Driving Lessons: Dealing with S*#t
The best thing about racing is that there’s always another race.
Author: ROSS BENTLEY
I sometimes wonder how many people have ended their involvement in motorsport because of how much disappointment, how much s*#t they’ve experienced?
(Of course, I also wonder how many people would walk away from their involvement in motorsport if things always went perfectly according to plan, and there was never any disappointment? Would the lack of challenge get boring?)
Racing can be a brutally difficult sport, full of all sorts of things that are not fun at all. When I was racing Indy cars in the early 90s, I once calculated that I spent something like a thousand hours of work that I didn’t enjoy for every hour I spent behind the wheel of my Lola. But oh, that one hour of driving was worth it!
In the 1993 season alone, I experienced not qualifying for two races, one because of an engine misfire that had plagued us at three other events, even though the engine builder/provider had supposedly tested and fixed it three times (they hadn’t).
The other race I didn’t qualify for was a little 500-miler held every year in Indianapolis since 1911; a race I had dreamed of racing since I was seven years old; a race I had signed a contract with a sponsor to be in; a race that this sponsor had brought dozens of VIPs just to watch me in their car battle with the likes Andretti, Unser, Mears, Rahal, and others; a race for which I had taken out a six-figure personal loan to help pay for. Instead, I spent the first qualifying weekend in the Intensive Care unit of Methodist Hospital with burns on my face, neck, and hands after my car caught fire while I was driving between Turns Three and Four of the Speedway.
I get disappointment in motorsport.
I also get getting over disappointment in motorsport.
When s*#t happens, it’s what you do with it that matters, and real racers are good at dealing with it.
S*#t could be a crash, a series of “unlucky” incidents or events, it could be failure of one’s tow vehicle on the way to a club race, or simply just not having enough money to participate in the next event. Basically, any time that things just don’t work out well.
Unlike many sports where two teams or individuals are competing, the odds of winning are not 50/50. Usually, they’re more like 1 in 25, or 1 in 10. In a field of ten or twenty-five cars, only one wins. Racers live with these odds all the time.
The most successful racers have had more losses than wins. Roger Penske is known as perhaps the winningest race team owner in the history of motorsport, with 19 Indy 500 wins, 230 Indy car wins and 17 championships, 139 NASCAR wins, 88 sports car wins (IMSA and Australian V8 Supercars), and on and on (including one Formula One Grand Prix victory). In researching the number of losses Penske has had, that’s a number no one references. In talking to people who can best give a reasonable estimate, I heard numbers like close to 90 percent of the races entered did not end in victory lane. And that’s for the winningest team in history.
To some, that percentage would be depressing, and would result in them walking away from the sport. But not Roger Penske, nor practically every other successful (or unsuccessful) driver or team.
Racers have to be stupidly optimistic, to the point of being really good at putting the s*#t that happens behind them. Why? Because they so badly want the good stuff to happen. They know that the best thing about racing is there’s always another race. And that next race may just be the best one ever.
They also know that dwelling on the s*#t will not help. Sure, they take time to look at what they can learn from whatever happened, and do what they can to ensure that it never happens again. And then, snap, it’s behind them. Time to move on to the next one (whatever that “one” is).
When driving through a corner, if you make a mistake, turn in too late and end up missing the apex, you can’t go back and get it this lap. Instead, you learn to let it go, and do it better next lap. The best drivers apply this to when they’re on the track, but also to most other areas of their lives, including when things go wrong on the track.
To no one’s surprise, the best, most successful racers are extremely competitive (“extremely” is an understatement), and have a drive and commitment to being successful that has very little resemblance to how non-racers think. Winning is an obsession. And yet, they know the way to win is to continue to learn and improve, while being reasonable about the odds of everything going according to plan.
When I’m asked what separates the best from the rest, my answer is “the deep-down-inside burning desire to learn and improve, and ability to get over things that go wrong.” Most people expect me to talk about their competitiveness (or innate talent, quick reflexes, or something else), but their obsession with improving at the next event is most often stronger.