In 2017, John Drysdale, a newcomer to racing, partnered with veteran driver Steve Phillips in "The Rocket", an e36 BMW M3 with a S54 engine swap from the e46 generation of M3. "Four seconds" is the true story of a novice race car driver working to cut four seconds off his lap time in his rookie season of amateur GT racing at Atlantic Motorsport Park, in Nova Scotia, Canada.
PART 4: Back to School
By John Drysdale
The next part of my journey in "the Rocket" was getting my race license. To get this I had to complete a one day (May 27/2017) local race school at Atlantic Motorsport Park (AMP) my hometown track. As my race car only had one seat, the mandatory the morning was spent with an instructor in car with me. I opted to bring my 2016 Ford Focus RS (a great car that matches the hype when it comes to fun), as it was comparatively quiet and allowed good communication for a teaching environment. The car can do a sub 1:20 lap out of the box, so it is pretty potent for a car that I throw two kids seats, groceries, two sets of race tires, or a mountain bike in.
The school was very valuable to me in that my instructor (who would also be one of my competitors in an e36 M3 of his own) focused not so much on driving the line, as he did driving OFF OF THE LINE. There is a very good Speed Secrets podcast where pro race driver Colin Braun talks about the line... or rather the lack of talking about it. At one point he describes that in his last five or so years of pro racing, he recalls talking about "the line" maybe 2-3 times. Both he and Ross Bentley agree that someone driving fast off line was probably faster than someone going slow on line. That stuck with me. My instructor wanted to hammer home a similar lesson. The best drivers are fast, and comfortable, on and off line.
Nothing beats a pure bred race car: everything feels like it is "turned to 11" compared to "mere" street cars.
The 2016 Ford Focus RS. I find that removing kids seats from your car before lapping it is an excellent mind game with your competition.
A road less traveled
And driving the "road less traveled" is a very good lesson, especially at our track. Unless they came from karting, most people come from a HPDE/autocross/time attack background. In those situations there is one "fastest" line, and the goal is to nail it every time. I got pretty good with consistently putting down laps in my air cooled 911 that were within a fraction of a second of one another in the low 1:20's, a very respectable time for a street car. Rinse, repeat.
Driving in one of the potentially faster race cars at our local race series, I would eventually be doing my share of passing cars both in and out of class. The thing is, AMP is a rather narrow, and in places, quite a rough track. You want to be aware of the road surface ahead of time, and not discovering new surprise bumps as you go. I have to admit that in my 4+ years at our track in HPDE, there were definitely parts I had only traversed in error, probably some spots not at all. It is quite shocking when you really think about it.
So for much of the morning, we lapped at comfortable speeds, talking about race craft, and working on driving off line. I would purposely drive multiple laps on the entire outside of the track, then switch to the inside for a few laps. I would completely miss my apexes, ending up on the wrong side of the track on purpose. I would just pick a line, and drive there, doing my best to make it work. I would early apex when I should late apex. I would sometimes just do an inside or outside line... visualizing a car right at my door. Some of the other students/instructors thought we were a bit crazy, and we were even approached a few times by curious instructors (my instructor warned me... it happens every year).
Finally learning the entire track after 4 years of driving it
Driving "incorrectly" is an exercise in mental discipline. Your points of reference change, the sensations in at the seat of your pants change. You brain often screams at you. You discover new bumps, and at times, are reminded why you avoid certain parts of our old track. Go too wide (track left) on the entry of turn 1, and prepared to get unsettled by a series of bumps as you crest down the hill. Take turn one too tight on the inside, and you get bumps in the braking zone on entry. But these bumps become the "enemy you know."
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
In the afternoon I got in the race car (solo) and mixed a combination of fast laps "on line", and more disturbing belligerently "off line" laps. During this school I did not once focus on "going faster," or cutting time off my 1:18.5s best lap (remember, I had 4 seconds to trim off). What I did was something that I feel was far more important, and that was to generate a better personal topographical map of our charming, in places rough, and narrow track. I was building confidence "making mistakes." There would be no side by side racing through turn 3 only to realize that the inside line is a surprisingly decreasing radius turn on exit, with no option but to go into the car beside me if I am not managing my speed. If someone dropped transmission fluid on the line through all of turn 9 (and someone did on race day), than I would be comfortable driving around it.
Welcome to the art of racing. I loved it. Oh yeah, I also managed a 1:16.9s lap by day's end, trimming off a hair over 1.5 seconds from my prior best, although my integrated timer and video camera were a bit on the fritz, and was only capturing a portion of the laps (and data). Sadly we got no video for that school and first race day.
2.4 seconds to go!
Words of wisdom
The next time you are out at your local track, forget the line, and just explore the entire track. Make it work. Your instincts and body will be screaming "get back on line!!!" but resist. It is just like finding lost chapters to a text book you have studied many many times. Maybe reading them will make the textbook longer to read, but you will know the material much much better, and you will be much better prepared for the real test.
Just remember to be predictable when other cars are close, and be ready for people to stop you and ask you what the hell you were doing...