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Guest Opinion: The Racers Myth – Part two

Editor’s Note: For part one of this series, please click HERE

Part Two

Given the innumerable volumes currently penned on the subject of fear, you’d think it was one of the most popular of all the strange human conditions for scholars and scientists to ponder. Within all things that define human behavior on our long journey down the sidewalk of life, the study of emotions can be equated to cracks in that sidewalk. God knows we’re constantly tripping on them. It’s no surprise that laypeople generally do not choose to ponder these things. Why? The well adjusted among us know how to identify particular emotions when they surface. Most of them are positive in some way, and the bad ones tend to go away and hide, so, end of discussion. Fear in the male of the species is also understood to be unique as a negative emotion, so admitting to it in public might be a risky proposition when trying to maintain macho appearances.

In the history of world conflict, those we have embraced as heroes were unequivocally associated with being fearless. In combat or in competition, the context of heroes and cowards (or winners and losers, for that matter), is that the fearless will stand ground to fight, persevere and otherwise make good stuff happen, while the coward gives up, retreats and takes up a place in the annals of the scorned. The place of fear as the negative, and fearlessness as the positive in this context is completely flawed because, regardless of theatre, both hero and coward experience fear in equal terms. In fact, the strong physiological effects of fear (adrenalin production, increased heart rate, pupil dilation etc.) probably has more to do with the success of said heroes than any assumption of flawless character, the look of the square jaw or collection of Tony Robbins tapes.

Between heroes and cowards, it is the manner in which fear is dealt that makes the difference. Race drivers are more often assessed to be fearless by the common folk that worship and aspire to be like them. This is where they would be wrong. Racers, as heroes or just regular folks on the way to the 7-Eleven, just happen to deal with fear in their vocation in a different way. Similarly, fighter pilots, high-rise window washers and the rest facing an adrenalin rush on a daily basis, learn to interact with it on a dynamic level. In fact, it is suggested by some scientists that it is fear that makes them seem fearless. For the rest, it is either boringly static, or something singularly sought in the category of “fear is fun”, and consumed through roller coasters, parachuting or similar activities.

The old-time rallyists in my club asserted that one must first learn to walk before learning to run, and only then, learn to run consistently before learning to win. That made sense to me because a noticeable decrease in time penalties per stage over the course of the first season was emerging as a reward for my patience. But hiding in the shadows was something unexpected. No one warned me about confidence and testosterone. It would also be these dark figures, one riding on each shoulder, which introduced me to their rude drinking buddy, fear.

The road was familiar, having been driven many times in both directions. Dry gravel, rain-soaked or slick snow – you name it. Practice or actual timed stage didn’t matter. It seemed a …friendly piece of road. Visibility was clear, the notes and mileage count matched, and caution at the beginning of the stage about ice in the shadows was acknowledged. Despite very little in the away of time penalties to that point, my growing competitive urge and acquired cockiness as a rally driver suggested more speed be carried into the long, downhill, off-camber fast right. Long before the car left its earthly bonds, the outcome of that extra speed was made immediately clear by the way the steering went limp when the tires skimmed the ice. The feeling was as if someone had punched me in the stomach with a hot poker. The really funny part about this was that the tree that would halt our progress was still 50 yards and 5 seconds away. The negative G’s heightened this gut-wrenching feeling as the car became airborne. The smaller trees and shrubs deemed not worthy of our destiny flashed by outside the window and crunched beneath the floorboards as we landed. Hindsight being what it is, that first virginal experience with the hot poker of fear hurt more than did the safety harness belt bruises. Damn ice. Damn tree.

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They all said to get right back on the horse. But an entirely new part of the rally driving experience became immediately apparent. The hot poker in the stomach had lots of pesky little cousins that now demanded equal time whenever the gas was pushed, or the steering cranked. Especially on fast down hill corners. Transforming these occasions into a constructive process would take me through the remaining events that season. Sometimes the new mental challenges were met with success, sometimes not. Wherever applying the driving basics ended, trying to desensitize the potential results of aggressive or forceful actions (read: dumb-ass mistakes) actually helped to accelerate a heightened awareness of what was seen out the windshield and felt in the seat and steering. Processing these inputs far in advance was much different than simply driving in deep and hoping for the best. Many years later I would witness the same condition in my autocross students and their propensity to overdrive. Throwing the car into a corner and hanging on is the fast road to a slow time or a poor result. This simple evolution of thought became critical as the appeal of road racing became stronger and stronger. Besides, the 510 rally car was beginning to suffer in its dual duty of weekend warrior and weekday school commuter.

