Let Go of the Steering Wheel!

January 25, 2012

Filed under: General — Luis A. Martinez @

Approaching 140 mph in his 2004 Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale at Watkins Glen Raceway, I sense that my student driver has a death grip on the steering wheel.

“Let go of the steering wheel!” I direct him via our inter-helmet communicator.

“What?” He shouts back, a brain surgeon probing the limits of the projectile he just purchased.

I tell him, “Release your death grip on that wheel.  You can’t sense the car when you’re so tense.” This is more information than Dr. Joel can handle on the fly.  I ask him to park the car so I can demonstrate.   We switch sides and strap in.  Engine on, I pull on the right paddle shifter of the fastest car that doctor’s money can buy.  Shifting up through the gears I carefully blend back into traffic on the racetrack.  I goose it going up the esses (entering a fast right hander at 90mph, then uphill left at 110, then right again exiting at the top of the curves at 130).  Dr. Joel observes and comments: Your hands hardly move!” Thank you. Perfect compliment.  Object lesson delivered.

Driving up the esses should be sheer poetry.  Driving on rain, ice and snow is done with a light touch, with smooth transfers left to right, gas to brake.  Race car steering wheels are thick, providing more feedback to the driver. But the tighter you hold the wheel, the less you feel the car. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s fact.

And so it is in life.  If you’re too intense about what you’re doing, you’ll miss crucial data points.  If you have a death grip on your function, choking the life out of your team, or supplier, you’ll lose sight of your own ‘vehicle’ (your career).  Are you oblivious to ‘track conditions’ around you (your superiors, peers, subordinates – customers)?  A lighter touch is needed.  At 140 in nose-to-tail racing traffic, staying alert to surroundings is critical to safety.  Are you getting a sense of your current situation, being alert to inputs, to people around you? Their moods?  Their view of circumstances?  When you sense that you belong, that you’re in the zone, you’ll experience what we racers mean when we say, “the track is coming to me.”

But there is also time for intensity.  Seven years later another track student brings a 2011 Ferrari 430 Scuderia, a red rocket with license plate: SCUDMSSL.  It’s Sunday afternoon. He’s been on track since Friday morning.  His instructor left; the driver is reassigned to me.  We go out on track.  I observe how he drives one lap, then I tell him: “Okay, I see what you’ve got.  Let’s work!  GAS, GAS, GAS!  BRAAAAAKE! Turn in! Now GO, GO, GO!, BRAAAAKE! Turn in! GO! Go for it, now! GAS, GAS! NO BRAKE HERE, NO BRAKE – TURN IN! GAAAAS!”

We did two sessions like that.  He had never gone so fast in his life.  When we stopped at the paddock he literally jumped out of the car – delirious!  He was so happy.

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