Experienced racers and instructors will tell you that it's only a matter of time before you "go off" (partially or fully leave the track bounds) and/or have an accident at the track. Seven years into track driving, and I've done both, but it surprised me how long it was until I had my first "off." It happened at Sebring, in the middle of my first season as a Time Trial racer; about 5 years into my track driving journey. My training, practice, and great instruction from mentors like Raul Iriarte and Carlos Mendez helped me do the right thing, and my first off was a non-event. I went straight-off at the exit of turn 16 into the grassy field, so as not to try and force the car back onto the asphalt, which almost always results in looping the car into the inside wall. Instead, I slowly and gently regained control, until I could ease the car safely onto the back straightaway.
Since that first off, I've had several more, including a collision with a tire wall in my E30. However, in my time driving the Condor #14 Spec E9X, I've had many more offs per sessions driven than I have had in my own E30. I can attribute this to two reasons. First, I have been much more comfortable driving the E90 than I ever had been driving my own car, which has lead me to push the E90 harder. Second, the E90 is a very different beast, and not having a lot of experience driving a car other than my own, I'm still learning how to properly handle a larger, heavier, and faster car like the E90.
In April 2022, driving the E90 during a NASA event at Sebring, I had a pretty intense moment sliding the car through turn 17. Turns 16 and 17, the penultimate corners of the circuit, are in my opinion the most difficult corners of the track. Turn 16 is hard to get right, and it's vital to have good exit speed leading into the long back straightaway. Turn 17 is the most difficult corner to get right at any of the tracks I've driven at. Most of the braking is not done in a straight line. The corner is extremely bumpy, particularly near the bridge. It's hard to use visual reference points (especially between the flag station and the bridge). The radius of the corner changes several times. And finally, there are several blind spots in the first half of the corner.
At this event, a pad compound change on the front of the car without changing the rotors meant that deposits on the rotors were causing a pretty serious vibration under braking. On top of that, the E90 has a much more sensitive brake pedal than my own E30, and the initial bite is much higher. It takes me a few sessions when I am switching off between the two cars to reacclimate. Couple that with my propensity to over-drive the faster and heavier E90, and I often enter a corner too fast, having to scrub off speed before and sometimes even through the apex in order to make the corner.
The incident in question:
Be sure to watch the video clip above. In this particular instance, I entered turn 17 too fast, and continued to carry too much speed past the flag station and towards the bridge (well, really, towards the outside wall). With the brake pedal fighting me, and the steering wheel vibrating, I was apprehensive to lay into the pedal any harder, but I knew I was still going too fast.
With the outside wall beginning to approach, a combination of the bumpy surface, heavy braking, and a slight steering input towards the bridge were enough to send the car into a 4 wheel slide. Sensing the slide, I was able to straighten the car out with a quick counter-steer, but the tires still had not re-gained traction and the car stepped out again immediately upon straightening up. With a second quick reaction, I straightened the car out again, this time having scrubbed enough speed to return traction to the Toyo RR's, and continue on my merry way. The second correction came directly under the bridge, where the track narrows due to an outside barrier that protrudes from the bridge's structure into the track. Since I had missed the apex and slid the car for what felt like 100 feet, I can't imagine that the back of the car missed the outside barrier by more than a couple feet.
What Went Wrong
So what was the main contributing factor of this mistake? It would be easy to blame the car, or the past-their-prime Toyo RRs, or even the bumpiness of the track. Looking back, though, I realize that I had not sufficiently adjusted my braking points to the E90, a car that weighs 520 pounds heavier, has 72 more horsepower, and arguably less mechanical grip (Toyo RR versus Hoosier R7) than my E30. In other words, I cannot expect to drive the E90 the same as my E30 and achieve the same result.
With top speeds approaching turn 17 in excess of 135mph, and with the heavier mass to slow, I was not braking enough on the back straight before turning in towards the flag station. After passing the flag station with too much speed, it was difficult to sufficiently recover, since the remainder of the braking for the corner requires steering input towards the bridge, and is done on a very bumpy and uneven surface.
In summation, here are a few key points:
What I did right:
- Stayed calm
- Counter-steered an appropriate amount
- Didn't over-correct the slide
- Didn't wad up Carlos' car
What I did wrong:
- Missed the braking point before flag station
- Didn't try to agressively slow the car immediately after flag station
- Asked too much of the tires with the combined steering + brake inputs
Bonus: Carlos Mendez's input + video
Carlos Mendez, owner of the Condor #14 Spec E9X and three-time NASA National Champion, had this to say about my slide:
"When pushing the limits, eventually you are bound to exceed them. In these situations you learn about the grip level of the car and you learn about yourself. Can you comfortably drive at the limit? Can you save the car when you get into trouble? Driving below the limit is safe, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you want to grow and improve as a driver, you need to push ever-closer to that limit of adhesion, and sometimes exceed it. This is when you learn."
"The keys to this slide not ending in tears were quick thinking and quick hands. T.J. could see, hear, and feel that he was headed into the turn too fast; when he tried to scrub speed, he exceeded the grip level of the tires. In the video, you can hear the tires squeal a moment before he counter-steers. You’ve seen his reaction and the favorable result."
"Besides learning to slow more for turn 17, T.J. also learned that he can begin to trust in himself more. He reacted quickly and stopped the slide, but more importantly, this showed him that he has the skill to get out of trouble. On-track confidence is key, and can only come from multiple experiences like this. As confidence grows, lap times will drop, and T.J. will be more willing to dance on the fine line of adhesion."
Carlos also had his own run in with sliding the car through turn 17, about a year prior to my slide. We attributed his slide to bottoming out the car on one of the huge bumps in the middle of turn 17. The bottoming was caused by a combination of having the car set up too low, bump stops that were too long, and the first iteration of the custom Öhlins Spec E9X suspension not having enough travel in the rear. Thankfully, Carlos's fast and decisive steering inputs easily caught his slide.
The purpose of this analysis is to share our mistakes, pick them apart, and hopefully learn something from them. Reviewing on-track video footage is a critical way to learn, especially if reviewed and discussed with others that you trust and respect. I know that I have learned a lot in the process of reviewing and discussing this footage. My hope is that you've found this helpful or insightful, and that our mistakes can help you avoid ending up in a similar situation.