Q: “I’m now in my forties and have started doing SVRA and SCCA races. Thinking about the future, I’m drawn to the idea of TA2 racing. I love the depth of the field, the close racing, and it’s the kind of car that suits my particular taste. I don’t expect to win races… just have fun rubbing doors and such. So my question to you is this: What advice do you have for drivers starting later in life? What tips do you have for managing age-related performance regressions? Do you see things linearly degrading over time? Or is there a point where ability starts to drop off pretty quickly?”
A: In terms of “age-related performance regression,” there’s a difference between drivers who started early in life, and those who started later. Do I see performance degrading linearly? No. In fact, it’s very much dependent on the person, and in fact, sometimes there’s little to no loss of skill. What has the biggest impact is the person’s desire and willingness to put in the effort it takes to maintain and even improve their skills (both physical and mental).
I know drivers who started later in life, like in their 50s, who made continuous improvement for many years. I also know pro drivers who got into the later stages of life who saw a dramatic drop off in skills. The difference was simply how badly they wanted to improve or maintain their abilities.
Of course, there could be physical issues that limit what a driver of any age can do, but it may not be what many people think. For example, reaction times. If a driver is relying on reactions to be safe and consistently quick, they’re doing it all wrong. Now, if a driver has some bodily injury, that may be a different story. I have a disk issue in my neck (amongst other injuries!) that make racing painful, so my willingness to do the training it takes to continue to improve is not where it needs to be. But could someone even at my age continue to improve? I certainly believe so, and the reason I say that is because I’ve seen it.
To your question about the advice I’d give, the first is to have a plan. Gain as much experience as you can, in the most efficient manner. Some will say that it simply takes more seat time, but that’s not the way you should look at it. It’s also what kind of seat time you’re getting that matters. In fact, that matters more.
As an example, you could go to the track and get two hours of seat time driving around on your own. Or you could have a well-developed plan to focus your seat time on specific techniques, skills, and areas of your driving. Done right, you can improve more in those two hours than if you practice in a less efficient way.
A good coach will help you improve more efficiently – more in less time – than doing things on your own. Not all coaches are good, especially at developing and continually tweaking the plan to help you improve efficiently. Some get bogged down in the details of where to brake or apex for a specific corner, and not enough on identifying what you should really be working on, or they don’t break it down enough. In other words, they don’t think strategically enough about your driver development. Fortunately, there are many really, really good coaches around. So, if there was just one thing I’d advise you to do, it would be to find and work with a really good coach.
I’d also recommend getting experience in different types of cars, and in different types of events. Do some sprint races, and also do endurance racing. You may never think you’re going to be endurance racing, but what you learn in longer stints behind the wheel, in multi-class racing, will pay off in any one-class sprint race situation. In fact, it can give you an advantage over other drivers. Or if you eventually want to go endurance racing, compete in sprint racing, too.
Don’t be afraid to race cars that are very different from what you currently have, or plan to race in the future. One of the best things you could do is race something like a Spec Miata, since what you learn about carrying momentum will make you a faster driver in TA2.
I’ve seen too many drivers buy a car that they think they want to race, then get bogged down in the maintenance and prep of that car, and ultimately find that they have more fun driving something else. At that point, they then have to sell their car before moving to something else, which may impact the time it takes to get where you want to be. And don’t forget that it’s all about having fun. So, don’t shy away from renting cars with different teams to learn more about what you have the most fun in. There’s nothing like simply showing up at a track with your driving gear and just driving, not having to worry about the logistics of getting the car to and from the track, and all of the mechanical challenges that come with running a race car.
A little over four years ago I started coaching a driver who was in his early fifties. He went from having never driven on a race track to winning the Pro-Am LMP2 class at Le Mans last year. And it wasn’t done by letting his two pros do all the driving and digging out from what he didn’t do. In fact, a big part of why we won is because of his performance. You can read more about his story by clicking here (Zero to Le Mans in 3.5).
Have a plan, work with a good coach, get varied experience, make the most of every second on track by practicing the right things in the right way. And yes, have fun!