Outside of performance modifications to one’s car, one of the most talked about aspects of motorsport is you, and your health. And while most of that subject matter talks about being in peak physical condition, very little seems to touch on a very important part of the process. Your mental preparedness.
I’m writing this post for the context of track day enthusiasts. Because for the most part, those folks make up the bulk of our industry and are the most common form of driver we connect with through our schools.
Keep in mind, I don’t consider myself a mental-health expert by any means, nor do I intend this to be taken in that context. But more often than not, we go to track days with friends who influence each other’s behavior. So when that final session of the day is being called to grid, and you’re tired, your friends might pester you as to why you’re not going out on track.
Remember, it’s OK not to drive.
In October of this year, I had an outstanding student named Kyle. His pace and line were great right out of the box on the first session. Throughout a three day school, he showed impressive consistency and only needed minor refinements through each session. In the years of instructing with Team Stradale, I can say he stands as one of my best students. Not only in skill, but also being receptive to my coaching.
Consistency – as you’ll hear from many instructors – far outweighs outright pace. Why? Because it shows the mental state of the driver. Kyle’s consistency through the first two days of driving at Autobahn Country Club set the benchmark by which his sessions were evaluated. And, it gave me an insight into what pointers were being retained (just about all of it), and what needed repetition. His last session showed why this observed consistency was important.
As we were buckling into the car, I expressed my intent for this last session. I told Kyle, “let’s just hammer home all of the good points we learned through the day. We’re not trying anything new on this session.” He agreed. “The last session is when you may become tired. If your driving starts to get sloppy, we’re coming in.” A not of approval followed.
The session started strong, but soon apexes were being missed here and there. “Still have energy?” I asked after a blatantly missed braking zone. “Yes,” he replied in an assured tone.
Now at this point, I should have asked if he had focus, instead of energy. On the next lap, he never shifted out of 4th gear, even in one of our track’s tighter sections. I finally told him, “you’ve forgot to shift this entire lap, let’s call it a day.” We did.
I mention this story because there are days where mental fatigue can not only be frustrating, but it could be dangerous. Forgetting to shift is one thing, but missing a braking zone may end up bad for your car, you, or a fellow track day buddy. So it becomes very important to self-check your focus level as you’re driving. If you can’t explain to yourself why you missed a turn-in point, or a brake marker, you’ve reached that point.
Speaking of last sessions, that’s when a lot of mistakes can be made. Newer students, or those on a tight budget tend to have a “gotta make it count” attitude towards the last session of the day. In essence, adding too many variables (speed, gusto, extra late braking) when none of the variables are fixed. This often happens more so with beginner students. But it can also happen with intermediate and advanced students who get a bit too confident in their abilities.
If your gut tells you not to drive, listen.
This section of the article comes from personal experience, and hopefully some others can relate. For the 2021 season, I had pre-purchased a number of time-trial track days to run with my Honda. It’s a simple car with not too many modifications. But I was competing in time trials, so the car would be pushed to – and beyond – the limit. Confidence is key here. Especially with a car that also saw daily driver use.
Cars are living and breathing entities and often give us warning signs before something is about to fail. In my instance, it was rear wheel studs. I didn’t feel it from behind the wheel. I felt it during car prep.
While changing wheels, the rear lug nuts no longer spun freely, to the point that I needed a breaker bar to get more than one nut unscrewed for its last half inch. Rust? Maybe. Cross threaded? It didn’t look that way. But either way something wasn’t right. On top of that, these Hondas are known to have weak wheel studs. This discovery was made less than 48 hours before an event at Gingerman, a track about 2.5 hours away.
Mentally, I entered the event wholly under prepared and extremely doubtful. The one time I was at a track for fun now became an enormous stress point. I couldn’t trust the car. And as such, I wasn’t going to push the car. Given it was a competition weekend, what was the point? Still, I decided to put that behind me and just get in the car and try to feel things out on my first session.
And on that first session, I saw my paddock mate lose a wheel and go off course… I decided on the spot to be a spectator. He had a team, parts, and a trailer and was covered for anything that could happen to the car. I had none of those and decided not to risk it.
Although the decision was immediate, announcing it was stressful. After all, nothing was visibly wrong with the car. In fact, via a new alignment, it handled better than it ever had before. But you know what? Not driving was OK. And my friends supported the move, too. Amazingly, GRIDLIFE was also supportive, too. They’ll be working on making sure I am able to fulfill missed track time next year.
Ultimately, it was the right move. If I wasn’t in the right mental headspace, then I really wasn’t going to enjoy my time on track. When your escapism becomes stressful, trust your gut.