Why Becoming a Race Driver Takes Nerves of Steel

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Sitting in traffic, it can be fun to imagine yourself shifting to top gear, swerving around your opponents (err, fellow commuters...) and beating everyone to the exit. But do you really have what it takes to be a real-deal race car driver? We spoke to Ross Bentley, racing coach and author of Speed Secrets -- the definitive guide to the mental aspects of racing -- on what makes the pros so unbreakable. How do you measure up?

You have to “not think” about driving

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true for many high-performance tasks: the more you consciously think about the enormity of the problem at hand, the more opportunity for self-doubt to set in, harming performance. It might be hard to “not think” about hurtling down a track at hundreds of miles per hour, but when drivers let instincts take over (provided those instincts are correct, of course) they generally make fewer errors.

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You have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable

Average Nascar speeds exceed 200 mph, with 42 cars racing on the track. Obviously, that means a lot of risk to the drivers. It takes a lot of guts to shift up a gear and try to squeeze into a narrow margin between cars, just to get slightly further ahead. In the words of Bentley, “they have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

No offense, but most people simply don’t have it in them. Sure, drivers need to make constant risk/reward estimations in their heads, and 9 times out of 10, they might make the safe call. It’s the few who can go “YOLO” and gun it that become great. “Some people never get there,” says Bentley, “and it’s easier to get a crazy driver to tone it down than to coach a cautious driver to amp up their risks.”

But not too comfortable...

At the other end of the spectrum, being too comfortable with risk is fraught with danger. While the stereotype is that racing drivers are crazy, hair-on-fire types, Bentley says that’s usually not the case. “Most drivers are controlled -- they want to push the limit, but they need to know where the line is. If they don’t, they’d be dead.” Drivers who overdo the risky moves to shave seconds off a lap time quickly get a reputation for crashing a lot. And as Bentley points out, it's kind of hard to become great if you check out early.


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You need incredible physical stamina

Beyond the mental aspects of the game (which Bentley says account for 90% of a racer’s skill), drivers need to be incredibly fit to race well. Racers experience over 4 G’s of lateral acceleration on turns, so even holding one’s head up for hours becomes a problem. Just turning the steering wheel is tougher, since there’s no power steering and the lateral forces are much higher. “Racers have to be some of the most fit athletes out there -- some keep their heart rates above 160 bpm for a two-hour race. Not many people can perform at that level.”

You have to stay in the zone, no matter what

When Tom Brady loses his zen and throws an interception, he gets a nice break while the defense takes the field. When race drivers lose their focus and make an error, they have to regain control within seconds. Consider this: let’s say that after a mistake, you spend 3 seconds feeling bad about it. At 200 mph, that means you’ve just traveled 900 feet thinking about your past decisions, instead of what’s next. Bentley advises his racers to develop a “pre-planned thought” that helps regain focus. Similar to a mantra in meditation, a pre-planned thought is a simple phrase or visualization that gets a driver refocused on driving. That way, you won’t be making deadly high-speed turns while thinking about your last deadly, high-speed turn.

You need to have an excellent imagination

Bentley coaches his students to visualize the course beforehand. Imagining yourself going through the turns and tearing up the straightways makes a huge difference in race times. “Mental visualization is a skill just like any other,” says Bentley, “and the better you are at visualizing the course, the better you’ll be when you get out on the track.” Of course, you’ll need to visualize other cars trying to shove you out of position, too.