Welcome to the big leagues: how to get faster, faster

This was originally posted on jleez.net on June 19, 2015. Someone on Facebook asked me where the post went, so I’m reposting this on one of my current blogs.

It’s interesting to see how things changed over the past six years. In the time since I wrote this, Ido has continued to run National events, fell into a friend group of serious competitors that kept pushing him and truly is a much faster driver than I am now. Adam Deffenbaugh now runs a FSP Mazda3 and has developed that car into a formidable threat on course, and is now regularly competing for the top spot in National competition.

Myself, I’ve improved too, though not nearly as much as Ido and Adam have.

Another day, another beat down in STR. I had respectable times at the Toledo Pro Solo, but respectable times don’t get you anywhere close to the trophies when the class is stacked so deep with talented drivers and extremely well developed cars.

While I ended up pretty much where I thought I’d be, considering the poor driving I did (no one to blame but myself for consistently blowing one of the only two braking zones on the entire damn course), it was with minor anguish and slight bemusement that I watched my friend Ido struggle with car and his driving at the Pro. I felt sorry for him because I’ve been in his shoes before; slight bemusement because I knew that what happened to me would also happen to him.

However, if he doesn’t throw in the towel after these initial setbacks, he will be in a better spot than I was two years ago.

You don’t know what fast is until you’ve competed against fast

I still remember it like it was only yesterday. I had somehow managed to put Mike “Junior” Johnson in my car as my Pro Solo codriver at the DC Pro. I placed 22nd out of 29 drivers in STR. Junior took my car all the way to 2nd place, and if the car had been properly tuned, he probably would have taken 1st. Nothing like driving slow at a big event and knowing that it’s you, not the car, because the proof is standing there on the podium and taking your own car into the Super Challenge.

The shock of realizing what fast driving really was is something that has stuck with me for quite a long time. The upper East Coast of the US is a hotbed of STR competition, something that really doesn’t exist en masse in the Midwest. I wasn’t expecting to get demolished that badly, but in hindsight, it makes sense: I had never competed against full-tilt STR cars up until that point.

It’s the degree of competition on the East Coast that draws me in. I was sad that this year I couldn’t make the NJ Pro. I’m hoping I can put the DC Pro next year back onto my calendar. Good competition, a bunch of STR friends, and awful karaoke is always a combination I’ll try to strive for.

Having missed out on the NJ Pro, my best hope for seeing the East Coast competition rested on the Ohio events. Having missed the first Wilmington Pro due to travel overseas, the Toledo Pro was the first time this year that I’ve faced off against the familiar faces from the New England Region (NER) and Washington DC Region (WDCR).

Having known quite a few of the drivers, I was fully expecting the beat-down that commenced at Toledo once the course was dry and we were all on equal terms. I suspect Ido wasn’t quite ready for how fast the competition proved to be.

That’s because in the Street Touring classes, you have to have two ingredients in equal amounts: a car that is well set up for the driver and the conditions you are facing that day, and a driver with the skill and ability to execute. Both ingredients aren’t easy to come by.

Ido did have the benefit of James Yom as his codriver for the day, so on the driver part, Ido had that covered, as James is a very good wheel from the West Coast. Unfortunately, I suspect the Ido’s Miata hasn’t seen any setup changes since it was under the ownership of Joe Calder and John Ma took the car into the trophies at the 2013 Nationals. I also suspect that the car had never seen a Pro Solo, which meant that issues with launching the car (the same issues I faced last year) never surfaced until this weekend, frustrating both James and Ido.

As a result, Ido’s Miata had the bogging-at-launch issues that an EcuTek tune with launch control (even when not activated) had. Also, a car that was set up for Dunlop Dirreza ZIIs (not even talking about the latest Star Spec here) probably needs a serious redevelopment effort as street tire grip (not to mention the changes in tire handling characteristics) has jumped by leaps and bounds. This weekend was the first weekend that Ido bolted on the brand-new set of the latest and greatest Bridgestones. James was quite vocal about his unhappiness with the car.

