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A New Grip on Reality

Every girl has the exact grip level she wants.

I love that. Such a great statement about mindset.

While I'd like to take credit for it, in point of fact I borrowed the structure of the phrase from a movie and the sentiment from Ross Bentley's "Speed Secrets Weekly". But it's the perfectly apt description that I've been trying to come up with for the shift in my focus and mindset lately.

It's so easy to fall into the trap of saying, "Just look at those massive rear tires! Of course he's going to wallop me in the corners with all that grip!" I found myself thinking exactly that every time a modern higher-horsepower car driving with worse technique would blow past me. But at some point this started to feel like a cop-out. It also started to feel like it went against the whole philosophy of "focus on the positive", and I began to see that fixating on all the grip I didn't have was holding me back from being fully aware of all the grip I did have.

I'm amazed at how much that nearly imperceptible shift in thinking can radically alter what you let yourself feel from the car. Realigning my thinking about grip drastically increased the amount of grip that I could both sense and access from my own narrow spec tires. Now I just feel silly for not realizing how much grip was there all along.

Yet another compelling re-affirmation of the power that mindset and sensory perception have in improving my driving.

Another great lesson from Ross that's been on my mind lately is the idea of Plus, Equal, Minus learning. Equal is easy for me - family get-togethers pretty much cover the gamut from tires to camber to alignment to shock settings and sway bar adjustments, to grip and the friction circle and car balance and weight transfer and brake release and throttle application...and, well, I think by now you’re probably getting the picture.

Minus is also something I'm getting bit-by-bit as I instruct at a handful of events over the year. I love having light bulb moments myself, and that moment when you see the light bulb go on for another person is even more gratifying. Especially so when it’s been a challenge to figure out how to help them get there from the right seat of an unfamiliar car!

Plus is more challenging. I still read Ross’s emails, along with other blogs and websites we’ve come across over the years. But by becoming an instructor I’d relinquished the opportunity to have someone more experienced in the right seat with me. I’d hit that plateau in my driving that everyone warns about. I was too close to my own bad habits for long enough, and through enough situations where my knowledge was underdeveloped, that I was struggling to self-critique.

So when an opportunity came up in September to get some pro-coaching, I jumped at it. By some stroke of luck, I got to have three (!!) stellar drivers ride with me over the course of a day. At first it was a little overwhelming, both just the act of being the student again and the quantity of information coming in. Well...perhaps not even so much the quantity of information, but the amount of thinking I was forced to do in order to apply the information and adjust my driving.

In fact, the advice itself was fairly simple - do better braking, and fix your heel-toe downshift.

Better braking was an area I was already trying to work on, so by asking the right questions I was able to get more information out of my three coaches and come away with some fantastic new things to ponder and implement. The first braking critique was to brake harder in the hardest braking zones (this was Auto Club Speedway, so Turn 3 off the oval was the big one). According to my three coaches, I am apparently not afraid of anything (ha!). the end of the three-day event...I got down to using about half my original braking distance going into Turn 3.

An unexpected benefit was that the shorter braking zone forced me to get comfortable trail braking like a madwoman to balance the car - which turned out to be incredibly, unbelievably, fantastically friggin fun! Not only that, but it bought me a little time by staying at full throttle for a beat longer (OK, let's be real: I'd bet that I was not at full throttle right up until I went to brakes - I'm totally a chicken, contrary to popular belief). The more aggressive braking also allowed me to rotate the car earlier and more quickly so that I could get a straighter shot through the quick left-right 90-degree combo, allowing me to both carry more speed and get back to throttle sooner.

In fact, the whole sequence had to happen so much more quickly and in a much more condensed distance that it began to reveal a myriad of other flaws with my footwork (yippee). The rapid succession of brake-turn-release made it much more difficult not be overly abrupt when getting back to throttle (if only I had three feet...). It also magnified the ill-effects of my sloppy heel-toe downshifting. Shoot, I was really hoping no one would notice that (more on that later).

