Sunday, March 10, 2013

Conversations with a Champion: Part I - The Pre-Race Routine

To anyone familiar with BMW CCA Club Racing, Eric Heinrich is a household name. Eric is the 2010 BMW CCA Club Racing National Champion (E30 M3 Touring Car), 2011 SCCA Jim Fitzgerald Rookie Of The Year, and he holds 9 BMW CCA and 5 SCCA track records. Today we dig in deep with this candid interview to find out how he approaches his races.

So I've always been curious to ask you: Getting in the zone, say for a quali lap or a big race -- What's your pre-race routine? How far back does it start before the race? Do you have a sequence of things that must always be done the same way? What do you do in the 5-10 minutes immediately preceding the race? Do you play everything through your head? Close your eyes and visualize the track? Or think about sitting on the beach in Maui and about to stretch?
I do lots of visualization, even before I get to the track. I try to imagine what a lap is going to feel like. I've gotten better at getting to grid early. I use cheapo $3 standalone digital timer velcroed to my dash for countdowns. 5 mins to go - hit the button. That way I can keep track of when I roll out, in case my belts get stuck and I lose track of time. It's calming actually - all of a sudden your belt is stuck or you forgot to put on your balaclava or your window net is down etc....panic, fix it, then look at the timer and..oh, I still have 2 minutes before they roll us out...back into the zone.

I always do my cross-crawls and eye-figure eights while sitting in the grid before I roll off the false grid. I have a Pep Boys replacement "X" for a trunk on my steering wheel to remind me to do my cross crawls. I don't zone out about beaches or relaxing, it's not my style... I zone in, hyperfocus, make things slow *way* down.

When I go out for that lap of glory qualifier, it's never my first or third lap, it's always a later lap. I try to get a quick one in early, in case the track gets junked up or shut down, but pretty much every time my pole lap is around lap 8 or 10, with a pit break to cool the brain and tires down in between. The best lap itself usually comes right after one that feels quick, but the lap timer says it's off pace by a few tenths. Then I just say to myself OK, time to dig deep. Somehow almost every time I'm able to pull some silly lap out of the car - I don't always scare myself, but my best ever qualy laps - overall at Lime Rock and overall at Mt Tremblant in a J-Stock car in mid fields in the dry - I definitely scared myself a little bit on each one of those flyers. I can still picture each of those laps in my head right now as a matter of fact. At Lime Rock I could have gone faster if I got on the gas sooner coming out of the left hander and at Mt Tremblant I didn't handle Turn 7 as well as I could have. That was before I was running data, so it was all by feel and stopwatch. And oh hell yeah, experience with autocrossing absolutely makes qualifying a breeze.

Any foods that you prefer before a race to help you mentally and physically?
Foods...nothing heavy: fruits, quality granola/yogurt bars. A good but not too large breakfast. Lots of water and Gatorade during the day. I usually gain a couple pounds over a race weekend by overhydrating.

How do you approach qualifying?
I love going out for qualifying. It's defintely a learned skill. I haven't recalculated my statistics but  it's somehting like 68% of the time since I started as a rookie with BMW Club Racing I have qualified the car on the front row - either overall or class front row. I never assume I am going to win or get the pole or set the track record; it's always dig deep, focus, go balls out and take calculated risks to make it happen. Every time I get the pole I get excited. It's like FTD at an autocross. YEEHAHAHAH!, you know what I mean? Oh, and you've got to make the right tire choice and take care of the tires properly. Save sticker tires for qualifying. The easiest pass you'll ever make is when you roll past your competitors on the way to the grid.

Yes, it's totally a mental thing. You have to be in the zone to be able to dig in that deep. It's the mental and physical awareness that takes your driving to a new level. You must really enjoy it and be psyched for it to be able to dig in that deep. It probably brings the best out of you once the survival instincts kick in. Works only when you are very confident. You have to have the guts to push yourself to a point where you are scared and then the mental toughness to dig yourself out of it.
One thing I do is I think think think the whole thing through. Gearing is a big deal to me. Even though a certain gearing (diff ratio) choice might be better for power down the straight, or acceleration out of a corner - if it means I have to make an awkwardly timed shift, I'll usually go with the compromise gearing to allow me to focus on car placement  - a bungled upshift may cost you a few tenths or more; a well placed car in the twisties may save you a couple of tenths.

Given a choice, always use the higher gear. The acceleration may not be as fast, but it's one less shift down and one less shift up - each of which you may not get perfect  - vs being out of the powerband but moving overall through a section in less time.

Uphill at Lime Rock is a perfect example. Lots of poeple go down to third. Stay in fourth, brush the brakes, go back to gas and ride it over the hill. You can actually only take that corner so fast, so why complicate it with two extra shifts? Brush, turn, gas, slither it over the top. Always faster that way, and you can focus on keeping the car off the barriers when the back steps out over the top too.

