Low Class Yuppie: The Mountaintop

Lemons Racing
Brian Makse

Hack auto writers, such as yours truly, like to compare themselves to one of two great writers: Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. We are, of course, neither. (Speak for yourself, “Mr. Radwood” — jb) The “journalist” half of the “automotive journalist” moniker is a bit of a misnomer. We’re less journalists and more like entertainers. Our job isn’t to expose corruption or give a voice to the oppressed (but we still get to do it sometimes). More often than not, our job is to entertain some guy in a waiting room with our story of driving the newest Corvette Z06 through Death Valley or testing the Jeep Gladiator’s water-fording ability while carrying a bed full of plywood and pavers. If we’ve done our job, we’ve distracted him from unpleasant thoughts of his impending prostate exam.

Everyone who has ever been paid by the word has a favorite Hemingway quote. Like many others, mine is “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” On the surface, racing isn’t nearly as physical as many other sports. We only see drivers running when they’re late to the driver’s meeting or when they’re trying to find the guy who just bumped them to make a last-lap pass. When they do eventually find each other, those fistfights often turn into decidedly un-athletic flailing contests, with few, if any, punches actually landing on their intended target. In my experience, post-race scuffles are a poor substitute for UFC PPV events.

However, it’s well-documented that driving a race car puts an incredible strain on the body. This goes without saying, but driving a race car is worlds apart from driving a street car. You’re going much faster, and the car is designed with minimal concessions for comfort or user-friendliness. You need exceptional strength, stamina, and coordination to operate a race car well. In addition, a race car is impressively hot inside, and it’s not uncommon for drivers to lose a dozen pounds during a race from sweat alone. Think about that the next time you see a well-meaning PR rep shove a Coke into someone’s hand when they crawl out of the car, dehydrated and exhausted.

I’ve watched many sports, and, for my money, racing is the most cerebral. The psychological game of racing is unparalleled in any other sport. It’s not nearly as obvious as, say, the battle of wits between batter and pitcher, but it runs far deeper. In racing, you’re racing your opponents, but you’re also contending with dozens of factors outside of your control, such as potential mechanical failures, miscues by your pit crew, the weather, your tires, and even the track itself. Racing might be one of the greatest examples of chaos theory in action. A spectator drops their hot dog wrapper, a gust of wind blows it onto the track, it gets stuck in your grille, your car overheats, your engine blows up, and your day is done. Weeks of preparation, years of practice, and tens of thousands of dollars, all for naught because someone littered.

If you’ve ever watched a plane crash documentary, you’ll quickly learn that airplanes don’t simply fall out of the sky. Each crash is a learning experience for the industry, and investigators eventually conclude that a sequence of a dozen or so seemingly inconsequential decisions, small mistakes, and oversights caused the tragedy. Auto racing is a lot like that, except dozens of little things have to happen perfectly to give you a shot at being a contender in the waning laps of a race. It can take even the most well-funded teams years to figure out the little things and get competitive. It doesn’t help that the variables are constantly changing, thanks to new rules, new technology, and good old-fashioned entropy.

On the track, your greatest psychological opponent is yourself. The mental strain of driving wheel-to-wheel at triple-digit speeds while you’re strapped into a 700-horsepower oven is compounded by all of the failures you’ve experienced before and all of the things that can go wrong. In addition, you’re constantly pressed to make snap decisions that will impact your race—and waiting too long to decide is, in and of itself, a decision, one that will likely result in lost positions or worse. Choose. Now. Right or wrong, you have to live with the consequences.

Michai Stephens is part yogi, part race car driver. He has an innate, intuitive understanding of human psychology, and he uses that knowledge to improve both his results (he’s currently dominating the Pirelli GT4 America series) and those of his students. He believes that driving a race car is a transformative experience that allows the driver to understand who they really are as a person – and grow and mature, if they so choose. Those snap decisions you’re forced to make behind the wheel will tell you a lot about your personality – your adaptability, your tenacity, your aggression, and even your morality. It’s like cognitive behavioral therapy at 160 MPH (or, if you want to really get in the weeds here, “acceptance and commitment therapy,” which is more or less CBT combined with mindfulness).

(There’s more than one activity called “CBT”, Cam. There’s Computer-Based Training, and, uh, well, that’s totally it, I absolutely can’t think of another one, not me, no sir — jb)

Of course, you don’t always have to use your powers for self-improvement. Recently, I’ve taken up iRacing, and while I like to race clean, I’m not above trying to get into someone’s head for personal gain. Dive in, low corner entry, fill their mirror. Back off. Down the straightway. Rinse. Repeat. Patience. It’s unspoken, but it’s there – “That spot is mine. I can have it whenever I want.” Build that pressure. Wait for the right time. Here it is – they’ve bobbled corner entry, taken a high line. This time, dive in, late apex, hold on tight. Clear? Clear. Slide job! They back off. No contact. They ruined their corner entry; you finished the job and ruined their corner exit, too. Now get away, or they’ll be crossing you over at the next one.

It’s happened to me enough times that I’ve caught on to the game, and while I’m not completely immune from its effects, I can confidently say that I’ve gotten a lot better at keeping my cool when I’ve got a mirror full of someone else’s front bumper – and I’ve gotten better at turning the screws, too. When another racer gets the better of me, though, it’s humbling. They didn’t just beat me—I beat myself. Maybe I overthought it. Maybe I underthought it. Maybe I was watching my mirror too much. Maybe I just couldn’t handle the pressure this time. When it happens to you, you’ll watch the replay and lay awake thinking about how you’ll try to do better next time. You learn about racecraft one race, one corner, one pass at a time. You’ll learn about yourself, too – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to keep going, keep learning more. One day, the sim won’t be enough.You’ll want to do it for real. You’ll need to do it for real. For me, that day has already come. I hunger for the truth within myself. With any luck, I’ll find it at the bottom of a fuel cell, after driving in circles for hours on end. Wish me luck on my journey to the mountaintop. I’ll see you next week.

Until then, may your straightaways be long, your corners short, and your apexes right on time.

Cam VanDerHorst is a stand-up comedian and lifelong car enthusiast from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He’s a bottom-split iRacer, but at least he’s a thoughtful and introspective one. 

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