Focus your mind to achieve these three goals in your qualifying and racing.
Many events use a format where one timed lap is the basis for results. Time Trial, time attacks, autocrosses and even qualifying for a road race are included in this list.
In a road race, the driver must find a setup and a driving style that manages the tires for its duration. The setup of the car and the technique of the driver must work in unison to manage the tires so that at the end of the race, the tires are still creating near maximum traction. Some setups and driving techniques cause extensive tire wear early in the race, This can cause tire degradation too quickly, causing the tires to “go off” before the end of the race. Many races are lost due to this phenomenon.
But where the above can cost a team a race over several laps, the exact opposite is true for a single lap qualifier or run for time. A more aggressive setup and driving style can make a car faster for a single lap. More camber, different tire pressures, a setup with slightly more oversteer and more aggressive driving can be faster for a single lap. Lighter fuel loads mean a different setup can be used and overheating the tires is rarely an issue for a one-lap run. And an astute driver can even use different tactics relative to driving the track. Very aggressive driving on a warm up lap can put heat in the tires for the flying lap. A driver can even alter lines to take advantage of the track configuration.
My home track is Willow Springs International Raceway in California. The last turn exiting onto the straight is a right hander, but Turn 1 at the far end of the straight is a left hander. This necessitates move across the track to set up for Turn 1. Many drivers make the move across the track quickly, reaching the right edge of the track well before the start/finish line which is about two-thirds of the way down the straight. Doing this early causes tire scrub sooner. This reduces acceleration very slightly. Moving over later also scrubs speed, but it happens at higher speeds and minimizes the loss of acceleration. But let’s take this a step further.
When I knew I was on a good lap, I would wait until I was past the Start/Finish line before moving across the track. The lateral move across the track adds about 50 feet to the lap distance. At an average straightaway speed from the exit of Turn 9 — a high speed corner —to the entry of Turn 1 — a medium speed corner — of 100 mph (147 feet/second), not traversing that extra 50 feet saves about three/tenths of a second on that lap. Of course it hurts the following lap, but if you only need a single lap, so what.
So if you compete in a situation where a single lap means everything, use a setup and driving style that takes that fact into account. And always look for little tricks that give you an advantage.
CONCENTRATION & THOUGHT PROCESSES
Arguably the single most important element of the differentiating between a hot lap and racing is your ability to focus your attention on the job at hand. Concentration is not “thinking” in the traditional sense where most of us mentally verbalize our thoughts. In a race or track car, everything occurs too quickly to “talk” to yourself. By observing and processing everything around you, not making mental and emotional judgments, but focusing on driving or your race tactics, you will process more information and do it much more quickly. So concentration is a pure information gathering and analyzing process that eliminates judgments, but deals with the situation at hand with speed and efficiency. Compared to the self-talk, we can consider this a state of “nonthought.”
This leads us to a second element. If you can maintain concentration to a very high level with laser-like focus, you also must make choices concerning where that attention is focused. Some of the categories include using the controls, watching traffic, observing the state of the car — gauges, noise and feel — planning strategy and tactics, track conditions, the state of other cars and communications. Every one of these is critical, but all will move up and down your priority list several time per lap. As you improve your driving skills, you will be able to spend less attention on using controls and more on other critical areas. The key is to practice spending your attention before you get on the track. Like running mental laps prior to a track session or race, you can run mental checklists of your priorities, spending valuable attention on different areas at several points around the track.
Consistency means running quick laps within one half a percent of each other. At seven-tenths of the limit, this is easier, but you need to be within, say, a half a second of your qualifying or fast lap to really be consistent. Of course, tire degradation will be a factor as a race or session progresses. This level of consistency requires intense focus and concentration. And you must be able to repeat the same use of the controls at the same exact point on the track lap after lap. This takes practice and a large dose of our next topic.
Commitment takes on two forms. First is the total commitment to doing the work on car and developing your skills to the highest level possible. The club racer who spends hours finding and removing ounces of excess weight from a car to move it to a more desirable location has commitment. The driver who practices lines, smooth braking and heel-toe downshifting every time he or she gets behind the wheel of any car shows serious commitment. This attitude and mentality is part of the advantage you create.
The second way commitment is crucial is on the racetrack. The best example is a high-speed turn where you lose time because you lift or brake when others are flat. It requires serious commitment to take this type of corner flat out. The best approach is to build up to taking the corner flat out. Doing it all in one shot can lead to disaster.
The biggest benefit to making these commitments is improved self-confidence — and this is confidence you have earned, not talked yourself into! To gain this confidence, you have had to confront our final topic.
Fear is a necessary defense mechanism. I do not know anyone who is fearless, and I would not want to encounter someone who is on the track. They would be dangerous.
Many years ago, I was working at Willow Springs International Raceway as an instructor when the track owner asked a couple of us to stay after to give rides for members of the local chamber of commerce at a mixer the track was hosting. Most people really had a great time and the rides went well into dusk. One guy climbed into the passenger seat and announced that there was no way I could scare him. He was a big guy and obviously a macho ex-military veteran. Of course, the temptation as a driver is push a little harder because his comment is an obvious challenge. It wasn’t necessary.
When exiting the pit lane at Willow, Turn 1 is a flat out lefthander since you are not close to the top speed you would reach on the full main straightaway. You are well below the limit as you exit Turn 1. But my passenger was tensing up, grabbing hold of roll cage members and bracing himself. He was clearly uncomfortable.
The point of this was not that he was afraid. At some level everyone was that evening. At least he went for the ride even if his level of enjoyment was not real high. Most people faced the fear by placing trust that the drivers were skilled and would not do anything stupid, although, by 8:30 and near darkness on the track, that is debatable. The man in the example dealt with fear by denying it existed. This is an important distinction. Those who faced the fear by acknowledging it and placing trust in the drivers could enjoy the ride. The more they committed to trusting the drivers, the more they enjoyed themselves.
Denying that you are afraid does not make the fear go away. It does, however, rob you of dealing with it and moving forward anyway. Denial can cause irrational actions. Facing fear head-on frees you to take a logical and precise course of action to deal with the issue. By doing this in a methodical fashion, you will build self-confidence. But by denying the fear, you destroy self-confidence.
Fear is a healthy emotion that can save your life. The trick is to listen to it, acknowledge it and face it with a plan of action. There are many ways to do this. We each need to find our own path, but denial is not one that works very well. Make fear your friend and use it as a positive tool to elevate your game and gain confidence.