Empirical/Intuitive Lessons


As I have mentioned elsewhere on this website, I firmly believe that if you understand the ‘task’ of racing, then your experience will teach you what you need to learn to keep progressing up the learning spiral.

However, I want to make one very important point right up front here; I did learn, and apply the lessons from, the experiences described below. However, I learned them intuitively/empirically… I did not necessarily ‘understand’ what I had learned; and I certainly did not understand with the clarity described below.

What was critical at the time is that I did seem to instinctively know that that my track time wasn’t just experience; it was a vessel that contained lessons. Since I did not have a budget that allowed for making the same mistake twice, I worked hard to dissect my experience (using imagery) to figure out the root causes of my limitations and mistakes, and to identify and implement the changes I needed to make to keep improving. The understanding and clarity about what my experiences/lessons ‘meant’ and how they impacted my driving came years later, after some enlightening experiences on track, much introspection, and related research.

1978 – First Time in a Race Car (Sensation of Speed)

The Experience

The first thing they did on day-one at the school I attended (British School of Motor Racing—Jim Russell Racing School at Ontario Motor Speedway, CA), was fit us to our cars and then have us drive back and forth in a straight line between two sets of cones. We were to accelerate and up shift to third gear, and then hold 3K RPM until we reached the “brake” cone. Then we were supposed to brake hard while heal-and-toe downshifting back to first gear. We would then turn around the do the same thing in the other direction.

For me, this was a shock. I was so completely overwhelmed with the Sensation of Speed (SoS), that I barely had enough attention to brake properly, and I never really did get the heal-and-toeing down. I was so affected by the SoS that I was never able to use the full 3K revs for the exercise.

The Lessons

  • This driving thing wasn’t as easy as it looks from the other side of the fence. It was going to take a 100% commitment of mind, body, and spirit to get fast.
  • Two much sensory input was overloading my brain, so I needed to find a way to deal with it.

This was a MASSIVE reality check for me! There I was, this fearless, 18 year old, self-proclaimed future World Champion, and I couldn’t even use the full 3K RPMs for the brake and shifting exercise. Feeling completely overwhelmed; and feeling like I was several steps behind the car is not what I expected.

I didn’t know it then, but that was my first taste of sensory overload, and my first opportunity to learn about reducing my SoS.

How I Applied it to Move Up the Learning Spiral

  • I acknowledged that learning driving would be tough, but doable, and got to work.
  • I, unknowingly, started using imagery training to minimize the effects of SoS by programming myself to deal with (become used to and comfortable with) the sensory overload.

When I got back to my motel room that evening, I was MAD at myself for being such a wimp. I asked myself how the hell I expected to be World Champion if I can’t even get over 3K RPMs in 3rd gear in a lowly formula ford?

My commitment to becoming fast and my frustration with my performance drove me to spend several hours that night practicing the braking and shifting exercise in my imagination. Actually, I didn’t just practice in my imagination. I took the two chairs in my room and arranged them to create a cockpit. I climbed into my ‘simulator’ and went through the motions of operating the pedals and the shifter, while imagining the sensations. Then, I added ‘dynamics’ to the training by walking back and forth in my room; replicating the braking/shifting drill while imagining I was actually doing the driving exercise, but I imagined doing so without the speed-induced ‘stresses’.

I didn’t know it then, but I had spontaneously used imagery training. The objective of that training was to habituate myself to the sensations of driving, which I figured would make me more comfortable with the speed (or as I later realized, would reduce my Sensation of Speed).

1978 – Watching A Champion Drift Through a Turn
(Tires on a Plane – How Drifting Feels)

The Experience

When I was a kid, every time I finished reading a book about driving, I always ended up thinking the same thing; YES, BUT HOW? All the books told me various versions or interpretations of WHAT to do, but none of them explained in much if any detail HOW, or how it might feel. So, I asked some racers, and they basically told me, “I don’t know, you just do it.”

Later, when I was about 17 years old, I remember watching Tom Gloy just flinging his Lola formula ford through Sears Point’s turn 3 & 3A while leading a National or Pro Formula Ford race. I stood there thinking “how the hell am I ever going to be able to do that” it seems so ‘on the edge of disaster’ so chaotic, and so unpredictable. I remember feeling bummed out, and hopeless. Then a wave of anger and energy came over me and I basically told myself “knock that poor-me crap off, we are going to figure it out, and we are going to be fast.”

