Martinis, Ballet Shoes, and Left Foot Braking

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As the rear tires lose the necessary grip required to negotiate turn 8A at Sonoma Raceway without undue drama, and the car begins to slide closer to the edge of the track than I had planned, adrenaline, only a millisecond behind the loss of traction, flows through me. It reaches my knees. That’s a yardstick of sorts. When it gets to my knees my body is telling me I am in peril, or at least that I need to bring all resources to bear in order to survive, which I think would be peril. Thanks body, I really needed that extra alert. It’s not like I haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 minutes or so since I first belted into the car, but OK, I’ll step it up another notch–if that’s possible. A quickly applied bit of opposite lock and grip is regained, the corner negotiated. Speed about 100 mph.

And so it went, from time to time, while racing at Sonoma Raceway three weeks ago during my season’s second race weekend and race two of the Crossflow Cup Series. When I told this particular tale of drama to a fellow driver, his response was; “And then you stayed out there and did it again, didn’t you?”–his tone acknowledging that we are all nuts, plain and simple. His tone was pitch perfect.

Improved pace on a race track requires change. Change this most recent weekend was to move to left foot braking. Left foot braking as I did for hundreds of laps each weekend karting during my younger days. And I dare say that this return to left foot braking gave me the confidence needed to control the car much more on it’s edge than ever before, be it around turn 8A or any other.

The Lola has three pedals, four if you count the dead pedal–the pedal to the far left that is simply a foot rest, or brace. Throttle right, brake next, then clutch to the left. Given the nature of the the Hewland racing gearbox, the clutch pedal is only needed when setting off from a stop. Clutch in, select first gear, release clutch, add fuel. Underway.

Sadly, too few drivers know of this manual transmission stuff. Sad because when done well, shifting gears manually is very satisfying. And done really well, it can embody all the precision, expertise, and delicacy exempified by the perfectly batted ball, thrown football, or dunked basket. And it must be done well, masterfully in fact, if the car is to be smoothly controlled approaching and negotiating a corner and if a winning pace is to be attained. Too often racing doesn’t get credit for it’s difficulty and required athleticism when compared to America’s traditional stick and ball sports. Among the many difficult things in racing, downshifting and braking, at the same time and smoothly, is one of them.

Before “The Change,” my left foot was relegated to mere passenger status, placed firmly on the dead pedal, my right foot operating both brake and throttle simultaneously. To slow, burn speed using the ball of my right foot on the right edge of the brake pedal, roll my foot to the right to blip the throttle while continuing to brake with the left half of my foot. Select the lower gear, continue braking, turn in, add throttle, off throttle, select next gear up, back on throttle, accelerate, exit the corner–the subconscious mind, and right foot, hard at work. All the while, the left foot atrophies against the dead pedal.

Historically, because of pedal arrangement, it was called Heel and Toe. Your heal worked the throttle, bringing up the revs for a smooth downshift, while your toes of the same foot simultaneously applied the brake, slowing for the approaching corner. The more accurate term nowadays would be Left Side Of Foot, Right Side Of Foot, but that’s neither brief or catchy. Heel And Toe, it is, even though it’s not.

But, since the clutch pedal is not needed (much), why not bring the left foot back onto the field? Two pedals to work, two feet to work them–makes sense. The heck with this heel and toe stuff, clever as it may be. Now the left foot focuses exclusively on the brake pedal, and the right foot applies only throttle. Simple, precise, faster. To make that doable, a larger brake pedal was fitted and the clutch pedal was moved to the left, out of the way. Now, to slow for a corner, its left foot on the brake, burn off the speed, right foot on the throttle, blipping up the revs, moving from fourth gear to third, to second, to first, as needed. Much more precise.

And since new duties had been assigned the feet, new shoes seemed appropriate, too. Ballet shoes. Indeed, ballet shoes, at least so they seem. Virtually a non-shoe. Don’t walk around in these things–zero arch support and even less sole. Paper thin and very skinny. For good penmanship, you don’t wear gloves while writing. For good footwork you don’t want bulk. Thin soled, narrow, light, flexible shoes–that’s what you want. A new pair of Italian OMP shoes are now the small interface between flesh, subconscious mind, and pedal. Excellent feel for maximum braking. Fire resistant, too, of course.

Lap times were, give or take a bit, a full 1.5 seconds faster than ever before! In racing, that’s, well, a lot! Surely it was in no small part due to “The Change.”

In Saturday’s event I managed eighth place, Sunday 7th. Good races with pressure from behind, some of which I succumbed to, and challenges ahead, some of which I met. Each day a grid of 26 or so entries. As an independent, not supported by a professional shop (though I must acknowledge the wonderful help of the guys at John Anderson Racing, who, out of the goodness of their hearts, continually offer much needed advice and counsel lest I do serious damage to self, car, or others), not too shabby.

Martini now all but gone but has left in me the inspiration to make further improvements to car and self. New parts to be ordered and the simulator awaits, as preparation continues for our first race east of the Rockies; The Jefferson 500 at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, May 18-21. We’ll race against, so far, 45 other cars and drivers, all but one of each strange to me. Great fun and continued adventure awaits.

Many regrets that we must abandon the West Coast Crossflow Cup Series for the remainder of the year, but new and exciting tracks await eastward and closer to my back yard.

Left foot ready, willing, and anxious.
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Lemon Drop Martini: In shaker half full of ice: Juice of two small lemons,
4 parts vodka, 2 parts Cointreau, 3/4 part simple syrup. Shake, serve in chilled martini glass. Worth 3 tenths a lap……..kidding.
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