Brake, brake, brake - stay on the gas
Part of summer vacation 2018 was attending 3 days of Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire with my wife, Jill. After she picked me up from Boston Logan International Airport, we started the slow drive through traffic to Littleton, NH.
The next morning, we headed to another local hotel where staff from Team O’Neil led a procession of students to the training facility about 20 minutes out of town.
Day 1 began with a brief classroom session, after which we moved to the skid pad where there was one front-wheel driver Fiesta and one instructor for every two students. Exercises included (1) steering with the brake on the skid pad - turn the steering 180, gas at 75%, then steer the car with the brake, (2) slalom at 35 mph, turn the steering 90, brake to move weight forward and rotate the car, center the steering then release the brake to straighten things out, (3) slalom with more offset - meaning more brake to rotate and (4) accident avoidance with stopping, brake and release, and lane change maneuvers.
Skills were developed through exercises that focused on individual driving inputs, like braking, while minimizing others. After both students made 4 attempts, the pair would move to a different car / instructor to provide exposure to another teaching style that might better match the students needs.
I struggled to adapt to gravel from tarmac - steering with the brake instead of the throttle, and performing actions in sequence rather than together (e.g. turn then brake, center steering then release). Jill and I both sucked at the accident avoidance, but we’re blaming that on the instructor leaving the directions a little too late.
Day 2 involved a longer slalom with increasing and decreasing radius turns - short to long going uphill, then long to short coming down. At the bottom of the downhill section, the course ended with a 90 left requiring a pendulum turn. In the front wheel drive cars, the Scandinavian flick required turning to the right with “turn then brake”, then while still braking, counter-steer followed by releasing the brake and throttle at the same time to pivot the car around. As it pivots, center the wheel again and start feeding in throttle.
I actually did okay with the mechanics, eventually getting the timing right, but didn’t have the instincts available to correct for anything unexpected (e.g. getting sucked into the thick mud just wide of the driving line, etc.). We then focused on the pendulum turn alone - just a 90 left in the middle of the skid pad. It was the same mechanics and I got the hang of it, ramping up the speed for the last couple of runs.
In the afternoon, we moved to all-wheel drive Subaru’s with more power and boosted brakes. The big difference in technique was lifting off the gas prior to turning. You still brake to rotate the car, centering the wheel in the new direction before releasing the brake and blending back on throttle. We also practiced getting the car light over a crest, where it was important to get the turn complete and straight the steering input before landing.
On Day 3, we continued the uphill and downhill practice runs, but also added two rear-wheel drive BMW’s to the mix. The E46 was a challenge to drive - it took very little throttle input for the back to start overtaking the front of the car. The older E30, however, was a hoot with just enough power that you could really steer with the throttle.
After a few cycles through the slalom in each of the front-, all- and rear-wheel drive cars, we prepared to put all of our new skills to the test on a short rally “stage”. We walked the loop that would be added to the skid pad and slalom section, studying the road camber and crests. Again, we had a chance to tackle the course in each type of car. While I loved the older BMW for being so tail-happy, there was something oddly satisfying about making a FWD Fiesta drift around a bend (even if it wasn’t very fast).
The Team O’Neil Rally School was a mind-bender for me after focusing track skills over the last few years. A lot of the right things to do on track were the wrong things to do on gravel.
Thanks to the staff at Team O’Neil! We can’t wait to come back and learn more next year!
It was great to be back in a race car just a month after visiting Circuit of the Americas with NASA Texas. And Donington Park, nestled in rolling hills in the center of England, was a brilliant new circuit to visit during my time in the UK.
Rounds 7 & 8 of the Max 5 Racing championship were hosted by the British Automobile Racing Club alongside the feature event - the British Superkarts Championships. With average speeds over 100 mph, these things were incredibly quick!
tArriving after work on Friday evening, I was able to walk a lap of the 2.5 mile track before nightfall. The track was mostly fast and flowing. with significant elevation change, and the lap closes with two tight hairpin turns. The expectation for adhering to track limits is higher in the UK than tje US, reinforced by electronic sensors embedded strategically in the track. After one warning for exceeding track limits, time penalties are imposed - 5 seconds for the 2nd infraction, 10 seconds for the 3rd, etc.
On Saturday morning, we had some time to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather from the grandstand overlooking the back-side of the track.
My challenge was to get up to speed quickly. With no practice session scheduled, my first laps took place during qualifying - trying to set my fastest lap while still learning the track. The track walk seemed to help. While I qualified 6th of 7 starters in the class, I was just a few tenths off the group ahead, and a second off pole position on a 2 minute lap. Unfortunately, my session was cut a little short - the car ran out of fuel before the end of the session due to a faulty fuel gauge. Here is a video of the 2:04.4 lap that I managed.
