Once upon a time, I was afraid of nearly everything. I could barely make myself pick up the phone to call the pizza man, and I had a claustrophobic freak-out in a car wash. Autocross proved to be an unexpected fast track to overcoming fear.
There are two main ways people suggest when they tell you how to overcome fear: gradually expanding your comfort zone by taking baby steps, or leaping outside your comfort zone and letting it spring out to catch up with your new position. The first time I tried autocross, about three years ago, it was definitely a leap. It worked amazingly well, and I had a lot of fun. Yet, I didn’t stick with it.
The last time I tried autocross, I lost control and spun out. That’s ok–the course is set up to be safe in the event that you lose control. To drive well, you have to push the limits. When you do that, it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll go too far.
But the experience scared the crap out of me. Especially, one of my friends teased me about almost hitting a telephone pole. Even though I was nowhere near any telephone poles when it happened, from then on, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind that I could have hit a telephone pole and wrecked my beloved Miata.
For the rest of that season, every time it was a race weekend, I was too tired or too busy, or I had some other excuse. I had a season pass that year but went to only one race.
If I had admitted to myself that I was scared, I would have dragged myself by the ear and made myself go. So I didn’t admit it. I just kept finding myself really tired, way too tired to do something as exhausting as autocross. Two years passed.
Last weekend, I decided to try it again. The autocross guys were offering performance driving school, so I signed up. One thing autocross gives me is a safe environment for pushing the limits. Driving school helped me get much clearer than I’ve ever been about where the limits are and what my car can do.
Notably, it can maintain traction in a turn going much, much faster than I ever dreamed.
The thought of my spin-out was still with me all weekend, but the things I learned gave me new insight into what must have happened. The car can hold a turn at a surprisingly high speed, and I know I wasn’t going that fast when I spun out. Nowhere near. If I hadn’t felt it myself, I would have sworn up and down it was completely impossible for my car to take a turn as fast as I now know it can without losing control.
What caused the spin-out is I hit the brakes.
When you’re driving, you only get 100% traction on each tire. That seems obvious, right? How could you have more than 100%? But we don’t think of it that way when we’re driving.
If you’re using 100% for turning, you can’t ask for another 30% for braking. 100% is all you get. I was probably using 70% on that turn and asked for an additional 50% for braking. I guarantee that’s how I lost it.
In normal driving, you use so little of the car’s capabilities, you generally have no problem braking and turning. I’ve got about 20 years’ experience with normal driving, and I tend to drive like a granny on the street. When I get scared, which happens pretty easily, my first impulse is to hit the brakes.
Holy crap, metaphor for life right there.
I’ve always been one of the slowest autocross drivers, because I was afraid to go too fast or drive too aggressively. I love the feeling of catching Gs going around a curve or through a slalom… in someone else’s car, with someone who knows what they’re doing in the driver’s seat. With me at the wheel, I was still playing it very safe.
I started out that way last weekend, too. We did a full day of skills training on Saturday, and then had an autocross Sunday. For my first three runs in the autocross, I took it easy. The other students’ times were in the 50s (seconds); mine were 67-69. I was getting discouraged, and I didn’t know what I should do differently.
But I talked to one of the experienced guys, and he asked how I was doing. “Slow,” I said. He asked if I was sliding around or losing control at all. No–nowhere near.
“Well, this is your last run. Try pushing it. Go a little faster. Don’t worry if you hit a bunch of cones, just see what you can do. Make it count. Drive it like you mean it.”
I took his advice, and this time, instead of shying away when I started to feel the outward force in the turns, I remembered how the edge felt and realized how far I still was from it. I still felt a strong urge to slow down, but the other part of my mind knew it was ok. I let that part win, despite the discomfort.
Sometimes I imagine my fear as an ugly little bastard gremlin that I want to punch a few times and throw out the car window. But yesterday, it was more like a small child in need of comfort. I let it sit in its car seat, all strapped in. But I didn’t let it drive. At least, not nearly as much as usual.
And, what do you know? I knocked 8 seconds off my time, finishing at 61.399. That is a huge improvement.
When I was into autocross before, I always wondered how I could possibly go faster. I’d try as hard as I could, and maybe over the course of the day, I’d shave off a second or two. I’d still be at least 10 seconds behind the pack and utterly unable to do any better.
All that time, maybe the secret to going faster really was as simple as…going faster!
The next autocross is this coming weekend, and I’m excited to go into it with this mindset.
Another thing I noticed this weekend is I worry way too much about whether I’m doing well. I want to be good at this! I hate coming in third to last (although it beats last)! I don’t expect to win a trophy every time, but it would be nice not to be so far below average.
But I think that’s one way autocross is really good for me. I make mistakes, I do it badly, and what happens? Nothing. The world doesn’t end. Nobody makes fun of me. I don’t have to kiss anyone’s boots or pay some imaginary fine for sucking. In fact, everyone is unfailingly helpful and nice, and I get a day in the sun, talking to people and zoom-zooming around in my Miata with the top down. Last weekend, there was even barbecue for lunch.
I went ahead and bought a season pass. As much as I want to drive faster and get good at this, my goal for this year is to let go of judgment. If I can go, learn, and have fun, rather than worrying about times or feeling incompetent, that will be a major win for me. If I drive faster, too, that’s a bonus.
A lot of people stay away from autocross and keep their kids away because they’re afraid of losing control. They’re afraid if they let their kids try it, they’ll go hotdogging all over town and get in wrecks.
If anything, it’s the opposite. A few weeks ago, someone pulled out in front of me, and my autocross skills saved me from crashing into them.
Sometimes, hitting the brakes makes things worse, not better. Sometimes, the scary thing is what pays off. Some fear is the voice of wisdom, but a lot of it is just keeping us in our safe little boxes, never fully living. Whether your response to fear is to throw it out the window or give it a good safety seat, just make sure you’re the one driving.