On the final afternoon of my three days of training with the Jim Russell Race Drivers School in 1977, I experienced something that I was familiar with from playing other sports, mostly tennis. I got into The Zone. I became one with the car.
It was the most comfortable place I’d ever been, and even the seat was no longer painful. But unlike being in the zone on a tennis court, driving in the zone on the track was something so powerful that…well, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to get back there over and over again. There’s nothing else like it.
The baseball great Ted Williams claimed that he could see the stitches on the ball as it was approaching him at a hundred miles per hour, and I know exactly what he experienced. In the zone in a race car at 140 miles per hour, it’s as if I could step out of the car and walk faster. Time slows. I could count the pebbles sitting along the side of the track.
There is a blur of the unimportant in my peripheral vision—and then only the critical things come into hyperfocus. A crack in the pavement hundreds of feet in front of me or off to the side in a place that some would say was impossible to see tells me that I have the car placed on its ideal pathway through the turns. When the car drifts and slides through a turn, the tires are on their very edges of adhesion. As the car flirts with these limits just before it would spin out of control, my hands precisely—minutely—adjust the angle of the steering wheel, and my feet work the gas, brake, and clutch pedals. As I tune the car’s speed as well as its balance, I can have a quiet conversation with myself about the effects that one minor adjustment of one of the car’s four shock absorbers would have on the handling, and whether I could then carry that one-tenth-of-a-mile-per-hour more speed through the turns. Mentally, I have all the time in the world.
Driving a race car at speed is a balance between aggression (force and machismo) and finesse (delicate and graceful movement). Driving can take brute force and strength, because I’m fighting the effort it takes to simply turn the steering wheel and the g-forces constantly mashing my body in one direction or another. But that is done with subtlety and a connection with the car that makes it feel like an extension of my body. It is the physicality of dancing, with the same lightness of step.
My torso must be one with the car—connected, wrapped, and cocooned through its seat and belt harnesses. When the car moves, my torso moves; when my torso moves, the car moves. Then my feet and hands play the controls. Interestingly, when my car is at its limit, I change its direction or steer it with my feet, and my hands on the steering wheel act more as a brake than anything else. Sure, I suggest and initiate a change of direction by turning the steering wheel, but then my goal is to get the wheel (and my car) lined up straight as quickly as possible. When the front tires are turned, they are scrubbing off speed.
Once I’ve initiated the turn with the steering wheel, I really control my direction by altering the car’s balance with the brake and gas pedals. More braking causes the car’s weight to transfer forward, which gives the front tires more grip and the rear tires less. That causes the car to turn, or rotate more. Conversely, stepping on the gas pedal shifts the car’s weight to the rear, unloading the front tires and thus making the car go straighter. Well, unless I step on the gas too hard—then that breaks the traction of the rear tires and makes the car fishtail sideways.
If I time this pressing down and lifting off of the brake or gas pedals just right, I can literally change my car’s direction in just the way I want. Doing this, combined with keeping the steering wheel aimed as straight ahead as possible, makes me fast. That’s what dancing with the car is all about.
But where the real magic happens for me is in a wheel-to-wheel battle with one or more competitors. It’s one thing to drive fast, and totally another to race.
Next week the story continues with my thoughts on why one races, and a more detailed explanation of what being in the zone is like. See you then.
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