Column: Life Is Better When You're Learning

Photograph Courtesy Skip Barber

Not too long ago, I attended a two-day Advanced Competition school put on by the recently reborn Skip Barber Racing School at Sebring International Raceway. A full review is coming up in a future issue, but the whole experience kind of jumpstarted the idea for this column, which is how fun and rewarding it is to learn stuff.

First, I’ll say that although I get a healthy amount of seat time, it wasn’t long after our two-day school started that I realized that pure seat time is no substitute for proper coaching and feedback time. Modern data gathering and analysis systems make it easy to get plenty of objective feedback during your track time, but ultimately there’s no substitute for the accountability provided by another human standing there telling you what you did right or wrong.

You can’t have a discussion with a data acquisition system, and although the data is accurate, it can also be difficult to contextualize without the input of another driver who has done the same thing you’re trying to do, only better.

So, going to an honest-to-goodness racing school–my first in over a decade-felt like a lot of payoff in the education department. The structured, repetitive approach, with constant and specific feedback, was far more valuable than simply turning laps and looking at graphs afterward. It let me focus on specific skills and techniques in an environment where there was no pressure from clocks or competition.

So that’s one reward of education: You just end up better at stuff. But there are other benefits as well, not the least of which is the people you get to meet on the journey to greater knowledge.

Look, if someone’s teaching you something, chances are they know more about that thing than you, right? I find people who know a lot to be fascinating characters to begin with, and what a bonus when you get to sponge a little knowledge off them. And one day, you might be lucky enough to have someone whose career you’ve admired share some of their precious brain with you.

Two of my instructors at this particular Skip Barber school were Bruce MacInnes and Terry Earwood, cats that I’d be excited just to hang out with for a little while. Bruce made a name for himself in the later, single-seat days of the Can-Am series, when the cars were barely disguised F5000 monsters sporting full bodywork and setting outright lap records at many of the circuits they visited. Bruce has driven stuff so fast he’s probably traveled back in time a little bit.

And having Terry Earwood give you Sebring pointers? I mean, come on. The road that leads into the track is named after his family. If that doesn’t give a guy some credibility, I don’t know what does.

Anyway, the point is this: Learning from experts exposes you not only to amazing information, but likely amazing people, too. And I’d like to think it’s one of my goals to expose myself to as many amazing people as I can whenever I have the chance. That sort of came out wrong, but you get the idea.

Then there’s the sheer, selfish thrill of new knowledge and newly acquired skills. The feeling that you possess some ability or information that you didn’t have, possibly even a few minutes prior, is a powerful and satisfying feeling. When you’re conscious of that moment of discovery or breakthrough, there’s few better highs.

I remember the first time I went over the bypass at Thunderhill at 10/10ths-a blind, cresting leap into a quick right-hand turn. You need to begin your direction adjustment before the top of the hill, which means you need to commit before you can really see anything. And when you do it quickly enough, there are a few precious moments when the car is unweighted enough that you really can’t make any meaningful directional adjustments until the car settles back down perilously close to the corner entry. So, you need to take this leap of faith on the near side of the crest, hoping your muscle memory and track knowledge sets you down on the correct line on the far side.

And that first time you get it right? Magic.

And the most magical part about it? That feeling that even though you just did something for the first time, and it was hard, and took skill, courage and faith, there was also this feeling that one day you’ll have done it enough times that it will be mundane. Ordinary. Dare I say easy. Knowing you just took the first step on that path is pretty powerful.

Currently my dad-who, after eight-plus decades on this rock, has little left to prove toanyone–is learning how to weld. He went out and bought a MIG and a TIG welder, and he’ll probably burn though several gas bottles, many pounds of scrap metal, and more than a few poorly placed carpet scraps on the way to his moments of discovery. But I bet seeing those pieces of hot metal sticking together will be just as satisfying as riding a dinosaur for the first time or fist-fighting President Taft-or whatever other awesome stuff he did back in the day. I eagerly await word of his various breakthroughs, and hopefully they come before he burns the place down.

