Motorsports is a mental game, too | Column

By J.G. Pasterjak
May 27, 2022 | Column | Posted in Columns | From the Feb. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

Our 2021 competition season–such that it is here in the sunny Southeast, where there are events 12 months out of the year–has come to a close. 

At least, that’s as far as “meaningful” events go. My final two events of some note were the Florida State Autocross Championship (culminating in a rain-soaked win in my MR2 Turbo) and the final SCCA Solo Championship Tour of the year, this one in Moultrie, Georgia.

That one, yeah, didn’t go so well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t there in search of results. I didn’t really have appropriate tires to run our C5 Corvette project car in its usual class, so I threw on a set of very well-used Hoosiers and registered in X Prepared, a kind of catch-all class for very highly modified, production-based cars. 

A few of us had gotten together and agreed to run in the class. We figured we’d have enough drivers for someone to maybe score a real trophy and perhaps some contingency awards. 

Oh, and when I say “a few of us,” I’m speaking specifically of three reigning national champions as well as a runner-up who finished second only because he was sharing his car with the eventual winner. So no, I was not expecting to contend for a win against national champions driving theoretically faster cars. And remember, I was on old tires. 

But even in those situations, which I’m sure we’ve all been in, we’re still self-aware enough to know when we’re performing at our best–or even at a reasonably high level. When you know you’re not there for a real victory, you at least look for a personal victory where you use your equipment and skills to the best of your abilities.

This, friends, is where I failed miserably.

My first competition run on Saturday was free of pylon penalties, but sloppy. And something just…got in my head. After that run, I started hitting cones, and not really knowing where I was doing it. I’d review data after each run, and while it looked okay in a lot of spots, I just couldn’t focus mentally and match the squiggles to actual executions on course.

The following morning, I got a call from my wife: One of our ducks–we have, or had, 11–had been hit and killed by a car. The driver couldn’t even be bothered to stop. What was a mild case of mental fog the previous day had now become legitimate trauma.

That day’s runs were an unmitigated disaster. All I really wanted to do was get through everything, regroup, and return after I’d been able to process my grief and properly focus.

And the takeaway message here is not just me chumming for sympathy–although I’ll take it, because BeeGee was an immensely cool duck who lived her entire life on our property–but that, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, 90% of this game is half mental.

My data showed me I was physically executing fairly well, hitting the limits of adhesion and transitioning the car smoothly. But my lack of focus was 100% the difference between my mediocre dirty runs and the performance I was capable of delivering. 

In these sports, our physical skills only ever get us so far. Someone can be taught the physical acuity to feel the limits of a tire or the right braking point or line through a corner, but always accessing those skills when it counts is another skill that lies entirely in your head.

As I’m writing this, I’m watching the last few minutes of the Buccaneers game, where a 44-year-old quarterback is snatching an overtime victory from the jaws of defeat after the Bucs defense fell apart in the second half of the game. Now, no one is ever going to doubt Tom Brady’s physical skills, but at 44, after more than two decades of pummeling in the NFL, there’s no way his talent can match that of a fresher 28-year-old quarterback, regardless of what demon magic he’s leveraging.

But man, he makes the right decisions a lot. Like, a lot a lot. And that mental aspect, allowing him to have instant access to 100% of whatever considerable physical talent he still has, is why–love him or hate him–he’s the GOAT.

The lesson here is…I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m still a bit distraught by the loss of a beloved animal companion. But I do know that these sports we love are far more cerebral than outsiders, or even we, give them credit for. Focus, clarity, and the ability to process multiple streams of information and input and then make decisions about them are just as important as apexes and exit points.

And the thing is, I know that. I’ve always known that. But I think I took it for granted, usually having a natural ability to focus up and think my way through on-track problems. It just took one rough weekend to snap me back to reality and make me realize how precious and fleeting that ability can be. 

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APEowner GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
1/10/22 11:02 a.m.

First off, I'm sorry about your loss of BeeGee.  It's never easy to loose a pet.

A huge part of Motorsports is mental and getting into the zone is critical to being able to perform at our best.   My race results have gotten worse since I became our clubs CDI.  Instructing others is helpful but I'm so busy on race weekends instructing and jumping from lead ca,r to right seat, to classroom that when I finally strap into my car for the feature I'm thinking of everything but my race.  It's generally two or three laps before I can finally focus on what's happening on the track.  By that time the field is spread out and there's no way to catch up with the pointy end of the field.  It doesn't help that I start dead last due to skipping practice and qualifying but I've done that in the past and I can usually dispatch that slow back half of the field in a lap or two when my head has been in the game .

One of the best books I've ever read on the mental part of Motorsports is Keith Codes The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles.  My wife is a musician and we've found through discussion that a lot of the mental parts of racing are exactly the same as in music.  I haven't read it but it sounds like The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey could also apply directly to Motorsports.

Tom1200 UltraDork
1/10/22 12:54 p.m.

I like Motorsports specifically because it is a mental game.

Kieth Code books got me really in tune with the mental aspect of racing way back in the 80s when I road raced motorcycles..................................I now use those techniques with students at track days.

I make no bones about being the ADD poster kid but one of the joys of an ADD brain is driving at speed seems normal, it also grabs your attention making it all the more easy to focus. A friend marvels at how I can be pin ponging off the walls out of the car yet laser focused in the car. Note autocross is a bit tougher as there are more distractions between runs, this is why I stay buckled in the car.

The mental aspect is also why I hate unreliable / cantankerous cars, no matter how fast they are, it's hard to focus when you're wondering if it's going to break. 

My son is now learning why I have everything ready to go a week in advance of a road race weekend and why I like to be at the track early. It's all about focus, I want nothing in the way mentally.


65289Cobra New Reader
3/11/22 2:50 a.m.

This discussion reminds me of the 4-minute mile track-and-field "barrier" which once existed..  Over the years, many talented men tried, but no one was able to get into the 3's until the late Roger Bannister did so in May 1954.

Once Bannister ran his sub-4:00, that mental barrier was broken and the floodgates opened:  soon thereafter, dozens of runners followed suit.  Now it's routinely done and I believe ~ 1500 runners have done so in the intervening 68 years.

I once had a PGA pro golfer tell me that, at his level, 90% of the game was mental.  I believe him. 

frenchyd MegaDork
3/11/22 8:20 a.m.

In reply to 65289Cobra :

When I'm really in the race I'm considering where and how to pass everyone starting ahead of me on the pre grid.  It's like playing multidimensional chess. You have to be thinking several moves ahead plus potential competitors coming from behind. 
  That's when it's fun.  When you're flat out and the race is going as you've planned. Here's the Corner Dave overdrives when pushed on the outside.  Tuck in behind the Corvette to get the pull down the straight where you can use your superior braking to pull ahead. 

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