The second braking critique was that I should stop thinking of every braking zone as a threshold braking zone. I'm going to put this one down (partly) to lack of familiarity with the track (first time driving there was at this event). But realistically this is a concept I've struggled with for a while. (Do I brake this hard here? Nope, too much! Maybe I brake this hard here? Gah, wrong again! Maybe I don't have to brake that much here at all? !@#$%^&* nope, nope, nope...aAaAAahhh....phew, saved it.)

So again - as with the trail braking like a madwoman and getting exactly the amount of grip that I want - I started making more of an effort to listen to the car, really feeling it out and trying to detect every little motion and reaction and exactly what I did or didn't do to cause it. I did what I tell my students to do - I stopped trying to force the car into what I wanted and started asking the car what it wanted from me. Not surprisingly, my braking drastically improved everywhere. Rather than over-braking in the faster turns I began to "brush" the brakes to rotate and balance the car, carrying more speed through the first part of the turn and getting back to throttle earlier so that I could unwind more quickly and spend more time at full throttle.

Grin inducing stuff here, folks.

And now...regarding my heel-toe downshifting.

If there is one thing in my life I wish I could get a do-over for, it would be allowing my fear of the unknown to keep me away from manual transmission cars for so much of my early driving career (I use that word "career" loosely). If I had been able to learn that skill while my other skills were still developing, I suspect that it would be equally as refined as my other driving skills. That is to say, it would be executed with moderate aplomb, rather than with erratic timing and extreme inconsistency.

So the comments on my downshifts were to "smooth them out" and - this was the whopper - "stop trying to slow the car with your downshift". What!? I'm not doing that! Not intentionally, anyway. And regardless of intention, HOW do I smooth out my downshifts? I must not have been asking the right question, because I never got an answer to "how" (there are no wrong questions, but there are definitely right questions if you want a good answer). At this point a certain amount of frustration set in, as I went around and around in my head thinking, "How am I supposed to fix it if I don't know how to fix it!?"

That's when I realized something.

"Wait a minute," I said to myself, "I know this stuff, really I do. I read about it, and I teach it, so I should probably be able to answer that question on my own."

So I thought about everything I know about heel-toe downshifting: its purpose is to match the engine revolutions to the speed of the wheels since the engine will still be turning at the rate of the higher gear while the wheels have been braking; the correct amount of throttle is approximately 2/3 of full throttle; it should be timed to the exact moment when the clutch pedal is released; actually, it should be timed to the exact moment when the clutch plate re-engages with the flywheel...Oh. Well. Duh. So I started to think about when I was blipping versus when I was actually getting the clutch pedal to the re-engagement point. Gosh darn it, not at the same time, as it turns out.

That quickly explained why it sounded like I was trying to slow the car with the downshifts. I was releasing the clutch pedal so slowly that by the time the clutch engaged my lovely blip had already dissipated, and the revs were very much un-matched. The next session out I changed my tactics again. Instead of focusing so much on the blip itself, which had mostly become second-nature, I focused on my clutch release and, well, just getting it the hell over with (you may recall that I pulled a money shift my first season of racing, so perhaps I was hedging my bets with the trail-clutching). Suddenly that very quick sequence of "hard braking, downshift, blip-release-clutch, trail-brake-turn-in, add throttle" began to feel all kinds of smooth, just by changing that one moment. I knocked a good few tenths of a second off my lap time just in that one turn, and the gain in confidence in that corner was exponential.

Moral of the stories: sometimes all it takes to get past the plateau is a shift in focus (pun intended). Whenever you're stuck on a skill, spend some time thinking about all the components of the skill, and be honest with yourself about which component you're most focused on. Then think about the other components and how the outcome might change if you focus on some other part of the skill when you're next on track. You just might surprise yourself.

And remember, we all have the exact racing life we want. ;)

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