Eight post to NASA Speed News; finally, time to attack the track!
Look closely at the photo above. That’s right; that’s me in the passenger seat right alongside Brian Kenny. The Kennys and the Holen-Buckle family spent many years together on road courses up and down the Pacific coast and on occasion a little further inland. If you don’t recognize the track or even the corner then no worries; if you haven’t experienced it first-hand it might be totally meaningless to you.
However, this is the famous Corkscrew at Laguna Seca and Brian was gracious enough to first take me around this circuit to get a good look at its 11-turn layout before giving a similar ride to Margo. There are many ways to gain experience of a track and there’s nothing like circulating in a car that is being driven competently and with confidence. Back when this photo was taken, Brian was many levels of ability past that of mine (and no, I never did catch up to him) so there clearly was a fun factor involved for me!
However, even without any experience on Laguna Seca per se both Margo and I have accumulated enough track time elsewhere that, to some degree, we were able to anticipate what came next and in so doing, were better prepared to move beyond simply following the turns to where we could safely attack them. Our speeds approaching the Corkscrew were up past 100 mph so that just added to the drama that unfolded each time we dropped down the equivalent of a six story building in just 450 feet of track.
Developing muscle memory is key to improved performance. Not having to look down at your controls or be left second guessing what comes next is crucial to maintaining any semblance of speed. You want to go fast, then look beyond simply driving and let your subconscious take over and no, this has nothing to do with letting “the force be with you!” Practice develops experience that develops responses best suited to the situation.
Tiger Woods knew he had talent but even so, he would spend every afternoon and into the evening hitting hundreds of golf balls. In time and in his case, rather rapidly, he developed the additional skills that allowed him to place his golf ball exactly where he wanted to. When it comes to being on track, placement of your car (to the inch) is critical and can only be done when you have the muscle memory to keep on doing it, lap after lap.
As an aside, there is a secondary story associated with the photo above. I have been on track for much of the first day Margo took over the driving of our own Corvette later in the day. On approaching the top of the Corkscrew she found she had no brakes. I had left Margo with brakes that were totally glazed over providing no ability for her to slow down. Now remember this was the C6 Corvette coupe that we had supercharged and at this time it was making 590 hp to the rear wheels so it was capable of moving around the track rather quickly.
She remembered Brian Kenny entering this corner much faster so she said to herself: “Brian did it! Brian did it!” She repeated this a couple of times and simply turned into the Corkscrew, completed the next series of turns and entered the pits. What followed was possibly the worst verbal exchange between the two of us, ever. Ever! I said it is not possible that her brakes were done and took the car to the outer perimeter of the infield parking lot to check them: They were done!
Below is a post to the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) publication, Speed News where the topic of the eight post that NASA published was simply that; Muscle Memory:
You have watched the best of drivers at work behind the wheel of an F1 or an Indy car, or perhaps a Corvette, Ferrari or BMW battling for a win in sports car racing. You have been alongside NASA tracks and watched the racers mixing it up, and all the while observing how each driver handles the track and makes adjustments.
You have just turned up for your fourth or fifth event with NASA HPDE, and have come to terms with the expectations of NASA and your fellow drivers, whose faces are beginning to look familiar. In showing up for the weekend, you are likely to be returning to a track you have already circulated four and maybe eight times with each session completed, stamping its imprint firmly in your brain. You still have your instructor alongside you as you begin contemplating your first outing driving solo, and you are beginning to take in all that is happening around you.
Fortunately for you, NASA has provided an instructor that is familiar with your car and likely is an active racer campaigning a similar vehicle. It’s advantageous to have someone familiar with high-horsepower cars as you take your car onto the track. Point is, you are now beginning to have a little more fun than you did the very first time you went on track, when you had absolutely no experience.
By now you have had four or five weekends to talk to those around you who are fielding similar cars, and in socializing you have discovered that there is little advantage to be gained at this point from mucking about with the suspension and the aero. In time you will come to appreciate mechanical and aero contributions to grip, but for now, it’s all about etching the flow of the track deeper into your brain. Be smooth and manage your inputs and you will go faster in time.
In HPDE, before you can begin to think about “attacking the circuit” you need to know the circuit. You will be advised to walk the track at some point. Do it. You can learn a lot from looking at braking points and apexes. The makeup of the track will never be consistent and there are places to avoid just as there are grooves that can help. But here’s the thing: Once you begin revisiting the circuits that are part of the rotation for your region, it’s all about developing muscle memory.
Again, it’s all about being smooth, and the key ingredient to becoming smooth is to feel the flow of the track. Even the best Indy driver will tell you that for this or that track, it’s about finding the flow – something that many of us saw when Indy drivers tackled the Circuit of the Americas for the first time. And did you see who won? Rookie Indy driver, Colton Herta! More importantly, did you know that both of Colton’s grandparents, Brian and Jan Kenny, have spent time with NASA SoCal and yes, it took them time to develop the muscle memory before they advanced, although in Jan’s case — she’s already a seasoned racer — it came back rather quickly.
Ultimately, everyone has to accumulate seat time and put in the laps. What we talk about is “consolidating a specific motor skill into memory through repetition,” or so I have been told. Yes, repetition gained from experience on-track driving your car. Take to heart the advice from your instructor, and use what you’ve learned when walk the track. Now get out there and drive!