At the 2022 SCCA Solo National Championships and Pro Solo Championships, 7 students of The Complete Autocrosser’s Manual won their first national championship titles, and 2 others won their second championship. I asked each of them the following question…
“In what ways have you improved your driving/performance that contributed to your win? This could be anything! It could be a mental approach, some specific driving techniques, better car prep, skipping breakfast, anything at all. There is NO pressure/expectation to say anything BeST related. I am looking for a real/honest exploration of what improvements helped you get the win this year.”
You’ll notice a slew of different approaches and opinions from these drivers. Some of them even contradict each other! This is to be expected. We all have different mental and psychological make-ups, and it may take different inputs from each of us to achieve the optimal output. Things that distract one driver may be exactly what focuses another driver.
I’ve edited each driver’s responses for brevity/language, but tried to retain the “meat” of what they shared. See which of these approaches resonates most with you and inspires ideas for you to explore.
Matt Morhardt (First Solo National Championship, H-Street)
One of the main contributors to my success this year was working on identifying my biggest weaknesses, and correcting them. I reviewed data from competitors and found several areas I could work on, such as hairpin turns and slaloms. From there it was a matter of understanding why I was slower in those areas and what I had to do to fix it.
Another big realization was that I needed to adjust my driving style to suit autocross instead of sim-racing, which I’ve had a long history with. I had been too focused on preventing overheating or excessive tire wear, which plays a much bigger role in long sim races. So this year I learned to be more aggressive with my inputs than I had been before.
I also reached out to several very successful autocrossers who emphasized the importance of mental preparation before events, and mental fortitude during events.
I’ve tried to stay open minded about how much room for improvement there really is, even at an elite level of autocross. I believe there is still a lot more room for improvement in my driving!
Geoffrey Wolpert (First Pro Solo Championship, B-Street)
One interesting thing I learned from reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” – the book you recommended – is that system 2 uses up a lot of glucose, and you experience reduced cognitive ability when your glucose is depleted. Walking the course and visualizing runs takes a lot of mental capacity for me, so I started eating sugary snacks after the course walks and even leading up to when I run.
Most of the developments I have made this year have been on the mental side – figuring out how to get in the right headspace. Working on the method I use to walk the course, getting a good night’s sleep, and not overeating before or during an autocross has helped me a lot. Meditation has also helped.
Mike Ferchak (First Solo National Championship, SSC)
With autocross, the two biggest obstacles are the limited availability of practice, and the slow feedback loop of running and then analyzing data later. Simulators solve both these problems. I wanted to simulate my car with my actual setup, on real nationals courses, with VR support, and live delta. I use Assetto Corsa for this. Using a program called Race Track Builder, I modeled the last few years of nationals courses using Google Earth elevation of the Lincoln site overlayed with the course maps.
When I joined a Gran Turismo league with a bunch of national champs, I had to completely unlearn my overly aggressive driving style. For years I’d lean on my ability to fix mistakes as an excuse to drive over the limit. Once I started getting deliberate with my inputs (brake release in particular), the times started dropping. In Assetto Corsa, I started experimenting with different driving styles, where I’d do crazy stuff like watch videos of SSC frontrunners and try to do my best impression of them in the sim.
The biggest takeaway was that in a slow car like the twin, the worst mistake you can make is getting on power too late. And usually the most common reason is getting greedy on entry. The autocross platitudes are true. Slow in fast out isn’t a risk mitigation strategy, it’s optimal.
For the mental side this year, I started telling myself things like “this can’t happen any other way”. The time to will myself into being faster was during every opportunity to practice before… not at the line. What happens after the light turns green is a product of how well I prepared and whatever randomness the universe has in store for the next minute or so. Also, it’s just parking lot racing.
Jake Glover (First Solo National Championship, A-Street)
The biggest thing that has helped me (and pulled from The Complete Autocrosser’s Manual by BeST) is developing a game plan. It helps organize my thoughts about a course and gives me something to focus on. Selecting key cones, thinking about car placement at them, visualizing spirals based on those key cones, and finally, executing that plan.
This year I really focused on making that plan more detailed. Car orientation on key cones, throttle/brake inputs, steering inputs, etc. Recognizing when I could be aggressive, but also when to be patient (helping my tendency to overdrive). Further, recognizing when the plan wasn’t working and adjusting. For a long time, I would just do the same run time after time, without change and getting the same result. It really clicked this year that the game plan is not a set in stone and needs to be fluid.
The second thing was my mental attitude. I decided to approach nationals differently this year. I came in with goals for my performance, but also to have fun and enjoy the experience. This year I stayed late, hit the parties, hung out on site with friends, and just enjoyed the atmosphere.
