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 6: Tough Lessons
by John Drysdale
Sunday June 25, 2017 was my second ever race day. It has been about a month since I had driven the car, but like riding a bicycle, everything came back, and in the cooler morning temperatures, I was able to qualify with a solid 1:15.3s (Steve did a 1:14.8s lap but could not catch a break in traffic). That was only 0.7 seconds off my target time in the car. Obviously I was a prodigy, and a lightning fast learner. Or maybe not. More on that later.
I distinctly remember this lap because I went into turn 1 with a little more speed then intended (my butt dyno was like "WTF ar you doing man?!?) and just carried it. I suspect that is where much of my gains originated from. Experience from the first race day a month prior had also help me get more comfortable pushing the car. I was still too conservative in places, but I was getting there.
More than lap times
I think it is important to step back and reflect that the concept of focusing on lap times in racing is a bit silly. Call it a rookie mistake. Sure, it is a way to measure my progress... call it a ruler of sorts. However, lap times are only a small part of the puzzle. More important then that ultimate fast lap is consistency. A 1:14.5 is no good to me if the next lap is a 1:20. Two 1:17's would win the day, ignoring passing. It is said that the mark of a good driver is consistency. In his IMSA days steve had many pro drivers in his car. He told me that Andy Lally for example, could go out and hit times as requested by the engineers with pinpoint precision. "We need you to do a 1:14.2 Andy." and he would do it. "0.2s faster for the next 3 laps please." Done. Now, racing cars is his day job, but you get the point.
With my decent qualifying time I was third on the grid, 2nd in GT3. A good start kept me hot on the heels of the much faster cars in-front. On my second lap I even did another 1:15.3, just to prove it was not a fluke. Within a couple of laps, Steve gives me the heads up on the radio that all is clear behind me, eyes forward. At that point I knew I was clear, and settled in keeping up with the leaders, who were in a heated battle. If they start fighting it out, I just might be able to get in behind. I was not fast enough to catch them, but maybe if one of them made a mistake...
Six or so car lengths behind, the mistake happened. Sadly, not quite the way I envisioned. I was entering turn 4. This is a downhill, off camber, right hand sweeper. You take it wide on entry, then cut to the inside apex, and stay on the inside because it sets up turn 5, which sets you up for the back straight. So it is a sacrificial corner. It is also rather tricky, and can be done in a number of ways with good success.
So back to the mistake. Sadly, it was my mistake. I was thinking a bit more about how I was catching the lead two cars, and probably looking at their bumpers too long. I broke too late, carried too much trail braking into the corner... and the rear end was unloaded, and began to rotate clockwise as I aimed for the apex. In the 911 I learned to not lift, and NEVER hit the brakes. I got off the brakes and counter-steered to try to catch the spin. It was a fast and aggressive counter-steer. Too fast. The back of the car seemed to pause. But in the split second my brain told me the car was still way too light in the back. There was still no feeling in the rear. Huge counter-steer. Just then the car slowed enough, it got full traction, and I literally drove myself off the outside of the track into the kitty-litter. Crap.
No rest for the Wicked
It was a painful couple laps as the tow truck came to get me. I caused a full course red. I did not scream, or pound my fists, but I did not much enjoy the cars going by. I may have had a few choice four letter words. Steve was on the radio. He may have heard something more colourful than I can recollect. The car was good. "You will be down a couple of laps when they get you on track. Drive off line and be sure the gravel is cleared off the tires, but if you hurry you can catch the pack before the flag goes green, and only be down two laps." No rest for the wicked.
It is times like this where mental discipline really pays off. You need to be able to make a mistake, and within minutes, or even split seconds, drop it, move on. I lacked that mental discipline. In 5 years since I started as a lapping track rat with the local BMW club... I had not been beached in the kittly litter. This was fresh territory for me. I was too much of a rookie to be good enough to have screwed up this bad. Sure, I had saved a few hairy over-steer moments in my 1984 911 hotrod (with all that weight in the back), but I was not going at the pace I was when I lost it into 4. And, more importantly, I did not over-correct nearly as much. I knew better.
I was out of the gravel, in the grass. Clutch out... easy gas as to not spin... back on track... drive offline... shake some gravel from the tires... and I was back to going as fast as I could to catch the back of the pack as they approached the start finish for the green. I remember thinking "this is insane, I turfed my car, and now I am chasing the pack to try to minimize damage". I caught the back of the field as the last of them approached the finish line. A blue M3 from my class entered the track just in-front of me. They were a late start due to engine issues... and probably planned to skip the race, until I had fallen out, and they realized the chance to grab some points now that their issue was fixed.
I did not pass the M3, but I keep pace. I kept me nose clean passing slower traffic, and finished, last in class. It was a character building race. Steve said I should have been able to save it. He is probably right. All drivers make mistakes, the best ones just see them sooner, and correct sooner. One Marshall once told me they saw Michael Shumacher lose control and save his car three times in one corner in poor weather.
In the paddock I laughed it off. It was a learning experience. The car was fine. I was fine. Pride heals, and I took a few pot shots at myself and it was done. It will make me a better driver. Steve even showed me some video of him spinning into turn 1. It happens to the best of us.
In the second race of the day, the Unlimited race, I was again in a solid 4th position after the start. Maybe with less authority than the first race, but I was not wimping out... at least not completely. I was tense. It was hard not to be.
