This article was originally written in 2016. Here, it has been reworked for the Out Motorsports community in 2020.
Since many members of this community are grassroots racers themselves, I hope themes in this piece can be applied to your own lives behind the wheel. Shoot, I’ve applied exercises like these to great effect in my own life driving school buses and in billiards competition.
This is my first piece for Out Motorsports and there’s a whole host of content – from classic cars and grease monkey hijinks to racing history and engineering – that I’m looking forward to sharing with you going forward.
Happy new year and happy wrenching.
And remember – Keep it on the track, not the roads.
Feed in the throttle. Tires clawing, peeling away at every pore, every crack, every bump in the asphalt – every minor irregularity sending you signals about grip level. Your eyes talk to you, staring down the track; a constant calculation to the next braking point. The steering talks to you; The wheel an extension to the nerves in your hand. Your feet talk to you; the vibration a sign of the car’s health. It’s 4:00 a.m. and the car is just as tired as you are.
BANG – next gear. This is your only chance to breathe. Your heart beating 180 times every minute. A moment of relative relaxation. But only just.
BANG – next gear. Breathe. Remember to breathe.
BANG – next gear. Engine desperately trying to tear itself out of the chassis.
BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE and get the car dancing – tires crying for help, downshifts gnashing the dog rings together like the teeth of an angry wolf. Hands pushing the wheel to the side as the car leaps into a corner as if that wolf has pounced.
Settle it. Settle it at the apex. Talk to it and calm it down, but never let the tires stop screaming.
Feed in the throttle.
Now repeat that 17 times every minute and a half around Daytona International Speedway for two, maybe three hours.
Sheer, utter, raucous violence.
Now sleep. Immediately. No time to waste; You’ll be back in the car fighting when your co-driver hands it over in a few hours, and then a few hours after that, and a few hours after that.
Off and on, for 24 hours.
Jordan and Ricky Taylor, multi-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship winners, have had to learn how to conserve their mental and physical energy to last the whole 24 hours.
They learned by blowing up barrels and making a ball float in front of them with their minds.
The Mind Band, a technology developed by psychologists at Formula Medicine in Viareggio, Italy, consists of two mental exercises testing concentration and relaxation.
“[There’s] a strap that goes around your head with an interpretation device by your ear that uses alpha and beta waves from your brain and translates them on a screen to show your level of concentration or relaxation,” Ricky explained in his 2011 training blog for SpeedTV.com.
“The first [parameter] is a game where the goal is to make a barrel on [a computer] screen explode with your level of concentration,” he said. “In the second game, there is a ball in the middle of the screen and, once you reach a certain level of relaxation, the ball will begin to float. With higher levels of relaxation the ball will float higher and longer.”
Brother Jordan explained the games are not nearly as easy as they sound.
“I couldn’t get the ball off the ground at all, at first,” he said during a phone interview as he prepared for the long Beach Grand Prix in 2016. “It took me about 15 minutes to get it to move the first time. Eventually it became easier and easier to do as we developed methods of letting go. In my case, that’s consciously thinking of things that make me happy and listening to music. You have to be able to switch off when you get out of the car and let go.”
The psychological conditioning at Formula Medicine is coupled with strenuous physical conditioning as well. Their doctors say cardiovascular testing shows apparent links between mental state and heart rate.
“My typical heart rate in the car is around 170 beats per minute (bpm),” Jordan said. “Just mentally you can raise that by 10bpm and immediately see the difference that makes in lap time.”
“[Results of testing] consistently show that drivers…give up about three tenths of a second per lap from qualifying to the race, simply because it would be impossible to maintain that level of intensity and focus over a full race distance,” Ricky said. “The goal of mental training is to try and reduce that gap, whether it is increasing the driver’s supply of mental energy through training and practice or if it is by making him or her more economical with their mental energy to achieve the same results.”
That economy of energy is a particular strength for Jordan even while in the car under green. Friends and crew members often joke that he sounds asleep when he keys the radio to talk to his engineer. Communication is kept at a low energy – quiet, with the fewest words possible – as he channels every available ounce into the actual piloting of the car.
Once the drivers come to the end of a stint behind the wheel they must relax and conserve as much of their remaining energy as possible. That’s where Jordan says he’s found his biggest gains.
“I’ve had the best sleep I’ve ever had between stints since we started training with the Mind Band,” he said. “The key is if you believe in [the science] you put it in straight away.”
Believing is a key factor according to Gary Hartstein, former FIA medical delegate.
“While I know Riccardo Ceccarelli [owner of Formula Medicine] very well, remember that he runs a very successful commercial enterprise,” he said. “And while high level athletes usually and correctly demand bang for their buck, I’m often surprised by how willingly they buy into intuitively attractive spiels without concrete, objective, quality evidence of efficacy.”
Hartstein explained, “To the best of my knowledge, a consistent, concrete effect of any mental training on performance has not been demonstrated, at least to a level of certainty which could pass muster with a quality peer-reviewed journal.”
So how does Hartstein, with his background in neuroscience and anesthesiology, explain the tangible effect the mind has on the Taylors’ heart rates?
“Short answer? Mental effort is a stress and could very conceivably cause the heart rate to increase through release of stress mediators [like] adrenalin,” he said. “This response can likely be ‘learned’ – think Pavlov, think biofeedback – and could explain the ability to raise heart rate ‘mentally.’”
Hartstein continued, “Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine I insert a pacemaker into you under local anesthesia. I then progressively raise the rate at which it paces your heart. Think you’ll demonstrate better cognitive function? Me either. The only situation where this might work is someone whose brain is seriously hypoperfused (low blood flow rate; ischemic) due to low heart rate, and in whom one brought the rate back to something normal.”
So the consensus of the scientific community remains fractured, but the Taylors most certainly believe in the benefits modern-day telekinetics has shown them.
Neuroscience does concede a bit, however:
“There was a wave of excitement about cognitive training and its potential effects on all sorts of performance in the late ‘90s and early 2000s but most of the quality science on the subject has been quite disappointing,” Hartstein said. “Of course a sense of wellbeing, of having covered all bases, can give that extra bit of confidence which certainly can be useful in a highly competitive sport.”
Lead photo by Patrick Palony, Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI, 2019.