I want you to close your eyes, and take a trip with me. Imagine you’re on the 599th mile of a 600 mile race. You’ve got sweat pouring from every which way, losing up to 15 pounds of water weight as you clench the steering wheel in your 120 degree stock car. These things don’t phase you at all. You’re a champion and you’re making sure the whole world knows it as you reach break neck speeds. This is your introduction to the psychology of a race car driver.
Auto racing is a mental game. When you push a vehicle up and over its limits to maintain or advance in position, it’s undoubtedly dangerous. What makes them successful is exactly what makes your favorite athletes in various sports great. As someone who has worked on the sidelines, and been at the helm (as a motocross rider), I have seen these men and women have some of the most intense, laser-like focus which pushes their skill to a whole other level. You have to not only focus on the mental aspect of the race, but you also have to be in excellent physical condition in order to compete.
True enough, you sit for the entire race, but sitting inside of a rolling rocket on wheels in the above-mentioned conditions, makes for a slightly uncomfortable time for four hours or more. Drivers have the aptitude to maintain their focus for this duration, with absolutely no breaks whatsoever. It’s a feat that few accomplish with ease, or championship status.
Only the most elite of the elite succeed in this world, and it’s due to the inevitable “it” factor. Does the driver have the ability to forge through, risking his or her life in order to gain one of three positions? As they make split second decisions, many of which occur a few feet away from their competitors, with speeds reaching 190 mph. If you’re not willing to do it, the team will find someone who will.
As with any high-profile sport with the possibility of mortality, teams will employ psychiatrists to help drivers deal with the pressure and worries associated with the sport. These psychiatrists also assist with drivers in training to become better drivers, who might be stressing about taking their skills to the next level. As I wound down to watch the Indy 500 this Memorial Day weekend, I thought of all the people I’ve heard write the sport of auto racing off as just “a few guys driving in circles.” It’s a level that is more complex than that, I’m afraid. These drivers put their lives on the line in order to become the next (or remain the reigning) champion of the sport they love, in conditions which are less than favorable. I think they’re doing just fine.