Exhaust Fumes, Loud Noises, and Amazing cars

The year 2011 has proven to be a very busy year indeed. My calendar has been busier than ever since I left my “desk job” in Phoenix, Arizona and turned my devotions to the motorsports industry. From shooting the 49th Rolex 24hrs at Daytona for Action Express driver Darren Law, to covering regional club racing and private track events, and photographing Continental and Rolex teams/drivers throughout the Grand-AM schedule, all the while maintaining and racing my own race car. It seems that I’m either working away on my laptop while sipping my beloved Starbucks Iced Americano (with sugar-free hazelnut of course) at an airport gate, jet-setting to a remote location to shoot a track event, or zooming around in my own race car (or someone else’s). Needless to say, I got my frequent flyer miles stacking up and a little bit of an adrenaline addiction started.

In the midst of my travels I’ve been lucky to meet some very amazing people, many of which have been in the motorsports industry most of their lives. Some have become close friends or invaluable clientele. During the process of getting to know them, they have shared a wealth of information with me as I continue to demonstrate sincere dedication and interest in racing, automotive technology, and the business behind it all. With the amount of travel this game requires, my nomadic spirit has been fed what it needs to survive. This all began when I lived in the UK all while getting in touch with my historic and biological roots. It is essentially where my interest in motorsports began to evolve in a serious manner. Once I completed my Masters Degree in Graphic Communication and felt my time was finished working as a designer in the city of London, I returned to Arizona and from then on fell into the sport feet first—landing right on the driving force beneath me that would ultimately change my life.

I abandoned a 15-year long “corporate” career in pursuit of my business in motorsports. Sound crazy? It’s not entirely a diversion from my expertise. I’ve been rather lucky in that can apply my creative skill set to an industry that I love most. Designing websites for drivers and teams, photographing professional races across the country, brand development, creative leadership and marketing support; all of the aforementioned has kept me involved within some of the highest professional tiers of racing in the US.

All things at the track, such as exhaust fumes, burning rubber, loud noises, and amazing cars on equally amazing tracks, has ultimately become my career nirvana. Send me to the track and I’m probably going to be the happiest woman on the planet. Working closely with pro-level racers and teams has undeniably changed my perception of not only my own driving, but how to manage myself as a driver.

While only at the club-level, I have learned to treat each race seriously; paying close attention to the details involving the car and what the driver is doing to it. It is a process of learning, evolving, failing, succeeding, and pushing your boundaries. Then, just when think you might be close to figuring it out, you find a few more hills and valleys to make your way past.

Being a woman in this sport also plays by a whole other set of rules that I, frankly, did not expect. In the face of reticule and doubt, I’ve had to smile when I was angry or drive harder to justify my purpose being out there with the “guys.”  On the positive, there have been a number of people who have been wonderfully supportive, and truly want to see a female driver succeed in an otherwise male dominated environment. Over time and with much persistence, I began to see less resistance, and a fair number of drivers have sought my advice. Today, while there are always exceptions, my presence is usually very well accepted.

By no means am I “a master of driving”, but you do learn a lot in helping others regardless of which series you run. When I received an invite to learn some of the in’s and out’s of driver instruction, I was all-in with an open mind. Thanks to professional race car driver and coach Ken Dobson, I found myself at the Audi Forum at Infineon Raceway for some “shadowing” of those in charge of the Audi Sportscar Experience activities.

Not knowing what to expect in terms of format, and having been a student at the Bob Bondurant School several times, I was anxious to see what it was like to be on the other side of the fence in the realm of driving schools. I was in the company of familiar faces, as several coaches at the school are currently active professional racers; Grand-Am drivers Matt Bell and Nico Rondet, both who I already knew from prior events. It was more or less like another day at the track—but with a twist.

“Time to shag some cones!” That’s one way of saying “restore cones so students can hit them again.” It’s all part of the average day in course planning, regardless of the cars you get to drive later. Observing these car-control exercises offered me plenty of time to look at the lines drivers take, how they brake, and when they get on the gas. It’s a careful lingo of positive reinforcement, enthusiasm, and report. Right away you can tell who is going to be receptive and who is not. You simply adjust.

Once the cone abuse was over it was not long before lead-follow commenced on the track itself. For this particular program, each instructor leads a couple of cars in a short train around the track, coaching them via radio and watching them carefully through the mirrors.

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Needless to say, I was impressed with what appeared to be their quasi-ambidextrous multitasking ability. Quite possibly the most memorable and inspiring moments take place after the sessions are over. Students are clearly and thoroughly excited, plain and simple. It’s not too often you see adults smile that much in one day.

