Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Racing Recipe

Years ago, when I was 13 and in my second year of karting, I learned the difference between racing and being raced. The lesson was learned more so than taught, although I am sure I learned it from a combination of experience behind the wheel, my maniacal devotion to David Hobbs and Bob Varsha on ESPN's coverage of Formula 1 and the way my life hinged on the intensely detailed commentary from "Jer' and Lar'" on Thursday Night Thunder. As an aside, Thursday Night Thunder morphed into Friday Night Thunder, then Saturday Night Lightning and eventual it disappeared into the ether as ESPN went from cool and interesting to boring and irrelevant. The series was devoted to the USAC Silver Crown and Midget racing series that was (and likely still is) very popular in the Midwest and California. Watching a 2.0L USAC Midget rocket around a 1/4 mile asphalt oval, spooling the outside rear tire into a 15 minute lifetime of thinly haloed tire smoke and rubber marbles, was the kind of thing I lived for throughout my youthful existence. But, I digress... The lesson learned from all the broadcast coverage, and first-hand experience behind the wheel, was that every race weekend was going to be dominated by the manner in which I raced, and this manner was largely driven by confidence as a motivator of attitude.

Summation It was possible to show up for a race weekend and either drive the race in such a way that the result was controlled and influenced by me, or it was possible to show up and be driven by the race, or driven by others in the race. The term driven here is not suggesting motivation, but instead represents a lack of control. This is not to say that I was out of control of the kart while racing, it simply means that my actions in the race were largely reactive to what was happening around me. While this can be a factor of racing without a plan, it is ultimately a question of confidence. To show up at a competition and race the event was a result of proactively making things happen to my benefit. On good weekends I could proactively race my competitors into bad positions and situations that allowed me to take advantage of their actions, which generally means forcing my competition into a mistake. On bad weekends I would feel as though I was always on the back foot, being taken by surprise and chasing -or struggling- the entire time. Racing is a recipe; here are some of the ingredients.

Preparation Being fully prepared for a race prior to arrival was a key to confidence. Scurrying around the paddock to make last minute changes, adjustments and fixes always served to erode my confidence in either the equipment, my ability to pilot it around the circuit or my belief that it was set-up properly to allow the kind of driving style I had adopted for that circuit and during that particular event. While racing is a series of adaptations to the prevalent conditions of both circuit and machine, I had to know that the kart was ready to go and that it could mechanically withstand anything I asked of it. Being prepared also helped me maintain a cool head, positive attitude and calm demeanor throughout the race weekend, especially while driving. Attitude Confident, proactive decision making is the primary result of a good attitude. If I am thinking with a clear mind and proactively racing the event by being in control then I am making all the decisions -or adapting seamlessly to unexpected situations- during a race, and this is a direct result of my confident attitude. While it is perfectly normal to be realistic in your aspirations and expectations, it is still critical to have a good attitude about those expectations. Going into a race knowing I was off the pace, and likely only fighting for a top 5 result, was fine as long as I maintained a positive and aggressive attitude that was focused on achieving the best result possible with the equipment and resources we had available. The right attitude does not employ adrenaline or over-confidence and is aggressively focused on an end result.

Focus Feeling at peace during the race, especially in the heat of wheel-to-wheel battle, is crucial and leads to proactive decision making. Adrenaline and over-confidence lead to choppy inputs, indecisive lines and the general feeling that you are doing everything you can just to stay on the track and in touch with the pack. Adrenaline charged decisions are rarely good ones and their results are typically mired in embarrassment or the sudden realization that the body was not capable of the mind's infatuated expectations. Adrenaline also has a short half-life, and when it does wear off the tired feeling hits not only the body, but also the mind. This compound depletion of resources is the primary reason I always choose to prepare for a race with a few moments of silence instead of a rousing "pump up". Being truly focused is also the lack of thought, to some degree. The mind, body and machine were operated to their maximum potential and none of it had to be 'thought about', it simply happened as a natural consequence of being focused. That maximum potential may have only resulted in a 5th place, but it was a well-earned result.

