It's now early July and we are heading towards the Fourth and the holiday celebrations. Our last race for the No. 61 ROUSH/Valvoline Mustang was the KONI Sports Car Challenge race at Mid-Ohio, which took place a couple of weeks ago. With the exception of some mechanical failures that were an unfortunate by-product of the sport, we showed very well there. I wanted to take an opportunity to describe some of the preparations that we, as drivers, go through talking specifically about what we did at this race weekend.
Many of my fellow road-racers from Michigan consider Mid-Ohio their "home track"--it's just a three hour drive from the Detroit area. However, I haven't felt this way. Though I've been to this track many times as a spectator (going to my father's Trans-Am races while growing up), I've only driven this course once before when the KONI Challenge was there last back in 2007. It may appear that in racing, if you're good enough, you can just show up and instantly run to the front. I personally haven't ever heard of this happening. It takes years to develop the skills necessary to drive competitively in a professional racing series, and once at an event, the amount of preparation required for both the car and the driver to go fast just for that given weekend is staggering. In the days leading up to the event weekend, the entire team has to thrash to stay ahead of what the other teams are doing.
As a driver, there are a number of things that I do to refine my technique. As I've mentioned in previous articles, I make a lot of use of the iRacing.com simulator. When I'm coming up on a track that's available in this simulator, I try to get as much time as possible practicing on it. This way, I can show up at the track and have some good familiarity with all of the subtle angles of the turns. Without practicing on this simulator, it takes quite a bit of time behind the wheel on the racetrack itself to gain the same familiarity. Unfortunately, Mid-Ohio isn't currently available in iRacing.com, and given that I haven't had a lot of experience there, I had to work especially hard to get up to speed quickly. You may find it surprising, but I find that a very important part of the race preparation as a driver is walking the track. Finding a time to do this can be tough, especially with all of the other things there is to get ready and, obviously, finding a time when cars aren't running on it. Consequently, the best times are usually first thing in the morning or in the evening after the track sessions are over.
I'm sure that you're wondering, "What good does walking on the track do?" That's a good question. When you're driving a race car, you get a lot of feedback about the track and the car. However, given the G-forces in play and the speed at which you're going, there are a lot of small details about the track that are very easy to miss. For example, let's say a turn is banked inward. As you're driving, you may not feel this. Because of your cornering inertia, your sense of "up" is twisted so as to make the banking seem flat. However, knowing that the banking is there allows you to better judge the maximum turning speed through that corner, which you might not be able to guess looking at it through the windshield. There are countless other details to take in when walking the track. Another big one is the track texture itself, which plays a huge role in what you can do, and if it's raining, the fast line on the track can be 180 degrees off from where it is in the dry. Seeing the track's texture up close helps in judging where the fast line in under varying conditions.
The list of details to pick up about a track could go on, but the simple fact is that walking the track helps a great deal. In doing this, it's important to notice all of the subtle details, but not get lost in them. At least for me, this exercise seems to feed the subconscious some information that you may not be consciously thinking about while on the track. It's easy to blow this off and say, "There's just not enough time to mess with this." However, from my own personal experience, I've found that I'm a much faster driver when I do take the time and do this. I started walking the racetrack first when I was six years old. Every day that I had a go-kart race, my father would walk the track with me, and I'm certain that this contributed a great deal to my early development as a driver.
So, on the first day at Mid-Ohio I walked the track with my new co-driver, Billy Johnson. This was my second event working with Billy. He looks like a young kid, and at just 23-years old he is (depending on your perspective). But don't let his youth fool you. Billy has got a ton of racing experience, and he's got the talent to go along with it. If I understand it correctly, while a teenager, he was the youngest person hired as an instructor by the Skip Barber driving school. Put simply, he's one of the fastest drivers in our series, and its great having him on the No. 61 ROUSH/Valvoline team. This relates to my next part of preparation - reviewing the data.
One of the great things in endurance racing with more than one driver is that you can compare data from each other's time behind the wheel. We use a data acquisition system called AIM. This system records all kinds of things: speed, throttle position, lateral inertia, water temperature, and many others. It records all of this data with respect to time and position on the racetrack. This may not sound especially exciting; however, what this offers is a pretty good idea of who is doing what on the track and how that affects their overall speed. Of course, you can also compare drivers' laps against each other to see how slight variations in technique affect overall speed.
As a driver, you can get a fair sense of your speed, but it's not great. If you go off the track, obviously that lap isn't going to be good. However, if you are on the track running the fast line, how do you know if your last lap was faster than the one before? And even if you do compare lap times, where did you gain or lose time exactly? Data allows you to very clearly answer these questions. With our current set-up, there are many things that the data won't tell you, such as subtle differences in line, steering input, brake pressure, etc. However, once we've identified the areas on the track where there are differences in speed, we can talk in great detail about what causes those differences and look at the in-car video.
Over the past few years, I've been able to learn a lot quickly by going over data with people who are much more experienced in racing full-sized production cars like the Mustang than myself. I place tremendous value on this exercise--there's no doubt that this has been one of the keys to allowing me to gain speed as quickly as I have in these cars.
It goes without saying that we used this tool to a great extent at Mid-Ohio. As a result of data evaluation, walking the track, and going over several ideas on driving technique at this track with Billy, I was able to become quite fast at Mid-Ohio in a short time. In the morning practice before the race, it was raining, and I was at the top of the charts (for lap time) during most of my time out. During the race, again, we had a few mechanical failures (a fatigued tie-rod and separately, an electrical problem) that put us out of contention. However, during my stint, I had the fastest Mustang lap time up to that point in the race with a 1:34.065.
By focusing on the driving aspect, I don't mean to downplay the importance of having a great crew. Obviously, there is much preparation that goes on outside of those that I've gone over that are critically important. Luckily, we have a lot of talent that sits behind the pit wall. I'd go on and try to explain better what they do here, but that will have to wait for a later time. Until then, I look forward to our upcoming race at Barber Motorsports Park in just a couple of weeks. This is a track where both Billy and I have had success in the past, and I know that our crew will have one of the hottest rides in the field ready for us to drive, hopefully to victory lane.