In STR this weekend, the trophy positions, 1st through 6th, are covered in the span of a single second. Then you’ve got the rest of the “quick” drivers, covering the span of just another half a second back, covering positions 7th through 13th. Depending on where you compete locally, a difference of 1.5 seconds might not be much of a gulf between different drivers. When the competition is stiff, being 1.5 seconds behind the leader (like me, sitting in 12th in class) is a damn eternity.

The fast drivers were once slow, too

It’s all too easy to forget that some of the fastest drivers in the sport of autocross are fast because the tremendous amount of work they put into their cars and their own driving. I think a lot of newer drivers jump into the deep end of competition, see what they’re up against, and lose all hope of ever being as fast as the fast guys, dropping out before they give themselves a chance to improve.

I was nearly there myself. Last year was supposed to be my last year running STR, after which this year the plan was to turn the Miata in a track day car. But thanks to the incredible support of my friends in the WDCR, I stuck through things long enough to start seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. My finish at last year’s Nationals was good enough to compel me to give STR one more shot.

So I’m seeing some progress. It’s still slow and painful, always seemingly two steps forward but one step back. It was during Spring Nationals when shooting the shit with STR drivers that I typically don’t compete against that some perspective on driver improvement was drilled into my head.

At Spring Nationals this year were two Texas competitors that I typically don’t see at Midwest or Great Lakes Region events. One such competitor was Ricky Crow, a fellow I met back in Central Illinois when he codrove Clark Walker’s STR BMW Z3 Roadster while on a temporary work location assignment.

I had just finished my third run on the first day of the Champ Tour. The Miata was parked in grid, and I was cursing myself for messing up the run that would have kept me solidly in the trophies.

Ricky, one of the hot shots in contention for the event win, asked me how long I had been autocrossing.

“Seven to eight years, I guess,” I said.

“Seventeen years,” he replied, pointing to himself.

Ricky would expand on that comment the next day, when we were sitting in grid waiting for the start of runs for Day 2. Once Ricky had gotten reasonably good locally, he started giving National competition a go. At his first Nationals, he came in at the bottom of his class. The next year, he improved to mid-pack. Hmm, sounds suspiciously like my Nationals experience so far…

Bottom line was this: Ricky had a period of time at the beginning where he wasn’t very good. But he kept at it, and now he’s currently one of the people to beat in STR. I don’t think my driver path will follow Ricky’s, but it’s nice to know that it could possibly happen to me if I work hard enough.

I was also talking to David Whitener, another driver fighting for the top spot in STR at the Tour at Spring Nationals. I met him at Blytheville, where he proceeded to put a can of whoop-ass on STF and gave me a couple of things to think about regarding whether or not it was necessary to make major setup changes to account for the new crop of much-grippier street tires. I was picking his brain about test and tunes, when he noted that there was another benefit to test and tunes: seat time. He has done “test and tunes,” which ended up being more of a practice session in which drivers essentially hot-lapped the course, after regular autocross events down in Texas, with some friends, thereby getting loads and loads of seat time. The key, he said, was to get several magnitudes more seat time than what a typical casual autocrosser would be able to get in a single season of autocross.

He also shared with me that he too was terrible for a long time. It took him several years to break into the top PAX locally. But he kept at it, and now he’s shaking things up in STF, and nearly took the STR Tour win at Spring Nationals in an NB Miata.

I also spent a lot of time chatting with Jason Rhoades at Spring Nationals, the man behind the much-admired STX 1967 Camaro. (I may or may not have spotted his Nissan 370Z in the paddock, and then proceeded to park right next to him…) The Nissan 370Z is a bit of a newcomer to the STR class, and an unusual wild card at that. Jason has one of the most developed 370Zs for the class.
While he is quick to downplay his driving skill — he is absolutely a top-notch driver — he most well known in autocross circles for attempting and successfully making cars competitive that most people would think otherwise.

He’s an earnest, down-to-earth guy, and his methods of car setup are, quite frankly, not at all earth-shattering. He just has a solid and extensive understanding about how systems work and work together in a car, has access to experts who can fill in the gaps, and is methodical in how he tests and makes changes. He just seems like a normal dude who is able to start from nothing and get to a good setup, even for relatively unknown cars, and be able to win, and it gives me hope that I, as also a seemingly normal dude, can do the same thing, even as I currently fumble about in trying to understand how much compression needs to be dialed into my shocks.

