"One of the most important things to going fast and progressing in car control is an understanding of weight management, especially at the point of brake release."
CircuitStudies: Learn New Tracks with Mike Skeen & Johan Schwartz
by Ziva Allen
Can’t afford to rent a track and hire a driving coach for a day? Want to go deeper than watching in-car camera videos or using a racing simulator? Well there is a new alternative. Professional racers and coaches Mike Skeen and Johan Schwartz have developed turn-by-turn guides in their CircuitStudies webinar series. Auto TrackDay Monthly spoke to them recently about their new venture.
Skeen explains that “CircuitStudies is a series of webinars that Johan and I are producing to help people learn some of our favorite race tracks. We just did our first presentation in January, covering Road Atlanta and have since done VIR, Road America, and Lime Rock Park. Each webinar is roughly 90 minutes where we walk you around a race track with high quality pictures that highlight every nuance of the course. Accompanying the webinar is a detailed turn-by-turn guide and several track maps that will give you the basics for quick review at the track. We really try to address the needs of every driver, regardless of experience level, car type, etc.”
Skeen made the jump from karting and club racing to professional racer. “For me, it started early by following my dad to kart races and driving karts in the neighborhood,” says Skeen. “I started organized kart racing when I was 10, then moved to tracking cars at 16. I started instructing at teen driving schools when I was 17, and soon after was instructing at track days and even for some professional programs. I started making a living as a driver about 10 years ago and have been fortunate to race in the FIA World Endurance Championship, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Series, Pirelli World Challenge, Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, SCORE Baja 1000, and many others. I continue to do a lot of private coaching between races and enjoy all the seat time I can get!”
Schwartz grew up in Denmark and came to the United States to finish his college education earning an MBA. In 2001 Schwartz started an arrive-and-drive karting school and endurance race series. Endurance Karting would come to town with the karts and the instructors. On Friday, you could learn to drive a kart, learn the track and practice racing related skills. On Saturday, a twenty-four hour endurance race would start. Participants would either sign up with their own team of about five or six drivers or Endurance Karting would pair individuals up with others to form a team. Schwartz sold the business in 2013 to pursue his racing career full time and in 2016 he won the Pirelli World Challenge Championship. Fun fact - Schwartz set a Guinness Book World Record by drifting non-stop for over fifty minutes. In his spare time, he instructs with the BMW Performance Center.
CircuitStudies came into being when Schwartz and Skeen, both from the Charlotte area, came to know each other as their racing paths frequently crossed. Schwartz credits Skeen with helping him to learn new tracks he had not driven previously. He was looking for a partner and Skeen was a natural choice. Skeen stated that “Johan came to me with the idea in December and it seemed like a pretty good way to spread some knowledge when we aren't at the track.”
This team of racers/coaches is building its library of track webinars and materials. We asked for a scoop on which tracks would be covered after covering Daytona and Sebring, which are coming soon. “We have basically started with tracks close to home or where we feel we have a strong enough network to spread the word. We certainly want to continue growing the number of tracks in our catalogue, starting with nationally-recognized circuits that host a lot of track days and club races. We have had some tracks contact us wanting to get on the list, which is great, and we will be trying to accommodate all that we can. I suspect Barber, Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, and others of that quality will be the first to come out. Let us know if you have recommendations!” I believe our readers would be interested in learning more about Palm Beach International Raceway, since the configuration changed from the old Moroso road course.
Since Auto TrackDay Monthly is geared towards HPDE participants, we wanted to know whether Skeen and Schwartz’s focus is solely on racers or if it is more inclusive. “Many of our participants are HPDE drivers and not racers,” says Skeen. “Our goal is to offer information that any driver can use to improve their driving in terms of safety and speed. We do address passing and racing situations, but it's not the primary discussion. To us, there is not a "racing line" that is any different than a "HPDE line"--the line will change in some situations for different cars or some drivers may choose to be more conservative in different areas, but that can be true whether racing or not. We point out risk/reward ratios for different corners and talk about the advantages of being more aggressive in some situations but we still offer caution and thoughts on back-up plans for when things go wrong. In my coaching, I've not seen a reason to teach someone the wrong line just because they are in the earlier stages of their driving career. In my mind, it's best to learn the correct process but to apply more caution in its application until car control skills and such have reached the appropriate level.”
