A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to have noted Speed World Challenge and Grand-Am driver Randy Pobst on my team for a weekend endurance race. He was calm, gracious, and absolutely committed to the success of the team. He even allowed me to compare my data with his for the purpose of improving my performance. At VIR, that data showed that on our fastest laps I was almost 0.3 seconds faster than he was from the start-finish line to the exit of Turn 5a. Unfortunately for me, the race was not just to Turn 5a, and in fact he made up that gap (and, um, 2.2 seconds more) over the rest of the course.
More impressive than his driving, however, was the absolute sense of preparedness he brought to the event. He showed up right on time, no earlier, no later. He brought everything he needed and knew exactly where to find everything else. He was visibly fit, well-rested, and alert from the moment he stepped out of his rental car to the brief moment of consolation he offered me at the end of the race (“Did you survive? Yes? Well, that’s enough”). He communicated with the crew chief and team owner in short, informative bursts. When the team needed him to be present, he was simply there, and when his presence would have added nothing, he was mysteriously absent. In short, he was the perfect fly-in racer.
My plan for this weekend’s 24 Hours of LeMons at MSR Houston was to be the perfect fly-in LeMons racer: down to a reasonable weight, prepared for a three-hour stint in 105-degree heat, physically strong and mentally sane, alcohol-free, and with multiple nights of eight-hour sleep under my Nomex belt. That’s what I wanted to be. Here’s what I currently am: completely non-packed for the flight, celebrating my second day of vomit-free existence, feeling quite sleepy, and frustrated with myself for wasting valuable prep time learning the guitar part for Prince’s “Computer Blue”.
Your humble author’s attitude towards “fitness” over the past thirty years, including over a decade as an Expert-class and professional BMX racer, can be best summed up with a quote from the HBO series “Eastbound and Down,” where a pot-bellied baseball player dismissively tells a triathlete, “I play real sports. I’m not trying to be the best at exercising.” With that said, it has to be understood that driving a race car properly over any sustained period of time is hard work, and any driver who wants to win has to be fit enough to consistently perform that work. My knees are no longer good enough to run, so I bought an elliptical machine a few years ago. My traditional target for pre-race fitness has been the ability to maintain a heart rate of between 155 and 170 for thirty-five minutes while performing sustained “hill” work on the elliptical. If I can stay balanced on the machine and successfully surf the web on my Droid phone while I’m maintaining that level of effort, I figure I’m okay to drive — and, in fact, I’ve never found myself physically worn out during a race.
I started ramping up my activity four weeks before the Houston race, but for a variety of reasons — long work hours, too many late nights out, chasing my son around — I haven’t been able to exercise every night, and when I have exercised, the results haven’t been great. My bench-press has flat-out sucked, my elbows and shoulders have been protesting any attempt to increase the weight I’m using for basic exercises, and I’ve continually fallen short of maintaining my desired average heart rate. (Note to all the Fitness Expo types out there: I know that at the age of 39, a heart rate of 170 is too much for maximum benefit. I target that rate because it’s what I expect to see in the race car.)
With just ten days left to go before the race, I still felt that I had a chance to whip myself into shape. Naturally, I became suddently, and miserably, ill while traveling with Vodka McBigbra to the magical land of Canadia. I mean sick. It wasn’t just that my head hurt; my face hurt. I was dizzy, I couldn’t sleep, and I was having trouble focusing as we started our 325-mile drive home. “I don’t think I could feel any worse,” I said to my passenger… and then it started to rain.
At first, the rain was just an annoyance, but it got worse and worse. My visibility dropped down to perhaps fifty feet. Random blinking taillights appeared at unpredictable and terrifying intervals as we blasted by the dozens of cars which had elected to pull off onto the shoulder. If I hadn’t already been running behind schedule, I might have joined them. A monstrous wind was slowing the Town Car to the point where it became a real battle to keep it above fifty miles per hour, since applying anything above light throttle pressure immediately spun the rear wheels and slewed the rear bumper around.
“Can you see anything in front of you?” Vodka inquired, and in fact I really could not. Or perhaps I could. What we think we see is really a matter of perception, of manipulation. If the brain doesn’t immediately make sense of what’s in front of it, it will often discount the information. In a situation like this, sometimes it is best to simply relax one’s focus and stop staring so hard at the road. Let your eyes see everything in front of you and then listen to your intuition. Several times over the course of the 150 miles that followed, I sensed a car and was on the brakes before I actually saw the hazards flashing ahead of me. It sounds like hippy-dippy nonsense, but it isn’t. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the input provided by your eyes and ears is actually nothing like what you think you “see” and “hear”, and that in order to maximize that input, it’s necessary to stop staring straight ahead and gripping the wheel like you’re trying to snap the rim.
Which leads me to the matter of front-tire traction in the rain. I decided to use the trip to increase my sensitivity to wet-weather grip. I relaxed my hands until only my fingertips contacted the steering wheel. I fought with the car to increase speed until I felt the front tires “surf up” on the standing water. Even with a Panther, it’s possible to feel the moment when hydroplaning starts. It manifests itself as a lightness in the wheel. We think we are steering straight ahead, but we never really are; we are micro-correcting and we’ve come to think of that as “straight ahead”, the same way we think we are riding a bicycle “straight ahead” when in fact we are perpetually falling through balance points. Don’t believe me? Just take your hands off the wheel and note that the car seems to “move” or “steer” a bit. It’s not steering. Instead, the constant correction has stopped.
A few times early on in my drive I was too coarse with my adjustments and the Lincoln’s nose slid six inches or even a foot off the line before I recovered. Vodka just sat there fussing with the Sirius radio; my failure to crash a car with her as a passenger up to this point has imbued her with an utterly unwarranted belief that I cannot crash. From her perspective, everything that happens is like a roller coaster, dynamically exciting but actually occurring according to precise plan. I don’t bother to enlighten her.
By the end of my trip, my face felt it had been stabbed with hundreds of blunt needles and I’d run out of napkins on which to cough up horrible, Giger-esque creations of blood and unindentified gloopy substances — but I’d completely reset my rain-driving mentality and improved my traction sensing. I stumbled into the house, ran upstairs, emptied a bottle of NyQuil down my throat, and passed out in my clothes. Today, four days later, I’m finally feeling human enough to consider getting on a pressurized airplane. That airplane will drop me off somewhere, I will arrive on time for the race, and if I am not physically prepared for a three-hour stint in max temperature without power steering, at least I will be mentally prepared for rain. Until Randy Pobst starts racing crapcans, I’m the best fly-in you’re gonna get.