Muscle Memory

You have watched the best of drivers at work behind the wheel of an F1 or an Indy car, or perhaps a Corvette, Ferrari or BMW battling for a win in sports car racing. You have been alongside NASA tracks and watched the racers mixing it up, and all the while observing how each driver handles the track and makes adjustments.

You have just turned up for your fourth or fifth event with NASA HPDE, and have come to terms with the expectations of NASA and your fellow drivers, whose faces are beginning to look familiar. In showing up for the weekend, you are likely to be returning to a track you have already circulated four and maybe eight times with each session completed, stamping its imprint firmly in your brain. You still have your instructor alongside you as you begin contemplating your first outing driving solo, and you are beginning to take in all that is happening around you.

Fortunately for you, NASA has provided an instructor that is familiar with your car and likely is an active racer campaigning a similar vehicle. It’s advantageous to have someone familiar with high-horsepower cars as you take your car onto the track. Point is, you are now beginning to have a little more fun than you did the very first time you went on track, when you had absolutely no experience.

By now you have had four or five weekends to talk to those around you who are fielding similar cars, and in socializing you have discovered that there is little advantage to be gained at this point from mucking about with the suspension and the aero. In time you will come to appreciate mechanical and aero contributions to grip, but for now, it’s all about etching the flow of the track deeper into your brain. Be smooth and manage your inputs and you will go faster in time.

In HPDE, before you can begin to think about “attacking the circuit” you need to know the circuit. You will be advised to walk the track at some point. Do it. You can learn a lot from looking at braking points and apexes. The makeup of the track will never be consistent and there are places to avoid just as there are grooves that can help. But here’s the thing: Once you begin revisiting the circuits that are part of the rotation for your region, it’s all about developing muscle memory.

Again, it’s all about being smooth, and the key ingredient to becoming smooth is to feel the flow of the track. Even the best Indy driver will tell you that for this or that track, it’s about finding the flow – something that many of us saw when Indy drivers tackled the Circuit of the Americas for the first time. And did you see who won? Rookie Indy driver, Colton Herta! More importantly, did you know that both of Colton’s grandparents, Brian and Jan Kenny, have spent time with NASA SoCal and yes, it took them time to develop the muscle memory before they advanced, although in Jan’s case — she’s already a seasoned racer — it came back rather quickly.

Ultimately, everyone has to accumulate seat time and put in the laps. What we talk about is “consolidating a specific motor skill into memory through repetition,” or so I have been told. Yes, repetition gained from experience on-track driving your car. Take to heart the advice from your instructor, and use what you’ve learned when walk the track. Now get out there and drive!

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