Relax! The age-old problem of pre-race jitters

Images by Philip Royle

Relax! The age-old problem of pre-race jitters

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Relax! The age-old problem of pre-race jitters


It gets very quiet on the grid. Your body may be strapped in the racecar ready to race, but your brain may be screaming “jail break!” After all, following the rush to get the racecar prepped, you now find yourself on grid, alone with your thoughts. The question is: Are those thoughts friend or foe?

From where to paddock to the Rubik’s Cube of racecar setup choices to pre-race strategy, hundreds – if not thousands – of decisions are made each race weekend. Many of those multitudinous decisions go unnoticed, but others may bubble into your subconscious, leaving worrisome, doubtful thoughts just waiting to creep from your brain at the least opportune time.

You see, racers are often more aware of the condition of their racecar than their own mental state. They obsess about tire pressures but fail to ask, “Is my brain in the right gear?” Many just hop in, strap down, and hope for the best – but that shouldn’t be the case. So, before the next race weekend arrives, let’s work on those thoughts.

“What did I forget?”

You can’t feel like a superhero if your cape is in the trailer. You need an established process to complete your car prep without fail, allowing you to flip the switch from mechanic to driver. The mechanic looks for what can go wrong, and then prevents it. A driver needs to think that nothing can go wrong. If you are sitting on the grid, worried to death that you forgot to torque the wheels, you’re not going to exude confidence.

Most SCCA racers pull double, or triple, duty in the paddock, acting as both crew and driver, and that much work can leave you with little time to get into the right headspace.

The fix: The list of things to be forgotten is lengthy. A checklist lets you do the work without worry. You want a strong sense of being ready, not a question mark.

“I’m just not that good”

Many drivers harbor the notion that they are permanently doomed to last place. Instead of fretting that others are naturals, why not think about how you can improve? The evidence is overwhelming that successful performers aren’t naturals; they work hard at their craft. Also, the more frequently they put in quality time, the better they get. Lamenting that you didn’t win some genetic lottery is the ultimate excuse.

The fix: Ask yourself, where are you weak and what is your plan to do something about that? Like virtually every other task known to humankind, driving a racecar is a learned activity. Set achievable goals for each race weekend and concentrate on those.

“I’m really nervous. Does this mean something’s wrong?”

Everybody has nerves. Some drivers are as cool as cucumbers, others are hot tamales, but most are in between. Getting pumped up just before a race is rarely necessary or helpful.

“Let nervous energy out like a deflating balloon …”

I follow Jackie Stewart’s model, letting nervous energy out like a deflating balloon. I withdrew from interactions and aimed for a quiet, emotional flat line. It is about discovering what works best for you.

The fix: Nerves should be viewed as allies, not enemies. They are alerting you to be on your toes. Pay attention, but don’t freak out. It will feel better once the car rolls off the grid.

“Is the problem me or the car?”

Drivers often make multiple racecar setup changes to make the car better. Sadly, this creates uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds tenuous inputs and takes you farther afield. If you made multiple changes, there is no way you can ascertain what did or didn’t work, and now you’re even less likely to be able to concentrate on the race at hand.

The fix: Go back to your most basic racecar setup sheet and try things one at a time. It takes longer, but then you know what works. Confusion is kryptonite to confidence.

“I’m mad! Everyone out of my way!”

This approach works well in the movies, but in the real world, anger is a drag chute handicapping your performance. For short bursts of time there may be some gains as you push past prior levels of commitment but driving while enraged results in serious inconsistencies and has a major adverse impact on your judgment.

The fix: You want a sense of firm resolve behind the wheel, not a red mist of anger and desire. It sounds simple, but cool down, then race.

“I’m tired.”

Pay special attention to this one. This is more of a mental idiot light than an anxiety balloon, but it’s not to be discounted. Racers are often unrealistic about how much they can accomplish in any given timeframe. They believe they can tow 10 hours and be fresh in the morning. You need to acknowledge your condition and get some rest.

Admittedly, in the throes of the race weekend, this can be a very tall order, but just know this: some of my biggest wrecks occurred when I was exhausted. I stubbornly refused to recognize the problem.

The fix: Persistence is grand, but only up to a point, and “I’ll be fine when I’m in the car,” only works to a degree. Arriving exhausted is simply no good, so plan ahead.


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