Avoidable Contact #124: In which a Khaleesi bangs out a fender and burns them all

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W.T. Kern Farmington Hills, MI

If it seems you are not improving, you are about to. That’s from the great Ross Bentley, and it’s one of the “speed secrets” in his very first book, but trust me on this, it’s not something you want to say to your wife after she’s had a miserable race weekend ended by several thousand dollars’ worth of damage to her car.

How do I know? Because I was stupid enough to say it to my wife, aka Danger Girl, as we were leaving Mid-Ohio four weekends ago, and I was rewarded with an entirely silent drive home, followed by a week in which my box of Lucky Charms in the pantry was not mysteriously replenished as it normally is. “Why are there no more Lucky Charms?” I asked. “Are we out of Lucky Charms money?”

“It’s not about money,” I was told, “it’s about sending a message.”

“Message received,” I said. And in truth I understood how she felt. The story so far: My wife has been running her NC-generation MX-5 Cup in both SCCA and NASA this year. She’s been using the Hankook C71 tire for a while and has been very happy with it, but she hasn’t been turning the lap times she needs to win. So we switched to the Hoosier R7, which is a better and stickier, if much shorter-lived, choice. I figured she’d get an extra two seconds a lap at Mid-Ohio.

Which she did—in the wrong direction. Compared to the Hankook, the Hoosier generates more cornering force but is also much more finicky at the limit of traction. If you over-drive the “Kook” a bit, you get nothing but a gentle slide, but the Hoosier will simply let go and permit you to spin off. It took her seven sessions across two race weekends just to get back to where she’d been on the Hankooks, and she finally managed to qualify fifth in a 15-car mixed class for the final race of the SCCA Autumn Classic at Mid-O.

In that final race, another car lost control and hit her hard, taking out her right rear quarter panel, smashing her door, and destroying everything from the CV joint of the right axle to the Enkei wheel at the end of it. This is the third time she’s been hit by an out-of-control driver in 18 months. In this case, the fellow came over to apologize afterwards, but this didn’t make the cost of repair, or the hassle, any easier to take. And we had another race in just two weeks—at Nelson Ledges, a famously dicey track she’d never driven before. No wonder she didn’t feel like shopping for Lucky Charms.

I bought her a new Enkei RPF1 from Good-Win Racing, which rather miraculously had exactly the right wheel in stock. She got a single Hoosier R7 to replace the one that had been cut down. Jon Shevel of Albany Autoworks replaced all the mechanical bits and pulled the quarter panel out as far as he could without tearing it. But we had some concerns, because the only way to get a rear knuckle on short notice had been to pull it from her parts car, and we weren’t sure how sound the bearing would be. To make matters slightly worse, between the two race weekends (as previously noted), Danger Girl hit a deer and totaled our tow vehicle, forcing us to rent and borrow trucks to get her car back and forth to the shop and the track.

W.T. Kern Farmington Hills, MI

In other words, our confidence wasn’t exactly high going into the weekend. Did I mention it was raining at Nelson Ledges when we got there? Well, it was. This had all the makings of a disaster—and her Saturday-morning qualifying session didn’t raise my hopes. “I’m buzzing that back tire going into Turn One,” she reported. “I have to go off-line to prevent compressing the wheel into the fender.”

“Then that’s what you’re going to have to do,” Shevel told her, “unless you want to get out the tin snips.” At least she’d qualified almost midway up the pack. Not bad for someone who didn’t know the track.

At 11:05 a.m. on Saturday, she went out for the formation lap of her race. At 11:16 a.m., I got the following text from her crew chief:

Who the f*** is driving that orange Miata?

Because my wife was in third place overall, having made seven passes in 10 laps, and had set the fast lap of the race. I watched the race from the front-straight bridge and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She was sailing the car in Turn One at a speed that was visibly above everyone else in the pack; later on, data would show that she was only 6 mph slower at that apex than I’d been in my Radical. She moved up to second place with a pass on the outside of Nelson’s famous “Kink” high-speed right-hander. Although she was passed under yellow on the final lap and dropped back to third place overall for the trophy ceremony, she was first in class and had fast lap of the race.