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Now, time for the car-geek side of me to come out. My early laps at Infineon took place in an Audi S4; a 4-door sedan powered by a 3-liter supercharged engine that produces roughly 330hp with nearly an equal amount of torque. It could bring you to 60 mph from a dead stop in 4.9 seconds. Not bad for a sedan! The chassis is noticeably heavy in the corners and is carried along by 18” wheels utilizing a set of 245/40 summer performance tires. Oh, and what the British call a “flappy-paddle gear box”...it’s got one of those too.

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Once everyone has driven the same car for a while, students are encouraged to “switch it up”, and jump into a car that they have not yet driven.  It was then my turn behind the wheel of what would be one of my newest track favorites, the Audi TTS. With a shorter wheelbase, it proved to be a familiar platform as I found myself comparing it with what I normally drive on track. The TTS comes with a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, producing a hearty 265hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, sending you to 60 mph in about 4.9 seconds. Quick, nimble, and AWD. It was a pure joy to drive on track.

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The last car on the list, and certainly the reason why students enroll in this course, is the prestigious Audi flagship—the R8. Everything that the S4 and TTS did, the R8 did a million times better. What racing or sports car enthusiast wouldn’t like a V8 sitting only inches away from their back? This 4.2 liter mid-mounted engine boasts 420hp and produces 317 lb-ft of torque, delivering a 0-60 mph ride in 4.4 seconds. One of the things I noted (and admired) about the R8 is the size of the brake rotors. No wonder the car stops well; the front discs are only a half-inch smaller than the diameter of the race wheels used on my Miata.

In short, having never driven an Audi on track before, I found all three models to be well sorted and balanced, with a decent amount of grip. The Audi’s handle so well they almost drive themselves (with systems on). Even when you begin to hear the tires sing, you know there is still more available grip. It is easy to see why these cars would be good for students learning to drive proper lines on the race track. With nothing else to worry about, all they have to do is listen to the instructor’s radio feed and drive.

I knew coming in the gate that I was going to be observed in the car; my inputs, habits (good and bad), and other things that define a driver’s ability. At first, while it was slightly distracting to learn a new track in unfamiliar cars with a passenger on my right talking away on a radio to students following my tracks, it turned out to be enjoyable. After spending a couple of years in a race car without the option of any passengers, it’s amazing how much you get used to the silence.

Each driver has their own style controlling a car. Likewise, each instructor has their own style of teaching. From how one verbally conveys practical/technical information to the flavor of energy injected into their delivery, each style is unique. In working with several coaches over the years, I’ve noticed some are more passive while others take a more active approach. Ken Dobson is certainly one of those “active” instructors who wastes no time in explaining his point. As he rode along with me I could see in the corner of my eye he was watching my hands from time to time, all while guiding the students via radio behind us.

After a lap or two, I noticed a light tug on the wheel. All I knew it wasn’t me doing the tugging. Ken had reached over and began to make some slight corrections in my driving line, smoothing out my turns just a bit—just enough to make the car agree with me a little more. I’ve heard of instructors doing this to their students but never has it happened to me… until that moment. As uneasy as it initially made me feel while my feet continued to do the work of brake and throttle, it was an eye opening realization. Once those car doors close, regardless of who’s sitting behind the wheel, you are then in the space of the instructor—not the other way around. This space is where two lives sit in a speeding car revolving around a track, and requires a certain level of trust and acceptance to input. In contrast to other coaching methods, such as post-session data analysis, it is deliberate and tactile.

This is also where the dynamic of student and instructor is established. I can see how this can be difficult, particularly coaching advanced drivers or “new experts” who have never raced before; essentially where personalities can be their strongest. Communication is vital and everyone at the school delivered very well, explaining technical concepts with ease. In the morning when students came into the classroom for the first time, each face expressed eagerness and enthusiasm. The opening speeches only reinforced that energy as the chief instructor explained details about the cars, suspension/balance, and activities they were to be assigned on track. While this program was only scratching the surface of car control and track driving, it brings to light how driver instruction determines the quality of each student’s experience. It is also vital to prepare for a wide spectrum of personalities, and adjust teaching accordingly.

What’s next for me? I would not hesitate for the opportunity to develop my instruction skills and teach on a regular basis. As an old saying goes, it’s arguably true that you can not say you know how to do something until you can teach it to someone else. In the little mentoring I’ve done at the club-level, I wish to continue those efforts as I evolve my own driving and advance in racing. The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires. The team at the Audi Forum at Infineon certainly achieves the latter.

A very special thanks goes out to Ken Dobson, Jeff Sakowicz, and the rest of the team at the Audi Forum at Infineon Raceway. For more information about the Audi Sports Car Experience visit the Audi USA website:
http://www.audiusa.com/us/brand/en/exp/audi_sportscar_experience.html.

Posted on 05/05

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