Likewise, I never intend to lose that thrill of discovery and learning, and that Skippy school really reminded me how satisfying and reinvigorating the process of discovery is. I challenge you, gentle reader, to never stop seeking knowledge. I guarantee it’s worth the effort, and I can’t wait to hear about the latest thing you learned.

 

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frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
7/2/20 10:32 a.m.

This is extremely important for us seniors. It keeps us from mind staleness.  Which I'm convinced is the beginnings of dementia.  
 

The hard part is the line between education and acceptance of something false.  On track learning for example. On most corners I late apex and allow a slightly loose ( or over steering ) car to self correct the late apex. The result is a higher  exit speed and a  fractionally higher top speed  plus it's a more aggressive  track positioning technique.  
Since we are racing and the object of that is to pass those ahead of you, I think it's legitimate. While doing so requires familiarity with your competitor ( and I'm speaking about familiarity with his driving)  if you watch really great drivers that technique is used. 
 No instructor I've ever had shares that line. 
It's hit the apex and accelerate out.  If everyone does exactly that the only passing that occurs is under acceleration.  
My car is faster than yours.  Yawn!  
So is it stubbornness, using what works, or just wrong?  
 

GCrites80s
GCrites80s HalfDork
7/2/20 11:08 a.m.

Right, you have to be good at driving off-line and predictable since the good line isn't always available due to traffic.

APEowner
APEowner Dork
7/2/20 12:58 p.m.
frenchyd said:

This is extremely important for us seniors. It keeps us from mind staleness.  Which I'm convinced is the beginnings of dementia.  
 

The hard part is the line between education and acceptance of something false.  On track learning for example. On most corners I late apex and allow a slightly loose ( or over steering ) car to self correct the late apex. The result is a higher  exit speed and a  fractionally higher top speed  plus it's a more aggressive  track positioning technique.  
Since we are racing and the object of that is to pass those ahead of you, I think it's legitimate. While doing so requires familiarity with your competitor ( and I'm speaking about familiarity with his driving)  if you watch really great drivers that technique is used. 
 No instructor I've ever had shares that line. 
It's hit the apex and accelerate out.  If everyone does exactly that the only passing that occurs is under acceleration.  
My car is faster than yours.  Yawn!  
So is it stubbornness, using what works, or just wrong?  
 

frenchy

In a racing school vs a high performance driving school that technique and others will be taught.  There will also be data acquisition to analyze whether or not that's faster or just a good way to get inside a slightly slower competitor on corner exit. When I started looking at data I was surprised to find that there were places where I had adapted a line as the fastest because I often passed cars using it, but the data said that it wasn't the fastest way around the corner.  You really need to mix it up a little depending on if you're setting up for a pass, trying to catch someone or defending.  It's those subtleties and strategies that make racing different, and in my mind, more fun than time attack or track days.

Tom1200
Tom1200 Dork
7/2/20 5:57 p.m.

Frenchyd for the type of car you are used to racing that technique is pretty solid. It also depends on car set up. I know guys who don't trail brake at all, their cars are set up with trailing throttle oversteer. they get the same result (getting the car to rotate) via a different technique.  I personally don't like the trailing throttle method as it gives you fewer options in traffic but to each their own.

As for education, one of the reasons I instruct is to keep me thinking as well. 

I have said if I was ever to do the RunOffs I would get a driving coach (I kinda have one now); having that feedback is priceless, I often discuss things with a couple of friends at the track........the tough part is I get people coming up and asking me what I think they should do........getting feedback at the level I need is sometimes hard to come by so I understand why JG would go back to a school. 

frenchyd
frenchyd PowerDork
7/3/20 8:07 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Growing up where lakes freeze all winter and every vacant parking lot is a race track when snow keeps most home.  Trailing throttle oversteer is a natural like breathing.

 I notice it's Mikahackan ( sp )  uses that technique in many of his passes in Formula 1   What it does is prevents the over under Re pass that sharp drivers use to counter. 

The first time  I experienced it was in a sprint car race.  But I did the over under repass which  put me in place to beat him to the flag. 

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