The tough stuff we all face when on the track is, well… tough. Often, what’s hardest is admitting to what happened, what caused it, and how it should be dealt with. Derek Mortland has dealt with tough stuff, but more importantly, has helped a LOT of other people deal with it – on and off the track. He and I were talking a while ago about how we, as drivers, are often tasked with facing the difficult realities, the stuff we deal with inside our helmet.
Get ready, this is an article that may require more than one read, and some self-reflection.
Fools and Tough Stuff | by Derek Mortland
“To fool the world is one thing, but to fool yourself is no big deal. You’re a fool for wanting to fool yourself — and anyone can fool a fool.” Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch
Why this quote about fools? Aren’t we all here because of our wits, intelligence, and willingness to learn? As an instructor and HPDE Group Leader with NASA Great Lakes, I have the privilege of working with some really great people, both in our instructor and leadership ranks as well as our HPDE drivers. However, as we know, life is not perfect and there are times when difficulties are presented to us as instructors.
In most cases, the difficulty either lies in poor communication — yes, instructors need to take responsibility for how our information is relayed and received; or there is a disconnect in the student that prevents them from receiving and or processing the information, no matter how it is relayed. As, hopefully, we all still want to learn and improve, we will focus on the student. If you’re not learning and improving, you may be the fool of which we speak.
Even if we are not outright fools, most of us can recall foolish moments we’ve had on track (and in life). I for one have been upside down in a tire wall before. The sudden realization that I just made a very foolish decision was rather humbling. So let’s look at some of the internal disconnects that can prevent us from accessing our highest wisdom and driving with our full awareness.
In discussing this subject with my fellow HPDE 2 Leader Joey Pollak, who is a retired Navy Aviator and combat flight instructor, he relayed to me the phenomena of “Get Home-itis.” Get-Home-itis is when an aviator or crew will bend or break rules to get back to base, back to “Mother,” the tactical name for the carrier. As a result, bad things usually happen. Ninety percent of military flight incidents are pilot-related. In this scenario, the pilot gets ahead of themselves and puts higher priority on what they are going to do after they land rather than prioritizing the operation of their aircraft. Joey said this is why aviators were encouraged to think about “strapping on the jet” not hopping in the plane, because it makes you think of the plane as an extension of you, as opposed to something you just use.
We can also get “behind” ourselves to negative effect. The roll-over incident I previously mentioned actually happened because I got behind the car. My priority in that moment was on how much I was gapping the car behind me instead of the traction limit of my tires, which I was about to exceed. I can think of two other off-track excursions I’ve had that were caused by similar foolishness. What would have happened if I “strapped on the car” in these situations?
The lesson is simple, but the student is difficult. What we are asking of ourselves as performance drivers is of high order. In order to drive at or near the limit, we must be aware of our track position, attitude of the car in relation to our track position, track features (corner camber, turn radius, elevation changes, surface condition) feedback from tires, brakes and other mechanical components of the car, and our own selves. How smooth are we being with the brakes, throttle and steering, is our body becoming fatigued, is our mind thinking and processing clearly? It just takes a little Get Home-it is or driving in our mirrors to lose a little bit of concentration in one of these areas.
Beyond what we are being aware of on track and behind the wheel, we are also prioritizing the information we receive and establishing a tasking order for our next vehicle inputs or adaptations. Add to this some amount of adrenaline and a little bit of fear, and we now find ourselves in a stress pressure cooker. This is where our physical and mental resiliency comes in to play.
Resilience refers to both the process and the outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, according to the definition from the American Psychological Association. It’s having the mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and ability to adjust to both internal and external demands.
Re-read the above paragraph and then ask yourself, are we as drivers tasked to be flexible and adapt to internal and external demands? How do we remain flexible and adaptable?
The best drivers balance concentration with awareness. The dynamic balance of concentration and awareness is “The Zone” we all want to place ourselves in when driving on track. Think of a bird with two wings, one wing representing concentration and the other awareness. Both wings are necessary for any bird to fly. A bird with a broken wing will just flop around in a circle. Concentration and awareness are also necessary for metaphorical flight.
