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What it is Like to be a Racecar Driver

Often times when people think about racecar drivers, they think, “How is that dificult, they are just sitting there!”  Many of you know this not to be true, and I believe you will enjoy reading this as I did.  Al Salvo and Miracle Sealants put together a great write up describing in detail to the layman exactly what it is like to be inside of a racecar.  “Just because we race on Sunday does not make it a Sunday drive!”

- Thomas

What its like to be a race car driver

At some point most of us have swung a golf club or tossed a football, offering an appreciation of what it takes to be a Tiger Woods or Peyton Manning.  We’ve also driven to work or the super market and thought when we watch an auto race that we have a pretty good feel for what’s going on in the cockpit.  After all, driving is driving, racers just go a bit faster… right?

Not exactly.  Driving your passenger car down the interstate at 75 mph is nothing at all like driving a racecar.  That’s like comparing flying aboard a Boeing 777 from JFK to LAX to flying aboard the space shuttle.

The best way to learn what it’s like to be a racecar driver is throw down a few grand and take any number of reputable racing school programs available around the country.  Can’t do that just yet? Well then, you’ll have to use a bit of imagination.  Follow these easy steps to get a glimmer of what a racecar driver goes through every time the green flag waves.

First of all, you’ll need to put on a few layers of clothes.  Maybe some long underwear, top and bottom, some fleece pants and fleece jacket – zip it all the way up – and then finish it off with a ski hat and gloves, socks and shoes.  Drivers wear the equivalent layers with their fire resistant suits and underwear along with a full-face helmet.

Now that you are properly dressed, step into a sauna, or any other room where the temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Jump onto a treadmill or exercise bike (in the same room) and get you heart rate above 130 beats per minute.  You’ll need to keep it at that rate for at least an hour and a half without stopping. There are no timeouts or halftimes in racing.

While your suffering through that, we’ll add a bit of strength into the equation. With one arm, hold a ten pound dumb bell and do one bicep curl every 10 seconds for an hours and a half.  At the same time, have someone holding a pillow hit you with a long hard swing about every eight to ten seconds.  Racecars are anything but the cajoling and protective ride offered by most modern day passenger cars.  Drivers will endure g-forces of up to 5g several times a lap as they deal with the lateral forces involved in acceleration, deceleration and cornering.  When you are slowing down from 175 mph to 50 mph in the space of 150 feet, it can feel like a simultaneous punch to the gut and to the back of your head.  And, while modern day racecars do have power steering and assisted brakes, its nothing like the help these systems offer you when negotiating the parking lot at the mall.  The cockpit of a racecar is a violent and strenuous place to be.

But, racing is about more than physical excursion, or daring, or suffering through intolerable environments and physical strength.  It’s also about precision, consistency and the ability to quickly analyze circumstances.  Every racecar driver has an amazing capacity to process data.  What often separates good from great racing drivers is not their ability to go fast, but their ability to assess situations on the racetrack and reflexively process them.  Unlike road cars, racecars are highly-strung and very sensitive machines.  They behave very differently when the fuel tank is full to when it is empty, or on used tires opposed to new tires.  Even small changes in air pressure and temperate will have a significant affect on its performance. So, to maintain a consistent speed, drivers must constantly adapt in response to what the car needs to maintain the race pace.

To simulate this, while you are pedaling away and doing bicep curls while getting pummeled in 100 degree temperature, have someone feed you a series of math problems, which you must answer correctly, while with your other hand, retrace a figure 8 on a sheet of paper without deviating from the original figure.

With a bit of training and practice, most anyone can jump into a racecar and go fast.. for one lap.  It’s doing it consistently, lap after lap without deviating more than a tenth or two of a second all while dealing with a host of variables that makes the challenge so daunting.

Starting to sound impossible? Of course this isn’t exactly what a driver endures, but it puts things into a relative context that we can all understand to offer a greater appreciation of the task.  Here’s a simpler test that illustrates the challenge of going fast.  Take a cup and fill it nearly to the brim with water.  Mark out three points of a triangle at least 20 feet apart.  Now, holding that cup in your hand, walk a lap around the three points without spilling a drop of water and time yourself.  If you spill any water, you just crashed and that lap does not count.  Once you’ve set a time, try to beat it and record how many laps you must do before you successfully can.  It’s likely to take a few.

Just because races are usually on Sunday, doesn’t exactly make it a Sunday drive for the pros who are hard at work to earn their victory.



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