Welcome to another article written by a semi-novice auto-crosser as he re-enters the world of cone-carving and time-attack driving. Credits for the pictures and videos go to Google Maps, Michael Hoatson Photography, Cyndi Duckworth, Robert Nixon, alphajaguar, Glenn Holden, and me, Ender.
I have a bad tendency to blame anyone and anything except for myself when I'm beaten or losing. Bad tires, old shocks and springs, notchy second gear, quiet exhaust, etc. Sometimes it is true when your competition runs brand-new Dunlop ZII's and you're stuck on Chinese Michelin knockoffs, but I'm just proving my point that I don't take enough responsibility for my own actions.
About a month ago I was at South Carolina Region's auto-cross at Darlington Raceway, taking place in the parking lot directly in front of the historical stock-car track. Six other drivers were entered into my class, E-Street; three of them beating me earlier at Black Lake. By the end of the day, I finished fourth, beaten again by the three of them.
It wasn't the best of days for me; I struggled a lot to get my times down just a tenth or so at a time. It was a steep but needed major learning curve, I had gotten rusty once again and I was replacing my good driving habits with worse ones slowing me down. I wasn't looking far enough ahead, my slaloming wasn't as precise, and worst of all I was just getting angry and frustrated which resulted in my repeating my past and spinning out once more.
I had forgotten major points of auto-cross in the midst of pointless self-induced competitive stress, to better my driving skills and finding the limits of my car in a safe and controlled environment. That all became evident when I let my Miata-driving friend, Big Kyle, take the wheel of my car for a fun-run after the event. My best time that day was a forty-second and change run with no one else in the car, Big Kyle clocked a thirty-eight-second run while carrying his bear-sized self and me. He put down a thirty-seven second run in his Miata and I could have finished third instead of fourth easily.
His runs were insane, the back tires of both our Miatas continuously trying to slide out when exiting turns but he wheeled it like Senna and it shot out of the corners faster that what I was did. When I tried driving on the edge before, I kept losing control and spinning out or lost time while recovering, I had grown afraid to drive so loosely. I was broken, blue screen of death broken, my mind had trouble processing the fact that I needed to embrace such a dramatic driving style if I wanted to get the most out of my car and its tires.
Fast forward things ahead one month, June twenty-second and we're back at the Michelin Proving Grounds, the Black Lake (more like grey-lake since fading from the intense southern sun). This time armed with a mindset ready to push the Miata and its tires to their limits in the corners. Joining E-Street, Dan, last year's champion in C-Stock (where our Miatas were originally and improperly classed), finally setting aside his racing slicks for a new set of BFG Rivals on lightweight wheels.
I made sure to memorize the course immediately after seeing it posted earlier in the week. Overall the course looked like fun and flowed pretty well from an above view, great for handling cars like that Miata. However, after walking the course twice, I noticed how much of a visual mess it was for someone trying to learn how to look ahead.
CONES EVERYWHERE. Due to their positioning and how much course the organizers put into the lot, different elements were close enough that you could easily get lost on your way around.
Moving on, I noticed something else, they opened up an area near the first set of timing sensors. Instead of the usual "drop the clutch and floor it" starts, it was more of a rolling start before the sensors but they either forgot to add more cones to block off this section or purposely left them out to give drivers more room to get up to speed.
On my first run, I decided to swing out right immediately at the start to gain some momentum but I floored it too hard in first that I ended up going a mini-slide and completely missing the first left-hand chicane placed after the start.
I also forgot the length of the right sweeper after passing through the cross-over for the last time and almost missed the entrance to the cone slalom. I didn't get an official time because I DNF'd but I'm sure it was close to seventy-six or so seconds. My passenger, a seasoned veteran, gave me some pointers about looking ahead and assured me I wouldn't be the only one struggling to find my way around this course.
The second run went a lot better, this time with the novice-instructor and Miata-racer Ahren, as I pushed my car harder than before. This time I swung out even wider at the start to gain more speed and set myself up straighter for the first chicane. Also accidentally drifted it going into the giant left sweeper but that was saved with a lot of experience and some oppo'. My time was about seventy-two point six-seconds, and I was possibly in last place.
Overall the run felt okay but I had a long talk with Ahren and he explained that I was losing time in the slalom because of how far away I was from the cones and how late my steering inputs were in relationship to the distance between them, among other mistakes. I wasted a tenth shifting into second after crossing the lights instead of short-shifting and keeping both hands on the steering wheel the entire time. He recommended dedicating the day to practicing on nailing the slalom instead of trying to fix multiple mistakes in an entire day. Trying to come close to hitting the cones as you can; if you hit them, than back off a tiny bit and repeat until its right. Also, don't focus on the competition but on myself.
Third run, I plugged in the advice from both of my seasoned passengers and tried to fix my sense of direction and most importantly, the slalom that was eating up my time. Not much to say about this run but I was happy to shave four-tenths of a second off my time. Ahren mentioned there's a point after a few years of auto-crossing where improvements stop coming in whole seconds but in fractions, they're frustrating but seek help is better instead of getting too stressed out to the point where your times are getting slower.
In the fourth and final run Schuyler, my Miata rival, clocked a fast seventy-one point two-second run, one whole second faster than me. I did my best to let the pressure slide since I wasn't focused on beating him at the time, just trying to improve my own skills. I focused on the start first, making sure to use up all the space we were given to get up to speed and short-shifting into second to allow both hands on the wheel for the rest of the course. Then came the slalom and did my best to shorten the distance between car and cone as much as I could. The rest just flowed as I stayed in the zone.
That upward fist-thrust? I clocked a seventy point six-second run, just enough to beat Schuyler and bump me back into fourth place out of seven. So surprised to log a time that fast I had to ask the people at the time slip table if I had knocked down any cones, they said no and I was grinning like a doofus. I'm following Ahren's advice once more, my moment is likely a rare one and I should treasure it since not many drivers suddenly shave a good second or two off on a final run.
Am I bummed that I didn't finish on the podium or that I was a whole two seconds slower than first-place? (Congrats on the win, Big Kyle!) Not really, I was more excited and proud to improve my driving abilities, ring out a fast comeback time to keep me out of last-place, and beat my rival once more. Hopefully I'll finish higher at the next event down in Charleston, SC on July twelfth!