Do you have a routine for going out?
I do have a technique - it starts with getting out of the car after a session. The helmet/Hans/gloves/balaclava always go in the same pots and stay in the car. Always! That way there's never a question of where they are, so it becomes a mini-focusing routine, sorta the way Ivan Lendl used to do his pre-serve bounce, or Nomar did his glove thing (ok not quite that obsessive, but it does become very routine and calming and focusing. Racing coach Ross Bentley talks about all this in his Speed Secrets book series. I can almost feel my heart rate slow down even if I'm rushed as I put in my ear plugs, start belts, balaclava, hans, helmet, tighten belts. I haven't evaluated it with a heart rate monitor but I might someday just out of curiosity.

It's good to have a target. The challenge is, will you be able to push yourself to exceed it?
I am a wicked data geek. I usually have a target time for a fast lap in my head before I get to the track - on track I'm usually within a tenth or it or so. Makes you wonder if that's good planning or if it's your subconscious holding you back to that time....

What other pre-event stuff do you do?
If it's before a big race, I check the track records, look who is registred, see what their past results are, see what other races they have run this year, see how many track records or wins they hold, who works on their car, what the shop reputation is...sometimes I'll call people who may know them and ask them what they know about the person, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how good is their car... And I read the rules. Over and over and over and... you get the point. If there is something that could possibly be interpreted in more than one way, I get clarification, and I make sure I'm within them - but at the limit of them.

Ha ha, you take competition to an all new level. I thought you were more interested in beating yourself so to speak?
Oh no, second place frustrates me off to no end. I have a mild competitive streak. Very mild...

It's good to know your weaknesses. Would you rather win a race at the Glen with a 2:15 best lap knowing that you should have been able to do 2:12 OR do 2:10 but still lose the race?
I'd rather win the race and turn a 2:09.9... Actually, I have done that.

More about Eric Heinrich

Sponsors: BF Goodrich Tires,, AST-USA Suspension, D-Force Wheels, Stop*Tech brakes, Pagid RS brake pads. Per Eric, "Marc Feinstein at German Performance Service in Brighton, MA preps the car and is my race engineer. With all the experience he has from being at TMS and being the race engineer for Black Swan, he is a huge asset and a big factor in my success. And my wife Beth of course - anyone who knows her or has met her understands what a super person she is."

Track Records currently held:

BMW CCA Club Racing:
  1. Lime Rock  CT, Qualifying before re-pave,(old) J-Stock, 1:01.748
  2. Motorsport Ranch, DFW-Cresson texas, J-Stock, 1:25.444
  3. Summit Point Main, WV, J-Stock, 1:27.034
  4. New Jersey-Lightning, NJ, E30 M3 Touring Car (M3T), 1:14.078
  5. Summit Point Main, WV, E30 M3 Touring Car,  1:22.771
  6. Watkins Glen, NY, E30 M3 Touring Car, 2:09.971
  7. Road America, Elkhart Lake WI, E30 M3 Touring Car; 2:38.x
  8. NHMS, New Hampsire, M3T, 1:14.136 (damp) -pole time 1:12.285
  9. Under STU Spec with BMW CR: New Hampshire: overall pole, 1:11.096, race lap 1:11.315
SCCA records:
  1. NHMS, New Hampshire: Super Touring Under 3.0l (STU); 1:12.342
  2. New Jersey-Thunderbolt, NJ: STU,   1:31.192
  3. Watkins Glen, New York: STU, 1:08.450, pole time 2:07.250
  4. Nelson Ledges Road Course, Ohio: STU 1:12.671
  5. Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Ohio: STU 1:37.0xx
Championship standings and other:
2002 Boston-BMW CCA Autocross Driver of the Year, 12 events, 11 wins, 1 second place
007 BMW CCA Club Racing J-Stock National Championship 3rd place
2007 SCCA SOLO II Nationals, STX, 14th a road race car on borrowed street tires and springs  & road race shocks. :-) 
Overall pole position (dry, mixed field) at Mont Tremblant in a J-Stock E30 M3 July 2007
Overall pole position at NHMS - SCCA STU May 2011
Overall pole position at NJMP-T - SCCA STU June 2011, overal l win
Overall pole position at NHMS - BMW CR/SCCA STU Oct 2011, overall win
Overall pole position at NHMS SCCA STU April 2012
Overall pole position at Nelson Ledges (X2) May 2012

2010 BMW CCA Club Racing Season:
*E30 M3 Touring Car National Champion
* 5 tracks,13 races; 13 poles, 5 track records, 12 wins, 1 second place due to mechanical/pileup at start.

2011 SCCA STU National Racing Results:
*4 tracks, 5 races including runoffs; 4 poles, 2 wins, 3 thirds (2 due to mechanical), 3 track records set.
*2011 SCCA National Championship Runoffs, 3rd Place, Super Touring Under 3.0Litres, Road America WI... OH YEAH!

2012 SCCA STU National Racing Results:
3 tracks, 5 races; 3 poles, 4 wins, 1 second place (qualifying was in wet at new track,started fifth), 3 track records set/reset.

Total number of tracks raced: 13
Total number of track records held: 14