Here’s a question that might apply to a few NASA members: What’s a good way for older drivers to develop faster reflexes?
Conventional wisdom holds that human brain development peaks in our mid 20s then trends downhill from there. If we believe this, then there is little hope for older drivers competing against the young guns. However, studies in brain plasticity suggest that we can exercise our brains just like our muscles and by doing so we can improve cognitive skills and effectively reduce the age of our brains. Additionally, physical exercise is effective in strengthening the brain-body connection while practicing our craft. It programs our brains to operate subconsciously and frees our minds to respond to changing conditions. Lastly, the older driver should recognize that with age comes wisdom and maturity, which often leads to better strategy and decision making. That can be as important as reaction time in racing, if not more so.
Neural plasticity is becoming a very popular topic as seen in ads for websites that promote brain training. Lumosity.com is generally considered the leader in this field. Its simple exercises may not seem applicable to racing but they are actually helpful in training one’s brain to identify a problem, make a judgment, a decision, then execute. This is essentially the physiological process we follow when we talk about reaction time. The neural pathways that are strengthened from practicing this process are just as effective at identifying birds flying the wrong direction as they are when trying to determine whether to make a pass, avoid a spinning car, or any of the multitude of scenarios that confront a racer at the wheel.
Video games in general also can improve reaction times and critical thinking under stress. Racing simulators in particular are a valuable tool for racers to practice and hone their skills in a no-risk, low-cost environment. The more realistic simulators, such as Gran Turismo and online community iRacing, are more beneficial than the arcade style of Forza and Need For Speed. Although they lack the full visibility and full sensory input of a real racecar, our brains adapt and fill in the gaps after some practice. Today, professional teams rely heavily on simulators for driver training and vehicle setup. If you’re looking for top-of-the-line, full-immersion simulators, check out CXC Simulations.
However, sitting behind a video screen is not enough to prepare for the challenges of racing. It is equally important to engage in active sports such as tennis, racquetball, or downhill skiing to name just a few. These sports are effective at challenging the brain to quicken reactions in response to constantly changing situations. These sports also improve general fitness, which is critical to feeding the brain with blood and oxygen to work most effectively.
Lastly, but most importantly, driver instruction from professional instructors is fundamental in coding the foundational skills into our brains so we can free up processing power for more immediate tasks. When car control, pace and the proper racing line are second nature, our vision expands and awareness is heightened. As I mentioned, reaction time is more than eye-hand coordination. It requires first identifying the problem, which we can do more quickly when our awareness expands. Next, we must make judgments about what is likely to happen next and consider possible outcomes. Then we must decide which action to take. These tasks are born of experience and study. Finally, we must execute that action skillfully. All of these skills improve with professional instruction. The Ford Racing School offers a variety of courses to fit all budgets, from the two-hour Mustang Experience to the four-day race school. Naturally, more time yields better, faster results, but any coaching is better than none.
All of these tools benefit young and old alike. Young drivers have some advantages over older drivers, but older drivers should recognize their strengths lie in their life experience. They are more inclined to take a cool, calm approach to the judgment and decision process and are better able to anticipate potential problems to compensate for potentially longer reaction times. The best a driver can do is identify personal strengths and use them for an advantage while considering potential weaknesses and making efforts to improve on them.