Speed Secrets: Driving Flow

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I September 04, 2023
How to master driving flow

Why racing triggers driving flow.

For sure, racing is a challenge. And that can be a trigger for a state of mind that we, as humans, naturally strive for.

In his groundbreaking book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, writes about what causes us to get into a state of flow, or “the zone.” Considered the grandfather of the topic, Csikszentmihalyi knew what he was talking about, as he spent most of his adult life researching what causes a person to get into this state.

Being in flow is something that most everyone has experienced at some point in their lives, whether it’s in sport, playing music, driving, work, parenting, public speaking, or pursuing a hobby. For a few – the superstars of any activity – it’s almost a way of life. For others, it’s a fleeting experience; there, and gone in a flash. But experienced once, it’s something we crave to experience again and again. Track driving gives us an opportunity to flirt with being in the flow – it’s accessible, unlike many other activities we spend time doing. Where else can we test ourselves to the extent that a car at speed on a track provides?

One component that Csikszentmihalyi found will more often trigger a flow state is a balanced sense of challenge and belief. If you’re faced with a task that isn’t challenging, and you don’t believe you can handle it, you’re likely to feel ambivalent towards engaging in it. You probably don’t even want to do it, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get into flow doing it. If you feel you’re faced with a big challenge, and yet don’t have the belief in your ability to handle it, you’re likely to feel anxious and not perform at your best. If you’re facing a task that seems to offer no challenge to you, and you’re super confident in your ability to handle it, it’ll seem almost boring, and that won’t trigger a flow performance, either.

However, when you feel challenged, and yet have a deep-down-inside sense of belief in your ability to handle it, that’s when you’re most likely to perform in flow. A sense of challenge balanced with confidence leads to performing in the zone.

Driving flow chart

What does performance or race driving do? It challenges you. And most successful drivers have a pretty strong sense of belief in themselves (or they’re working their way towards that feeling, especially when they’ve prepared well for the driving task). That triggers a flow state, often. And we’re attracted to this state. In fact, we’re more than just attracted to it. It’s a basic human need. We want it, and we want more of it!

Performance and race driving does that. It provides an opportunity to experience a flow state, triggering all sorts of “reward chemicals” in our brains. Like dopamine. Flow triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, as do certain drugs. So, driving in flow is more than like a drug, it is a drug! While it’s questionable whether it’s less expensive than a drug addiction, it’s definitely healthier, and legal! For sure, Freud would have said something about this addiction (since he could speak from his own experience, being addicted to cocaine himself).

“Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty.” Road & Track writer Peter Egan

A driving workout, mentally and physically, is an attraction. Like a runner’s high, a racer’s high is triggered by the release of chemicals in our brains.

Ernest Hemingway apparently claimed, “Auto racing, bullfighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports – all others are games.” While there is disagreement over whether Hemingway actually said that, if he did, scholars believe that he was referring to the fact that the result of failure in each of these sports is more “consequential” than in anything else. The average person who has never experienced performance driving or racing tends to think that it’s this “cheating death” aspect that makes us do what we do. While there are some who do it for the thrill of being on that edge between life and death, most don’t. Most would even prefer if the sport were safer. But still, it’s a factor, one that Freud would likely relate to our desire to be cuddled by our mothers, or some even stranger conclusion (I don’t think he knew anything about track driving!).

Race and performance driving is also a huge technical challenge. You know how difficult it is to put all the pieces together, to put a great lap together, let alone multiple laps over the course of a race or session.

My first time driving on a race track, other than the local go-kart track, was at Willow Springs, still one of my favorite tracks in the world. That first time was in a Formula Ford, but my most recent experience there was in a LMP3 prototype sports car. And it was magic. The challenge of tying together the lines through the flowingly fast turns, the dance of the footwork on the pedals to adjust speed and weight transfer, the subtle but deliberate rotation of the steering wheel, and where my vision and attention was focused nearly caused my head to explode. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet, keeping my head in one piece! Oh, and that sound… the sound that can only come from a high-revving racing engine. And the g-loads building and fading; the visual picture in fast-forward. All did something to trigger flow.

The technical and intellectual challenge, along with the flood of sensory input, is why we do what we do. To ultimately experience flow.

May the flow be with you.

The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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