Racing never left your blood. The adventure, the challenge, the speed and the passion are still part of your identity. It has been months, maybe years since you hit the track, slashed across the apexes and made the pass for the win. Those memories are great, but they are faded. That you are reading this article is proof that your heart, your head and your life all have lined up so you can return to competition driving. Life — or the offseason — got in the way of your racing, but that’s over. Now you are ready to get back on the track and pick up right where you left off.
It is great to feel the excitement and the anticipation of racing again. Welcome back. Now grab that enthusiasm you feel right now and hang on tight, because I have some bad news for you. Picking up right where you left off just isn’t going to happen. Driving techniques are learned slowly, and they fade quickly. The longer you have been away from the track, the more your skills have faded. After coming back from driving gaps of 4 and 16 years, I have learned several techniques that will get you up to speed. Here is the key to it all: be patient and confident.
There is no such thing as natural driving talent. That is why most professional drivers started in karts at a very young age, and have developed their talents constantly since then. Driving frequency is such a huge factor that many of the pros still race karts in addition to their big league racing.
There are four primary factors that will affect how quickly your talent will improve: skill development, risk management, experience and coaching. However, the way these factors will work for and against you might not be what you think.
Your driving skills will improve at roughly the same rate as they did in your first racing adventure. It is going to take a lot of seat time to develop yourself back to the spectacular level you so correctly recall from your past. Running every weekend you can not only shortens your development calendar, but it also accelerates your learning pace.
Wheel-to-wheel racing is inherently dangerous, track days and HPDEs are somewhat less so, and autocross is nearly risk free. Given the unpleasant fact that your return to racing makes you a beginner again, it makes sense to start on the low-risk end of the scale. Focus on your personal performance instead of the car, and learn everything you can from every lap. Run enough events at each level that you know you will be safe at the next higher risk level, and then add that event type. Rotating among several types of events greatly increases the frequency of your driving opportunities. Now that you are back, come back big. That is the fastest way to the front of the grid, and it’s the most fun way, too.
All of the sensations of driving a racecar, the g forces, the vibrations, the sounds, the speed, the workload and the fear factor will be familiar. The major difference this time is that your fear factor will be greatly diminished because you know what to expect. During every race, there comes a point when you have to decide how brave you are going to be. As you know, it is necessary to set your own risk bar very near the dangerous end of the scale to be competitive. Despite your beginner-level driving skills, your willingness to accept risk may still be set at the high level that was justified by the spectacular talents that you developed during your last racing adventure. A mismatch of skill and risk tolerance like this can be dangerous. Take your time and work your way up to the limit gradually, from the slow side. Accept the performance that the car can give you instead of demanding more. Over-driving the car slightly is sometimes useful for setup development, but you will be faster and safer if you under-drive slightly.
Fortunately, the value of your experience does not fade with time. This will be the major difference in how your new racing adventure progresses. Your judgment is better now, and you know what works and what doesn’t. You are older, wiser, and you might even be in a better financial situation. However, your physical abilities might require some special attention.
Every serious athlete has a coach. You need one, too. Finding the right one for you will be a major component of your comeback. You need one who knows what to say and how to say it in a way that you will immediately understand. Driver coaching is more effective during low-risk events. You don’t even have to be at the track to get a great coaching session. You can learn to coach yourself by visualizing driving the tracks you know well, evaluating your imagined performance, and making improvements in your imaginary techniques. Those imaginary improvements can become real if you focus and work on it hard enough.
BASIC ELEMENTS OF DRIVING SKILL
An instinctive countersteer reaction to oversteer is the first basic element to ingrain. Next is finding the line. You need to redevelop the ability to glance at a corner and immediately identify the turn-in point, the apex and the track-out point. That requires emphasis on improving your eye and head movements. Next is putting the car exactly on all three points every time. Optimizing your speed profile through the corner and onto the next straight is the next basic element.
Your major talent milestone will only happen when you have enough fresh seat time. Oddly enough, it will happen when you learn to ignore what your hands and feet are doing. It takes a solid confidence in your car control abilities and familiarity with the behavior of your car to be able to tune out the fundamental mechanical actions of driving. This includes pushing the actions of shifting and oversteer catches down to the subconscious level. Once you have crossed this milestone, it frees a big chunk of your mental bandwidth so that you can focus it on the next higher level of activity.
THE TWO SKILL SETS
There are two very different skill sets that you need between the green and checkered flags: Driving is operating the car and making your way around the track. Racing is dealing with everyone else. Driving must become a background activity so that you can focus your conscious bandwidth primarily on racing. Don’t install a radio in your car until you have fully crossed this threshold. A pit board is enough until then.
Here is the final bit of good news for you. It is likely that your race craft is still largely intact, despite the passage of time. It is often true that old age and treachery beats youth and enthusiasm.
TRACKING YOUR PROGRESS
I realized long ago that the only person you ever really compete with is yourself. Knowing what you need to focus on, forming a detailed plan to do it, and then executing your plan effectively through the whole weekend is a huge win for you, regardless of how anyone else does. At some events, you will succeed. At others, you won’t. Assessing your own performance honestly is a vital part of developing your skills. The process of improving your talent is inherently saw-toothed. If you imagine a graph of your personal performance through a racing season, it will rise with each well-executed event and fall with each misstep. The key to improvement is learning from your mistakes. That will keep your performance graph rising toward your goal. You need all of the gains you can get. Setbacks are guaranteed, but gains are not. Keep pushing your performance up the graph. That is where the fun is.
Mental Advice From the Witchdoctor
This is a mental game, not to be approached with timidity or indecisiveness.
This is an instinct game, not to be over-analyzed or paused for reflection.
This is a reaction game, not to be dumbed down or insulated with too much thought.
Chaos or normal? To the spider, it is normal, while the fly caught in the web is drenched in chaos. To the tires, this is chaos with rapid temp spikes and extreme distortion. To the suspension, this is chaos with handling interactions improbably happening in a compressed distance. To the driver ahead of the car, to the driver fully absorbed in the moment and to the driver who follows correct instincts and reactions, this is normal.
Walk the track as many times as possible. Visualize the speed. Visualize the pace of the corners. Eliminate doubt. Let your mental strength quiet your mind so your instincts and reactions can perform as they should. Learn something from every run and benefit from it. This is all mental. Step into the car. Perform.
The slower the speed, the faster the hands. The slower the speed, the more the stopwatch can be influenced by aggressive moves and by pitching the car. On an initial lap on cold tires, overdriving the first bit will put heat into the edges of the tires quickly and get them gripping better, quicker. Once the tires are warm, or on a second or third lap, or a lap after a bit of cooling down, you may only need a slightly aggressive first corner or two and then work back to smoothness. It has been said, he who turns the steering wheel the least, wins.
The inverse also is true. The higher the speed, the less tolerant the stopwatch will be of fast hands. The likelihood of the watch being kind to a pitch/catch maneuver is abysmal. Only do that in a last-ditch, keep-it-out-of-the-weeds move, where the lap is screwed already. The majority of a lap should be smooth inputs: fast, smooth inputs at slow speeds; and slow, smooth inputs at high speed.
We play a game on a hard surface, with self-propelled objects negotiating a winding course we delicately attack and fine tune our preferred line with our gray matter, and control with our appendages to ultimately grip that surface with soft squishy rubber that has ever-changing limits that must be mastered. Until the checker falls, it is an endless loop of gathering data, adjusting, reacting and performing. — Paul Costas