A unique opportunity came up for me to do a test day with Ross Bentley of Speed Secrets so I took full of advantage of it.
Having never had a private driver coach before I was not sure what to expect. The last time I had a coach in the car was when I was starting out with track days in my Datsun 240z. The coach was mostly helping me to drive the line and working on the slow in fast out mantra. I admit heading into the test day I was very nervous and didn’t get a full nights sleep.
Arriving early at a foggy Sonoma Raceway, I met up with Ric of CSR Performance who was an essential part of the day. Ric focused on keeping the car running and fueled up so I could solely focus on my driving.
Next thing you know I spot Ross Bentley walking up to our car with a big smile on his face. Having talked with him previously on the phone it was a real pleasure to finally meet him in person.
Talking with Ross he asked me some questions about my driving and comfort with the track. What percentage of the lap am I at full throttle? Where do I feel I could make the biggest gains?
Before heading out on track we made a plan. Ross asked me to focus on 3 things spending 5-6 laps on each and pulling into the hot pits each time to check tire pressures and give myself a mental reset to the next item.
Sense the car and set a baseline
End of Braking and rate of brake release
We assigned trigger phases to each of these items and I also wrote them down in my notes to help me reinforce and remember. My job coming off track was to report back details to Ross. Then Ross headed out to various corners and did some track side scouting, watching and listening to me in action.
Coming off the track I hurriedly wrote down my notes on a track map and tried to remember the details from the session. It felt like filling in a report card. Having to report to Ross also pushed me, I wanted to do well and maximize the time we had.
Next I downloaded my data. My fastest lap time of the session was 1:49.482 beating my previous personal best time of 1:51.014. I had already shaved 1.5 seconds off by just focusing on feeling the car and paying attention to my timing and rate of release of the brake.
Meeting up with Ross, he quizzed me what I was doing with the throttle and brake in various corners. Then asked some open ended questions: What would it look like if I was to increase my time at full throttle? Where could I brake lighter? What would happen if I did? What would happen if I moved my break zone in further for Turn 6? We also looked at my data to see where I had made improvements and where I was still loosing time to the faster guys. A lot of gains on the back fast sections including the esses of 8 and 8A but I was loosing time in the front portion of the lap.
I tend to focus on the negative and what I am not doing well. But Ross was great, he flipped it around. Pointed out where I had made significant gains and improvements from the last time I was at Sonoma Raceway.
We put a plan together for the next session. Focusing on another three items to try over half a dozen laps each:
Change the arc of Turn 1
3% more throttle
Moving the brake zone for Turn 6
The overall goal off the session was to get more comfortable being at full throttle more of the time. The Turn 1 & 2 complex was an obvious place to make the biggest gains in lap time.
This time the session was more congested with a variety of different cars out on track and drivers of different skill level. This made it difficult to get a clean lap especially in a momentum car such as the Spec Racer Ford. Catching cars or having to check up mid corner meant we had to focus on specific corners and use segment times. Throughout the day the sessions were also interrupted by a variety of black flags.
Coming off track, I again hurriedly scribbled over my track map. Jotting down notes to myself and reminders of items to discuss with Ross. Like most learning not everything had worked but there were obvious gains. I could now carry more throttle and speed out of Turn 1 and into Turn 2. But there was still work to do. We discussed how if I could get more comfortable with Turns 1&2 it would help other areas of the lap fall into place.
Debriefing with Ross he again asked me some great questions about various corners. Was the car pushing or was it loose? Where did I have understeer? Where didn’t I feel I could get to full throttle? Which end of the car would fly off the track first in various corners? How did the bumps in the Turn 6 carousel affect the car? If I could have the car do one thing better what would it be?
Answering these types of questions was very insightful. I had initially started to give quick short answers but his follow on question would cause me to pause and think harder before I could answer. A key take away of the day was to better use this tactic to intensely question my driving and the car set up. When applied correctly you can very easily identify a specific aspect to focus on.
