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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Greg Troester May 25, 2023 0 comments

Non-linear improvement is a brutal reality

One of the things my brother Blake and I tell entry-level drivers towards the end of their first day is to keep in mind that their improvements on-track won’t come without trade-offs. It goes something like this:

You’ve learned a lot today and have probably gotten a lot faster, very quickly. Be prepared to start making new mistakes as you enter corners faster than ever before. Your braking will need to change and your line will evolve. You may get faster in one section of the track that makes you slower in another — this is normal!

Knowing this is true for both beginners and professional racers alike, I try to keep my own advice in mind every time I go on-track… but the thing is: sometimes that one step back catches us by surprise.

My [Latest] ‘One Step Back’

NASA Utah Round 3 was our first weekend of ‘good’ weather: sunny, warm (but not hot), and the track was quick. Not record-setting fast, but quick-enough for PBs and good racing.

Saturday and Sunday both proved to be exercises in consistency. Jason in P1 was a good second ahead of the pack in qualifying and had excellent pace in the races.

That left Blake, me, and Steve to have a three-way battle for the other two steps on the podium and we entered a level of intensity that was less about dicing and more about staying tidy, close, and ready to pounce on the mistake of the lead car.

My ‘One Step Back’ came just a lap before the white flag flew on Sunday. Blake, myself, and Steve (in that order) had been running nose-to-tail for laps 3–10 with no changes in position and very few challenges up the inside. It was fantastic. We managed to keep Jason within sight and were very much in-sync. Minor bobbles here and there, but nothing major.

Then, as we began Lap 11, I found myself closing on Blake just as I caught 4th gear at ‘the bump’ on the front straight of UMC’s West Track (if you know, you know). I had been closing my gap to Blake at the end of the front straight nearly all race, choosing to ease off the throttle as we entered the number boards — I never tried the very late bump-draft, judging it to be too high-risk to be beneficial in gaining on Jaosn and gapping Steve.

This time, I caught Blake much sooner, but with enough of a speed difference that, in my mind, there was no way to do anything but either check-up and risk a pass from Steve… or to take the pass into T1.

So I slid over as the number boards began flashing by, judging my position based off of Blake and going to the brakes hard. Too hard. There was no lockup, but I instinctually felt that if I made any inputs, I would exceed the limit of traction and slide…

Greg.exe stopped responding. My eyes locked straight ahead and my hand was stuck to the shift knob (I never do this). Then the yellow of Blake’s car came into view and… bang!

“Shit, sorry Blake.” I said over the radio (we had exchanged a few coordinating words over the race and our dad had been online to call the green flag).

“It’s fine.” came back the reply as Blake moved ahead and I gathered myself up.

Finishing the Race

Though I gave Blake a significant dent in the rear quarter panel (earning myself 3 points against my license), there was no change in position or mechanical damage to Blake’s car. Having a lot of breathing-room, he went on to finish P2 with ease.

Steve, as it turned out, had also made a bobble on that lap — giving me far more space than I thought. Turns out, he only closed on my out of T4, despite my steering wheel being crooked and my mind being a modest mess of guilt and other crappy feelings over having contact… with my own brother! Talk about friendly-fire.

Despite this, Blake was an encouraging voice in my ears as we finished up the race, queuing me to the typical passing opportunities to help me stay heads-up and focused. It made me feel even worse, but also glad to know that Blake was understanding of my error and wasn’t holding it against me.

I held on for that remaining lap and a half, taking P3 and making the weekend a wash in my ongoing battle with Steve… but my alignment was most certainly off and I begin to dread the damage to Blake’s car and my own. I hate body work.

Sorting Through What Happened

This may go against every instinct in racing, but to tell the truth I didn’t want the pass on Blake on that lap. Here’s what flashed in my head before entering T1:

  • Traction into T1 was… pretty good, but it didn’t inspire absolute confidence.
  • Blake is a tenacious defender — could I pull the pass off? Or would we just both be slow and become a target for Steve into T5?
  • I thought Steve was much closer — not having looked back in my mirror after ‘the bump’ and seeing Blake grow large in my windshield was taking all of my attention
  • Checking-up to bump-draft was risky — I could over-slow and lose-out to Steve or under-slow and plow Blake’s car

So I moved over and began the pass. It was a default motion and that was fine.

What went wrong:

  • My angle was wrong. I had plenty of space and had cleanly executed this pass-attempt against Steve the day before, but today I didn’t turn-in enough. Bad.
  • I didn’t have my eyes up and towards the apex soon enough — I spent too long judging my relation to Blake’s car. Also bad.
  • When I realized I was “off”, I didn’t have the mental programming to instictually correct this issue. The correct answer would’ve been to ease off the brakes a tad, giving grip back for me to turn-in a bit more.

Moving On

I ruminated on this incident for the remainder of the day and part of the next. Now, the guilt is gone and it’s time to move forward.

I’ve highlighted a known weakness in my skillset: late-brake passing. It’s high risk and I don’t go out on a practice session with this skill in mind. I’m typically working on going faster. This is all good, but…

Spec racing is so tight that it’s likely my passing opportunities will present themselves in much the same way as they did that day. I need to build mental programming for these situations. I have a decent amount of mental programming, but my weakness is when I’m absolutely side-by-side with a competitor.

In other scenarios, I’ve lost the opportunity by braking way too early. That’s not going to cut it anymore.

That said… I’ve also decided that I’m 100% done having contact of any sort.

So… what to do?

It’s going to take solo practice of alternate lines — it’s going to take some track time away from “simply” trying to go faster. It’s going to be a compromised line into certain corners, but… it’s clearly a weak point.

I’ve successfully pushed myself into scenarios where I can be in over my head: two steps forward, one step back.

The season continues and the competition for 2nd and 3rd is tight:


How About You?

What’s your latest step back?

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