Sunday April 29 was an unseasonably cool day. The skies were overcast, and the air was damp. I arrived at the Rantoul Aviation Center (f.k.a. Chanute Air Force Base) at about 7:30 in the morning, eager to learn and hopeful that the rain would stay away. I emptied the car, got through a quick tech inspection, and walked across the tarmac to the hanger for a morning driver’s meeting. There were ~ 30 drivers in attendance. I soon found that most of them had been there the previous day for Phase I. I suddenly felt a little uneasy because it had been over 10 years since I had taken that course. I wondered if I might end up looking foolish compared to those who had all the Phase I instruction fresh in their minds. A familiar face addressing the crowd put me at ease. Andy Hohl, a member of the St Louis Region SCCA, was the lead instructor. When I lived in Springfield, IL, in the late ’90s/early 2000’s I regularly ran with the St. Louis club. Andy and I both drove Mazda Miatas at the time and became friendly acquaintances. We’ve remained in contact through internet forums and my occasional trips to St. Louis events. I was happy and surprised to see him as his name had not been on the original roster of instructors for this particular course.
The meeting was brief, and we soon headed out to the pavement for a course walk. Typically I will walk a course 3 – 5 times before an event. At Phase II, however, we were allowed only a single walk through. The purpose was to force us student drivers to look ahead, far ahead, while behind the wheel. Looking ahead was one of the skills emphasized in Phase I. Phase II was largely about hammering that point home.
Andy would be the first instructor to work one-on-one with me. I shared my concerns with him about the time lapse since I’d taken phase 1. He told me to relax and just concentrate on looking ahead. I did a decent job of that, but was struggling with low grip and was generally over-driving the car. After a couple runs, Andy and I switched places. On his first run he too had a bit of trouble with the low grip. He dialed back a little for the second run and showed me a couple places where I could go faster by choosing a different line. We switched back and I tried to replicated Andy’s line where it had differed from mine. I managed to get it right in one section, but was struggling with another. On the next run, I got behind in a slalom and ended up snap-spinning the car when I jerked the steering wheel too hard. The combination of larger rear sway bar and new alignment had finally resulted in a car with neutral balance. If I was too ham-fisted, or lifted too abruptly in a turn, the car was liable to spin. That may sound like a bad thing but it’s not; the new balance should allow the car to carry more speed in the longer, sweeping turns and get around the slow, tight turns more easily. I did a couple more runs with Andy riding along. I was improving in most sections, but still not grasping the best approach to one of the tight turns. Andy put me in the car alone for one final run in the first session. I carried more speed through the slalom than in any previous run and proceeded to spin the car again when I tried to chuck it left into an offset gate. I finished my run and sheepishly drove back to Andy who simply told me “that was ugly.”
At the end of the session there was another briefing in the hanger. We would be running the same course for session 2, only backwards. We were not allowed a chance to walk the course in that direction forcing us to rely on our memory and our ability to look ahead. My instructor this session was Jinx Jordan. I had run against Jinx at Nationals a couple times in the 90’s and knew he was a very talented driver. Jinx explained to me as he sat in the car that the exercise for this session was to talk out loud about what we were looking at. I would drive for the first two runs, then Jinx would drive for two. While Jinx was driving, I would be responsible for directing him where to look. If I didn’t give him good guidance, he would not drive the course properly. While Jinx seemed pleased with my directions, he too was visibly fighting the poor grip. It was obvious at that moment that my tires weren’t just past their prime, they were completely shot. I drove for two more runs and found the verbalizing technique worked well for me. I was also beginning to come to terms with the balance of the car, and managed to keep the back behind the front for the rest of the day.
For the third session we went back to the original direction, except the entry side of two different slaloms had been reversed. That completely changed the character of the course. Tom Sotiropoulos was my instructor for round 3. Tom gave me some good feedback on my smoothness, or lack there-of. He recognized that my tires weren’t gripping well, and advised me to drive the car with smoother, earlier inputs. By looking even farther ahead I was able to drive a line that was more flowing. That kept the car more stable. I also finally got the hang of the tight turn that has perplexed me the entire first session. My confidence was growing.
The clouds were looking ominous as I worked the course for the fourth and final session. The layout was the reverse of session 3. When it came my turn to drive, it was starting to sprinkle. My instructor for this session, Tom O’Gorman, rode with me for just one run, then turned me loose for the last 3 runs. I was one car away from starting when the sky let loose and the the rain began coming down in sheets. The car in front of me started and I rolled to the line. I could only see the tops of the cones because the rain was hitting the pavement so hard there was a mist of splash-back a foot high. I let the car ahead get to the last 1/4 of the course before I began. Using the verbalization technique, I kept my focus as far ahead as I could and used gentle steering inputs. I managed to carry more speed though the wet course than I expected and had no issues with the car wanting to swap ends. I ran two more runs in the pouring rain, then drove over to the hanger for the final debrief.
I came away from the school feeling like I had found the speed I had lost from not competing much in the last few years and gained some new insights that might make me even faster. The verbalization technique kept me looking ahead even when there were other distractions and the smoother steering inputs will be a good idea for any tire I might choose in the RT class. Both techniques should carry over to rallycross as well. If you’re serious about getting better at autocross, I’d highly recommend taking an Evolution course.
As for the car, I certainly have the understeer dialed out. I may have gone a touch far towards oversteer, but I’m going to drive the car on good tires at least once before I make that decision. The new brake pads are working fantastic too. Stops are short and drama free with good pedal modulation. They are quiet on the street, but do leave a lot more dust on the wheels than the stock pads did.
I’m looking forward to putting the new techniques to work on May 12 at an Indianapolis Region Rallycross. In the meantime, I’m considering an exhaust upgrade for the car. Be sure to check back soon for more updates on the 3-4-Three Challenge.