The first lap of Race 1 was an eventful one. A missed braking point at the first hairpin resulted in a significant impact between two cars in the class - both retiring before completing a racing lap. I temporarily jumped to first place, but managed to find 5th gear instead of 3rd. Two cars swooped past and I fell to 3rd. On lap 3, I was able to move up a spot as Car #192 in front ran wide through "Old Hairpin". I spent the rest of the lap closing in on Car #11, and finally moving into the lead going into Turn 1 on lap 5. I was able to hang onto the top spot for the rest of the race, eventually pulling ahead while the cars behind fought hard for 2nd and 3rd position. The full video from Race 1 is below.
And to the victor belong the spoils - a Max 5 Racing trophy for 1st place in Class B for Round 7 of their championship!
My finish in Race 1 earned me pole position for Race 2. Despite a decent start, however, I found myself in 3rd place by the time we got through Turn 1. For the first couple of laps, the top 4 cars ran line-astern, but not quite close enough to call racing. By the end of lap 3, I managed to catch and pass Car #192 at the first hairpin to move up to 2nd, only to make a mistake in Turn 1 on lap 4 and give the spot back a few turns later. At the end of laps 5, 6 and 7, the top 4 cars crossed the start-finish line within 1 second of each other. This was good racing. Car #11 and #192 swapped places on lap 7, and I managed to move back to 2nd on lap 8, only to drop back to 3rd again on lap 9. With the squabbling up front, the 4th place car had regained some ground and we finished on lap 11 with the top 4 cars less than 2 second apart.
A 1st place and 3rd place finish was more than I expected coming into the weekend. The circuit was spectacular and the racing was gentlemanly - a great way to spend a weekend.
I'm not sure when I'll be back on a race track with either NASA Texas or Max 5 Racing, but there are more motorsport adventures planned for 2018. More to come!
It’s been too long...
My last turn behind the wheel at a race track was WAY back in October 2017 - just after moving from the US to the UK. After a very busy six months of work, I found an opportunity to get back to visit my NASA Texas friends during Round 3 of their 2018 season at Circuit of the Americas.
Mimi’s Little Sister had been borrowed last fall for the NASA Eastern Championships at Sebring. That didn’t go so well - a melee at the start meant that Mimi’s Little Sister made contact with Karen, the car belonging to another friend from Texas.
The repair work was very well done. The front clip was completely replaced, including hood, fenders and headlights, while a new radiator was fitted inside. As a pleasant surprise, the repaired car was brought to COTA sporting a new livery.
Practice sessions on Friday morning were cancelled due to lightning storms in the area. We hunkered down in the trailer to wait out the weather, while the car was tucked under the canopy initially, and later moved into the trailer when the wind really picked up.
We were able to salvage two sessions in the afternoon. With standing water in Turn 14 and continuing rain, the wet weather tires came off the rack for the first time in two years. While not particularly meaningful given the dry conditions forecast for the rest of the weekend, it was good to experience and, likely, more relevant for future racing in the UK.
Blue sky and sun greeted us at the track on Saturday morning. With the first NASA National Championships being held at COTA in September, drivers from across the country (fast ones) made up the nearly 60 car Spec Miata field. At the morning driver’s meeting, in addition to the standard welcome message, track limits were discussed. With no sausage curbs installed, the rule for the weekend was “if it’s paved, you can race on it!”
The first practice session was an opportunity to try a racing line that didn’t fuss things like white lines or curbing. While I could wrap my head around running wide on turn exits to maintain momentum, I struggled to fully cut corners with all four wheels inside the track surface.
I definitely left some time on the table when it came to qualifying. I found myself caught behind a slower car, but didn’t managed to get past quickly. After wasting a few laps trying to get by, I backed off to create some space, but it was too late. The checkered flag came out and my best time was 2:48.8 (not quite as quick as my 2:47.7 from 2017), leaving me 45th of 53 on the grid for Race 1.
The huge field made for an interesting start. By the time the back of the pack turned onto the front straight, the leaders had been given the green flag, stringing out the second half of the field. A few faster cars from the back moved quickly past us during lap 1 and a mistake in the braking zone on the back straight during lap 2 cost me another couple of spots. By the end of lap 3, I was stuck in a gap between two groups. I was able to use the esses on lap 4 to move up to the back of the group ahead, nearly grabbing one place in the last turn. I got that spot and one more through the esses on lap 5, but lost one again after the running too deep in the braking zone in Turn 12. After holding position through lap 6, I ended up side-by-side with another car going into the esses at lap 7, but being on the outside, I fell back and accidentally left a whole for another car through as well. I got lapped by one of the Spec MX-5 cars going into the last turn of lap 7. At the time, I didn't appreciate that the checkered flag shown to the Spec MX-5 winner also applied to me, so I raced lap 8 with the two cars just ahead. Catching and passing them was all for not on the timing and scoring sheet. I finished in 39th with a best lap time of 2:49.2 - here’s the video from Race 1.
