Four Seconds

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 5: Chasing rabbits

By John Drysdale

Greyhounds are a very fast breed of dog that is bread not just to race, but chase. They are trained to pursue a "lure", traditionally a live rabbit or other such animal, but in racing, usually a windsock. With such "prey" in front of them, a mix of primal instinct and training takes over, and they chase the target down. In many ways, racing is no different, or is it? Hold on to that thought.

Fantasy vs reality:

On my first ever race day I felt a bit nervous, to say the least. To top that off, I had much less sleep than I would have liked. And not just the night before, but the last few nights. But if the tank felt a bit empty on fuel, it was filled with excitement. This is what it is about. 4 years of lapping various cars, and in the end, it was all done with racing in the back of my mind. IT was not a matter of if, but rather when.

I had gone over this day quite a few times in my mind the night before. It was all quite easy. I would start my day the underdog, and the next thing people knew, I would be blowing people away with my natural talent on track. My sheer genius would allow me to prevail over even faster cars. Everyone would be in awe. It was all to the tune of some heavy metal track. And I would get the girl. Happily ever after. The end.

Let's back up to the afternoon prior. My first two races were actually 5 lap educational ones at the end of the Saturday race school, consisting of all of the 2017 rookies. Another rookie in my GT3 class was Matt Trivett, with a freshly built e46 M3 (Also built by my co driver Steve Phillips of ISI Automotive).

The goal of these races was to race, but play it a bit safe also. With safety and caution in mind in race #1, he left the door open into turn two of the first lap, and I was right beside him. He pulled away up the hill, but I kept hot on his tail. On lap 3 he put two wheels on the grass over the apex of turn 5 (a cresting left hander leading into the back straight that lightens the car significantly, often with wheels in the air). His car had a bit of a tank slapper that he managed to recover, but it was my chance, and my clean apex over 5 paid dividends down the back straight as I reeled him in. By turn 9 I was on his bumper and gaining steadily. That is gaining steadily until I realized that I overcooked turn 9 entry.

What is the difference between golf and racing cars? In golf you go "whack... f%#k!" In racing you go "F$*k... whack."

Physics took over and I had no choice but to put wheels off on the exit of turn 9. This would be the second time since my start on this track in 2012 that I put four wheels off. That was back in 2014 when I overcooked our turn 4 and opted to just drive clean off track rather than risk a spin. I tip-toed back on track without drama, but I came in a distant second. My tail was between my legs, but I had a big smile on my face. My glory moment passed. Strangely, there was no music or adoring fans.

Reality can be a harsh mistress, but if I had the bug, it was now a big fat hairy bug looking for more. I loved it. I managed a 1:16.9 by days end.

The next day, the true race day, I took Steve's sage advice in qualifying. Do a couple of slow laps, then go for a fast one, then a few slow, then go for a fast one. No use overheating the car or tires, especially if you get blocked by a slower car. With this strategy I was able to find some clear laps, and managed a 1:17.1s. This was 0.2s off my pace from the day before, but was in the ballpark I suppose. I still had work to do. Steve got a 1:14.5 in comparison, which is more reflective of what our car is capable of.

Know your enemy, Know your limits

One of the enjoying aspects of racing is not just learning about the mechanics of driving, but rather evaluating "the enemy", a.k.a. your competitors. Watch the rookies, they can be unpredictable (myself no exception). The drivers that I was warned would be aggressive, were aggressive (but it was all heads up clean racing... at least on their part, hahaha). Knowing your opponent, be it car or driver, is important in racing. I always make sure I know who is on track with me, even the guys in the lower classes. At some point I may be passing some of them, and if I make a mistake we could be side by side. Information is key. One day, when my brain has more space to process race strategy , I will be able to make more use of this information. Right now my brain is mostly occupied with driving fast, part of what makes a rookie like me dangerous, so let that be a reminder/lesson to other beginners. The less experienced a driver is, the more they are thinking about themselves, and the less they are thinking about you. Make them think more about you, and their driving will falter, so be careful and do not be too aggressive, or you might falter with them.

My first race

There is something about pulling onto the track and swerving side to side to heat my tires. I had never done it before, but the others were doing it, so I figured I wanted to fit in. Oh yeah, and tire heat. Gridding up for a rolling start seems kind of like madness, but I was just in a zone... "this is kind of crazy, but there is no turning back, so just do it. Panic will not help you anyway."