If I need to critique myself, it is that when I get nervous I get tense. It is a common driver fault. When I get tense I manhandle the shifter. I had not missed a shift on track in 3 years. At my first ever track event in August of 2012, I shifted from 2nd to 5th a few times in my BMW 328, and totally lost power as the rpm dropped to near idle speeds. I mis-shifted once the first time I had my 911 on track... 7 days after I bought it. But it's worn 915 transmission was like throwing a hotdog in a hallway... it was vague, and hard knowing if you were in the right place... and I caught it before I fully let out the clutch.
In my e36 M# race car, I seemed to do it into turn 3. Turn 3 is a decreasing radius right hander that comes after a 2nd gear climb out of turn 2. Short shift to 3rd, a bit of hard throttle... and then to braking, and turn in. I caught 5th, realized it, and before letting out the clutch, pulled back, and went digging for 3rd. A relaxed driver would move the shifter to neutral, let the centering springs do their job and flick the shifter forward into 3rd. It takes no force at all. I was tense, getting tenser, and had no feel for the shifter because I was probably crushing the life out of it, and shifting with the force and will of my entire upper body. I found the gear, but it was 1st gear.
As I released the clutch the tach raced to it's redline. I had slight turning dialed in and the rear wheels broke traction and the rear end spun and I over-steered for the second time this day. Luckily I got the clutch in quickly (but the car stalled, so not quickly enough), and just went for the ride. I ended up on the inside of 3 facing down the hill into turn 2. I had done a 180, and maybe a bit more. It started up, I awaited for the coast to be clear, and set off. I had lost about 15 seconds... maybe 20. Not a huge loss... and the engine was running fine... but the damage was huge.
And that damage was all mental. Not only did I spin again, but I did the same thing Steve did in the video he showed me, just in a different corner. And I money shifted. Did I float the valves? Was a rebuild on the way two races into by racing "career?" I finished the race a good 4-5 seconds a lap slower. I was shaken, bad.
Photo by Kevin Doubleday
Things Get Worse
When I got to the pits there was no real joking. I was sullen, and distant, and brooding. I was just frustrated now. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It was hard not to be down on myself. People gave me my space. I just wanted to see the video to be sure I got on the clutch fast enough to prevent a horrible over-rev. In the end It was ok. The engine stalled out. I took so much time with my foot on the clutch trying to find third, that by the time I started to release the clutch in 1st, I was at 2k rpm.
For the final one hour race, Steve started as he usually does. He reported that the car felt fine. His times were good. But... about three uneventful laps into my stint, the dash was flashing red at me. The engine temperature had raised about 15-20 degrees above normal race temperature. I reset it. Still hot. Normal operating temp was around 80 degrees. The engine was stabilizing at 103-106. Of course... my mind wandered to my money shift. Did I bend a valve? Was a ring starting to fail? At this point I was fully rattled, but I just worked to put down clean laps. It was a hard mental battle. I always enjoyed driving on track because it let me think of nothing else. I never worried about the stresses of the work week. But this time I was working hard to focus on my driving, and not the red warning light flashing at me. I finished the race watching the engine temps closely.
I finished the race off the pace, but clean. I could not go any faster in my head-space. The clean finish helped my spirits some, but it was a hard day. I honestly have no idea where I placed, because all I can remember was nervously glancing down at the engine temps a few times a lap. I remember eventually giving up on resetting the electronic dash (when the warning came on, it blocked all other data, including rpm). I slept very poorly that night. I mentally beat myself up a lot. The honeymoon of racing was over.
I was interviewed by Ross Bentley of Speed Secrets two nights later (https://speedsecrets.com/speed-secrets-podcast/033-john-drysdale-4-seconds-lessons-from-a-first-season-of-racing/). I certainly was not in a great head space, but greatly appreciated the opportunity. I had hope to share the insight (and story) of a novice. There is much to be learned of the successes and failures of a beginner like me. He shared some great wisdom with me. While I was dwelling on mistakes, he politely scolded me to say that drivers need to focus less on what they did wrong, and more on what they did right. I tend to be self critical, finding weaknesses, correcting them, and improving. I am not interested in what I am good at, rather I focus on a challenge and where I need to improve. And there is nothing wrong with that... so long as it is balanced by focusing on, and learning from the positive, the strengths. "I missed a shift because I was too tense" is better served by saying "I am far more relaxed shifting in this other part of the track. Lets see what I did right, and if I can apply this to the other spot too." It is semantics, but also cognitive behavioral thinking. If you frame your learning in a positive manner, you can learn from both mistakes and successes, you will be a more positive driver, maybe relax a bit, and have more fun. And that is what this is about... fun.
It took a few weeks before it felt fun again. I kept worrying about the health of the car. I need to be honest. I don't like making mistakes.
Being slow is ok. When I did the racing school, no one came up to me to congratulate me on how well I was driving... because I was slow. And that is ok. I would rather go under the radar kind of slow than be fast and crash. People may not realize it, but they will respect clean safe driving over a fast reckless driver. Sometimes it is good to be low key. I am more of a "start slow and build up to it" kind of guy. I do things well, but I take my time getting there. I just might need to deal with a few "more money than skill" comments. So I am ok with slow, but I dislike making big mistakes... especially the ones that can hurt a car.
And lets face it, I had not made nearly enough big mistakes to be a good driver yet. But at the rate I was going, I was catching up fast. haha. See, the sense of humor would came back eventually.
Either way, I got a 1:15.2s lap that weekend before I shook myself up too much. I was 0.7s off my target only two race days into my rookie season. Now... time to get back on the horse... and about that flashing red engine light...
Photos by John Drysdale (left) and Kevin Doubleday (right)
Photos by Kevin Doubleday