Competition License School – A Driver’s Journey

Competition License School

A Driver’s Journey from Lapping Days to Competition License

By MG (Smike)

There are very few moments in a person’s life when you are itching to wake up at 5 in the morning rip-roaring and ready to go.

The morning of Competition School is surely one of them. Gear-heads, motor-heads, track fiends – I speak to you. I am one of you; always looking at cars, talking racing, and dreaming of driving the classic racetracks all night. Since I could drive – I’ve been racing: drag racing as a teen, autocrossing in my early 20’s, High Performance Driving Events in my mid 20’s, and Time Trials and wheel to wheel in my late 20’s. On my “before 30” bucket list was earning my competition license to race wheel to wheel. A few months shy of 30, I had the chance to fulfill that dream.

Over my years of HPDE/TT, I had earned enough credentials to take the competition school. That includes all out seat time, instructing and being instructed, driving anything with or without wheels to the limit. National Auto Sport Association (NASA) pairs up with The Mid-Ohio School as one of their licensing venues. The requirements are that you have at least a NASA HPDE 4 sign off, full fire suit, and safety gear. Check, check, and double check.

April 13th: a Friday……. Location: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. Time: early. The Mid-Ohio School would be our home for the next 10 hours. Five 30-minute track sessions with one hour long classroom times mixed in.

For the school, I’ll be racing in my prepared 2002 SVT Focus. Same car I run in NASA Time Trials. Car has comparable safety equipment as the school car Acura TXSs (4-point cage, 6-point harnesses, racing seats, fire extinguisher, etc). I had the option of using the schools car. I choose my SVTF over it because of how comfortable I am at the limits and with the footprint of the car on track.

8am: Introduction to the instructors and fellow school drivers. Nice mix from fellow NASA drivers to some whom have gone through all the Mid-Ohio School classes. Cars ranged from Spec Miatas to Super Unlimited (SU) Corvettes. I absolutely love mixed class racing. All levels of speed out on the track at the same time makes for exciting driving and spectating.

Classroom times we covered learning a new track, basic vehicle dynamics, racing lines, wet lines, passing, and all forms of starts. Ins and outs of what tracks have for turns and what the driver can use to their advantage in racing. Having a solid Time Trials background was good development to have. In Time Trials, you have to learn the line and the track quickly and efficiently to drive well. Racing and wet line discussion was a great time to think though how you can manipulate your line to find grip on the track. Passing – one of my favorite things to do in Time Trials. We covered the basics of being next to a car off line to the mental chess game of setting up a driver for a pass. Starts – more mental chess games covered and how you can use them to your advantage.

First track session we broke into groups of 4 to 5 with one of the instructors. We did a follow the leader at 75% pace with cycling though all cars behind the instructor. Good time to relax and see all the course markers that you can use for braking and turn-in points. Some of others in my group included two former Koni Challenge Hondas and a fellow NASA Time Trials driver in a TTE Miata. I took the time to feel out the green track for where I had grip and where I could push my car. Hit every apex. Hit my brake points. Hit my exit points. Personal mantra for the day.

Second track session we did two-by-two and passing. I paired up with one of the Koni Challenge cars and we went 50% pace around the track hugged next to each other. Was a bit more comfortable being inches from his door than he was with me being inches from him. As a driver, I played with how I could control his car and driving with my position and turn in points.

The passing drill was a personal favorite. Our task was to take the main straight tucked into the tail of the instructor and opening up a line to take him (if you could). Going 120 mph down the back straight tucked in tight to the instructor’s TSX. Half way down the straight, I fainted 2 feet left and filled his driver-side mirror. I tend to be aggressive and intimidate whomever I am following, professional racing drivers included. Let the chess game begin. Per NASA passing rules, he could only choose one line and block me from there. Can’t push or crowd once selected. I watched and waited for him to choose his line. Now the waiting game. 400 foot marker, 375, 350, 325….still wide open throttle. 300 foot marker we were flying into turn 7, China Beach. I heard him lift throttle; I immediately went right. We hit the brakes at the same time. Just past the 300 foot marker now. HARD on the brakes. Threshold braking to the point my front wheels where intermediately locking up. Late turn-in with him on my driver-side. Now I am in control of the corner. Kept him off line though turn 8 and 9. Successful pass! Folded back into the pack of cars and watched the rest of the cars go though the same drill. Back in the pits I got to speak with my instructor. He laughed and asked if I had ABS since the tires where chirping all over the place (no ABS here). He congratulated me on taking the pass.

Third session was an open session to get some laps in and put to use some of what we did earlier in the day. I took the time to feel out the car as the tires went away and gas emptied on my new suspension/tire setup. My SVTFs dynamics change a lot once the fuel is low. Much more twitchy and squirrelly under heavy braking.

Fourth session – starts! Three variations – with pace car, without pace car (pole started), and standing start. I had not done any standing starts ever on track. Hoping my autocross experiences would be helpful on that start. Pace car and poll are normal for Time Trials. Difference is that we do single file not tandem. Took both inside and outside positions between the two rolling starts. SVTF seems to have a good chunk of low end torque and acceleration. Lots of fun working up the field on the green flag. Then we did the standing start. Never have I had that much fun off a start. Grid next to a Neon and a Spec Miata friend behind us. Both Koni Challenge cars in front of us. All stopped. Cars revving. Green flag up from the starter. 4500 rpm. Soon as the starter twitched his arm, clutch out, full throttle. Instantly split the two Koni cars. Zipped up the middle of the pack into turn 1 three wide. Hands down, some of the most fun we had all day on the track.

Final session – mock race!

All I could hear in my head was The Cult song “She Sells Sanctuary”…too many hours playing Gran Turismo. Roll out in tandems and pace lap around. As we got closer to turns 12 and 13 we all checked up for the green flag. My eyes glued to the flag tower. Waiting for any sign of the waving green. Green, green, green! I tucked left next to the front straight wall and moved up the field. Coming into the bus stop I thought about sticking my nose in between a Koni car and GTS Boxter. That section of the track is one of my fastest sectors. Wide open throttle in with a slight lift and back wide open. Thought better of messing with those two guys. I didn’t have a good gut feeling about either of them. Better hold off. Tight into keyhole and pushed the Koni Civic to the outside. He had quite a bit more power and pulled out on the straight. Caught my friend in his Spec Miata on the straight. Together we went through 7, 8, and 9 until I could hold him off on 11. Nice bit of open track as all the faster classed cars put distance on the slower classes. Eventually giving up a position to the Koni Accord and PTE Miata. Checkered flag!!! We had 2 mock short races. Second race the general summer street tires I had started to drop off hard a few laps in. Going into a great duel with the Neon and my Miata friend. He said that we had a dance with each of our cars lifting a rear wheel off the ground in hard turns. 2 laps left and the Neon was able to tuck in and stick a pass when I washed out very wide coming onto the back straight. What a fight! Corvettes, TSXs, Miatas, Boxters! The most fun of the day – period. Diving in. Cars everywhere. Protecting lines. Late braking. Forcing your position. Wheel to wheel is everything that Time Trials is and so much more. Nothing short of a long day. Filled to the brim with racing, cars, and great friends. As the day came to a close I took a few moments to sit on my trailer and reflect of the day and all of our accomplishments. I was in one piece. Car was in one piece. Everyone racing together.

Provisional License in hand! Went on for the weekend to race in TTF and took 2 first place finishes. Big thanks to my brother and parents, NASA Racing, and The Mid-Ohio School.