A road racing opportunity presented itself in the form of a club-mate’s ugly, black and white B-Sedan Datsun 510. Despite a spec similar to the under 2 liter Trans Am cars of Pete Brock and co., it was affordable through a discounted rental agreement. The discount was in exchange for crew time on a similar car – lots of crew time. Instead of performing graceful, gravel-spewing slides in the serene world of the back woods, now there were much higher speedsand neck and arm muscle-torturing grip. All the while being surrounded by 20 like-minded fools with similar intentions vying for the same spot on a 30-foot wide stretch of pavement. Figuring in the fear factor, not owning the car made a world of difference given the above scenario. It would also be the new discipline of road racing that would solidify and finally define how to effectively grasp the entire scope of the competitive driving experience and manage on-track fear as it might present itself. It became an additional sense, and to this day keeps the other five honest. In this, fear is never conquered, only used to an advantage. Regardless, the B-sedan Datsun would always be quicker than I was able, and often the ingrained rally techniques would prove detrimental (like using momentum to initiate a slide, and not using the brakes hard enough). Winning a few dinky regional races after two seasons in an admittedly ill prepared, beater of a car became a very meaningful experience nonetheless, and there was every reason to believe a car and team of my own was possible. That was, until the money ran out and a mainstream career beckoned…

There was no abandonment. One cannot simply walk away from this; my friends, mentors and teammates would not allow it. Through the many years that followed, the contacts remained true, and there was always a rental ride available here and there in order to keep the license current. Autocrossing also became a great new way to keep a hand in, and there was always someone who needed crew or an instructor. In this I’m grateful because it allowed a broad range of choice in many opportunities, and ultimately lead to the formation of our Jetta GLX program with Schmidt Racing.

The increase of motorsports coverage on television these days has a lot to do with perpetuating other myths surrounding racing, especially among young people. The first one that comes to mind is that “it looks easy.” Wrong. Just as magicians compress three dimensions into one to perform their tricks, the illusion of racing as “easy” is also a result of television’s one-dimensional window on reality. It’s a simple camera trick that can fool the brain on many levels. The long focal length lenses used to capture racing action detail from a great distance serve to compress the image, and subsequently makes any relative movement appear slower. A racing car’s motion is often perceived to be no quicker than that of evening rush hour traffic behind the poor sod doing the live field report on the evening news. When we ride along with our favorite driver via an in-car camera, the world he lives in remains abysmally under-represented. Even when viewed with the best HDTV monitor and 6 point something surround sound speakers money can buy, the heat, fumes, eardrum searing dB levels and the often-inhuman G-forces remain hidden. Aside from the purely physical challenges, the mental aspects of successful competition are equally as important.

Strategy, anticipation, patience, and even cunning become a part of a racer’s gray matter when behind the wheel. The best combination of physical and mental prowess has often been referred to as the “killer instinct”, where no conscious thought is involved, only instinctive and predictive acts. Unfortunately, it is also at this point in the discussion where critics often refuse to accept racers as athletes. They argue that the apparent limited scope of their physical abilities has less to do with obtaining victory (as with a conventional athlete) than it has to do with teamwork and technology. In this, they would also be wrong. The common thread in all this is the development of skill, and the presence of talent. If you have enough of these elements as a racer, you might be successful and at the very least, remain safe and alive. The same goes for any other athlete, except they have the luxury of a higher mortality rate.

The “it looks easy” illusion also applies to the unsung crew. The simple task of turning the steering wheel on a stationary, one ton, non-power steering sedan with hot, sticky 10-inch wide front slicks is tough work. A gearbox swap on a showroom stock GTI 16V, hot off the racetrack, also ranks high on the scale of fun things to do with wrenches, especially when it must be completed in a half hour in order to make the qualifying session. What do YOU do when the usual cures for understeer don’t work? What do YOU do to cure an inexplicable lack of power? …other than pulling the rag out of the intake. When the setup from the last event where you won at the same track under the same conditions, results in a pig that struggles to get within three seconds of your best time there, what can be said to the demoralized driver?. What prepares you to replace the entire right front suspension assembly on a Corrado VR6 at three in the morning after a multi-car crash on a rain-soaked corner four during a 24-hour race at Mosport? What does one say to the driver of said Corrado, after going missing? …only to be found a half hour later, aimlessly wandering around the lower paddock, mumbling to himself: “S**t, s**t, …hey, do I …know… you?” I guess it’s on the same “three in the morning” chapter in the textbook that explains how to calm a dehydrated driver, hallucinating at the end of a three-hour stint. Here’s a sample of “the voice on the radio”: “Dammit, I’m all by myself up the back straight, nobody in sight and all of a sudden those damn Corvettes with a million candlepower blow by me with two inches to spare on either side.. I’m… I’m gonna be sick… blechch”. Oh, and add a German accent to that.