A path foretold

I’m partially to blame for Ido’s purchase of an STR Miata. Last year, I let him take my STR Miata out for a drive, as he was considering buying one for himself. He liked my car, and I spoke well of Joe Calder’s car, so he went ahead and purchased that car.

From the very beginning, however, I worried that he was setting himself up for disappointment. My initial advice to him was to keep his NB Miata, return it back to stock, and run it in E Street class. That option waived, my next suggestion was to buy a stock Honda S2000 and run it in B Street class, the reasoning being that with fewer things to fiddle with on the car, the more attention can be focused on learning how to drive. (It also helped that S2000s are sweet cars, Ido has always wanted one, and they are holding their value very well.)

In the end, Ido came home with an NC Miata that trophied at the first Nationals I ever attended. After an initial shock to the system when Ido took his Miata out to his first “local” event (in Rantoul, Illinois) and compared his times against mine, he’s rebounded quite nicely and is steadily improving. In all honesty, for such a new driver, he’s actually very decent.

But STR cars are fast cars, and sometimes hard to drive fast. When the calculator racing PAX tells you that a 160 horsepower roadster on fat street tires should be faster than a stock Corvette Z06 on street tires — yeah, we’re talking about some serious speed here. Add in all of the variables that are difficult to get right, a minute error in car setup or driving line is enough to throw you into a wide time gulf between you and first place.

Ido was understandably confused as to how he was so slow. I’d come through the finish thinking that that run was for sure faster, but the time board would never reflect that, he said. (Been there, done that, many times.) Where exactly is all the extra speed coming from?

If it’s anything like my experience with Junior at the wheel years ago when I asked the same question, the answer is everywhere. The fast drivers are able to keep the car on the limit of traction while, and this is hugely important, maintaining the correct line through the course for their car. The fast drivers drive way harder while being, at the exact same time, much more precise than your average driver. It’s much easier said than done.

At the top level of competition, differences in inches for where two different drivers apex could result in time differences of tenths of a second. Blowing a braking zone by 2 feet could effectively regulate your run time to mid-pack. So yeah, welcome to the top tiers of competition. It’s pretty ruthless out there.

Get beat on the National stage, beat others everywhere else

Adam Deffenbaugh is a friend from Central Illinois whom I met years ago at Rantoul, where I first started autocrossing. He has a very busy autocross schedule, with him running St. Louis Region events as well as Champaign County Sports Car Club events as his local schedule in addition to his National schedule of events. I pretty much see him at all of the National events I’ve been running so far and will continue to do so, and will probably see him some more after Nationals is done and we both go back to Rantoul to keep autocrossing into November.

We were having lunch at Spring Nationals when the conversation turned to how we stacked up as drivers against the fast guys in National competition and against the local friends back home. In terms of speed, Adam and I squarely average among the National drivers, and frequently are reminded of this fact when we see the results sheets in impound.

However, at our local events, we’re regarded as fast drivers, which is a weird disconnect between where we want to be in terms of speed and how many others regard our driving. I cringe a bit when someone else describes me as “fast”; the most charitable descriptor I’m willing to give myself is “quick.” Maybe if I want to impress someone, I’ll add the words “pretty” in front.

But the hedonic treadmill is a very real thing. And from the perspective of a local driver at Rantoul, yes, I am fast when I’m fighting for top PAX and my little Miata on street tires is jockeying with an E Sreet Prepared Mustang on race tires for fastest time of the day.

All the while, I’m there cursing myself for driving too conservatively. It’s a serious problem that I’m fighting right now, as I’m driving totally within my own comfort zone and not attacking a course like I should be. I’m too scared to approach the limits in my car and keep it there — I lift too frequently when I get frightened — which means my runs are safe but slow.

But no one likes a Debbie Downer, and I’d feel like a tremendous asshole bitching about my poor performance when almost everyone else would love to have my “problem.” So I’ll smile and not complain about my driving, congratulate the driver on her first FTD and remind her husband that his collection of purses will grow by one more.

Back in my early years of autocrossing, before competing Nationally was ever a thought in my head, I was autocrossing in Central Illinois when the Borowski brothers showed up to our Rantoul event in an E Stock Mazda Miata. Now those who know the “Polish sisters,” as some folks jokingly call them, know that they are fucking fast as hell.