Attitude as a Physical State The physical manifestation of the above has always been critical, and it is immediately observable. Sitting with my head tilted down, eyes narrowed, shoulders and arms loose and body relaxed was obvious from the outside and always a direct result of confidence and the correct mental attitude. The physical attributes are a self-fulfilling prophecy and will always lead to the best possible result. The loss of this level of concentration, and physical attitude, for even a few moments normally ended in a disappointing trip into the tire wall. A driver that was not displaying the correct physical attitude typically meant that their head was upright, and their body was actually being jolted around by their choppy inputs and the sloppy movement of the kart as a result. It was so obvious you could actually predict when and where the unfocused driver would loose control and go off track. On the positive side, my father was so keenly aware of the physical manifestation of my attitude that he could predict, with near 100% accuracy, when and where I would attempt a decidedly insane late breaking pass on a competitor. On more than one occasion this resulted in audible gasps from observers and a wry smile from my father, as well as good stories for us to share after the race.

Tie it Together Karting, like any motorsport, is best performed on the knife-edge of control. It was a delicate mix of the conservation of momentum through smooth steering, throttle and brake inputs and an aggressive "throw it into a four wheel drift with minimal steering input and a pinned throttle" driving style where the latter was actually done properly (i.e.- sadistically fast) only by full employment of the former. It was entirely possible to smoothly slide a kart into an apex with the tires loaded to their maximum threshold and the frame flexed to the limits of structural soundness at nearly wide open throttle. At mid-corner, and with 3g loaded into the chassis and tires, you could selectively balance the whole thing on three wheels so that only the inside front, and then only the inside rear, tire would lift an inch or two off the ground and glide elegantly over the rough curbing before the whole mess of steel, rubber and humanity sprung back into shape and launched out of the corner with the engine detonating at 12,000 RPM. This dance was especially enjoyable in an esses and chicanes. The aggressive and focused driving style, while tremendous fun, was only possible when I was fully confident in all aspects of the vehicle and my abilities as a driver. Additionally, I didn't have to think about any of it while it was happening. I just did it, and would later revel in the memories with my father as I relived the race for him corner by corner at our little trailer. The result was also a product of having the attitude that I was racing to a focused and planned result.

Bicycles. Wait, bicycles? Amazingly (unless you know me well), all of that is nothing more than a lead-in to helping explain a recent result from my latest endeavor: Bicycle racing. It also helps you, dear reader, understand what is meant when I say that for my first event of 2012 I was being raced to an end result that was only somewhat planned, and not optimal. My poor showing was a direct result of my attitude going into the event. The self-fulfilling prophecy of being raced into finishing with the main pack, instead of being on the attack and in a break, was driven by my attitude going into the race, a debt of confidence and the lack of a sound plan. I missed the main break of the day because I was camped out at the back of the peloton being affected by the decidedly poor skills of many other riders. I was also at the back because I was not focused and I was being raced into an uncomfortable position of having to chase hard just to stay in touch with the leaders. The event started much more quickly than I anticipated and while it did slow considerably before too long, it zapped some of my energy and, mentally, put me on the back foot. I was now riding hard just to stay with the pack, rather than assuming my customary role of producing excessive wattage and making others wonder how many children I had consumed for breakfast. Additionally, I have zero confidence in my ability to corner hard on the bicycle. Much of this is owed to an unforgettably brief foray into motorcycle road racing that manifested itself in a few good memories, a collection of worn out knee pucks, four broken bones, a fair amount of debt and a complete lack of confidence in my ability to maintain decent corner speed. Add to that the joy of being hit head-on by a car while bicycling and I am a bit gun shy when it comes to laying the bicycle over into a corner. My feel for the limits of the tires is completely masked by my fear of low-siding and getting injured. My decision to rail around the outside of a hairpin corner, dragging the rear brake to tighten my line, results in many lost positions and the need to accelerate hard out of the corner. This wastes not only massive amounts of time, but also energy that should be conserved and used for a decisive attack. Oddly, the 42 degree banked corners at the Superdrome seem completely normal and acceptable by comparison... So, what is the good news?

The Good News There is always good news, even in situations where things seem to be little more than a bit crappy.
1) I stayed in the main pack for the entire race. On lap three a hard acceleration up a 12% climb (repeated 19 times) split the field and many racers were left behind.
2) My form (endurance & power) is quite good.
3) I know what attributes I need to work on to become more competitive: corner confidence and acceleration (snap).
4) Given the way I dealt with a few morons, I am also now keenly aware of how to effective deal with repeat offenders who think it is acceptable to force others off the road by diving through the corners with little regard for those around them.
5) I had a lot of fun, which in the end is the only thing that actually matters to me. Results are nice but I will gladly attempt, and fail, to attack during races this season if -just once- it actually works.

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