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I have often pondered the fate of my poor crew and drivers as I stand on the pit wall watching the incessant rain stream sideways in front of me down the length of the pit straight. What happens when the car does not appear over the crest of corner ten, like it did a minute and a half earlier? You know what? You get that same hot poker in the stomach, that’s what. In the thousands of situations across the country where the driver is also the only crewmember, and the vehicle trailer or tow vehicle performs a poor imitation of a motel room… the definition of “easy” takes on a totally different meaning in the illusion.

And then there’s sponsorship – the lifeblood of any racing program. For most amateur programs, however, most are in dire need of a few pints, and only the very fortunate can get away with only a minimum amount of prostituting signage or wacky paint schemes that might be the whim of an ad executive. Especially for those more technically inclined, the quest for sponsorship can often prove to be the hardest and most frustrating piece of non-physical work you’ll ever do.

Television and real life are equally as adept at hiding the dark corridors to which many racers have no choice but to return when off-track. This affects drivers, crew and team owners alike. Behind many a racer’s bright, smiling, sweaty but still infinitely positive persona, it is not unusual to witness bankruptcy and divorce, the figurative and literal loss of loved ones, as well as the souring of close friendships and partnerships. While these can be argued is an integral part of the overall human condition, in most cases it is the expenses and risks associated with pursuing racing at subsequently higher and faster levels that have caused these things. The results of physical injury during competition also plays a role in this arena, and insurance in light of these activities is meager at best.

Despite the sporadic doom and gloom of the above, it must not be interpreted as a reason to not get involved. Busting the myth means accepting that the realities in this sport can be equally as stark and profound as they are satisfying and rewarding. Indeed, the above should be seen as a definite reason to become involved if one possibly can. Like any other dangerous and expensive endeavor, there is much that lays hidden behind the visual appeal of competition, the sensationalism and cheesy, personal heroics. Unfortunately, these pearls of wisdom more often go unnoticed or judged to be invaluable by the casual fan who is only in it for the crashes. Isn’t it better to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes for a change, instead of perpetuating the myth of squeaky-clean racer heroes? Doing this opens your mind to many infinite and wonderfully insane events that you might otherwise judge as impossible or uncomfortable. Like:

“Sure, I’ll take a set of donated Porsche 968 brake pads and file down them to fit a Corrado.” Or, I’ll offer the voices on the radio again:

“The car handles like a piece of crap, I’m driving my ass off out here”

“But you’re two seconds faster than with the balanced setup of three weeks ago!”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Okay, leave it the way it is.”

As Gunter and Alistair climbed the Ille Notre Dame podium to receive their Michelin Enduroseries trophies and the adulation of the crowd, it was up to us in the crew to get our race-winning Jetta packed up and vacated from the pit lane as quickly as possible. The last of the tools and spares were unceremoniously thrown into the trunk, and the crew piled into the open doors for the long trip down past the rowing basin to the paddock (good thing it was a four-door). Yes, we had won. Note that we accomplished that not because we were the fastest, but because we were the smartest.

As we pulled out, I noticed a driver had appeared in the Benetton garage. Striking up a conversation with our engineer friend, it would be a very youthful Michael Schumacher. He would seem bemused by the friendly wave and thumbs up to us from our new engineer pal as we drove past, but managed to pull out that now trademark smile of his for us nonetheless. That afternoon, Michael would clinch the Canadian GP pole, and go on to win the event outright the next day with the same engine that had annoyed us so during our qualifying session. At that brief moment of recognition, in the pit lane… could it be that we gave something back to them? Was it serendipity?

The buzz in Montreal was that an up and coming Michael Schumacher would be the next FI World Champion. Standing there next to his car and engineer, he struck me to be just an ordinary guy, even seeming to act like at teenager at times. As we passed underneath the podium, with the crew cheering loudly and waving to the crowd from our packed and spent Jetta, I thought to myself, …mmm, Michael Schumacher eh, …a snotty nosed kid as FI Champion. How audacious!


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