Anyone strapping on a helmet and climbing into a racecar should experience some degree of fear. Creating a plan to reduce unknowns is a key to overcoming the anxiety.

Like most emotions, fear is healthy when based on rational, real threats. Anyone strapping on a helmet and climbing into a race car should experience some degree of fear. It is real, rational and an important tool for any driver. Certainly, with experience and time, fear decreases, but honestly, it should never go away completely. If fear were gone, eventually a driver would never feel the need for good safety equipment. Trying to talk yourself out of fear can lead to an irrational response.

So how does this relate to driving? First of all, fear can be crippling. Ignoring it may work for the short term, but over time, it will get you. Dealing with any emotion, especially fear, is one key to success on the track. But fear is the most obvious emotion affecting on-track performance. First, you must understand that all emotions are there for a reason. Fear lets us know when our safety is threatened. Experiencing fear in a race or track car is a good thing, as long as we do not let it cripple us or divert our attention to the wrong areas. Over the years, I have taught and written a lot about dealing with fear. I have always believed that the best way to deal with — and therefore control — fear is by making fear your friend. I know that sounds a little crazy, but it has always worked for me. Fear is only an internal message that a threat exists.

If the fear is irrational, you must find a way to reveal that. But if the fear is based on reality — and the risks in motorsport are very real — then how can you face it? If it is based on a real danger, like driving an unfamiliar car where you are not sure about safety equipment, preparation or maintenance, then by researching those issues, you may alleviate the fear because they are not founded in reality.

FACTORS

Fear most often comes from facing the unknown. Driving a new car, a new track or for a new team should cause some degree of anxiety. Creating a plan to reduce the unknowns is a key to overcoming the anxiety. I have often seen drivers become physically ill before a race. While I used to think that was pretty extreme, I know it’s just a way to cope with the fear-induced stress and anxiety every driver faces prior to a race. In fact, all competitors face this before an event. There are many ways to deal with this, but it must be dealt with before the event or you may be crippled completely by the fear. Better ways to deal with stress — as opposed to vomiting — include creating a carefully conceived game plan for how you will approach the race, using visualization techniques for running mental laps, planning a strategy for the start or simply using relaxation techniques while on the pre-grid.

A laser-like focus on the task at hand, driving exemplary laps, starts before the weekend or racing begins.
A laser-like focus on the task at hand, driving exemplary laps, starts before the weekend or racing begins.

The common denominator among all of these, and the real key to handling fear and anxiety is to focus on the job at hand. By focusing all attention on the upcoming task of driving the car at speed, you have no attention left over for the anxiety so it diminishes. The stronger the focus, the less the anxiety takes over. Experience makes it easier to use these techniques effectively and will actually reduce the stress level without effort.

A laser-like focus on the task at hand, driving exemplary laps, starts before the weekend or racing begins.
A laser-like focus on the task at hand, driving exemplary laps, starts before the weekend or racing begins.

What about fear of actually driving the car? This is common and is also handled by staying focused on the job at hand. Let’s say it’s raining. The fear factor pushes the stress and anxiety to higher levels. And it should. It is more dangerous. Then you must analyze the risk factor. Are the conditions so bad that it is not worth the risk? Or are they tolerable? You can always start out slowly, see how the track condition really is and see how the other drivers are coping. While it is always important to push the zone of comfort when you are competing, you may find that your comfort zone is faster than that of your competitors. Or you may need to use the experience for learning and practicing skills. That is a win in itself.

Lots of practice through high-quality track time will let you focus racing against your competitors, not the mechanics of driving fast.

One way to reduce fear and anxiety is to slow down. Seems a little contrary to being on the race track. But it isn’t at all. In a previous article, I discussed ways to go faster on the track. One of the best techniques available is to slow down. Check out the article on consistency in the March issue of NASA Speed News. Basically, you slow down enough to hit apexes and stay on your preferred line perfectly. In nearly all cases, within 10 laps you will be going faster than you were without even realizing it. An additional by-product of this exercise is increased confidence.