When the green flag dropped I was hard on the throttle in 2nd gear and keeping pace with the car ahead of me. On turn 1 entry I played it safe and just defended the inside line from anyone planning to generate some gopro heroics on a rookie like me. If you want by, you will need to go around me I thought, and I will beat you up the hill. Never trust a rookie with a gopro... it helps thicken the "red mist" and can spell trouble. lucky for my competition, our camera was on the fritz that weekend.

I kept pretty good initial pace with my class, and even made a run on a couple of them, but then seemingly fell off pace. And as soon as I had no one directly in front of me, I got slower still. It would seem that I was a bit of a greyhound... no rabbit to chase... and I fell into a lull. And for better or for worse, I seemed to subconsciously pace myself with who were around me. If the rabbit was slow, so was I. I finished a clean race, but was last in class.

I the next race, Steve won comfortably.

My second race of the day was the "Unlimited" race. Again, I kept decent pace with the front runners, but as soon as they got away from me I was slower still. I blame the greasy burger I just had for lunch. "You didn't eat the burger did you?" Maybe I can't totally blame the burger, but in that race, without realizing it, I slowed to 1:19-1:20's for lap times. The GT5 cars began to nip at my heels. Sure I had fun, but I was in a lull and did not even know it. I was not racing, I was in HPDE autopilot. I was doing "8/10 laps", and in some of my street cars I can consistently bang those laps off all day. Without a rabbit to chase, I was slow, and went into safe mode autopilot.

John Drysdale and "the Rocket"

Pushing my limit

Expressing my frustration of my newfound slow pace, a fellow driver just advised that I focus on pushing the throttle. It sounds simplistic, but the idea was that I should always be seeking full throttle, or at least getting as close to it as possible. The fastest car out of a corner is the one that can get on the throttle first, and full throttle at that. If you are smooth and progressive with throttle application, the car will tell you before things get too unsettled in case you overdo it, and you can correct without much hassle.

Combine that concept with more sage advice from a former racer and senior instructor: "You should always be working to push yourself just beyond what you consider comfortable." In racing, if you are not pushing yourself, you are going to be slow, because someone else will be pushing just a little bit harder. The art of racing is knowing when to push, and how much.

John Chases another GT3 car in an extended battle during the 1 hour Atlantic Challenge enduro.

Equipped with some mental zen, and a touch of desperation, I started the final race of the day: The Atlantic Challenge, a 1 hour enduro with a mandatory pit stop. I started the race, and applied my two concepts the entire time. 1. Push the throttle to find the limit out of every turn, and 2. push just hard enough to keep me out of my comfort zone. Both tasks were like walking a bit of a tight-rope, but it worked. I was immediately 2-3 seconds faster a lap again (or maybe I had simply finished digesting the burger). I had a great battle with an in-class VW GTI that has near 380hp, but was struggling to put that power down as it was still under development. I was hot on his tail and as I gained more confidence I began to challenge him in the corners. He inevitably let me by and we finished 4th overall (3rd in class) after I handed over to Steve for a strong finish on his part. I was doing 1:16's and 1:17's for much of the race.

I was all smiles. This is what racing is all about. Fun, clean wheel to wheel racing. By days end I had managed to cut my best time down to 1:16.3s. I was past the 50% mark of my 1:14.5s lap time goal, and having a blast doing it.

Lessons learned: freeing your mind

So why did I slow down 2-3 seconds a lap when I was not behind faster/similar cars? Why was I only as fast as the GT4 cars when they caught me? The answer is because I did not yet know what my car was capable of. I could play "monkey-see, monkey-do" and for the most part keep up with cars in my class (because my car had the ability). But as soon as they were gone, like a greyhound without a rabbit, I was back to doing my own default thing, which is just slower. My brain was not yet programmed to do lap times that my car was capable of. I was used to low 1:20's, and in the HPDE days, I could do those laps without thinking. This would free 80% of my brain for other things like talking to a student. The problem is that the top drivers in my class could do low 1:15's with 80% of their brain freed to do things like race strategy... or sudoku.

It is also important to know your competition. When you start thinking less about driving, and more about strategy, this understanding of your competitors and their cars, will help you exploit your strengths, and their weaknesses.

Finally, to progress in your learning you need to push yourself. One local racer put it very well: "You always drive 8/10. but as you get more experience, that 8/10 becomes faster." In other words, leave room for error, but you need to push that 8. For me, the 10/10 I did in qualifying became an easy 8 by the end of my first race day. My old 8/10 was now a 6/10.

Overall It was a fun first day, and I was keen to keep learning. Next was braking.