Jacob Crow (First Solo National Championship, CAMC)
Have the course and your plan of attack extremely well memorized. Nationals courses are long, and you only get three tries. Make sure that you’re not learning the course as you’re driving it. Walk and review video until you can visualize the entire course with your eyes closed. Include your plan of attack in your memorization. Knowing what comes next is only half of it, you need to remember what you need to DO in each segment.
Maximize the fastest elements. Slow corners are slow for everyone. Do what you can to get the most out of the fast sections where there may be a large speed difference between the top drivers and slower drivers.
Capture and review data and video. Reviewing video before your second run can be helpful to remember what you did on the first one. After my second run, I consulted Solostorm to compare my first 2 runs, which showed me where I had improved, and where I had not yet found time. This helped me put down a flier on my final run to take the win. Without data, I would not have been as decisive about attacking where I did.
For most drivers, their third run will be their fastest. It may be best to ignore the results after runs 1 and 2 if that is distracting for you. Don’t get complacent, or worse, nervous about holding onto an early lead.
Show up on the best tire. Know what conditions and pressures they prefer, and how they will behave when pushed past their optimal conditions. My practice time this year was almost entirely focused around optimizing for tires.
Minimize (or eliminate) last minute setup changes. Once you’re at nationals, consider the window for setup changes to be closed. Big setup changes can take months to relearn to drive. Small changes may still take more runs to learn than you’re going to get.
Be strategic about taking on a codriver. Will a codriver give you the best chance of running your tires in their optimal temp range? Will you be in the right headspace to run your best while swapping with a codriver and making car and number changes? Will that codriver get you critical data, coaching input, or video which will help you run faster?
Jeremy Foley (Second Solo National Championship, CAMS)
As I went from being a high placing and competitive but inconsistent “fast driver”, to actually competing for the top spot, here are some of the things I found helpful…
Never look at solo live until the event is over, and don’t look at the timer when competitors are running. If you hear the announcer, stick your fingers in your ears and hum loudly enough to NOT hear them. Or sit in your car with music playing. So many people focus on what their competitors are doing, without mastery over their own performance. It’s impossible to feel pressure if you unplug from that stimulus and focus on yourself.
Treat every event, even Nationals, as a TnT. If you are not changing your car between runs, you are throwing away an opportunity to learn. That itself will help you become more connected with your car, be smarter about setup changes, and know what those changes do. I used the Pro Finale as a TnT. And the lessons I learned applied perfectly to Nationals when I had an issue in my setup.
The guys running around with wet towels, extra wheels and tires, whole crews changing tires, etc… none of that is worth the hassle. That creates a frantic environment that is impossible to escape from. Focus that energy on dissecting your runs with data or video and refine your game plan.
Ben Edmiston (First Solo National Championship, ESP)
I spent prior seasons putting a lot of work into trying to shorten the learning curve because I felt I started so late in life (I was 32 when I did my first autocross). I was attending every event I could from the tail end of March to as deep into October that the clubs within a 6 hour drive would schedule. Usually 30+ weekends a year, and as many 2-day weekends as possible.
This year, with supply chain issues, I was unable to get my own car prepped for ESP. So I ended up spending most of the season driving other people’s cars. Solo Nationals was the first and only national event I did in the car that I won the championship in.
For me, this year was very different from previous years. Because of some changes in my personal life, I did significantly fewer events, and it ended up being a very casual year for me. I think that helped my mental game and prevented the end of season burnout I had experienced in previous years.
Vivek Goel (First Solo National Championship, C-Street, and third Pro Solo Championship)
One of my focuses this year was to show up to nationals in a mental state that would allow me to perform at my best. I spent the season testing whether I performed better if I paid attention to my competitors’ times or not, and worked on performing better under pressure by creating imaginary scenarios in my head (such as pretending I had only one run left, or had coned all previous runs, etc).
I approached this year with an open mind, and dissected various aspects of my driving; particularly my driving style. I challenged all of my previous assumptions and patterns, and tried to make objective observations about what actually worked and what didn’t. Instead of getting attached to a preconceived idea of “this is my driving style”, I tried to embrace whatever yielded positive results.
I also took a closer look at my process for developing a game plan. Whether you prefer to mercilessly cut distance or find the most efficient spirals (my preferred approach), the related and often ignored part is the importance of a vividly detailed plan for what you will do with the car. I spent a good portion of the year testing different approaches so I could build my confidence in my chosen approach and not second guess myself.
Car prep matters! I have been guilty in the past of showing up to nationals with underprepared cars because I underestimated the effect that can have. You don’t need to have the most expensive parts on your car, but do what you can to make sure your car, tires, or setup are not handicapping your performance.
The last thing I’ll say is this: Push your limits, within the limits of the car. Get better at pushing yourself past your comfort zone, but without exceeding the limits of the car and tires. Spend as little time below the limit of grip as possible, without going over the limit. Going faster is never about over-driving, and always about being smarter about car position and angle such that we are maximizing our time at the limit, and pointing the forces from our car in the right direction.