What is Intuitive Driving?

Intuitive Driving Description

I believe that when driving/racing is performed correctly, it transforms from being something that is ‘done’; a series of actions executed at specific locations/times (aka reference points) into something more. I think that as drivers move up the learning stages to the expert or master level, their driving evolves into something that just happens automatically; it becomes intuitive/instinctive action that is directed by intention. I call this ‘intuitive driving’, and I believe it’s the only way to be really fast; or, put another way, I think all fast drivers drive intuitively.

But there is more, when a driver gets to that level, I think they have the potential to connect with something that is greater than all of us, yet also connected to all of us… the thing/place from which all art flows. Some call it ‘the Zone’, some call it God, others can’t describe it, but they feel it. When a driver’s spirit connects with it, the car they are in comes alive, and their driving is elevated to an art form; allowing them to truly express themselves through their driving and racing.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
– Albert Einstein

I think top-level drivers (professional or amateur) function like this, but it is a subtle thing; a personal relationship between the driver and the car and the track. However, sometimes you can catch a glimpse of it from the outside. You can see that the car is alive, that the driver is fully connected and in control (at the far reaches of the Zone, if you will). When that happens, there is just an intangible energy around the car.

Intuitive Driving as an Art Form

OK, that all might have sounded a bit cosmic, so here is a real-world example (one of my favorite memories) to illustrate my point:

In 1980, while I was in the process of launching my racing ‘career,’ I was still working corners in the SCCA’s San Francisco Region. That year, Keke Rosberg returned to the Can-Am series for the final two rounds (Laguna Seca & Riverside) driving a Lola T530 for Paul Newman. I worked the Laguna Seca round, and was assigned to my favorite turn, turn 4 (now turn 6). I requested to work the ‘fire’ position driver’s-right at the exit of the turn (next to the ‘NO NOs’ – the name given to the alligator teeth curb after someone had painted that in big letters on the track, where they ended).

Michael Brockman Talon #69(The Yellow Stripes are the No Nos at the exit of Turn 4
The guardrail I was leaning on was 1-2 feet past the dirt in the upper-right corner of the Photo.
Photo courtesy Richard Janes Jr. via Kurt Engelmann at  myf5000.com

There were lots of fast guys (intuitive drivers) in that series (Tambay, Rahal, EFR, Brabham, etc.), but during qualifying, Rosberg was unbelievable. I was standing with my right leg against the Armco barrier, looking down towards the apex and entry of the turn. At one point during the session, Keke appeared from behind the hill that was on the inside of the track, just bristling with speed. He clicked it into the turn and got on the gas. The car squirmed as it fought to change direction, and then seemed to drop down and take a set into the minimal camber at the turn’s apex. There was just something magical in that moment; an energy, and yet also a stillness, that just enveloped Keke and the car.

Rosberg_CanAm_CarHe came dancing away from the apex towards my position at the turn’s exit, and I knew, based on his speed and drift angle, that there was no way he was going to stay off of the NO NOs, and maybe not even off the guardrail. But I was not going to flinch, not even when he drifted the whole car onto the NO NOs and the Lola emitted a deep, reverberating, guttural growl in protest. As he disappeared up the hill toward the corkscrew on his pole position winning lap, I finally had to give in and duck behind the Armco to avoid being pelted with all the rocks and crap he’d thrown into the air. I laughed out loud because it was just so freaking AWESOME!

That was not just a display of technical skill, and that was not a demonstration of the science of driving; that lap, or at least that turn, was the ART of driving… Keke Rosberg’s art on display.

Now, that does not mean that you have to be Keke Rosberg to be an intuitive driver, or to elevate your driving to an art. Also, the art of driving is personal; your style might be sideways with your hair on fire, or it might be professor-like precision. Or maybe, you’ll have no ‘style,’ and instead you’ll look at all styles and all techniques as notes and rests that you combine to try and compose your ultimate lap.

Art reaches its greatest peak when devoid of self-consciousness. Freedom discovers man the moment he loses concern over what impression he is making or about to make.
— Bruce Lee

Learning Intuitive Driving

Anyway, I don’t see learning intuitive driving as being very different than learning to be a musical artist, well maybe except for the possibly crashing part. To become a musician, a student must learn the basics (theory, study scales, learn to perform songs, etc.) until playing their instrument is second nature (intuitive), but if they stop there, they are just a musician; a skilled music player. To become a musical artist, they must allow their knowledge and skills to percolate below the surface, with their spirit and intuition, to create something uniquely theirs, which they can then express through their instrument.

The same applies to racing; a driver must learn the mental and physical skills/techniques of racing so that they become automatic. However, if they stop there, then they are just a racer, even though they may be an intuitive driver. On the other hand, if they go deeper, so that they can really express their spirit and their individual style through their driving, well then they become an artist; an artist wrapped in a technologically advanced brush painting a masterpiece of speed, energy and rubber on a canvas of asphalt.

Intuitive Driver Traits

So, speed as art is the objective, but intuitive driving is the interim goal. Below I’ve listed what I believe are some identifying traits of an intuitive driver:

  • They drive as naturally as they walk.

That is, driving is no longer just a ‘skill’ for them; it’s just part of who they are. So, their ability to control any car they are driving comes as naturally and easily as their ability to walk and talk.

  • They have supreme confidence in their driving.

You probably have total confidence in your ability to walk across the room because the ability to walk comes so naturally to you. In fact, all you have to do is choose to move, and your legs automatically take you where you want to go. Intuitive drivers have this level of automation and confidence in their driving because they drive as naturally as they walk.

  • They have developed the ability to use their brain in a more efficient way than other drivers.

For most people, the left hemisphere (logic & intellect) is dominant. However, it functions as a serial processor, so when driving at racing speeds, this serial processing mode (left hemisphere mode) cannot process all of the information coming in. Therefore, most of the information processing tasks, and the physical driving tasks, must be delegated to intuition (right hemisphere mode), which functions as a visual and holistic serial processor.

  • They direct and anticipate instead of reacting.

Many drivers react (correct) when the car breaks loose, but correcting after the fact (after the ‘wave’ of energy has started moving) means that the car is defining where it’s energy is flowing. If the car is running the ‘energy flow’ show, you’re left scrambling; trying to get the car’s energy back under control.

Intuitive drivers typically don’t react to the car’s energy flow because they are proactive; they direct it. They can sense the energy flowing through the car, and therefore they can sense when the car is about to break loose, which give them the opportunity to manage the situation by managing the way energy flows through the car.

  • They have an instinctive ability to avoid, correct for, and/or minimize trouble.

Intuitive drivers have an incredible ability to avoid other people’s problems because they have enough mental resources that they can recognize early when another driver is getting into trouble. Therefore they can take evasive action ahead of time. When intuitive drivers do get themselves into trouble, they have an instinctive ability to either make miraculous saves, or at least minimize the consequences.

  • They have a near-vertical learning curve when learning new cars and/or tracks.

Intuitive drivers learn new cars, tracks, tires, etc. very easily because the ability to drive is so much a part of them, that the transition to a new car or track is trivial; it’s no more difficult than getting comfortable in a new pair of tennis shoes.

While intuitive driving is the interim goal, it’s not a discrete ‘thing’ or a specific destination; it’s more of a state of mind. So you may have a set of skills, experience and knowledge that allows you to function as an intuitive driver, but it does not guarantee that you will do so. For example, a driver who typically performs as an intuitive driver, but is having an off day, may not be functioning like an intuitive driver in that moment.

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