COURAGE AND COMMITMENT

Because the human psyche has evolved to a high degree, and not always in a good way, most fear is based on failure, not physical threat. This is especially true for competitors. In some cases, fear of success also occurs. In either case, two elements can be used to overcome the effects of fear. Courage is one. Confidence is the other. It takes courage to overcome fear, but confidence in your skills — and your team and car — to overcome anxiety and stress. Before you can gain confidence, you must summon courage.

Faith in your team, which comes from practice and everyone knowing his or her task, helps reduce unnecessary anxiety.
Faith in your team, which comes from practice and everyone knowing his or her task, helps reduce unnecessary anxiety.

Let’s look at courage. The word is kicked around often and most people have a good idea of what courage is. Courage starts with commitment and some tenacity. When you truly want something, you find the courage to go after it. Heroics are not required, but hard work is. Courage is one of the tools you use to deal with fear in any of its forms. Most important, commitment allows you to look at your fears honestly, which is necessary to be able to deal with those fears.

Commitment is possibly the most important element of success whether on the track or looking for sponsors. For example, if you want to find sponsorship, committing to contacting 100 potential sponsors will increase your odds of success. But you must also commit to creating an exceptional proposal that offers a potential sponsor a great return on investment. Another example comes from the track. If you are trying to take a high-speed corner flat out, but fear is causing you to lift, try visualization and making an internal commitment to not lift. Part of the commitment could be: lift a little less on each lap, then by lap five, you do not lift. Commitment can work magic sometimes. Significant commitments need to be made as a driver to go fast, as crew, to prep the car to perfection and as a team owner/manager to handle operations and financing. For most of us, we were all of these hats. And that takes a big commitment.

CONFIDENCE

Another important element of success in motorsports, or any activity really, is confidence. Confidence is as much a quality as it is an emotion, but it comes in more than one form. For the sake of conversation, let’s take two concepts of confidence. One we’ll call internal confidence, the other external. External confidence comes from outside. Someone telling you to be confident, that you are good at this. Or self-talk, where you attempt to convince yourself to believe you are good. Both can be helpful, even necessary, but true confidence comes from within. Internal confidence comes from the work, practice and focus. It comes from forming relationships with team members, where you trust them to get the job done, and they trust you to do your job at the highest level. Michael Schumacher’s relationship with the Ferrari crew in F1 is arguably the finest example of relationship building and confidence in all of motorsport. He worked at this, and his crew always went the extra mile. He repaid the team with stellar on-track successes. The confidence builds on itself when you follow this path.

Confidence can erode quickly when things go wrong, or even more critically, when the work is not being accomplished. When that happens, it is time to regroup and refocus, not linger on the problems, and move toward solutions. The worst thing you can do is to try convincing yourself you are good at something. Then if you fail, and you likely will, confidence takes a big hit. But if you do the work, then you can remind yourself that you are good because you have practiced and done everything you can do to be successful. Reminding vs. convincing! You pick.

If you are a newcomer to motorsports, it is important to build confidence by taking small steps, especially on the track. I once had a student from Europe who was convinced that, by simply going to a racing school, he would get an F1 ride and be a world champion. He paid for a four-day course. After the first day, we never saw him again. In the course of teaching him, we destroyed his illusions of greatness. Unfortunately, he was pretty average. But his desire and self-talk convinced him he was great with no basis in reality. Just seeing what experienced drivers could do, compared to his level, ruined his dream. It was sad and upsetting for the instructors, since our goal was always to help people become the best drivers possible.

FOCUS

To me, the single most important attribute of a driver is the ability to focus completely on the job at hand. This also requires knowing what is important to focus on, and when. Emotions come into play here because emotions can interfere with focus in a major way. To maintain complete focus, a driver must keep all emotions in check while in the car. This is especially true for anger and frustration. Here is just one example. Time vs. distance.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a close friend, who was a road test editor and a fellow racing school instructor. He’s a very talented driver. We were driving a tuner car on something of a street grid track at a police training facility in California. He asked if I would ride with him. We took turns driving with the other riding and taking lap times. After three or four laps each, he became frustrated because I was 3 or 4 tenths faster on every lap. He asked how I could be faster when, to him, we were doing everything exactly the same things. He said that he could not see where he was a few tenths of second slower. I reminded him that there were about 14 relatively slow corners on this course, so the loss, spread over 14 turns, was quite small. He asked how he could find the half second.

