Sunday, October 30, 2011

At the Track, Driving Not Watching

The back end snapped around so fast there was nothing that I could do to save it.  More experience, or quicker reflexes, or even better anticipation wouldn’t have helped me.  My talent cup doesn’t exactly runneth over.  There’s lots of room left and even if filled to the brim I still would have ended up pointing backward and heading in the wrong direction.  That direction being off the race track. 

One moment I’m rev matching a fourth to third down shift, staring down the Lotus in front of me, the next I’m looking at the track through the driver’s side window, adding in a bunch of opposite lock and trying to avoid the three other cars that have just experienced the same snap spin.  The Lotus driver and I were both pushing pretty hard.  I was striving to catch him, while he was working not to be caught.  Our goals were polar opposites, but our methods to achieve those goals were identical.  Neither of us anticipated what would happen over the next few seconds.

Driving at speed around a race track has a lot of similarities with life itself.  Drivers become conditioned.  Inputs result in actions.  As further reinforcement those actions are usually expected and desired.  It may be a slight steering correction at corner entry to catch a slide just enough to maintain control while allowing sufficient rotation to point to the car in the desired direction.  It might be simultaneously working all three pedals with two feet to properly slow the car, de-clutch and select the correct gear for the next corner.  It could be as simple as turning the key to start the engine.  Inputs result in actions.

This cause and effect relationship convinces drivers they are in complete control, that they have massive sway over their own destiny.  But they don’t.  Beyond other drivers choices on the track there lies a host of things completely out of your control while behind the wheel.  The weather changes right quick during the summer months here in the south, are those rain clouds?  Did that guy three feet away from me traveling at triple digit speeds remember to tighten the lug nuts on his wheels?  All twenty of them?  Does the manufacturer of my tires have a 100% inspection of their product before shipment?  What about that other guys tires?  I wonder what kind of wild animals live in those trees over there…

The list is all but endless.  It doesn’t take Mensa levels of thinking to quickly come to the potentially paralyzing realization the things a driver doesn’t have control over greatly outnumber the things they do.  Much like in everyday life.  I thought going to the track was supposed to be an escape?

Going from being a driver in control to passenger who isn’t doesn’t require one to switch seats.  All that’s needed is a little help.  Sometimes you help yourself, sometimes you get helped.  This instance was the latter.  Somebody a few corners in front of me had oiled down the corner.  Oiled it down right at the apex no less, which is about the worst place to put the oil.  Well, the braking zone wouldn’t be a good spot either. The turn in point could make things ugly as well.  The track out point sucks too.  Actually, there is no good spot to deposit oil on the track.  The best place for motor oil is inside the motor.  That’s why it’s called motor oil.

My brain barely had time to process the situation beyond the initial – HOLY CRAP DON’T HIT THOSE THREE OTHER CARS! – response.  Being out of control in a car and sliding off the track happens very quickly, yet, from the driver’s seat time seems to slow.  How much things slow is one of the differences between good drivers and great drivers.  Good drivers somehow slow things down to maybe one third or one quarter speed.  Great drivers slow it down to – did you see how the golf ball deforms when hit by the face of the club? – speed.  The slower it all unfolds the more time a driver has to reach into his bag of tricks and sort the whole thing out. 

Things don’t slow down all that much for me, which is just as well because my bag of tricks is the size of a Ziploc snack bag.  You know the ones.  Their one and only use is to hold and transport a seven year old amount of Goldfish crackers for a second grader’s school day snack time.  Yeah, they’re small.          

The whole thing unfolded in but a few seconds.  I came to rest in the grass on the outside of the corner, unscathed.  The Lotus was abruptly stopped by the concrete wall on the inside of the corner resulting in damaged body work and a mangled right front suspension.  I ended up with a good story to tell.  He ended up with a big check to write.  I relearned a couple of valuable life lessons that day:  You control less than you think and when things get out of control being good helps, being lucky and good helps even more.