shifting in the Purple zone is an ok place to shift. You’re not going to break any lap records doing it this way, but you’re also not going to do any damage to the car. If you drive through a corner in a gear that’s too high, it’s not that big a deal. If you’re balancing throttle and steering, as you should be, you don’t really need full power anyway. I don’t know anyone who actually downshifts after a corner. It would be like shooting free-throws underhanded: works okay, but looks too silly to be taken seriously.


Here’s a popular YouTube video instructing how to heel-toe shift. The video overlays footwork and RPMs. Watch as he starts the downshift too early. The revs drop and feeds out the clutch gradually. If you have to release the clutch gradually, you’re not rev-matching, you’re engine-braking (or engine-breaking). One wonders how such a flawed example can have so many views.

Here’s the right way to do it. Notice how quickly the clutch is released as he blips each gear. You might also notice how he changes his hand position depending on which gear he’s selecting. It’s most noticeable for 2nd gear where he rotates his hand thumb-down. He’s not doing this to look cool, but I’m guessing somewhere there’s a ricer in a stanced Honda back-handing every fucking gear…

YRAR: straight off track

You Rock at Racing continues this week with another near disaster averted by an astute driver. In the following clip, the POV driver follows a tail happy car through a series of corners. The car ahead spins. The POV driver slows and thinks he can get by, but then the car changes direction…

Had the POV driver slowed more, he wouldn’t have had to take evasive action. But in the heat of the moment, you can’t always make the right decision. But what he did next was great: zeroed the steering and went off track straight with the car completely under control. After slowing down a little, he eased the car back on track. Excessive turning in grass or dirt often leads to a spin that sends you careening across the track. Props to this driver who made the exit and entry look easy.

If you ever find yourself about to leave the asphalt, try to remember two things: (1) ZERO the steering (2) be PATIENT coming back on track.

A few times per year at Thunderhill they hold a teen driving clinic. It’s the only place I’ve seen where they purposefully instruct drivers to drop 2 wheels in the dirt and then ease the car back on the pavement. I wish that was a standard part of the HPDE curriculum. Unfortunately, I don’t know a safe way to practice this skill in reality. Some simulators handle off-track excursions well enough to be useful, but it’s track dependent, and some tracks are highly unrealistic. My advice is to find a sim/track combination that punishes you severely and then train on that until “ZERO the steering” and “be PATIENT coming back on track” are automatic responses.

YRAR: control under fire

At the amateur level, most crashes can be attributed to bad judgement. But not always. Sometimes you’re the victim of someone else’s stupidity, and the worst you can say about your part in it is that you decided to get in the car. So what do you do when you find yourself in a mess that someone else made? Nobody rises to the occasion. We all fall back on our training. But who trains for getting hit?

Well that was pretty impressive! Controlling a skidding car through a pack of parked cars after a massive rear-end collision is no mean feat. Well, he is a pro-ish racer (slumming in a Lemons race). Has he done this so many times that it’s become second nature? Doubtful. What he has is years of experience controlling an out-of-control car. How does one acquire such skill? Skid pads and simulators. I’ve talked a lot about simulation in the past, so let me say a few words about skid pads. Any parking lot can be a skid pad, but that doesn’t mean you should head to your office parking lot on a rainy Christmas Eve when nobody is there. I’ve never done that…

I coach mostly for Hooked on Driving, and part of their novice curriculum includes skid pad drills. When I coach, I often use the time between sessions driving on the skid pad. I find it so useful that I often choose training on the skid pad over training on the track. What? Skip a track session on a twisty ribbon of asphalt for a flat parking lot and cones? Yep. The reason is that the an HPDE session is not the place to throw your car into massive slides. It sets a bad example and potentially endangers other cars.

So what do I do when I get to the skid pad? Figure 8s and switchbacks. Not many tracks feature 270° 30 mph corners, so it may seem figure 8s drills are pointless. But the extra rotation of the wheel is something that may happen in a tank-slapper. Normally, I’m a dedicated 9-n-3 driver, but I’ve learned that I have to break out of this at times. So I practice one handed, hand-over-hand, shuffle steering, and even letting go of the wheel. The thing I don’t like about figure 8s is the low speed. So that’s where the switchbacks come in. It’s basically a slalom course, but unlike an autocross, the cones are much farther apart. This allows me to get a lot of speed and turning through each cone.

If you’re spending a day on the skid pad, put cheap all season tires on the rear. This helps FWD cars oversteer and saves cash on RWD cars.

YRAR: mechanical awareness

In case you missed it last week, You SUCK at Racing is taking brief journey into You ROCK at Racing.

Novice racers or even HPDE track drivers can have so much of their attention on controlling their car that they don’t notice anything else around them. Tunnel vision can be pretty dangerous in a sport like auto racing where danger is literally all around you. Having the awareness to notice that there are mechanical problems in your car or someone else’s car is a higher level of driving than simply lapping quickly. I think almost anyone can learn to drive a car within a couple seconds of the class lap record. But doing that in a race setting while managing the traffic around you, monitoring gauges, communicating with the pit, and making mental notes about setup changes is another thing entirely.

In my “First-timers” page (see link at the top), I give some advice for people doing their first race. I just added a new item (#6) inspired by the following video. It’s really important to have enough spare mental capacity to notice that the car you’re following is about to blow up and spread oil all over the track.

Well done!

YRAR: tankslapper avoidance

Here on YSAR, one of the more common themes is that crashes are avoidable. The source of crashes ranges from inexperience to red mist to bad luck. However, even really good drivers in well-built cars find themselves in difficult situations. You can’t really control what other drivers are doing. With that in mind, let’s briefly turn YSAR into YRAR: You Rock at Racing. It goes against the theme of the site, but let’s look at some excellent decision making.

Downhill corners are some of the most dangerous areas on a track because the weight of the car shifts forward. A car that has neutral handling will become prone to oversteer simply because of gravity. If the car happens to be FWD, it has ~60% of the weight on the front wheels in the paddock. Mix that with a fast downhill corner, like the Laces at Watkins Glen, and you have a perfect storm for uncontrolled oversteer. Watch the driver below see the tankslapper develop and get on the brakes just long enough to ensure safety.

A more aggressive driver would see the loss of control as a passing opportunity and tried to pass immediately. Surely the driver could have done this and improved their position, but there is risk to both cars. In a 2-day endurance race, the wise thing to do is to keep your car safe (which has the added benefit of keeping the other car safe too). You can brake and still make the pass, as this driver shows. Superb decision making and great driving!

S is for Style

There are two basic styles of driving: (1) point-n-shoot (2) momentum. The point-n-shoot driver is more aggressive with their inputs. She brakes harder, gets on the gas sooner, and countersteers bigger. The momentum driver is lighter on the brakes, smoother mid-corner, and gets on the gas later. Each style has its advantages, and neither one is necessarily best. Driver style goes much deeper than this simple dichotomy, however. Even something as mundane as how a driver holds the steering wheel has loads of personality. Do you fix your hands at 9 and 3 or move them around the wheel? Do you encircle the wheel with your thumbs or leave them on top? Do you push or pull? Do you have your palms on the wheel or just your fingers?

What’s your style when it comes to incidents? Do you tense up? Does it knock you off your game? How quickly do you get back to racing?

If you’re this driver, you’re so cool that you can give a sarcastic thumbs up in the middle of an incident and flick the other car off your bumper like an ant off a picnic table. 5/10 for safety, but 10/10 for style.