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The Next Step Episode 23: If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

The Next Step Episode 23: If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Dear Aaron,

We amateurs must make you pros laugh when we ask how fast we should be at a certain track or in comparison with another driver!

Here’s a similar scenario. I was a baseball pitcher and now my son is a pitcher in junior high. Much like lap times, there is an obsession with the radar gun and how hard you throw. But becoming an effective pitcher requires a lot more than just pure velocity.

Lap times make it just as easy to (incorrectly) measure yourself against others. I have no idea how fast your friend’s BMW track car is or what sort of modifications it has, but I saw the lap time and immediately thought "God, I'm so much slower." And I may very well be. But the whole psychology of it is very interesting.

Sounds like a good column topic, doesn’t it?
Chris T.
Long Island, NY

You make an excellent point Chris. As a professional driver coach I am asked numerous questions each year that I answer with the following: if a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

Let me cite a few examples: “Hey coach, how fast should I be at VIR? My friend Jim has run a 2:12 lap at Watkins Glen and a 2:10 lap at VIR. His car is the same year as mine, but I have different tires and I’ve never been to VIR, but normally I can post a 2:11.3 lap at Watkins Glen. With that in mind how quick will I be at VIR?”

Or this: “Aaron! Bob just emailed and says he holds the track record at the Thunderbolt circuit at New Jersey Motosports Park, and I should be running 1.2 seconds faster than I did last weekend. He must have the short ratio gearbox in his car – I think I need one. Will it give me that extra 1.2 seconds?”

I love my clients; I work as hard for them as I do for myself, leaving no stone unturned in a seemingly never-ending quest for more speed. It’s true one of the nice things about racing is that the stop watch provides the definitive answers, but there is a lot to consider.

1.    Lap times are relative to many constantly changing factors: On any given day, the average race track can be plus/minus one to two seconds. Engines run faster in the morning when it’s cooler, or late in the day when the sun is going down. Ever notice that most track records happen in the fall? October is a lot cooler than July no matter what time of day it is. Track conditions also change – more rubber, less rubber, rubber that makes it greasy for your tires and rubber that helps your tires. I’ve run Pirelli World Challenge races where the track accumulates rubber build-up from with American Le Mans Series cars, World Challenge cars, Playboy MX-5 Cup cars and IZOD Indy Cars all in the same day. The end result is a diverse mixture of companies and compounds! Surface changes also happen; whether it’s oil, weather changes, or someone cuts a corner and throws dirt all over the track just before you run your fresh tires. Heck, even missing your ‘ideal lap’ on new tires equates to a full second on track.

Therefore, due to these factors (and others):

2.    Lap times rarely tell the full story.

Before anyone gets too excited about who posted what lap time, or how fast they should be, remember:

A)    Who cares?

B)    Refer to rule #1 – lap times are relative to many constantly changing factors.

Everything I’ve said thus far should be taken within the context of driving the same car. The second we start vectoring in lap times from another car we are dealing with a new set of constantly changing factors, and this is where things get complicated.

Also, do we ever truly know what’s going on under the hood of the competition? There are many ways to build and set up a car. There are also many ways to cheat with a car. The bottom line is we can never be sure about what the other guy is driving. Just because you may have the same car as someone else means nothing.

How is your car set up? What kind of shocks do you have? When was the last time your shocks were dyno-tested? What about spring rates or the type of springs? Has your car been tested on a shaker rig? Have you done a geometry study of your car to optimize your set up for roll centers and roll rates? Did you check the spring rate/stiffness value of your tire sidewalls like the NASCAR teams do – to make sure your tires are not skewing your set up? What kind of differential do you have – did you tune it? What about polished gears and shorter ratios? Did you tune the exhaust? What about the ECU? Do you have a skilled engineer tune it each day? Did you dyno-test the car at different elevations? Is your motor three hours old or 30 hours old? What about fuel additives or aerodynamic tweaks? Did you build the car underweight so that you could optimize the balance and set up by using ballast? Did you test five times at track you’re racing on?

You get the point, but most importantly, has your competition done any or all of these things?

This discussion leads me to the title of this piece: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound? It is impossible to answer that question, just as is it impossible to answer any question about potential lap times because there are so many variables.

But there is one thing that never changes and it is one of the guiding principles in sports psychology: The more we focus on lap times, the slower we go.

It is a very simple equation: when you think about anything other than the next corner, you subtract focus from the next corner and the lap suffers. It’s a vicious circle.

The stopwatch can be a driver’s best friend, or worst enemy.

To perform your best in any forum you must focus 100 per cent on the task at hand. On a race track there is virtually no time to think about anything other than driving. It is essential that we concentrate on the next corner. My good friend and mentor Randy Pobst calls this “Thinking Ahead of the Car.” What this means is you always need to be thinking of the next thing you need to do (the next braking point, visual anchor, apex, up-shift, etc.). The second your mind wanders it harms your ability to be 100 per cent focused on the next sector of track. Ninety-nine per cent is simply not good enough.

This is true once you are off the track as well. For every minute you spend thinking about your times or other people’s times you are subtracting a minute from your own agenda. You are subtracting focus from yourself. Never think about how you compare to the competition. Focus on what you need to do to improve. There are so many things that can help your weekend and your career. Any time you venture from that you are reducing your chance of success.

There is a holy trinity to success - you, the car and the track. Nothing else should exist. As I often remind my clients, ‘Is your competition driving your car? Are they setting up your car? No? Then why do we care about them?’

Stay true to the process and the fine details of what is takes to extract the best out of you and your machine. The process is what produces a great corner, a great lap, a great session, a great weekend and a great season. Without the process, there is no lap time. Once you give yourself into to this understanding, everything becomes a lot less stressful and a lot easier.

The process is the lap time.

Yours in going faster,

Aaron

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