Now we know that in driver education with many clubs, such as the Porsche Club of America (PCA), late apexes are encouraged during early learning, so we pressed Skeen a little on his views about teaching the line. “I am familiar with the HPDE line from my time with various clubs,” says Skeen, “but to me it is very counterproductive. You can go as fast or slow as you want on any line, so there's no reason you need to learn the wrong line first. This creates a lot of problems as people progress, because they don't know what parts of their knowledge are correct. The racing line is not what it is because it is defensive--it's faster because it smoothly maximizes the friction circle. Earlier turn-ins allow the car to be loaded laterally over a longer period rather than asking the tire to suddenly transition from straight line braking to turning. One of the most important things to going fast and progressing in car control is an understanding of weight management, especially at the point of brake release, but traditional school lines cannot really address that. So, I always teach people to do what I consider to be the correct line, but advise them to be more conservative in their application of it as they develop (leaving room with initial braking point, etc.). Schwartz added that in their webinars they do talk about late apexes as the more conservative and safer approach. “We explain why you turn in. Late apex is safer at first. Then you take it earlier and you pick up speed. And, remember, the racing line is really an alternate line and not necessarily the optimal line.”
We like to ask coaches for an anecdote about how they helped a student. Skeen said “Boy, there have been a ton of students over the years, but going back to my early days as an in-car instructor at club track days, it was always the best when you had an enthusiastic, but sensible student that was willing to listen and trust what you had to say. Sorry to the guys, but often the ladies listen the best and can apply what you have to say quickly.”
For a little sampler and preview we asked about how to take turn seventeen at Sebring International Raceway. This is a vexing turn that is quite wide at the beginning and then narrows down. It connects the very long back straight to the front straight and is crucial to a fast lap time. There may be a million lines and some drivers are still lost out in “seventeen.” “In general terms,” explained Skeen, “you want to remember that this corner connects two lengthy straights and has a big bump in the center, so you want to compromise your mid-corner speed a bit in favor of high entry speed and a good exit. Visually, the track looks tight at the end of the straight because of where the inside wall is placed, but in reality, that is not a constraining factor of the corner, which tightens as it gets closer to the bridge. So, focus on braking deep into the corner, minimize the coast on the way to the bridge, use the little dot on the bridge as a reference point for your placement as the car rotates, and try to pick up the throttle early at the exit. For the rest of the details, join us for the webinar later this year!”
Many drivers rely on Youtube and iRacing to learn a new track. We asked Schwartz how CircuitStudies improves on those approaches. He explained that when you are watching a video you do not know why a driver is making the choices they do. You also do not know if what they are doing is correct. “With us, each corner is segmented. We encourage you to look at the notes and the pictures we provide you and then work on one thing at a time, one corner at a time. Integrate the knowledge with your experience slowly and with patience. Do not overdrive the turn. Notice over- or under-steer. Learn to take what each turn gives you. When you get close to the limits of the tires, suddenly ‘slow hands’ starts to make sense. We are also happy to answer specific questions by phone or email from participants at any time after they begin implementing their webinar learning.”
By signing up for a live webinar, students can interact with Skeen and Schwartz by submitting questions. Each formal presentation lasts about ninety minutes and then there is a question and answer period. Participants can access the webinar streams and watch them again at any time. In fact, the coaches recommend this approach so that students can practice and then return to pick up the next piece of knowledge or corner approach to work on. Each track webinar is accompanied by written materials. There is a 60 to 80 slide PowerPoint with high quality pictures, highlighting turn-by-turn reference points. In addition, there are four to six pages of notes and annotated track maps. These can be taken to the track to guide learning and practice.
In concluding our interview with CircuitStudies, Schwartz offered a special bonus to our readers. Both Coach Skeen and Coach Schwartz have offered a free webinar exclusively for our readers, focusing on track day driving! We are working on the bullet points for that presentation, which will be coming soon. Stay tuned!
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