Through Ross’ questioning we had identified that we need to give the car more rear grip. We had already softened the rear sway bars significantly so there wasn’t much to gain there. We decided to try a ride height change and see what happened. If time allowed we could also change the rebound setting on the rear shocks. Go out and report back:
Feel the car what is it doing?
What did the change do?
Where is it better/worse?
One key message he gave was give it time don’t just try it once. The change in the car might make it better or worse. It might be better in some areas and worse in others. It didn’t matter he said just try it. Drive the car and see. Whether it is better or worse we will learn something. If it did get worse he said take another batch of laps and see if I could change my driving and still improve. I might learn something by trying to drive around the problem.
Coming in he was right, I did learn from the experience. The changes had improved some of the rear grip but it had also affected the turn in characteristics, especially in the fast curves of the back portion of the lap.
More hastily scribbled notes and another data download. After the session we decided to raise the ride height back up about halfway between the change and original setting to see what that did.
We recapped the day and what we had done so far. Revisited what I was doing well and where I had made gains. Another session of probing questions. One really clicked: On a Scale of 1-10 how much was I attacking the track? Hmm… a 7. What would it look like if it was an 8 or 9? I listed a few areas I felt I could push more.
Ross was careful to caution going out and driving with abandon. My words not his. He asked how many times I had made mistakes? How many of those had ended up with the car wadded up? His words not mine.
Where could I safely push a little outside my comfort zone? Where could I find more time on track without too much risk? We rattled off some corners and made a plan. Three more items to focus on:
Push myself to a higher attack mode
Be comfortable being uncomfortable
Again we used a trigger phrase “drive messy”. Ross’ enthusiasm and attitude was kind of infectious and you couldn’t help but get a confidence boost. It was obvious to see that he really enjoyed witnessing my improvement and loved tailoring the learning process to my needs.
During the session I found myself actually having a lot of fun. I was able to get to full throttle earlier and even right through some Turns I never thought possible. I found myself pushing harder using the trigger phrase “send it”.
End of the Day Debrief
Coming off track I quickly took some notes. Ross showed up and immediately handed me a track map and said fill it with notes. I scribbled, notated, jotted and scrawled as many notes as I could muster. This track map was going to be my key to starting the SCCA Runoffs in October right. I wrote what I did well, where I needed to improve, areas I thought I could try new things, questions to ask myself next time, visual cues, kinesthetic reminders and trigger phrases.
We debriefed and chatted about the day. While the day was intense I had a lot of fun. In the following days Ross and I chatted back and forth via email and I tried to formulate what I had learned. The biggest benefit I had received was a giant confidence boost, sometimes I am my own worst critique. It also reinforced that sometimes you just have to stop being analytical and drive the damn car. Ross gave me some great tools to deeply question my driving and start to understand how to approach tweaking my car set-up.
How to Maximize your Test Day
Having now spent some time reflecting on the day with a coach, here are some key take aways to maximize your next test day with or without a coach.
Review data and video ahead of time and send to your coach
Book a day where you can run multiple sessions on track
Get help with the car, have a friend or hire a person to help take care of the car during the day so you can focus on the driving and coaching
Make a plan before you get to the track
Be ready and flexible to change the plan as the day evolves
Get plenty of sleep, you will be taking in plenty of information and driving focused for a lot of time
Bring snacks and drinks to stay hydrated and alert
Really dig and keep asking questions until you get to a specific item that you can improve for the next session
Maximum of three items in any test session
5-6 laps on each item
Write stuff down:
The plan before you go out on track
The results and findings immediately after coming off track
Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, you are already good at some things don’t forget those
Big thank you to Ric of CSR Performance who kept the car running and fueled up all day long so we could focus on my driving. Very grateful to Ross Bentley for the experience and improving my driving. If you haven’t already taken the Speed Secrets Webinars what are you waiting for? There was even one on Self Coaching. Ross provides a lot of great tips and variety of materials including coaching session plans and a large list of coaching and open ended questions like the ones we used throughout the test day. Having Ross there gave me a different perspective on a test day. Seeing how he applies questions to driving and setting up the car gave me some great tools and methodologies to use into the future.
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