When drivers get to a stage in development that requires not only a better car to help carry them, but a better mind and body, they need to heed the critical voice in their head. Recently, several American companies have recognized ambitious amateurs who understand that continued improvement is contingent upon learning more about physical limitations, their mental limitations, the habits which help and hinder their driving, and their general approach to racing.
Blayze, formerly known as Racers360, is one of these companies. It prioritizes the human element to ensure that a sub-par performance can be blamed on the car. Their coaching sessions are tailored to the student and the results are, well, sometimes irritating. Knowing that a $100 coaching session chopped a greater chunk off their lap time than a $7,000 set of coilovers does not sit well with some. Those in the know — and those who see racing as something more than an engineering exercise — will recognize the value in caring for the body and the mind so they can do more than just manage the strain of racing. They can excel.
Blayze’s curriculum is all online. Eager drivers are offered a customized plan designed by some of the best in motorsports. It begins with the questionnaire, which determines the student’s learning style and temperament so that Blayze can connect the student with their ideal coach. After that, they hop on an intro call with their coach and lay the groundwork.
There are two main learning styles they consider. “Those who are very confident and improvisational generally prefer an instructor whose lessons are simplistic. These students are interested in taking a core idea and fleshing it out themselves. There are other students who are more analytically minded and structured. These guys, usually engineering types, cannot get enough detail,” says Dion von Moltke, IMSA winner and Blayze coach.
The learning style doesn’t have much bearing on a novice driver’s ability to self-diagnose. “Most of our students — I would say about 90 percent — are usually wrong when asked to pick the areas they need the most improvement. Even the top professionals need an objective viewpoint to help them. This is just a necessary part of the learning process for everyone.”
Three Building Blocks
“There are three things that determine an athlete’s performance: mental performance, physical performance, and technique,” he begins. “One critical point to remember — one thing that will keep you from stagnating — is that you’re only as strong as your weakest element.”
If you don’t have the right technique, you’ll never go as fast as necessary. If you lack the physical stuff, your performance will suffer as soon as you start to get tired. If you’re not mentally strong enough, you might lap fast for a little while, but you’ll eventually crack under pressure.
Technique can be practiced at slow speeds on the street. “When approaching a stop sign, try to ramp up to peak brake pressure early and then steadily release pressure as you come to a stop,” von Moltke suggests.
Practicing Presence of Mind
Proper mental and physical preparation aren’t what many try when seeking additional speed. Provided they have studied theory and have a decent technical foundation to build upon, improving mentally and physically will bring them the sort of zen-like clarity under pressure, which all the great drivers share.
When it comes to maximizing mental performance, the greatest gains can be had from a mind that’s tranquil yet alert, providing additional processing power for the driver to observe and improvise while driving at the limit. Though sleep, diet, and visualization will help sharpen the mind, the mentally present racing driver has another advantage in his or her ability to to free up the bandwidth often dedicated to background noise, worrying chatter, and other extraneous nonsense.
With some exercises to make you more present, two things likely will happen. One: You aren’t overly analytical and uncertain in potentially overwhelming situations. You learn to trust the training and simply drive. Two: The mental clutter and distracting self-criticism no longer busy your mind, which frees up space to study opponents, observe the changing track, and care for the car. Interestingly, when you quiet your mind, your consistency tends to improve.
So how do you get into this zen state? It’s surprisingly simple. For information to flow and be processed in an efficient manner, just breathe.
This rhythmic breathing feels odd to anyone unfamiliar with the practice, and so it needs to be practiced. We often hold our breath in stressful situations, but as long as we’re able to remind ourselves to breathe and breathe properly, we’ll fare much better. If we can stay aware and disciplined when facing a strenuous situation, we avoid getting drawn into a spiral of worried thinking and losing our greatest asset: a sharpened mind.
“Once I start putting my helmet on, I’m no longer thinking about my setup, my engineer’s advice, my strategy, or anything else,” von Moltke said. “I’ve done my homework—now it’s time to get out of my way and execute. By the time the formation lap starts, my mind is clear.”
This sort of practice, sadly, sounds too new-age for many people, and so the skeptics never give it a good try. They must not conflate this practical technique with naive idealism. The benefits from this meditative breathing can be felt in as little as three minutes, though a full 15 is usually needed for that composed, confident, clear-minded state we need to face a challenging situation.
Don’t Discount the Physical
Though infinitely more exhausting than golf, racing is also regarded as a mental sport — whatever that means. Let’s avoid any semantic hair-splitting and accept that as true. This way, we can save time and ask: Where does the physical element come into play? Well, in the simplest of terms, there’s a direct link between prolonged concentration and cardiovascular fitness. “The higher your heart rate, the more your mind is taxed,” said Von Moltke.
In Alessandro Sensoli’s case, he moves away from strength training in the weeks before a big race. “I eat less protein, spend more time biking and swimming, and make sure to eat lots of complex carbs. I try to lose a little size and feel lighter, so I also avoid foods that are hard to digest.”
