The topics covered in the past several issues have all been related to the mechanics involved in safely navigating a car along a slippery winter road or the challenging 3.3-mile road course at Valley Motorsports Park. This month I thought it’d be helpful to spend some time talking about the mental aspect of high performance driving.
My brother-in-law who is a former State champion wrestler, now Athletic Director and high school varsity wrestling coach has told me on numerous occasions “the body is stupid and does only what the mind tells it to do”. As a coach he uses this mantra as a means of extracting a higher level of performance from his team than they physically might be capable of delivering. Applied to high performance driving the body even with the best of training is indeed very stupid, or to look at it another way the mind can have a significant bearing on how you perform on the track.
Here’s a good example of how stupid a body can be behind the wheel; while running some laps during a driving school I came into a rather hard brake zone which required what should have been a fairly routine heel-toe downshift from fourth to third. You’d think that performing the simple task of moving the shifter in a straight line for the millionth time would be no problem.
But I was a bit distracted by the car behind me. Perhaps concentrating more on how I’d like to put a little more distance between the two of us than the important task at hand of driving the car. My body made its move without the mind paying too much attention, the shifter went from fourth to first instead of third. Wham! I was suddenly trying desperately to recover from a severe oversteer situation as my rear tires locked up. End result I spun off the track, ripping off my front spoiler in the process before coming to a stop.
Not only was it embarrassing, it set a poor example for an instructor to have an incident of this nature for no other reason than lack of paying attention. As a result of this incident and inputs from fellow racers, I’ve come to recognize that one of my biggest weaknesses is the mental aspect of my driving, something that I’m working hard to improve.
Driving is a very intellectual sport and mentally very demanding. If you stop and think about it you’re asking your brain to process a tremendous amount of data, make intelligent decisions based on the data, and provide the signals needed to your eyes, hands, and feet to control the car. Getting prepared for a session on the track should include making sure that the car is ready for the rigors it will face. Likewise you should prepare your head.
We all like to think of ourselves as accomplished drivers at some level. In particular most men pride themselves on their prowess behind the wheel. If you surveyed one hundred men I’m willing to bet all of them would tell you that they considered themselves to be above average when it comes to driving ability. This is exactly why all the women I’ve had the pleasure of instructing have been great students. Not that they lack self confidence but they tend to have a more open mind when it comes to accepting an instructor's critique of their driving.
One of the first and best things you can do to improve your driving regardless of your skill level is to open yourself up for criticism no matter where it’s coming from. The worse students an instructor can get are the ones who’re totally convinced that they are great drivers even though they’ve never put a car on a track. So sure of their driving skills are these Johnny Racer drivers that they just ignore any kind of guidance. As a result they tend to: stagnate, progress slowly, or even develop bad habits and regress as time goes on.
Before and after each session take some time and ask yourself or your instructor what aspect of your driving most needs improving. Then think about how you can practice that skill. Before you go out on the track visualize yourself performing the skill correctly. For example let’s say you’ve been told or have come to the realization that you’re not looking ahead quite far enough. You also have determined that there is a turn on the track where it’s particularly important to do so. Formulate an exercise to help you practice. In this example, you may decide to pick a landmark - perhaps it’s a sign at the entry of the turn. Now dedicate a session to practice looking for that sign, forcing yourself to look ahead.
Before you go out on the track to practice, picture in your mind how it will look and feel to enter the turn looking for that sign. Now when you go out and attempt the exercise on the track it should come much easier.
When you finish the session ask yourself how successful you were at looking ahead for the sign in that turn. If you were successful, great! In the next session you could add additional turns with landmarks and do the same. After a period of time you’ll probably find that you’re looking ahead without a conscience effort, and doing so naturally.
If you where unsuccessful, maybe there is some other aspect of your driving that needs to be addressed. For instance, maybe you’re entering the turn a little too fast and are getting a bit flustered. Whatever the reason try to find the root cause, address it, and master the skill before you move on.
Another helpful routine to get into is to clear your head and get into a relaxed yet prepared state of mind before heading out on the track. If you’ve got a bunch of stuff rambling around in your head, it’s difficult if not impossible to focus on what you want to accomplish out on the track. Clearing your head and relaxing will help you to focus and visualize what you’re about to do.
Every racer has a different pre-race routine that works for them. I like to be in my car all ready to go in the pre-grid at least 10 minutes ahead of time. For the first 5 minutes or so I try and run the course in my mind, thinking about any specific things that I might want to try and do. Then for the last 5 minutes or so I try and clear my head completely and think of nothing at all. Often I’ll close my eyes for a few minutes and do some deep breathing exercises.
I’m not suggesting that each time you go out you should be working on something. In fact I would highly recommend that on a regular basis just go out drive, enjoy, and see how it goes. If you have an instructor, don’t be afraid to tell him or her that you’d like them to just observe you for a few laps and remain quiet.
On a final note there is another venue available for all of us to practice certain aspects of high performance driving that is more often than not overlooked: daily driving. The above example of looking ahead is one that you could practice every day without speeding or driving aggressively. Simply by making an effort to keep you eyes on the road and looking ahead as much as possible is good practice and can lead to it becoming habitual.
During this discussion I used the example of practicing looking ahead intentionally because it’s critical to do so any time you’re behind the wheel. Next month this topic will be covered in greater detail.