Are Race Drivers Athletes

Episode 240

November 25, 2018

Story by JG Pasterjak, Grassroots Magazine, October 14, 2014 (Used with permission)

J.G Pasterjak, Grassroots Magazine Production Manager/Writer on right with David S. Wallens Grassroots Magazine Editorial Director/Writer at Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona 2017. (HTF Motorsports photo)

All Sports are the Same: 4 Tips for Any Sportsman

My buddy Cliff recently discovered autocross. He decided it was time to spend a few bucks on a performance car, went out, and bought a brand-new Challenger R/T (with a six-speed, so he got that part right). Shortly thereafter, he found himself at the Central Florida Region SCCA’s season-opening Solo event at Sebring.

I know Cliff from one of my non-automotive pastimes: a discipline known as action shooting or speed shooting. I’m an active, enthusiastic competitor with an organization called the United States Practical Shooting Association. Some of you may be familiar, but for those of you who aren’t, a USPSA event is basically a gun autocross. You negotiate a set course containing several targets, and your speed through the course and accuracy are paramount.

I’m moderately skilled, but Cliff is pretty accomplished. His ranking is in the top 10 percent in his division nationwide. In autocross terms, he’s like one of those guys you constantly see in the top four to five trophy spots at the Solo Nationals.

Cliff asked me to help him in his autocross endeavors by accelerating his learning process, which is something I’m glad to do. But as I’ve been giving him little hints and tips for his next time behind the wheel, I’ve noticed that they pretty much apply to any sport–which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that all sports are basically the same. Here are my observations:

1. Smoothness is always good, not just when it comes to Scotch and soul singers. Whether you’re clipping an apex or swinging a golf club, smoothness will pay dividends. Every motion you make with a steering wheel creates friction at the contact patch, and friction slows you down. That means every adjustment you make once you’ve set a cornering arc is wasted effort, lost speed, and another chance to make a mistake.

Imagine deciding mid-golf swing that you want to open or close the clubface, or move your point of contact forward or back. Too late. You’d be lucky if you didn’t embarrass yourself at that point. One club arc, one turn-in, one apex, one track-out: These are your goals.

2. Efficiency is the first cousin of smoothness. I used to fence. No, not install pine panels in people’s yards to keep their dogs from running away, but fight other people with swords. In fencing, you learn really quickly that efficiency of movement is essential to success. Every twitch of your wrist is magnified at the tip of your foil, and every one of your movements is designed to provoke a certain reaction from your opponent. Wiggle your sword around like Errol Flynn (who was an accomplished fencer, but hammed it up on-screen), and you’re just wearing yourself out and giving your opponent opportunities.

Sawing at the wheel mid-corner? Jumping back and forth from throttle to brake several times during cornering? That’s hardly efficient, is it?

3. Your sports equipment is almost invariably better than you. Practical shooting offers a perfect example. My primary competition gun is what’s called an Open-class pistol. It’s the pistol equivalent of an A Mod car: heads-up optical sight, recoil compensation through ducted gas ports, multi-spring doodads to reduce recoil. It’s designed with few compromises to shoot fast and accurately. Cliff shoots primarily in the Limited division: iron sights, no blast compensation, more restrictions. Yet he routinely beats me, because he’s simply a more skilled shooter.

Likewise, on the weeks when I shoot my Limited gun, I sometimes find myself going faster and performing better than I do with my Open gun. It’s likely because I’m focusing more on my technique than my equipment.

A car never makes any mistakes. It’s only when a driver gets behind the wheel that stupid things start to happen. Think that way about your approach to speed.

4. Victory is as much about recovering from your mistakes as it is about excelling. In the very first play of this year’s NFC Championship, the San Francisco 49ers stripped the ball from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and recovered deep in Seahawk territory. But instead of that being the first domino in a Seattle collapse, the Seahawks held the 49ers to a field goal and went on to win the game–and the Super Bowl.

We’re all going to make mistakes at one point or another. In the entire history of recorded motorsport, probably no one has ever laid down a theoretically perfect lap or autocross run. There are simply too many variables. But success will come to the competitor who can best leave those mistakes behind and continues with the business at hand.

I’d love to hear other parallels you’ve found between your motorsport activities and other sports–or even more mundane activities. Anyone who’s ever found the most efficient lines around their yard on a riding mower knows what I’m talking about.

Thank you J.G.! My thoughts from watching and participating in motorsports and ball & stick sports.

Point one, smoothness. I definitely will not be a motorcycle motocross racer. With fewer than four wheels and jumps which always carry landings (something about that Newton fella), I don’t think my back would take punishment.

After observing some laps at a local motocross track this fall, Mark McKissick, the local pro, pointed out quicker riders made the dirt track work for them by choosing a line which minimized handlebar turns. The large rooster tails were not always a sign that a fast time was on its way. The spot in the turn exit and how quickly throttle could be applied made a huge difference.

Ethan LeBlanc, Hamlin, Maine,  aboard his Yamaha demonstrated the necessity of positioning in turns which through smooth application of the throttle after rolling off the brake, made for little wasted energy.

Ethan LeBlanc at speed in a turn. His position in the turn allowed him to maximize corner exit speed yet still be smooth. (HTF Motorsports photo)

One thing learned very quickly in kart racing is that “drifting” in turns may look and sound exciting, however, with limited horsepower such antics only slow the lap times down. It seems the faster drivers without all the smoke and squealing of tires find themselves on top of the timecharts.

As a former baseball player and coach, I have observed that the shortstop who makes the remarkable catch of a ground ball in the hole will rarely get the runner at first without a smooth, yet rapid transition from catching mode to throwing mode.