Fast forward to the afternoon of the first day of racing class; I was still reeling from the ‘reality check’ of the morning’s shifting practice session when they piled us into the station wagon and set out to show us the track, and the line around it. When we arrived at Ontario Motor Speedway’s 90 degree turn 6, the instructor pulled off just to the outside of the turn-in point. The school hot shoe (and last year’s series champion), was out testing one of the cars. As he approached, the instructor said, “Watch how he drives through here.” He braked and down shifted nice and smoothly, flicked the car into the turn, got back on the gas hard, and drifted through, and out of, the turn.

It was as if I was watching the whole thing in slow motion. My attention was focused on the outside rear tire. When he got back on the gas, I watched as the tire loaded up, the sidewall deflected, and the slip angle increased. I also observed how the increasing rear slip angles caused the car to rotate slightly, setting it up to drift out of the turn; he would not have made it through the turn at that speed without that rotation. I still remember the whole scene as if it was yesterday.

The Lessons

  • When a car is sliding and drifting around, when you observe the whole scene (like I did with Tom Gloy) it looks frantic, but if you focus on the important bits (like the tire carrying the load that is keeping you on the track), things seem much more ‘under control’; even to the point of seeming to happen almost in slow motion.
  • I figured that the drifting tire must feel just like it looks; progressive and predictable.

Now, over the years, I’d seen many cars drifted through many turns, by many great drivers, but for some reason, in that moment, it hit me. IT FEELS JUST LIKE IT LOOKS; slow motion and all.

How I Applied it to Move up the Learning Spiral

  • I was able to use my realization as a guide to interpreting my sensation of traction.
  • I realized that what looked chaotic from the outside, should feel very calm in the car, but feeling calm does not mean that the car is not ‘moving’ a lot.

“IT FEELS JUST LIKE IT LOOKS.” Perhaps not the most eloquent thing you’ve ever heard, and maybe it seems overly simplistic, but do not underestimate its potential. It gave me a context in which to experience and understand my future communication with the car/tire/track interaction. In essence, it was like spontaneously learning the language of tires and traction.

Of course, I wasn’t immediately fluent in my new language, but I was able to converse, and in so doing I improved my ‘vocabulary’ and communication skills much more quickly than those that had not yet learned to understand or speak ‘Traction’.

1978 – My First Spin (Sensation of Speed / Sensitivity / Concentration)

The Experience

In the afternoon of the class’s second day, they turned us loose on the full track for the first time; although with a 3k RPM limit. I gradually built my speed, but I had been lusting for speed since I was six years old, so late in the session I was trying very hard to go fast; to the detriment of driving well. I made a rather abrupt turn-in to an increasing-radius right hander, and immediately got on the gas. At about the clipping point, the back end stepped out big time. I fed in correction as fast as I could, but it was too late. I spun off into the dirt on the inside of the turn. I got going again and drove the rest of the session, not trying to go quite so fast.

At the end of the session, I found out that the other “hot shoe wannabe” in the class had also spun during the session. We were comparing notes when our instructor walked up. He was not amused. “Well, you guys can’t even control your cars at 3K RPM, what are you going to do when we go to 5.5K RPM?.” He was good at getting his message across; for some he would yell, but he just looked at me and said, “I’m really disappointed in you, Warren.”

The Lessons

  • When I tried to go fast, the mental overload from SoS came back.
  • I was too rough with my inputs to the car (again a symptom of SoS… feeling rushed).
  • I couldn’t feel the rotation and loss of traction until it was too late because I was behind the car (busy processing visual information).
  • Since I was still grappling with SoS issues, I didn’t have access to enough attention or sensitivity to feel what was happening, which meant I had no hope of recognizing or managing the fast approaching limit of adhesion.

How I applied it to Move Up the Learning Spiral

  • I decided in that moment that there are no small spins – I took this mistake very seriously because I did not like feeling like a passenger in my car. So I thought long, hard, and deep to try and understand the mental and physical reasons why it happened. “I over cooked it,” or “I got in to hot,” was not sufficient.
  • I realized that because of the elevated SoS I was experiencing , I was driving almost 100% visually; I had very little resources to feel the sensations that were trying to provide me with information about loads, traction, and forces.
  • I acknowledged that there is a big difference between pretending you’re ‘fast’ by holding the pedal down and hanging on, and actually being fast because you have command of the car.
  • I accepted that speed would come incrementally, when I was ready.

Note: I wasn’t there just to learn to drive around the track… I intended to be FAST. I knew that I would make mistakes, and I was prepared to do so, but I resolved to be honest with myself and to tear into every mistake (and the moments leading up to it) to extract all of the insights I could.

An elevated Sensation of Speed was a major contributing factor in my spin, so I reasoned that since I’d had success using imagery to habituate myself to the speed of the shifting exercise, that I should be able to use the same technique in combination with the day’s experience of driving around the track to habituate myself to the speed of the track. I spent that night in my motel room running lap-after-lap in my head.

I believe the experience of my first spin was an important turning point in my progress. In response I had reduced stress in two ways, (removing the pressure of forcing myself to try and go way faster than I was ready to go, and preparing myself to actually go fast by ‘memorizing’ the track and by training myself to reduce the SoS. I did not realize at the time, but I believe habitualizing driving around the track probably allowed me to begin exploring intuitive concentration and the elevated sensitivity that it provides.

1978 – 1979 – Constant Training (Imagery Training for Racers / Race Walking)

The third/last day of class did not provide any great insights; just measured/consistent progress.

It was 2-3 months until the next time I got to drive, but I continued with the imagery training (EVERY NIGHT). However I didn’t stop there. I practiced driving all the time. Of course I practiced when driving on the street, but I also practiced everywhere I walked. Since I was a kid, I used to race through my parents house; steering, sliding, drifting, bouncing my rear tire off of the wall (like Keke Rosberg in his Excita Formula Atlantic car), spinning, etc; All with sound effects of course. As I got older, my ‘Race Walking’ got more subtle, but once I had actually driven a race car, it took on a whole new dimension. To me, there was essentially no difference between steering/drifting the race car through a turn at Ontario and using the pencil I was holding to steer/drift my body through the ‘street course’ of cubes in the office where I worked.

There is a lot of information on this web site, but in my opinion the following three items that I learned during my three-day driving school had the biggest impact on my rate of learning, and on the level of performance I achieved:

  1. Learning to reduce the Sensation of Speed.
  2. Using Race Walking (Dynamic Imagery Training) to train essentially constantly.
  3. Using Imagery to discover ‘lessons’ in my experience and to program changes in my driving.

1979 – First Lapping Day (Controlling Polar Rotation / Driving a Trajectory on a Line)

The Experience

After my school, I had to do a lapping day in order to be qualified to take part in the school’s formula ford series. The 2-3 months of imagery training I had done was paying off; my SoS was down, I was much more relaxed in the car, and I was going much faster than in school. During the lapping day sessions, two things quickly became apparent to me:

  1. Because I was going way faster than I had in school, the ‘school line’ was no longer working in the high-speed portion of the track (turns 2–5); the elevated slip angles were running the car wide at the exit of the turns.
  2. In the early sessions I was having a huge understeer in the same right-hand turn where I had my first spin in school. I would brake and downshift, turn in, and then get back on the gas as hard as I could. However, every time I tried to get through the turn well, the car would get a terrible understeer. I was on the gas, with a huge amount of steering lock in it, but the car just would not turn.

The Lessons

  • Listen to the car; it is trying to teach you what you need to do to go faster.
  • When speed and slip angles increase, the increased slip angles cause the car’s trajectory to change so the ‘line’ must be adjusted to compensate.
  • Things take time; inputs take time to move energy, which takes time to create tire loads, which takes time to create traction/slip angles, which takes time to create the forces that act upon the car and cause it to change direction.

How I applied them to Move Up the Learning Spiral

  • I adjusted my line through the high-speed turns so my speed was no longer being limited by an incorrect line causing me to run out of track at the exit of turns (or be out of position for the next turn). The adjustment I made was that I would either move my apexes a smidge later, and/or I would turn in just a smidge earlier, but slower, so that the front end loads/slip angles would have time to build such that they would be maxed earlier in the turn, which kept the front end from skating past the apex because the loads/slip angles had not yet built sufficiently to keep the car on line…. If that makes any sense.
  • When I tried to go fast in school, an elevated Sensation of Speed held me back. After months of training, I had my SoS reasonably under control, but I had not yet learned to apply the benefits of that (freed mental resources) to improve my sensitivity. Instead, I was just trying to force things; rushing to do things the car was not yet ready to do… like trying to accelerate before it had rotated into the corner. So I started listening to the car in the quiet moments between actions (driving inputs) so that I could more clearly feel what was going on (what the car needed, and what liberties I might be able to take).
  • Listening to the car taught me patients, along with the understanding that I needed to give the car time to rotate into the corner before getting on the gas. Later I realized that the car has kind of a ‘default’ rotation point in each turn, but it was my job as the driver to use various driving techniques to control (advance or retard) the default rotation point when necessary to improve performance.

Well, that’s my first few lessons; I’ll be posting many more lessons as time permits.

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