Improving Your Memory Can Improve Your Driving

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the first true race was held in 1895 from Paris to Bordeaux, France, and back, a distance of 1,178 km. The winner made an average speed of 24.15 kph. Organized automobile racing then began in the United States with an 87-km race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois, and back on Thanksgiving Day in 1895.

Facts such as these are easy to look up, but I wonder how much you remember about your first race? It’s easy to remember your first racecar, but how much of your first race do you recall? What track did you race at? How long after you received your rookie license was your first race? Can you remember if you qualified or just started at the back of the pack, how many cars were in your class and where you finished? Were you nervous?

One of the most fascinating aspects of auto racing is how some drivers not only remember a given race but in fact seem to have total recall about so much more.

On several occasions while visiting with drivers like Carroll Shelby, Hershel McGriff and Phil Hill, I found myself in awe as they each had the ability to replay an entire race almost lap by lap with phenomenal detail. For example, while spending the afternoon with Formula One World Champion Phil Hill, he was telling me about one of his first races.

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“Back in 1950 until 1956, before Laguna Seca was built, we used to race at the 17 Mile Drive in Monterey. They called it the Pebble Beach Road Races. I remember I was driving a black Jaguar XK120 M. It was a hell of a race and I had to drive that car pretty hard to win. My brother-in-law, Don Parkinson, placed second in a white Jaguar XK120 Special. Your friend Carroll Shelby won that race in the final race there in 1956.”

If remembering details like those weren’t awe inspiring, Phil, Hershel and Carroll had complete recall of races held years prior. For example, Phil said, “In 1952, I was battling pretty hard with the number 47 of Ernie McAfee and finally made a pass in the seventh lap as he got loose in Turn 7, and I went on to finish fifth after a valve failed in the Ferrari 250MM Vignale Spyder. Sadly, in 1956 Ernie crashed his Ferrari into a tree and died instantly. That was the last race ever held at Pebble Beach.”

I heard many such tales from drivers like Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby and Hershel McGriff, but it’s not uncommon to hear other famous drivers with this unique ability to recall moments, as if only minutes ago. If it isn’t amazing enough, Hershel McGriff is in his 90s and while he’s able to remember every detail of a race from 60 years ago, I’m just praying someone won’t have to feed me my oatmeal when I’m that age.

What gives these great drivers this faculty? Is it their drive to achieve perfection? What keeps these details so vividly alive and, in the moment, that such details simply can’t be erased? I can’t help but deduce it’s this talent and aptitude, which guides them in so many other areas: knowing the best ways to design and build a car; or knowing what changes are needed; or what a car’s limits are, be it on paper or while pushing it through its paces.

The bottom line is, if you begin practicing remembering details about your driving and each race, it will make you a more knowledgeable and faster driver.