Faith Sjoberg on her way to Elks National Foul Shooting contest in Chicago, Illinois.Faith Sjoberg, now at Presque Isle High School playing on the varsity basketball team, has won countless foul shooting contests at the local and state level and has competed nationally. I have watched several of her television interviews and note the smoothness and constancy of her technique. If I need someone to take a foul shoot for my team, it would be her. Smooth as silk. (Kevin Sjoberg photo)

J.G.’s point two, efficiency. As J.G. mentioned, when he was fencing, the sport not the divider between properties), on small movement influenced where the foil tip would be located. All the wild waving of the sword did not make a good fencer.

I am unsure if you have had the chance to push start a car. If you are one of the grunts in the back pushing the car, if the driver turns the wheel slightly you notice how much more effort is required to push the non-starting vehicle.

Imagine what this does on the race track where lap times are measured in hundredths of a second. You do not want the driver expending precious power when minimizing wheel turning is the preferred method. Ya it’s not showy, but the trophy is.

In my opinion hitting a round baseball with a round bat is one of the most difficult tasks in sports. The degree of difficulty increases as the speed of the pitch and the spin (or lack of spin…knuckle ball), which causes gyrations that only a physics professor can explain.

Baseball player undercutting a pitched baseball. (Photo courtesy Pixabay)

Imagine what happens if the batter makes many twitchy movements of their bat as the pitch is thrown. More than likely no contact is made.

Point three, equipment I harken back to my days as a Sportsman stock car driver at Spud Speedway in the mid 1970’s. For two years I drove lousy stock cars which I call my “spin machines” because I learned the technique needed to recover from frequent spins on the racetrack.

Sportsman class car that was built by Bob Alexander that I drove for two years at Spud Speedways top class. I won 14 races in this car (HTF Motorsports photo)

It was the special purpose-built 1963 Ford Fairlane Sportsman #10 that Bob Alexander built that help me realize how important the machine is in the equation. I was fortunate to drive lousy equipment for two years because I recognized immediately that a well set up stock car could be fun to drive and competitive at the same time.

Whenever I tried to set up this car, I missed the mark. I would then spend the money to have Bob Alexander return the racer to the settings which allowed it to run best. That was when the car was fast.

The point that J.G. was making about the car being better than the driver applied with the Alexander built car. I am not so sure about the two “spin machines”.

I remember when coaching baseball (16 years at Little League through varsity high school level) a baseball bat would be purchased by a parent or grandparent for their future major leaguer.

Note, sometimes the expensive bat did not allow their superstar to hit any better. Maybe the occasional lucky swing where contact was made was enough incentive to pay the hefty price of a top line bat.

Likewise that 13 inch long glove endorsed by the superstar pro did not help the Little League outfielder who could barely open the web of the glove let alone catch a flyball.

Point four, recovery from mistakes. We all make mistakes. In racing as long as the mistake doesn’t kill or maim you, or total your car, recognizing the mistake and working to not repeat it can make a bad experience a positive learning experience.

I once read that Formula One driver Gilles Villeneuve when learning to drive his Ferrari would approach a turn at increasing speeds until he spun. This was his way of learning the limits of his car. I am not recommending you or I try that with a race car or bike. The quick hands and superior skills of Villeneuve are indeed very rare, so don’t hurt yourself by smashing into walls or dirt berms.

Sure explore the limits of your racer, however, hold back the fraction before a spin or crash is imminent is my recommendation. As J.G. mentioned, the past mistake is just that, in the past. Learn from it and move forward.

Once again I am thankful to J.G. Pasterjak for the insight displayed in his article. I too would welcome any feedback you might have about one of his points or all points. Email me at thale@reagan.com

Speaking of feedback…

After last week’s episode on driving experiences with Richard Petty and Rusty Wallace, I heard from a couple of UpNorth Motorsports readers about their experience with that type of adventure. I present their photos to you now.

Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame Class of 2018 member, Tom Peters of Presque Isle said,”Saw your blog this am and it reminded me of this.

Tom Peters at the Walt Disney World Speedway before going out in the Richard Petty Driving Experience #43 Pontiac Gran Prix car in 2002(Tom Peters photo)

Peters remembered, “My fastest lap speed was 125.16 mph on lap 7 of the 8 laps run. I must have been getting tired”.

” It was a real thrill. I ended up being second fastest of our group of 8 (I believe) and all much younger than me. The guy running the show came to me when I pulled into the pit and started pounding me on the shoulder and said, ‘You should have gone a little faster’. I said I went as fast as I was comfortable.”

“Then he said a little more and you would have been the fastest.  ‘Not bad for an old man’”.

Phil Miller, Caribou, climbing aboard the #29 Richard Petty Driving Experience Chevy Cup car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Phil was unsure of the exact year of this ride along. (Miller racing photo)

Phil Miller awaits his ride in a Lamborghini as part of the Exotic Car Ride-Along at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2014. (Miller Racing photo)

When asked about his two ride along experiences Miller said, ” In the stock car I didn’t think the car would stick to the corner. After the second lap I really started enjoying it.”

“In the Lamborghini, when we came off the banking into the infield I thought we were all going to die. All-wheel-drive on the Lambo’s are great for grip.The driver and I talked the whole time on the radios in our helmets.”

If you want to experience the thrill of either riding along with an experienced driver or drive a super late model stock car yourself, the Rusty Wallace Driving Experience is coming to Spud Speedway in Caribou June 14, 2019. Their website is http://www.racewithrusty.com

Look for Spud Speedway specials once you are at the site.

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Matt 5:16)

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine