The second car I ever owned was a dream come true for me: a gold-colored 1969 Lotus Elan, one of the most beautiful, best-handling, sleekest, and smallest sports cars ever. Parked next to a Mazda MX-5 Miata, it looks absolutely out of scale. The diminutive Mazda is huge in comparison. The Lotus was also one of the most unreliable cars ever built. Did I ever learn a lot about driving in that the Lotus! And did I ever learn a lot about working on cars, particularly how to keep a 1960s British sports car running—an accomplishment equal to landing the Rover on Mars!
I’d go out and drive my Lotus for hours every day, just to practice shifting, the line through corners, braking smoothly, balancing the car on the limit…and controlling the car if it skidded. And what I learned was that “turning into the skid” was pretty useless advice.
No, make that stupid advice. Let me explain.
Through the years I’ve been asked many times what I think is the key to success in racing. As it turns out, what leads to success in motorsport is also key to success in just about everything else in life, especially business. No big surprise, I guess.
Actually, success in any endeavor does not come down to just one thing, despite what Jack Palance said in the movie City Slickers. But there are just a few critical factors that if you do them, you’ll be more successful than if you don’t. One of those critical things is looking where you want to go, and not where you don’t want to go. It’s focus.
One night I was out practicing my cornering technique on a twisty, narrow mountain road in my Lotus. In third gear with the engine revving sweetly, I popped up over a hill and came to a sudden realization: The upcoming corner was a lot tighter than I’d originally thought and I just wasn’t going to make it! I did what most people in that situation do: I looked at where I was going to crash. I looked to the outside of the corner and saw a small ditch, a strip of grass about a foot wide, and then trees. Lots of trees. Big, strong, Lotus-destroying type of trees.
I remembered what I was taught to control a skid. I thought about turning into the skid, but that didn’t really mean anything to me. That’s when I realized that “turn into the skid” confused me when I needed it most. It may be the worst piece of advice a panicked driver needs to decipher.
Then in a fraction of a second for some reason that I’ll never know, I turned my head and looked around and beyond the turn. Maybe I just wanted one last quick look at where the ambulance and tow truck might come from to rescue me. Whatever the reason, I looked where I wanted to go, even though I was convinced that I was never going to make it there.
And guess what? My body started doing things that I never thought it knew how to do. It gave the brakes just a slight squeeze and then released them, then completed the smoothest and most perfectly timed downshift into second gear that I’ve ever done to this day. It was like my feet were dancing on the pedals and my hands followed right along. In fact, my legs, feet, arms, and hands all moved in a blur, almost as if they were possessed by someone else.
And get this—my hands “turned the steering wheel into the skid.” The next second I found myself drifting sideways through the turn and accelerating along the straight section after the corner.
I made it! I didn’t crash my Lotus! But how in the hell did that happen?
I turned around, went back, and drove again through that corner a dozen times, starting off fairly slowly and gradually picking up my speed each time until I’d recreated the same speed as my unintended magical moment. And that’s when it hit me. My driving through the corner at high speed and controlling the slide had little to do with what my arms, hands, legs and feet actually did. It was my eyes that had performed the magic. In fact, my appendages were like soldiers simply following the commands of the general. In this case, my vision was the general.
What a revelation! For the next few months I consciously practiced looking where I wanted to go, not where I didn’t want to go. When changing lanes, I focused my eyes between the reflectors separating the lanes, and the car would follow, the tires not driving over them. When parking, I fixated on the empty space, not the edges of other vehicles. If a car pulled out right in front of me, I practiced looking to the side of it. And when I drove through a corner, I concentrated on visualizing the path where I wanted the car to follow—and was thrilled at how effortlessly it went there regardless of my speed.
I became a master of looking at nothing. That sounds weird, but we humans have this natural tendency to focus on things, especially bright, shiny objects and things we actually want to avoid. But I developed the skill to look away from the bright, shiny problems.
When I started racing cars, this skill became a critical factor in my success. Sure, all race drivers develop it to some extent—they wouldn’t be able to race if they didn’t. But some are better at it than others, and the very best drivers excel at this.
In fact, in thirty years of racing, I only once ran into another car that spun out in front of me. I’ve been able to avoid every other out-of-control car, and I credit my ability to focus on the empty space—where I wanted to go, to the solution—and not the problem. And all this from that one fateful night in my Lotus.
The story continues next week, so I’ll see you back here.
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