So I asked him what he thought was a very sarcastic question: “What is a half second?” Of course he could not answer in terms of time. So we analyzed the real problem. There are 14 corner entries and exits. He was losing, on average, less than two hundredths of a second at each place. If you can’t define a half a second, how can you define one hundredth of a second? You can’t, at least in terms of time. So asked him to forget about time and focus on something that he could see and feel: distance.

The average speed in that car on that track was about 60 mph or 88 feet per second. That’s about 10 inches per one hundredth of a second. But consider this: 10 inches is much easier to conceptualize, see, feel and deal with than one hundredth of a second! By carrying a little more speed through a turn, braking three feet later and getting on the power three feet sooner, the time will be found. But the focus needs to be on what you can see and feel, not on a concept.

One more element concerning focus before we move on. Having the desire to win is paramount to success, but winning is not an area that needs a lot of attention. In fact, focusing very much on “winning” a race or a championship is a good way to divert attention from winning. While dreaming about winning is healthy for short time periods, you need to focus on action items that will help you win — car preparation, finding sponsors, getting more track time, practicing driving skills and visualization techniques and physical fitness. These are important elements of success, and elements you can control. Winning, on the other hand, you have little control over. Everyone wants to win, and many are capable. The one with the best chance of actually winning is the one who commits the time, energy and focus to do the work needed to win. Use the desire to win to help motivate the commitment to focus and do the work.

Car preparation can provide increased confidence, which reduces anxiety levels.
Car preparation can provide increased confidence, which reduces anxiety levels.

In a racecar, or a track-day car, autocross or any time you are driving at a vehicle’s limits, everything happens too quickly to “think” about what you are doing, especially with the controls. In reality, the mechanics of driving need to be automatic, which requires practice. When I started racing, which was actually before I had a driver’s license, I would practice driving every time I was behind the wheel. I practiced using the controls smoothly and precisely, driving on the best line, heel-toe downshifting, where I was looking and where other vehicles were positioned around me. I still do that. It quickly became a habit, but keep in mind that it is important to practice the right stuff. You do not want to be proficient at doing it incorrectly. The more you practice, the less of that valuable attention will need to spent on driving and the more you will have left for strategy and tactics.

HONESTY

That brings us to honesty, the last element of emotions, though I’m not sure this is an emotion, but rather an element influenced by many emotions. Self-deceit can literally be deadly. Being honest with yourself is critical for success in any activity in life, but even more so in racing. Without belaboring the concept, it is easy to blame others, bad luck and a full moon on a lack of success. However, it is always important to look at reality. What is your part in the problem? By analyzing your responsibilities, and the interaction of those with everything else, you can learn from mistakes and that is how we improve. Self-honesty is both extremely difficult but critical for success and even survival.

I wrote an article many years ago in which I discussed the “square wheel syndrome.” Essentially, the story was about a circle-track driver who won 15 races in a row. For the 16th race, he had Goodyear make tires (round of course) that fit on square wheels. He won again. Monday morning, the square wheel manufacture got 20 some orders for the square wheels. The tire dealer got orders for the tires that fit the square wheels. Everyone believed that the reason the driver won again is that somehow the round tires on the square wheels gave him an advantage.

The winner clearly had an advantage, but it was really the “unfair advantage,” which always well hidden in plain sight. The unfair advantage is simply putting in the work. If you harder than everyone else, you will be more successful than everyone else, all else being equal. Can luck be a factor? Of course it can. But hard work tends to create good luck. I’ve often heard others say that someone was in the right place at the right time. Is that luck, or did that person just put themselves in enough places to be in the right one?

Much of this may make many of you uncomfortable, but consider the benefits. I wish I could offer you secrets that assured success. But the only secret is hidden deeply — in plain sight.

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Images courtesy of Brett Becker and nasaracer