Joel Miller offers some tips to Formula Mazda competitor Larry Mason during the Runoffs.

A Personal Coaching Experience

Mazda Motorsports gave its club racers at the SCCA Runoffs the opportunity to have video and data reviewed by its pros at Indy. Did it help? has featured a lot of articles on coaching – the benefits, how to get the most out of a coaching session, how to find a coach. At the 2017 SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mazda Motorsports made that last part easy; the team brought some of its professional drivers – Tom Long, Jonathan Bomarito and Joel Miller – to Indy to provide free video and data review for Mazda racers. But is a 30-minute review of video really going to help? I believe I can say, unequivocally, that the answer is “yes.”

First, an introduction: My name is Richard James, and I write many of the feature articles you see here on I’ve been a motorsports journalist for nearly 30 years, trying to bring insight to both fans and also to racers looking for ways to improve their game. Two years ago, after a long hiatus from racing, I acquired an NC ex-MX-5 Cup car. I raced it in SCCA club racing STL in Regionals in 2016, converting it to Touring 4 for 2017 with my eyes on the U.S. Majors Tour and the Runoffs at Indy. To be blunt, I’m a long way from the sharp end of the T4 grid, but with help from Long, I got a little closer.

Given the choice of the three drivers, I chose Tom for a couple of reasons: First, I’ve done a lot of features with Tom over the years, so I feel like I know his presenting style. Second, he has a lot of time in Spec Miata, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and in developing the MX-5 Cup car, so I felt his experience was most relevant. And, finally, I was reasonably sure he wouldn’t laugh upon reviewing my video and data (I’m joking, of course – none of these professionals would laugh, no matter how much I gave them cause to).

I’ll admit that learning new tracks quickly is not my forte, probably because I haven’t had experience at a wide range of circuits. So the Monday talk at the Runoffs by the three drivers, who raced the Mazda RT24-P in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship in 2017 before that program went on hiatus, was extremely helpful. In talking with several other racers, the expression I heard regarding the IMS road course was: “Not difficult to learn, but hard to master.” Hearing their tips after a single qualifying session gave me some insight into places I could hunt for more speed. One particular hint that helped me was using a sharper brake release into Turn 13, a critical corner, to help the car rotate in the tight left-hander.

Sitting down with Tom after my second qualifying session to review video (I use a GoPro that has GPS and can overlay speed and g-forces onto the video, so looking at the data was secondary), he had some tips that made a huge difference. Some were obvious ones that I had already spotted, such as not getting far enough to the right to set up for a left-hander or not using all of the track on the exit of another turn, but Tom had specific tips on how to make sure I did that.

Others were not so obvious. In Turn 4 (the second of three right-handers and the only one that requires a speed adjustment) and Turn 7 (the left hander at the end of the Hulman Blvd. straight) I was braking too late and too hard. In both cases, that was shifting my apex too late and I was overslowing, not carrying enough speed through the corner. Tom suggested moving the whole brake-and-turn-in episode earlier, and also using less brake, making the braking episode both lighter and a touch longer.

Taking Tom’s advice to heart paid huge dividends. I dropped two full seconds off my lap time in Wednesday’s qualifying. While the lower temperatures and better track conditions made everyone faster, in most cases that was by a second or less. Making those improvements also allowed me to try a couple of other things in Thursday’s qualifying session (with better track conditions still, but a black-flag-shortened session that netted only two hot laps) that allowed me to take off another 1.7sec.

As for the race itself – well, let’s just say I displayed my Runoffs rookie status with some significant mistakes. But I can tell you that in the sections where Tom gave me advice, I was clearly quicker than the cars around me and I made up a lot time in those spots.

If you’re wondering if coaching can help, and you’re not a national-championship-caliber driver (and probably even if you are), I’m proof that it can be very beneficial. And if you’d like to seek help of your own from Tom or any of Mazda’s professional drivers, check out this series we did earlier on driver coaching.