Afterwards, Danger Girl couldn’t explain why she’d run so well. She just knew it had all come together at the same time: her confidence in the Hoosiers, her willingness to make a pass at 116 mph through a turn, a newfound ability to defend against aggressive re-pass maneuvers. The drivers who had dropped her like a hot potato at Mid-Ohio were dispatched in a single turn here at Nelson Ledges. It seemed obvious that she could take the overall win on Sunday by doing just what she’d done on Saturday, only from a better qualifying position.

Ah, but come Sunday morning it was raining all sorts of four-legged animals and her Yokohama A052 “rain tires” didn’t have enough negative space in the tread to clear the standing water. So she skipped qualifying and elected to start at the back for the feature race. “I don’t feel confident,” she told me, “so I doubt I’ll get very far up the order. I just don’t want to get lapped.” That’s what she said, anyway, but the look on her face as she put on her helmet said something different.

I met Danger Girl eight years ago around this time and she came off as just your average prep-school mom in her very early 30s. Perhaps in sympathetic response to my continual manic energy, or just as part of her own evolution, she’s become a significantly more forceful person between then and now. She dyes her hair shock blonde and, combined with her fair skin, it can be very striking. At times she reminds me of what’s-her-name from Game Of Thrones, the girl whose pet dragons are always roasting people alive. They both get that blank expression that says someone is going to get burned here, and it won’t be me.

Fourteen cars took the start; she was dead last. Here’s the tale of the tape, from Race Monitor:

Jack Baruth

Five positions in Lap One, seven more afterwards, and a finish less than three seconds behind the race winner. Along the way, she ran a lap that was just 1.6 seconds off the lap record for the STL class. Danger Girl’s Miata isn’t STL-legal solely because she has her beloved “Nine Lives” wing mounted on back. What would she have run with an STL legal version? A few tenths slower? Something tells me she’ll find just such a wing under the tree this Christmas, so she can find out next year.

The race winner came over to see her afterwards; he’s a seasoned SCCA vet with big results at the Runoffs and in Trans-Am. Told her it was a real pleasure to see her work up the crowd towards him. “I had a little speed in reserve for when you got to me,” he told her, and winked in the finest club-racing-intimidation fashion. His car was a T3 BMW, so I believed him. Then it was all hands on deck for my race, which was going swimmingly until I had a wheel failure in the final lap. It was no big deal and I still finished pretty well.

W.T. Kern Farmington Hills, MI

After we loaded my lopsided Radical onto the trailer, Danger Girl was all smiles. “Something happened out there for me,” she said. This is what I wanted to tell her: The most frustrating part of being a club racer is having a series of bad races when you aren’t making time, you aren’t making up places, and you don’t feel comfortable in the car. Sometimes it just means that you need to fix a specific problem—but more often than not, if you have your act generally together, it means that your subconscious is working overtime to improve your driving, using the visual, audible, and tactile cues you’ve been feeding it over time.

Today’s race teams have enough data and expertise to turn dentists into podium finishers on a regular basis, but they can’t give you that mysterious sense that I can make a pass there, nor can they analyze you into taking a devil-may-care off-line approach into Turn One at Nelson Ledges at the razor-edge limit of the tires. Only your own mind can do that. If you feed it enough sensation, if you are present and aware for enough seat time in certain circumstances, the subconscious can just wake up one day and make you faster. By a half-second a lap, by five seconds a lap. You won’t know until it happens. And you can’t give up at any point. You have to keep plugging along, keep feeding that information to the inscrutable processes in the back of your brain.

Which is what Danger Girl had done. She’d run six unhappy race weekends without fail, waiting on the day when it all came together. She just didn’t have any way of knowing if, or when, it was going to happen. As we pulled her still-wounded Miata over the bridge, I looked at her, took a breath, and said:

“Speed Secret Number I’m-Not-Sure: If it seems you are not improving, you are about to.” For a moment, the silence in the truck verged on deadly. Then, as if it had just come to her, she replied:

“Hey—didn’t I forget to get your Lucky Charms last week?”

W.T. Kern Farmington Hills, MI

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