But running and biking aren’t the only exercises one should do. “I’m not for long-distance cardio exercises,” says Dion. “They work for some people, but I’ve observed a better general response to anaerobic training. Drivers also need to work on strength training and explosive movement to build fast-twitch muscle fibers, which improve reaction times.”
One doesn’t need to be a gym rat to be the best in the car, but if they can integrate some exercises to improve their reactions and coordination while more generally pursuing endurance and strength, they’ll have a comprehensive approach that will yield results immediately.
One of these multi-focus exercises is the act of lying in a side plank, extending the free arm and from it dropping a rubber ball and catching it. This exercise engages the core and the upper body while improving reaction time.
Another drill worth trying — one of more than 60 that Blayze offers — strengthens vision and core muscles. While sitting in a half-crunch, you toss the ball from one hand to the other by bouncing it off the wall. The key here is to keep your head still so that you’re forced to rely on your peripheral vision to spot the ball.
Two Competitors Trading Tenths and Training Drills
After Ben Grambau decided to start competing in Time Trial, he realized that his foundation in track days wouldn’t be enough to fight with the serious drivers, so he contacted Blayze.
His first review helped him drop three seconds off his time. Now, the big steps are over and the gains are incremental, but he’s been no less diligent about making progress. Every outing gets filmed and sent to Blayze for an evaluation.
Grambau is happy to admit that he’s not exactly an Ironman competitor, but he’s recently undertaken light cardio training to help him sustain 140-plus bpm throughout a session. However, the real physical benefits he’s enjoyed from training come more from the breathwork von Moltke urged him to try.
The auspicious results from his first few TT events encouraged him to take the leap and run at the NASA Championships last year. With plenty of familiarization on iRacing and a few track days there to get a look at the walls up close, he was prepared to compete for the TT2 win.
Tension naturally builds when one expects the most from themselves, especially in a new environment. The logistical challenges, three broken differentials, and the stiff competition — Alessandro Sensoli being one of his main rivals — began to take a toll on his peace of mind. He was not going to let all that preparation go to waste, however, and recalled his training. With a pro’s presence of mind, Grambau slowed down to take a quiet moment with himself before hopping in his Corvette.
“I spoke with Dion that morning, and I guess he could tell I was a little worked up. His advice was to sit in the car, do some square breathing, and try to calm myself down. The idea he kept hammering into me was that we have to be careful not to overwhelm ourselves before going out there,” Grambau recalls.
Grambau recorded a respectable first day of driving and sent the footage to Blayze for a review with same-day turnaround. Prior to bed that night, he reviewed the recently returned footage and took a few tips into the final session on Sunday, when he logged a 1:57.588 — a time good enough for third in a field of 15. His preparation paid off.
Ride along with Ben Grambau during his fast lap in TT2 at Daytona International Speedway.
In the garage next to Grambau, Sensoli was busy with his prerace ritual. When Sensoli stepped up into competitive time trials in December of 2018, he knew he could use some help. For that reason, he’s dedicated a portion of his racing budget to Blayze/Racers360 coaching ever since.
That humility, tempered by a real competitive streak, is what has helped him win as much as he was in the last few years. However, his physical fitness sets him apart from many of his peers.
It all begins a few weeks before a serious event. During that period, he avoids alcohol and guzzles water constantly. He may have to visit the restroom as often as a pregnant woman does, but he’s never fazed when competing in a Mustang which often subjects its driver to cabin temperatures over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The closer he gets to competing, the more he shifts his exercise emphasis toward cardio. In fact, he shed 15 pounds prior to attending Daytona. While his competitors were struggling in the humidity that weekend, he never suffered any noticeable fatigue.
To sharpen his focus, he dedicates 20 minutes before he hops in the car to dynamic stretching and light calisthenics (pushups, squats, and elastic band exercises), and then improves his reactions with exercises involving two rubber balls. Like Pierre Gasly was filmed preparing before the Austrian Grand Prix last year, he has a friend place their hands, filled with these balls, just beneath his open hands. When they drop the balls, he has to catch them before they hit the pavement.
And why not? If he burns somewhere around 270 calories during a track session in comparatively mild California weather, the added challenge of Florida humidity and the fight for a real prize on the line, not to mention the cost of shipping a car cross-country, probably gets him nearer to his 170-bpm peak than he’d experience during a casual DE.
When in the car, he’s usually calm enough to simply drive. However, he’s learned that he occasionally holds his breath during difficult sections of the track. Now, to maintain concentration for the entire session, he picks markers on track to remind him to breathe deeply and steadily.
And the result of that? An overall TT2 victory with a 1:56.4.
As demonstrated by these two accounts, professional coaching helps a driver prepare for the physical, mental and technical aspects of the sport. A driver’s level of preparation, even at an amateur level of competition, makes a massive difference, and anyone who needs to stand atop a podium cannot ignore the necessity of physical and mental fitness. Once the fundamental technique is in place and the car is reasonably well-sorted, it comes down to understanding the three pillars of performance to improve, and to do that, you need the guidance of an expert who suits you.