Speed Secrets: Gearhead in Winter

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I December 04, 2013

The last track event of the season is over. The race car is packed away for the winter. The next time you get to bust her out of the garage is months away. The helmet has been Febrezed (an APB to all you track rats out there: is there anything that truly gets the stink out?). The ice chest has been wiped clean. MotorsportReg sits idle on your desktop. The cold, slow, dreary months of winter are all you have to look forward to.

Sorry, am I depressing you? I do apologize. But that’s the grim and icy reality for those of us who live where it snows in the winter. Hey, you guys in Nevada and Florida: why are you reading this? Go drive! The rest of us, however, have to figure out what on earth we’re going to do with ourselves until we can break out all our toys again come (say) April.

So, what does the gearhead do in the winter? Here are some suggestions:

First, plan for next season NOW. I’ve already made a list of all the niggling little (and not so little) things that my car needs to have done. I didn’t do them during the season because I didn’t want to put her out of commission when I could actually be driving instead. Why does my speedometer needle bounce around like that? Do I need a new exhaust after that weld failed back at Watkins Glen? Is it finally time to suck it up and install a roll cage, now that I’m instructing and driving with the big boys? Has my harness expired? And, of course, there’s the routine maintenance: all the fluids, the brake pads and rotors, the tires, checking the hoses, engine mounts, all that good stuff. My mechanic loves me and gives me first-class treatment because I don’t come to him on April 1st and say, "Hey, can you do this for me by next week?" Make your list, check it twice.

Second, speaking of lists – make your Christmas (or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Pagan Pig Roast) list. Why be silent and earn yourself another hideous sweater? Maybe it’s time for a new helmet. Don’t have a HANS device yet? They may not totally understand you, but most spouses and parents and siblings would like to keep you safe, and would be excited to get you new safety gear. Ask for a gift certificate for what is called in my house a "techno-porn" catalogue – stock up on bug and tar remover, wheel cleaner, and other goodies for the garage. Me? I’m going to be asking for a new communicator. I’ve heard that the latest generation of the Chatterbox is the best thing since the turbocharger.

Third, find another hobby. No, I’m not being facetious. It wasn’t until after I discovered high performance driving that I also found I could learn other new skills, and I ventured to try downhill skiing for the first time in my life. Not only did this make my winters something I can now look forward to, but it also taught me skills that were useful at the track-principles of weight management, forward vision, and embracing something challenging and scary. For you, it could be snowshoeing, yoga, or building a ship in a bottle – plenty of things will challenge your brain and your body in new ways.

Fourth, while we’re on brains: hone your track brain. Read, or re-read, the classics (of course, start with Speed Secrets and Fast Girl ). Then use the time you drive on the streets to practice what I think of as "conscious driving." I had a student this past season with the most gorgeous heel-toe downshifting I’d ever seen – perfect, seamless, bump-free downshifts. But would you believe he rammed the throttle and crashed the gearbox on every upshift? It was ugly. Practice smooth, beautiful up- and downshifts on your daily commute or the trips to the grocery store. And braking: aim for the "chauffeur" stop, where you can’t even feel the moment that braking is complete. I trained my left foot how to brake last winter; and I’m going to keep reminding it how to do it this winter. Re-train your vision, too: look far ahead, and try envisioning escape routes, even if it’s only around potholes. That way, you’ll be better prepared to look for the opening the next time someone spins out in front of you.

Fifth, there’s always virtual driving excitement. There has been a slew of good movies of late, as well as re-watchable classics that make for a great mid-winter evening’s entertainment, preferably (in my case) with a finger of excellent Scotch. Normally drinking and driving are not a good mix, but here is a very happy exception. My personal favorite isn’t long enough even to savor the finger of Scotch, but it’s the best nine minutes of driving I think you’ll ever see: C’était un Rendezvous (1983), a rip-snorting ride through the streets of Paris that should absolutely satisfy your speed-lust for at least a little while. Get your hands on it if you can! There are the new instant classics: Senna and Rush and 1. Then there are the fun retro classics like Le Mans, Grand Prix, Bobby Deerfield, and almost anything else with Steve McQueen in it (so what if he has only one facial expression? – we call it the "Steve McQueen School of Acting"). And speaking of McQueen, there’s always Lightning McQueen in Cars (1 and 2), especially if you have smaller people in the house.

Finally, enjoy the time off! Easier said than done? Maybe. But it’s also healthy to take a break and let your brain absorb all that it’s learned this past season. A mental and physical reset button is sometimes what’s needed to progress to a new level. Refocus on your family who misses you (yes, they really do, I swear). Get your body in shape so that it can be a better machine. When the new season rolls around, think how excited and prepared you’ll be.

Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe.

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