March 3, 2008

<a href="">Pictures</a> - <a href="">Video</a> from the school.

I'm now ruined for lapping days. This past weekend, Derek and I went up to Thunderhill for the SCCA Driver Licensing School. This is a mandatory step to being able to compete in SCCA road races for those who don't already have a racing license with an accepted organization. It's a three day school, offering at least two hours of track time per day. On the last day of the school, the "final exam" is in the form of two races with our fellow students.

The week prior to the school is a ground school session where flags are discussed as well as passing rules and some driving technique. The ground school lasts for three hours and is preceeded by a tech session where those with cars who have never raced with SCCA can have their cars inspected by official scrutineers. Our Miata was one of only a few cars that day that passed tech without needing additional work. The scrutineer's comment was "Finally! Someone who read the rulebook."

<img align=left src=>Derek and I roped our dads into coming with us to the school. Between the back-to-back-to-back track and classroom sessions (it's a 3 run group format), there would be little time to set tire pressures, check oil, get the video and data systems ready, set up the seat and belts for the other driver, etc in between. We could not have done as well as we did without them, let alone do it at all!

We packed up the car Thursday afternoon, and left for Thunderhill in the evening, arriving at the track to drop off the car and "stuff" in the paddock at around 8:30pm. We checked into the hotel at about 9pm, and headed for bed soon after with the alarm set for 6am.

After having a little breakfast at the hotel, and tanking up at Starbucks on the way out, we got to the track at around 7:15am. The registration process went very smoothly -- the SCCA runs a very tight ship, with loads of very capable voulnteers to handle each task. After registration we did some prep on the car then went to the first driver's meeting. We were introduced to our instructors, each of whom had 2-3 students for the weekend, and got the lowdown on how the day would go.

I was assigned to James Thomas, who races a Volvo 142 in ITB, and is a really nice guy. James' other student was a college student named Philip, who was also driving a Miata. Philip's dad had been racing in Spec Miata the last year or so, and decided to get his two sons involved. Good move, Philip's dad!

James took us around the track in his Volvo street car (he owns a <a href="">Volvo repair shop</a> in Chico). He showed us the line and discussed the finer points of the track. We were not running the full 15-turn 3.0 mile track, but instead the shorter 1.8 mile 9-turn configuration where we make a sharp left turn before the normal T8, and rejoin between T14 and T15. I was a little bummed about this in the beginning, since T9 in the normal config is one of my favorite turns, but the repition and simplicity of a smaller track was definitely a better choice for this school. After the slow-speed instructor laps, it was off to suit up and get ready to drive!

The first session had passing limited to the front straight only. Several people in my group had never been on a race track before which was a suprising thing to me. The weekend costs a lot in terms of entry fees, preparation, building or renting a car, and time away. I guess some people "just know" they want to race!

The first couple of sessions were a little frustrating for me, since there were some very long lines of cars -- 15 cars at times -- freight-training around the track. Having almost 30 days on track, I'm very comfortable with the car, the track layout, and what goes on at the track (driving in close quarters, looking for flaggers, etc) but I do remember how overwhelming my first couple of track days were. Rather than try to pass 15 cars driving some wild variations of "the line", I drove through pit lane a few times looking for an opening in the train, hoping to come out of the pits just before "the engine". The organizers opened up passing to the whole track on the final session of Friday, and that's where things started to get REALLY fun and I started to be ruined for normal lapping days.

The SCCA mandates that when making a pass, both drivers are responsible for ensuring contact doesn't occur. They specify that all cars maintain control and leave "racing room" when going side-by-side through a turn. This sets up a great environment for driving, since neither driver "owns" the corner and can thus cannot force the other car off track.

Turn 2 was one of my favorite places to do passing. It's a turn where the Miata really shines, since the car can enter at a pretty high speed and maintain a tight line all the way around the turn. Sometimes I'd go into the turn side-by-side with someone, and pass them as we drove through the turn. Tons of fun! I also did some passing into T1 (just slow down a bit more than usual and take a tighter line), T3 (take either the tight line through the turn making sure to be ahead of the other person before T4, or taking the outside line with a better setup for the T4 apex), T6 (inside line is very nice with a lot of grip), and coming out of T9/15 with enough of a head of steam to pass on the front straight -- but that only works on other Miatas, since other cars have a better power-to-weight ratio.

This kind of passing was a very liberating experience, and felt no more dangerous than other open passing trackdays that I had done. Because all the participants had a similar expectation of how things would work, there were no surprises. In a couple of the download sessions on Friday and Saturday, the organizers encouraged us to do MORE passing and to be MORE aggressive! I had never gotten that kind of encouragement before at the track.

I took 5 seconds off my time from Friday to Saturday, then another 2 seconds off from Saturday to Sunday. The desire of wanting to be in front of someone (racing) versus wanting to get clear track (lapping days) was a big factor in that improvement, I think. Derek did well too, taking off similar amounts of time from day to day.

The last sessions of the day on Saturday we got to do a couple of practice race starts. It was really cool to be following a pace car around the track, warming up the brakes and tires, then lining up two abreast on the front straight anticipating the green flag and dropping the hammer when the flag flew and looking for openings to gain position. Tons of fun -- and a dream come true!

We did a normal practice session Sunday morning, then another practice race start session after that. Just before lunch was the first of the two races that would cap the school's curriculum. It was a neat experience, doing a real start followed by 30 minutes of very intense driving. I was gridded in 8th position (the grid was kind of arbitrarily chosen), and managed to pass a handful of cars on the first lap. I was working on on one more -- passing him on the ouside in T9, but the guy didn't leave me room at the exit and I had to slow down so as to not be forced off the track. Because of the slowdown, three cars were able to get by me on the front straight which really steamed me -- I'd have to work at getting by the same people again! Through the rest of the race, I did reel in the cars I had originally passed, and ended up in 10th place.

<img align=right src=>Derek had two clean races but unfortunately the car was spewing coolant after his 2nd race (just prior to my 2nd race), so the car's day was done. I frantically looked for one of the organizers to explain the situation, and maybe rent a car for the 2nd race which was starting in 5 minutes. After explaining the situation, the guy in charge of our group radioed in and said not to worry about it, he would pass me anyway. I had mixed feelings -- on one hand, I was happy to be able to relax after a very long and tiring weekend, but on the other hand, I wanted to race again!

Derek and the dads packed up the truck while I watched my groupmates in their 2nd race. Philip did really well, leading the race for several laps. I really wanted to be out there dicing with him! After our graduation ceremony, we hit the highway and were back home at around 8pm.

I really can't wait to get the car fixed, and prepped for our first race which is the last weekend in March at Infineon Raceway.

<a href="">Pictures</a> - <a href="">Video</a> from the school.