Qualifying on Sunday went a little better. Grid was based on the fastest lap times from Race 1, so speed differentials wasn’t an issue. And I made the space I needed to get some clean laps. The best time I could post was 2:47.4, setting a new personal best by 0.3 seconds. That got my up to 42nd of 53 cars for the long race in the afternoon.
However, as I rolled to grid for Race 2, I could smell, then see, smoke in the cabin. My main electrical disconnect switch failed internally. I was able to turn it off and stop the smoke, but it wasn’t looking good for the race. Thankfully, friends at the track were able to purchase and install a new switch, getting me out on track as the main pack came through for their second flying lap.
I was able to enjoy 30 minutes of track time, even if I wasn’t racing for position. By lap 7, I caught the back of a small pack, picking off 1 car on the inside of turn 11, then another in turn 14. After that, I just made space as Spec MX-5s lapped me, and drove to the finish 3 laps down in 41st place - not the result I wanted, but better than a DNS (Did Not Start).
It was great to get back in the driver’s seat and race wheel-to-wheel again. The car is tucked back in the trailer until the next event - whenever that may be!
At the end of September 2017, I arrived in the United Kingdom to begin a new assignment. The UK presented a new opportunity for motorsports adventures at new circuits in right-hand drive cars.
To preserve the possibility of completing the final stop of the 3-3-30 Plan, I had a week to get my hands on a UK competition license. Within 24 hours of touching down at Heathrow, I headed to Thruxton Circuit for my Association of Racing Driver Schools (ARDS) test. It included both theory and practical assessments required by the Motor Sport Association. I was able to successfully complete the exams and expedite delivery of the license in time for the Max 5 Racing event the following weekend.
The race at Silverstone International on Oct 7/8 was our second visit to a Formula 1 circuit in 2017 following our trip to Circuit of the Americas in May. As an added bonus. the first, third and fourth generation MX-5's in our group all shared a Formula 1 garage keeping us sheltered from the cool weather.
The lack of a hardtop in the UK made these small cars feel much less claustrophobic. That openness and the steering wheel being on the opposite side were the most obvious differences from Spec Miata racing in the US. The less obvious changes were the much harder tires and the lack of significant dents on the race cars - a result of the "gentleman racing" expectation that was emphasized during the licensing process.
Qualify was held late in the day on Saturday and the mixed-class Max 5 Racing group was combined with the faster Hyundai Coupes for a 15 minute qualifying session. And as we waited for our turn on track, it started to rain. Learning a new car at a new track, with mixed classes and mixed conditions, was a challenge. I spent half my time trying to find the rear view mirror (HINT: it's NOT up and to the right) and the other half staying out of the way of faster cars. I qualified towards the back, but as a guest to the series, it didn't matter as I was going to start at the back of the field in any case.
Below is a video showing the complete qualifying session.
After an evening track walk with some new friends and a night of rest, I was back at Silverstone for two 15 minute races on Sunday.
With some help from the marshals, I found my way to the last slot on the grid for my first-ever standing start. When the lights went out, I was able to get through the gears (left-handed) and picked up three spots by the time we'd made it through Turn 1 (Abbey). After "racing" with a third-gen MX-5 that was slower in the corners but much faster on the straights, I also gave back one spot to a direct competitor that dive-bombed into Vale. It took a couple of laps, I got that place back with a better entry to Hanger Straight and making the pass stick through Stowe.
Eventually, I was able to get a good run on third-gen car through Farm Curve and pass him in Village, just before a series of corners that let me stay ahead on the next straight. Unfortunately, the gap to any other cars in my class had grown too much to catch anyone else in race 1.
Unfortunately, as a guest, I was assigned the last spot on the grid for race 2 despite having made up a few places in my class during race 1. Nor did I make any places on the start this time as I couldn't find 3rd gear as we ran down the straight to Abbey.
I did have a great time racing car #87 during the opening laps of race 2, including sliding side-by-side through Abbey at high-speed on the second lap. Despite good exits and a draft onto Hanger Straight, I never seemed to be able to make the pass stick. I briefly got stuck behind the same third-gen after my fellow direct competitors got through, but was able to catch the group before the final laps.
I was able to clear two white first-gen cars in traffic, but car #87 had done the same and was too far up the road to catch before the finish line.
Racing in the UK was an incredible experience - the Max 5 Racing drivers were welcoming, the new challenges were stimulating, and I can't wait to do it again!
Bryan Bursey, driver, founded Underbite Racing in 2015.