Failing to maintain a balance between concentration and awareness was the beginning of my foolish moment. Thinking of going faster and concentrating on making a bigger gap, while failing to be aware of my tires’ traction, track position, and control inputs led to my tire wall incident.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, none of us are here because we are dummies. We are here because we are intelligent and want to learn even more. The problem with being smart is that we also have more ideas. We can think through different scenarios and strategize various outcomes. If you’re an engineer by trade or training, you probably think through scenarios even more and have a whole table of strategies to use.
The tough stuff we must face as drivers is that we don’t have enough time to think on track. We are better served to rely on our memory than on our thinking processes. Ross has suggested we have a well of pre-programmed thoughts to draw from. By going to this well, we rely more on our memory than our intellect.
“We don’t see things the way they are, rather, we perceive things the way we are.” DovBer Pinson
According to Simon Jacobson, author, life-coach and Director of the Meaningful Life Center, memory is not the same as intellect. Memory is the ability to absorb information. Because we are smart, we tend to intellectually process before we absorb. How many times in life do we finish someone else’s sentence or thought before they get the words out? Our smartness leads to processing, but not necessarily better listening. The information we receive is filtered through our pre-conceived notions of how things should be or at best we run that information through our scenario and solution list. Our filters limit the amount of raw untainted data we receive. Hence we are familiar with terms like “a jaded perspective” or “rose-colored glasses.”
These filters are complex and almost every life experience we’ve had up until this point is a part of their construction. Some of them are so ingrained that we lack any way of seeing the world differently than it appears to us through these filters. However, filters have a positive function. Filters also protect us. We use them to tell when someone is lying to us and to alert us when we may be in danger. The objective is not to have no filters, but to be able to direct how and when we use them. We want to control our filters, not have them control us. This is the tough stuff, controlling how and when we direct our attention and what we become aware of.
My tire wall situation was a result of not absorbing the best raw data available and not having the car “strapped on.” I was outside the car and more concerned about processing the gap I was trying to grow. I was thinking when I should have been absorbing, and concentrating when I should have been aware. I broke my wing of awareness and pirouetted off the track like a wounded duck.
Awareness is suspending our processing to concentrate on gathering information. This is not easy for the majority of us, because even our memory is based on processing. We don’t always remember what we saw or heard. We remember how we remembered what we saw or heard. In other words, we remember how we reacted to what we just processed, rather than the raw information being processed.
Think about a lap at your favorite track; meditate on this lap. Are there areas of the track where your stress and anxiety increase? Are there as many reference points available in this area of the track compared to a section where you’re more relaxed? If not, what are you remembering about this lap, the raw data, or how you are mentally and emotionally processing this data? Would having more raw data help with any stress or anxiety?
By just being aware of our thinking processes and how they affect the information we’re gathering, we have already made progress. To continue this progress, let me offer an exercise from Simon Jacobson. Pick any book or text. Read just two pages. You can read these two pages as many times as you like. Once you’ve finished reading and remembering as much as you can about the text, get two pieces of paper and write down all of the author’s main ideas. You don’t have to write it word for word, but try to get a solid summary of what the author was trying to convey. Now go back and compare your writing to the author’s.
Most of us will find that we were able to complete this task with a 35% – 50% accuracy rate. If you are super aware, you may have caught yourself processing part of the text before you stored and memorized the text. However, there is hope. The more we practice this, the better we will get. Now think about the accuracy rate of the information you are able to recall from your favorite track. Is there opportunity for memory improvement? Could you also increase your awareness to capture more data?
In summary, we have all heard not to drive in our mirrors on track. We can likewise regard any mistakes or foolishness we’re responsible for as being in our mirrors. That stuff is behind us. We can’t correct our mistakes, but we can correct our thinking and programming that lead to less than desirable results. We can become more aware, both of the situations presented to us on track and our own mental processes while driving. We can become less foolish. If we are able to improve ourselves this way on track, is it possible to also improve our relationships, work performance, or whatever else we aim for in life? I wish everyone their best laps and their best life.
– Derek Mortland
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