Rain Racing With Legends: First Time at Sonoma
One NASCAR driver, one Formula 1 designer, a Le Mans champion and a Formula Atlantic driver to be exact.
As a former professional coach for Porsche, I have plenty of wet weather training on skid pads and low friction handling circuits. However, driving at over 100mph in a race with 50 other people when your defroster breaks is another story. Here’s what advice the pros gave me to keep me pointed in the right direction.
My team for this particular race weekend was Steve O’Hara of Formula Atlantic and karting fame, John Morton who has won Le Mans (among a million other things), Troy Ermish—a former NASCAR K&N driver and Steve Nichols who just so happened to work with one of the greatest racing drivers of all time: Ayrton Senna. So what do you learn from these guys as a first-time rain driver? A lot when the conditions are appalling.
image courtesy of stance-usa.com
Troy would go on to say that in the 30 years or so he has been racing at this track, that it was among the worst weather he had ever seen. There were standing pools of water in every corner with poor visibility and then the defroster broke leaving me nothing but a 5-inch hole to see the world through. What made things worse is that it was in the center so I could only see the apex in right-hand corners. That’s when I decided to pit…or so I thought. Upon radioing in I learned my first lesson about racing in the rain: you tough it out until a red flag is called. “You’re staying out kid, you got this,” is all I heard from Ermish when I made the call to pit in. “Great,” I thought. Not the ideal conditions for anyone, but we would have to press on if we wanted a good result.
image courtesy of pictame.com
Lesson 1: Get Creative
When you can’t see out of your windshield it’s time to get creative. Racing in the rain can be an outright dog fight just to see what’s coming at you and that’s when you have proper visibility. When things go wrong you have to improvise and what kept me on the straight and narrow in this instance was using my driver’s side window to figure out where I was on the track. It felt uncomfortable at first, but then you start to realize that every racer in the paddock worth his salt has been through something similar. Any time someone would pass me I would lock onto their brake lights until they got too far ahead of me to see…then it was back to looking out the window.
image courtesy of flickr.com
Lesson 2: “Remind Him to Use the Road.”
Just when I was getting a handle on things the radio blared in my ears again to the sound of Troy’s voice. “Get closer to the wall. You have tons of room,” were his exact words. No fuss, no drama, just a matter of fact. When you race in the rain it’s easy to get claustrophobic and revert back to your early days of driving—not tracking out all the way and feeling an uncertainty as to where the grip is. This is nothing to fret over if you’re new to pushing a car in these conditions, but it’s important to remind yourself that you need to use the whole road when it’s permissible to do so. I was struggling with this coming off of the final corner where there is a large concrete wall which I didn’t want to smack. Troy’s words helped me cut over 0.7 of a second by opening up my line, albeit nerve-racking.
image courtesy of wordnik.com
Lesson 3: Stay off Curbs and Watch for Gloss
Curbs get extremely slippery in the wet and this is where Steve O’Hara came in. Dissecting things in a way only he can, he would go on to explain that the shapes of the curbs at various tracks have a large impact on cornering grip and how the car handles over them. It’s something I wouldn’t have necessarily paid attention to so the advice was priceless. Curbs and paint strips can become very difficult to see in heavy weather and will cause loss of traction in an instant. If you’re on the wrong driving line this can spell disaster. While your eyes scan the pavement you need to be looking for glossy sections of tarmac that indicate where standing water is. It’s not ideal to find out in the middle of a corner—ask me how I know.
Lesson 4: Hunt for the Line
At one point during the peak of my frustrations, I remember radioing back to the team that there was no grip at all. Looking back now I can’t remember who it was, but one of the A-team radioed back an age-old piece of rain racing wisdom: try a different line. Rain racing is a great reminder that everything you learned on the track now means very little. The traditional racing line often goes away, but generally speaking, I found that constant radius corners rewarded me for taking a wider line than I normally would. Remember that in the rain as much as 50% of your tires’ cornering force is lost so a normal line might be useless. Taking a diamond approach and “squaring off” a few of the corners helped point the car straighter to maximize grip levels.
Lesson 5: Crowned Braking Zones
The final thing I learned from these legends came from Nichols telling me to use any kind of crown in the road. Braking zones can get really dicey when it rains this heavy, however, the benefit of having 50 cars on track is that everyone begins to cut a rain line. Setting your car's wheels in this grove during braking zones offered reassurance that the only thing I had to worry about was not being able to see anything. Driver’s who didn’t pay attention to these crowns (they change almost every lap) would struggle to slow down with a twitch of oversteer opening up a window to pass. Jumping off the ideal line in a braking zone in these conditions can definitely be considered an advanced driving technique.
image courtesy of youtube.com
When conditions are poor you might have to think outside the box as a driver. The smoothness of the hands and feet are paramount in treacherous conditions and your car will be hypersensitive to everything from road surface changes to hydroplaning. Keeping a calm level head is the first step to being fast in the rain, but make sure you stay off of curbs and other pieces of paint that can catch you out. The search for grip will be a constant battle each lap so do everything you can to make sure your equipment is working correctly. In the rain, the last thing you want to do is fight your race car. We ended up leading the race until the last lap where I lost out by 20 seconds to a competitor who pitted onto rain tires. Sometimes that’s just how it goes at the track. Hope you enjoyed reading.