Cars and Life

It didn’t sink in at first.  I was too busy trying to learn and unlearn.  It was the first time I participated in an HPDE (high performance driving experience) event.  I was not a complete novice.  After all, I had autocrossed since back in the early 1970’s, and had a well deserved reputation as someone who didn’t let speed limits interfere with my enjoyment of the roads and byways. 

But no matter how much off track experience I had this new experience demanded a whole new level of concentration and a certain amount of humility.  I was extremely fortunate to have an excellent instructor for my first time as well as to learn on a 3.27 mile road course like VIR (Virginia International Raceway).    My instructor was a very experienced driver that had logged thousands of laps at this track.  Most importantly he had an excellent way to convey the intricacies of driving at the limits of your car and of your own talents.

Most people may drive their car at 20 to 40 percent of the car’s capabilities and that may be at eighty percent of their own capabilities.  Now some of us may take our hot ride out and really let it all out on an on ramp with tires squealing and g-forces building.  Sorry man, but you haven’t come close to 100% of the car nor 100% of your own capabilities. 

Twenty laps of VIR means learning the line.  Every apex.  Every braking point.  How and when to accelerate.  Dealing with the effects of elevation changes as well as changes in the tracks surface.  All the while concentrating on the traffic around you (thirty other cars) and trying to get ready for the next corner before you get to it.

A strange thing happens.  You develop a myopic view of the world.  You don’t want to see behind or beside you.  You want to focus on the twenty feet in front of you because it has become the most important real estate in your world.  You start driving from point to point, apex to apex.  You are making a big mistake.  If you have a good instructor (and I had a very good one) he will help you climb out of your minds natural reaction and get you to bring your vision up and out. 

You learn terms like track left and right, apex, open and close (how you steer), gas, gas, gas.  You learn proper hand signals to communicate with the other drivers.  You need to let them know when to pass and on which side.  You need to signal when you are heading back to the pits.  You also need to learn the meaning of the different flags.  They tell you when to proceed with caution, when to pit, when you have a problem with your car, when you can let it all out.

It is a lot to learn, but as it sinks in you are rewarded with a an incredible level of realization.  You realize that you are going fast.  Very fast.  And you are working harder at driving than you ever imagined possible.  When your twenty lap session is over and as you do your cool down lap you experience an odd combination of exhaustion and elation.

Your mind is still racing with all the things you just experienced.  You are proud of what you have done and have learned.

In a few weeks something else happens.  All the things you were told start to really make sense and you realize that the difference between your doing really really well and just doing okay was the result of some very small changes you made.  The little things that when put all together made you very fast and a little scared.

They say that the great race car drivers reach a point where when they are driving their fastest in a race things don’t seem fast anymore.  It is like their brain is in perfect time with the velocity they are achieving.  Time becomes truely relative and they get to notice the individual fans in their seats, the corner workers, and all the details.  Everything is in perfect time and time is relative.

When the race is over and they stop, life must appear very slow indeed.  Such a long wait until the next chance to do well what so very few can. 

Its the little things.

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2 Responses to Cars and Life

  1. mark says:

    Jim,

    Great commentary on your time at VIR and how time, speed and perception become relative once the skills become automatic. Great insight on your instructor coaching you to look ahead. Do you find this to be true in life? Often I find myself heads down in life worrying about the next 20 feet and 20 mins. Perhaps a life coach can help one learn to be more aware, and plan and act further down life’s track so that more can be accomplished in less time. Events and pace of our lives can then become relative too, and we can enjoy more the precious minutes, just as the drivers can discern the details of the fans in the stands. Else, it all passes us in a blur, days becoming years, years becoming decades. What would you say are high performance life skills?

  2. jimsgarage says:

    There are a lot of skills we need in life, too. One of the more important is to keep your heart and your head in balance. Maybe it’s because the things we think are the small things are really the important things. We need to keep our head up and look ahead. We need to appreciate the things that are easiest to take for granted. Life is a constant lesson.

    But what do I know. 🙂

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