Ready to Race—Again

Once a driver experiences a dramatic crash, a few things can go through his or her head, but the decision whether or not they will drive again is likely the one of the first contemplations (even if for a second). Another consideration might be the careful review of safety equipment and other preparation related factors, especially if there is any bodily injury. There are always financial ramifications, and of course, the emotional responses from your closest friends and family. All of these things become a part of a heightened situation (like a car crash), and has to be handled somewhat delicately.

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For those who follow me on Facebook and Twitter will remember the big crash I had back in November at Infineon Raceway. My article Not IF but WHEN illustrates the story in words, video, and pictures. Now that months have since passed, the bruises gone, and concussion-related headaches all but a faint memory, I had to pick up the pieces and drive again. Beyond the physical annoyances (headaches and shoulder/rib pain), It was very much an emotional and financial healing process. The driver who had issued contact with me had proven to be extremely communicative and financially helpful. Many drivers who witnessed the crash wanted to handle the situation far less delicately than I did. However, it is my view that one has to expect when you sign up for a race, you must assume ANYTHING can happen. You accept the risk, and you own it. All you can do is make the best decisions possible while you are in control of the car.

I certainly couldn’t have recovered from this incident without the support of my friends, family, and colleagues within motorsports. What a lucky driver I am to know extremely committed people in this sport. Under the advice and guidance of expert coach/driver Ken Dobson, I am now equipped with a wonderfully built Spec Miata, prepared by my friend and motorsports colleague Greg Garneau (Dobson Motorsports).

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The 21 car and I became acquainted when I visited its ‘home’ down in Monterey. Greg had taken the time to prepare it for my stature, and carefully installed the new safety equipment from SafeRacer and OG Racing. Not before long, it was time to bring the 21 car to its new home.

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Admittedly I wasn’t entirely sure how I would feel about driving again. I knew I wanted to drive, it is my biggest passion after all, but I was concerned about how I would ultimately perform. I discovered an opportunity to get my feet wet on the track, running a Time Trials event in a race-prepared Integra at Firebird International Raceway (Main Track). Like riding a bicycle, my “driving” began to come back, little by little. Being the Integra wasn’t my own, there was an element of conservatism, however a primary principle remained the same.

... Just drive the car.

Returning to California I had a few weeks prepare for a race at Infineon with the new Miata. The morning was cold, damp, cloudy, and physiologically uncomfortable. I simply didn’t want to drive. In fact, I skipped my first session altogether waiting for fairer weather. I ran a Time Trials session to get familiarize myself prior to qualifying. Not knowing exactly how I would feel about going through Turn-8 again, I did my best to eliminate any and all expectations. While it was impossible to erase the memory of the unforgettable silence of being upside down and airborne, it was extremely necessary to set it aside. As tough as I like to think I am, the crash did mess with me a little bit.

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Admittedly, at first I felt awkward, somewhat akin to wearing another persons jacket. Yet lap after lap, things became more natural, and more fitting. Come qualifying I was ready to go faster… but not in every part of the track. It was a mind-game between me and Turn-8; a game I spent more energy trying to win versus the race itself. Turn-8 had become my inner-demon without me realizing it. However, just like a school-yard bully, the easiest way to cope is to run. The hardest thing to do is face him directly.

The first weekend was… for lack of a better term… slow. Certainly far from satisfying in competitive terms. My pace regressed several paces from my norm, and for the life of me I couldn’t stop braking for Turn-8. In effort to dismiss any glimmer of doubt I had about my abilities, I signed up for a test-day at the track. Anyone familiar with test-days at Infineon knows that in most cases it is open track… ALL day long. With 8-hours of track time at my disposal I would have plenty of time to sort myself out. It was simply going to take seat time and a clear mind.

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I was in the trusted company of Ken and Greg who were available to help and advise throughout the day. With other Miata’s at the track, I always had someone to chase. It’s interesting to observe how hanging the “carrot” in front of you changes your driving. For me at least, the easiest way to drive “well” has always been via the subconscious—where every input is void of tedious effort. This is a very good place to be as a driver. Situations around you slow down, you adapt to changing conditions much faster, and cognitive decisions are not over-processed. I found myself in this wonderful zone for moments at a time. Before I knew it, I turned the fastest laps I’ve ever ran at Infineon; low 1:57s. While this track is a changeable beast, on most days 57’s are certainly capable of a top 5 qualifier. With speed achieved, the next thing to work would include elements of consistency with that same speed. In short, this test day was a grand success.

Between photo-shoots and website projects, I was set for another test day just prior to my upcoming race weekend. It would be Infineon again. I turned lap times during the test a few tenths off my previous pace, yet under different track conditions (hotter and greasier). I felt ready. The challenge would be to repeat those same efforts in a race environment and continue to dismiss my hesitations at Turn-8.

I was lucky to have the company of my good friend (Compass 360 driver) Andrew Novich, whom I originally met back when I began shooting Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Having some familiarity with my driver quirks, Andrew has been a fantastic support at the track. His calm demeanor made it easy to talk through some of the stumbling blocks. I find that just talking about driving lends you to drive better, as it has a tendency to simplify things and helps you regain clarity. So much of this sport is ‘mental’ it can be challenging to make big changes quickly. Returning from a dramatic incident is never easy, but to drive well and with a clear mind, you have to set aside a lot of questions and uncertainties.

The first race of the weekend was a grab-bag of results, qualifying was off due to slower high-tread 4/32 tires and I more or less finished where I started. Sunday would be a different story with a 50-minute race. It was then where the talks with Andrew and other racers like him began to make sense, with the biggest gains in the realm of race craft.

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After a less than perfect start I spent the first segment of the race recovering my losses. But the magic began thereafter when I made a few more gains in the field. A longer race and warmer temperatures, tire management was something I had to be constantly aware of—being careful not to overheat them too much, and refrain from being overly demanding with steering inputs. However, by the end of the race I was dealing with an extremely annoying under-steer issue, but I did everything I could to keep the car from tracking out too far, all while maintaining a reasonable minimum speed.

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I finished the weekend just shy of the top 10 in 13th place in a large field. A better recovery than my previous race finishing 15th, and certainly better than any race I finished with my old car in a field of this size. While not the astounding results I was aiming for (this car is capable of winning), I did have some quality “ah-ha” moments that I will take to my next race… A top-10 will surely be within reach!

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In terms of progression, I have come a very long way from when I raced my #34 car aka “Clifford”. I’ve become faster, mentally and physically stronger, more consistent, more attentive to tire limitations and vehicle dynamics, and have a more developed sense of car control. I may not be waving a trophy or spraying a bottle of champagne (yet), but with the support and encouragement from those around me—my friends, family, coaches, and fellow drivers—those who believe in what I can do and truly want to see me live dreams in motorsports, I already feel like I’ve won.

Posted on 03/16

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