New Driver – Part 2

This is a continuation from the last newsletter about relaxation for new drivers.  I am now a professional spectator and I often see new teams with a new driver.  However occasionally I see situations that remind me of what I went through in my early days of racing.  Because of ‘new race driver blues’ and a lot of racecar infant mortalities, I may have set a record for the longest time that it took to get licensed.  That was a difficult and humbling experience.  From that difficult experience and from subsequent good business experience in technical skilled trades training, I learned a lot of tips that would help if I was new at it again.  I was burdened with the same problem that exists for many.  I was the owner, builder, tuner, and driver.  All of those tasks can bury a new racer in mental detail and result in a lot of oversights and tension on the starting line.

Value of checklists for relieving driver tension
As previously stated, I developed checklists through the years.  After occasional oversights, I learned to always go over my checklists in preparation for raceday to eliminate those and any other oversights.  On occasion there would be a loose fitting for example.  However, the checklists and experience eventually taught me to double check fittings and all of the other bases.  I found that after going through the checklists to assure that all of the tasks were done, my mind was clear when I rolled up to the starting line as far as the condition of the racecar.  The racecar was more reliable, and I did a better job of racing.  A hidden benefit occurred when I would get pit crew help in packing, unpacking, and racecar preparation.  I would hand a checklist to the crew person to help train and guide that respective assignment.

Dramatic example of relieving driver tension from good preparation
A few years ago, we put our crew chief behind the wheel to drive so he could get a competition license in our racecar.  His prior racing experience was in a 15 second ET street car.  Ours was set up as a 7 second racecar.  His first pass was a throttle lifting 10 flat with ease.  After the first outing which was totally successful, he said it was a relief to get behind the wheel of a fully prepared racecar.   He was more relaxed knowing everything was ready.  The car started and ran flawlessly on this outing and the subsequent outing.  He gained confidence quickly as a result, and he completed his rounds for a competition license in the subsequent outing with easy running 7 second elapsed times.

Prior preparation is a key to relaxation of the driver.  Once a preparation routine is practiced and optimized, subsequent outings are with less tension that would otherwise be caused by that.  Checklists are an excellent method to provide guidance through the valley of darkness of a new setup, class, race vehicle, location, or driver.

A while back I watched a very experienced driver climb behind the wheel of a new nostalgia nitro racecar for the first time.  The crew that prepared the racecar was accomplished and experienced.  The driver was accomplished and experienced.  However, he was not practiced with this particular racecar.  In the burnout, he over-revved the engine and damaged it.  Although he was experienced in other race vehicles, he was not familiar with the feel of the throttle in this one or the power in the burnout.  The crew that prepared it was not experienced in throttle setup that would be suitable to this new driver.  The outcome on the first pass was damage that shut the operation down for that event and cost an expensive engine repair.  Driver practice ahead of time and tip-toeing with the new throttle, throttle feel, burnout power, and new racecar would reduce the chances of damage.

Go slow at first
In the previous example, starting out slowly may save the outing from damage.  Tip-toeing with a moderate burnout would reveal to the driver the feel of the throttle and the burnout power.  It would reveal to the crew the driver’s throttle behavior.

Another example
Recently, I saw a new team with a new driver, owner, and crew members “falling all over themselves”.  I suggested that they hitch the very high powered racecar behind the tow car, pull up to the starting line, go through all of the motions with the racecar engine “off”.  They could tow it through the burnout box so that the driver could experience the starting line feel and view from the driver’s seat.  Towing it out a ways as far as a burnout should be done, then pushing it back just like it would be in reverse.  This would provide the driver with the visual experience of what it would be like on the starting line.  The driver would see the starting line and the guard rail for the first time in a safer setup.  From there, the crew could reconnect to the tow vehicle, creep the racer into staging beams and stage it with the track starting system enabled.  Then it could be towed all the way through the racetrack finish line and into the shut down area.  I suggested that the driver then try out the operation of all of the controls during this low tension practice.

On this dry run, the driver can pull the parachute to feel the parachute lever as well as make sure it works.  The driver could become familiar with the feel of all of the controls, the feel of the seat, the feel of the seat belts, and the discovery if anything was in an uncomfortable location.  She could feel the rolling of the racer at a low speed.  She could feel any vibration or steering wheel pull.  She could try the brakes and hear any pull or squeaking.  In my racecar, the brakes were metallic and very noisy when they were cold.  The fist time I hit them cold, the sound startled me.  This dry run could all be done without the risk of a running engine or high speed.  I suggested that the team do this more than once.  It was a very fast racecar and the driver was inexperienced.

The team ignored my suggestion and continued to ‘trip over themselves’.  They worked it out after several outings, but the driver was a mental mess.  From what I saw, they were simply lucky.

Establish conditioned responses (automatic habits)
The most important result of a simple exercise like a run-through with the engine off is a safer opportunity for the driver and everyone else in a team to practice what is necessary to run the racer.  Practice accomplishes conditioned responses.  There is often too much to remember in a new racecar operation.  As a result,

 the more you practice correctly, the more often you do the correct practice.

Airline pilots are a perfect example.  Their training is to establish conditioned responses to routine as well as emergency tasks.  Conditioned responses saved many pilots and occupants from aircraft mishaps through the years from weather, air traffic, and equipment problems.

In the recent past, I recall every so often watching a brand new racer crash on its initial outing.  Racecars push the traction and aerodynamic limits on land.  Raceboats go fast.  They push the limits of flipping on water.  Too many teams often start out simply too fast.  Tip-toeing with practice can help make a safer and more trouble-free beginning of a racing endeavor.  An added benefit is crew safety.  I am aware of several crew injuries as well as near misses that occurred during a racecar startup.  Those could be better avoided with dry runs.

Going home in one piece
Win or lose, I always enjoyed it when I went home after a race outing with all of my parts and no damage or incident.  I still had the pride of ownership of the racecar and the pride of attending an event.  Careful preparation with checklists, practice, and tip-toeing made racing a lot more fun for me.  In the early years, I experienced many failures.  I always faced the beginning of those numerous outings without awareness of the eventual damage or collisions that would occur.  Afterwords, I would recap would-a-could-a-should-a and realize my mistakes.  When they occurred, it was always a chunk out of my pocket book.  A few near misses from injury also occurred.  I quickly respected the increased needs necessary to experience the thrill of speed and competition. We eventually worked it all out with trouble-free performance.  Hence, I had a lot to write about, and our extensive publications are a result.  They are all about racing preparation, tuning, driver relaxation, checklists, and info on our web site.