Why do we race? Some may join the fray without asking. Racers are a truly diverse bunch, to be sure. Because of this we also share a special kinship. There is something global, almost universal, about racing’s appeal. Yet it is not for everyone. Only a tiny percent of the population can and does do it. Here’s a look at why.
“Because race car” is an entertaining answer. It addresses the instinct to race and ignores any reason. The humor is in its truth. There’s little reason to race. And that’s the paradox: keen intellect and logic are necessary to race well, but they play little if any part in our motivation. That resides at a deeper level, a somewhat inaccessible place in our psyche. One reason can’t easily reach.
“The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” —Blaise Pascal
The speed instinct must run deep in our genetic evolution. I suspect it lives deep in the damp, murky corners of our *basal ganglia, sharing space with other unnecessary edifications, like cooking over and gazing in to open flame, grassy lawns that evoke unconscious memory of our ancestral savannas, and the desire to hunt and shoot, dispite their obsolescence. We don’t need to do such things anymore, but we inexplicably enjoy them. These are survival instincts. The first to chase down prey eats and breeds. Human intellect—the functions of our frontal lobes—have given these insticts their contemporary shapes. Fast cars, barbecue grills, golf courses, compound bows, etcetera.
The things we make resemble ourselves. Cars are no exception. They have a skeleton (chassis), brain, (ECU), power plant (musculature) and so on. Even skin (Ariel Atom excepted). When we’re driving in flow and harmony with it, many of us even experience a car as an extension of our body. This is a great part of the joy and excitement we drivers experience: extending our body’s capabilities. For some this may seem an end in itself. For the small percentage of the general population who track and race cars, it is only a means.
Extending our body is small joy compared to the demands it puts on our mental capacities. This is where driving ends and racing begins. The kind and degree of mental challenge that racing gives is like no other.
“Driving is largely a mental game… you could make the argument that it is 100% mental. The best drivers know how to control their mind. The worst drivers don’t. —Ross Bently
Like other technology-augmented sports, motorsport (brakesport?) challenges us to reevaluate and re-calibrate not only spacial cognition but our relationship to our self. Overcoming deep self-preservation instincts with knowledge and practice to develop driving skill can give us some control and triumph over inherited parts of our self, and a sense of self-determination and free will. Triumph over others may be socially rewarding but it can pale in comparison to the personal triumph of self definition.
“Mind management is the best thing I ever learned.” —Sir Jackie Stewart
One of the residual benefits of racing is the relief to a competitive attitude on the street. There is nothing like charging forward with every cell in your body, with others doing the same, to relieve you of competitiveness on the road. A martial artist who has tested how much hard competition they can really take is normally left with no remaining desire to fight a stranger. They’ve proved themselves to themselves. I like to call it The Senna Dividend: The faster you are, the kinder you are.
Our behaviors behind the wheel express our sense of self, and our relatedness to others. Relatedness to others—social and shared responsibility in a competitive environment—reflects our sense of our self. Do you feel you belong, or must you force the matter? That will show up in reaction to others actions and opportunities to be careful, or careless. Mindful, or mind-less.
“The way you fight is the way you live.” —Cus D’Amato
Boxing trainer to Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson, José Torres
D’Amato’s quote applies as much to driving and motorsports as to boxing. Self-fulfillment and self-realization are among many “reasons” we race. If and how we use our sport as a means of self-improvement is up to each of us. Yet there are some foundational principals of the game we play. I have won no podium in them. Far from it. I am just practicing to develop them as quickly as possible. Practicing them consciously, with intent to make the most of every opportunity to develop, on and off track, helps us make the most of our lives together.
- Putting what was or could or should be aside, and deal with what is.
No one who is focused on what just happened or what could hypothetically happen wins the race with others or themselves. Generating negative emotions blocks focus and acceptance of what we can and can’t control. When “what is” isn’t helping us, we have to help it. Cars especially. Other drivers, generously, too.
- Overcoming fear with knowledge and skill through practice.
We may not think fear-override in racing is transferable because overcoming one fear does not overcome all of them. Yet we do find many top racers do amazing things off track. I.e. public speaking and business. And we can apply our on-track learning methods to other tracks in life, also.
- Looking forward, not backward.
“Eyes up” means being aware of our natural tendency to focus too close around us, the path too close ahead or behind, “driving in the mirrors”. It transfers well to life in general, if we think about it.
- Playing hard but fair.
Accepting the need for people to compete with, in order to enjoy our sport, is to accept the paradox of an “individual” sport. Maintaining rules of fair play as a social contract, by trading some individual freedom for the social benefit of mutual respect, makes our sport possible. There is always someone more experienced. Likewise, winning “at all cost” can cost a lot more than a win or two. Mainly our growth and enjoyment. As in traditional martial arts, mutual respect equals self respect.
Our lot is not known for patience. Ironically, speed requires patience to develop. We learn the most through mistakes. The more mistakes, the more we learn. Sometimes they’re mechanical. Sometimes not preventable. But we “Go slow to go fast” is a common refrain, meaning be patient. With persistence speed will come. We need it most when, and because, we have it least.
“When I look fast, I’m not smooth and I am going slowly. And when I look slow, I am smooth and going fast.” —Alain Prost
Let’s admit that we have a “problem”. Additiction is defined by consequences, not the quantity or frequency of an activity. We can state or debate the benefits of racing but it certainly isn’t a logical activity. Not financially, perhaps not in other ways too. It is a passion and an “itch” that only pushing ourselves past our own preconceived limits can scratch. For me, this redefined self through focus, concentration, and “mindfulness” is the reason to race. Yes, there are other ways to practice these, and they too support performance improvement. Yet this one is so entirely unique.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.“
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
There is terrible struggle, sometimes very real pain, and great joy in scratching that “itch” we feel. One that sets us somewhat apart from the main. We for whom speed is freedom to be our self. After all, racecar is “because driver.”
The kinship among race-minded people is so special that it occupies a space in our hearts that is very difficult to replace with anything else. The residual effects of developing the abilities that racing requires are unique, and can be applied to many other areas of life.
After some years of tracking cars and licencing to race in a few organizations just this year, I am a novice racer. I’m continually grateful and inspired by the racing community’s generosity and willingness to share their knowledge and time. Lotus may have ignited this fire in me, but the club racing family provides it fuel and oxygen.
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup…. water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” —Bruce Lee
Mindfulness, the ability to become so focused, to be so sensitive to input and interaction with our environment, to slow time, lose self-consciousness and simply “flow“, is the reason I believe we race. The cars, tracks and fellow competitors, however much we love them, are merely means. It is the practice of both self and situational awareness that racing requires that I simply call sitting in the Lotus position.
*Footnote: The basal ganglia’s function is to coordinate signal transmissions across multiple brain regions and its utilization in racing may exercise brain integration activity to cause much of the residual enjoyment of racing. Brain integration exersizes are considered helpful to racers. And exersizing it is known to improve our brain’s functional coordination abilities.