How fast? Well, Bartek brought the hammer down, putting down the fastest time of the day. No one could touch him, including the E Street Prepared and Super Stock cars that were running big fat race tires. His brother, Hubert, was nearly as fast.

I managed to convince Hubert to let me ride along with him during one of his runs. Holy fucking shit. It felt like, to my young and inexperienced brain, Hubert was doing a continuous four wheel drift throughout the entire course, the car moving and squirming for traction beneath our seats for 60 seconds. And Hubert was the slower Polish sister. I can’t imagine how insane Bartek’s driving must be.

That ride left an indelible impression on me. I would like to someday be good enough that I can roll into a small local autocross and absolutely demolish all comers with a Miata. That’s probably at least a decade off, but it’s something I can shoot for…

Don’t quit

I was at Steve’s house not too long ago, admiring the latest purchase to grace his garage: a purple Neon prepared for Spec Neon racing. He was tired of getting so soundly beat by the likes of Junior in A Street, and unwilling to bear the cost of keeping his Corvette competitive, especially when it came to the tire bill. The plan is to run the Neon as often as possible at Waterford Hills this year in preparation for a season of local time trials next year.

While I’ll always support the move from having a very expensive competition car that leaves little headroom in the budget for prep and support to having a very cheap competition car that leaves lots of headroom in the budget for prep and support, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Steve roughed it out and stuck to it. I’m pretty sure he’s hit the same plateau that I hit last year in terms of driver improvement, the no man’s land of “I think I’m doing things right, so why don’t the timing boards reflect that?” Of course, all of this motorsports stuff is supposed to be fun, so I can totally understand when someone like Steve decides to take a break and go try something else.

But I’ll admit to my own biases against local-only competition. I don’t know how steep the competition is at Waterford Hills when it comes to Spec Neon, but at first glance, Spec Neon appears to be limited to this little corner of Michigan. The best people at anything, whether it be autocross, road racing, swing dancing, basketball, chess, competitive hot dog eating, etc. are the people that travel about to find the toughest avenues of competition. And while I do motorsports for fun, just as critical for me is the drive to improve, a tangible goal for me to shoot for, and when the drive for improvement diminishes, so does my enthusiasm. Unless the local competition also just happens to be the best competition in the entire nation, I would never be able to bear just competing locally. There’s just too many good drivers to meet and compete against, make friends with, and eat Mexican food with and shoot the shit with after events.

Which is why, if Ido doesn’t let this setback — one that pretty much every single fast autocrosser experiences when they first jump into stiff competition, mind you — hold him back, he could (and probably will) become a faster driver than me in the future. He will know, early on, just how fast fast really is, and can build towards that. He’s got the benefit of youth on his side. He listens to feedback and does his best to act upon it, which is refreshing to see when a lot of newer drivers typically begin with the attitude “I know everything.”

Because most of the folks I’ve talked to in the autocross circles never got truly fast until they started driving the National circuit. Rarely do you see someone get super fast locally, then jump into the National circuit, and blow everyone’s shorts away. Most of the fast “overnight successes” have been working on their success stories over the course of years, sometimes even decades. Ido’s got a head start, basically jumping into the deep end on his second or third year of autocrossing.

If I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be this: I’d tell myself after my very first National Tour to keep going to National Tours. I would be a much better driver today if I had started seriously competing on the National circuit in 2010 or 2011 instead of “waiting” until 2013 to have a go at it.

There are many reasons that people do motorsports. Having fun surely ranks as number one, but if improving as a driver is also a high priority, then I suggest that it would be in your best interest to find the toughest competition you can. People talk about “competition improving the breed” when it comes to cars and technology, but that also applies to people.

Seth Godin summarizes this thought quite succinctly:

But the real reason is mental, not based on physics. Drafting works because, right in front of you is proof that you can go faster.

Without knowing it, you do this at work every day. We set our pace based on what competitors or co-workers are doing. One secret to making more of an impact, then, is figuring out who you intend to follow. Don’t ‘pace yourself,’ instead, find someone to unknowningly pace you.

Now go out there and get your ass beat by the competition. We can commiserate together after the event with Mexican food or bad karaoke.