Posts Tagged ‘lessons from the race track’

High-Speed Learning

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

In Car photo - smallImagine this: You’re driving a race car. It’s an open-wheel, open-cockpit car, like an Indy car or Formula One car. Bright red. Number 5 on the nose.

Scrunched down in the cockpit, held in place by six seatbelts, clutching the tiny steering wheel, you rush through Turn 1, a sweeping left-hand corner. The g-forces slam your body sideways in the seat, the vibrations rattle your bones, your ears are overwhelmed with the high-pitched scream of the engine, the steering wheel feels like it’s going to be ripped out of your hands at any second, your body is covered in sweat inside your fire-retardant driving suit from the physical exertion and heat from your car, your heart is pounding and adrenalin is flowing, and your vision through the visor of your helmet is a blur other than the point far ahead in the turn. You’re traveling at over 180 MPH, covering the length of a football field in about a second. The car is in a drift, a slide, with the tires slipping just the right amount, the sound of the tires’ rubber being torn away by the surface of the asphalt drowned out by the air rushing past the car. Your head, inside the helmet, is forced backwards from both the 180 MPH wind and the acceleration of the car.

You know that your ability to control the car on that knife edge between not being fast enough and being too fast – on that ragged edge, that if crossed by too much could mean disaster – is dependent on where you place the car as it travels along a pathway through the turns. The right “line” – the invisible pathway that you drive that allows you to go faster than your competition – is crucial. You drive an arc through the turn, maximizing the radius and allowing yourself to begin accelerating out of the turn as soon as possible. You begin this arc from the very outside edge of the track surface, sweeping the car down to the inside of the corner, to the apex of the turn, and then allowing the car to drift all the way to the outside edge of the track again. Outside, inside, outside, describing a large radius through the turn.

Miss any part of that fast line by mere inches and you could find yourself spinning off the track. Or worse, being slower than your competition!

As you power through the turn just before you reach the apex you recognize, through the blur of your peripheral vision, that you’re going to be six inches away from that apex. That conclusion has taken micro-seconds for you to come to, and yet you know the consequences – and they’re not pretty. Instinct begins to kick in and you start to turn the steering wheel more, in an attempt to bring the car closer to the inside edge of the track, to the apex. But if you do that at this speed you will be asking the car to do something it’s not capable of doing. At this speed, with the tires already at the limit of their adhesion, you can’t ask more of them. If you do, they will give up completely, letting go of their grip on the track surface, and you’ll spin off the track.

This is where your years of training and experience come in. This is where you fight your instincts. This is where you let the car go where it wants to go, for there’s no use in trying to force it to do something it can’t.

You’ve made a mistake. But you made it a long time ago – fractions of a second ago, earlier in the corner, where you didn’t turn the steering wheel just quite enough. Does trying to fix the mistake right here and now help? Not in this case. No, the only thing you can do right now is manage the mistake, minimizing the effect of it, and make sure you don’t make that same mistake next lap.

As someone who made his living driving race cars for nearly thirty years, and now makes it helping individuals and teams in business and sports perform at their best, this is an all too familiar situation. I’ve experienced it myself as a driver. And I’ve experienced it when coaching others. In the corporate world, I see someone make a mistake, and then focus all their attention on fixing it right then and there, when in so many situations it’s best to just minimize the effect of it and move on. It’s better to make sure it doesn’t happen “on the next lap” by learning from it, but not to get so focused on it in the moment that it distracts them from where they’re going – down the track and towards the next corner.

Most people who have spent time driving a car on a race track learn this valuable lesson – a lesson that applies to many things other than just the track. If you make a mistake, learn from it, minimize its impact, and then focus ahead on what’s coming up next.

So, heading towards Turn 2, your right foot flat to the floor on the gas pedal, you shift up to sixth gear. Then hard on the brakes to set up for the right-hand corner…