Seven Steps To Achieving Zen At The Track

By Ross Bentley

January 22, 2016

Based on what you know of me and my love of working on the mental game of driving, can you imagine my reaction to receiving an article titled "Achieving Zen"? You're right, I immediately read Paul Conquest's article, learned from it, and loved it. It's awesome. -Ross
Sometimes it easy to predict who is most or least likely to achieve a state of flow on any given day. On one end of the spectrum is that person who screams into the paddock just after the drivers’ meeting starts, forgets to bring their inspection form, then sprints back to their paddock space to unload a car with mismatched body panels from a U-Haul trailer using a pile of 2x6 planks. At the other extreme, someone always arrives first, methodically unloads their gear from the trunk of their daily driver, checks their tire pressures and wheel torque, makes some notes on a clipboard, and still finds time to finish their Starbucks while chatting with some of the other drivers. I’m sure you can predict which of these drivers is most likely to “retire” first --- maybe even during the unloading process --- and which one most likely to achieve a state of flow.
I already know what you’ll be thinking as you read… this is just common sense. EXACTLY! But the problem with common sense is that it's just not that common. The intent here is to jog your brain just a little, and maybe share just one small idea that help you to prepare better and become more Zen-like when you slide behind the wheel.
Here are some of the things that help me achieve a Zen-like state of mind amid chaos:
Inspect your car well in advance. As an event organizer, I receive calls late into the evening before every event from someone who wants to withdraw because they were completing their tech inspection and “just found out” one of their tires is corded. In most cases, last minute discoveries like this mean scrambling for parts and not finding your preferred brand. And if you end up with something less than the race part you’ve become accustomed to running, it will change your car's performance, impact your frame of mind, and subtract from the enjoyment of your track day. That is, if you can still get it fixed in time for the event. This is easily prevented by downloading the event inspection form and becoming one with your car for an hour or two … at least a week in advance of the event. (Or if a third-party inspection is mandated, get it scheduled at least a week in advance). Get it done early, and settle your mind.
Make a habit of immediately putting your tech form in your car or your trailer! Its not going to do you any good left sitting on your workbench or your kitchen counter.
When you inspect your car, don’t forget your safety equipment. There may be nothing that feels worse than climbing into a crumpled-up, crusty driving suit that you forgot to launder … unless, that is, you forget your gear bag altogether and arrive at the track with no helmet, no HANS, and no driving suit. OK, maybe the organizer has a spare helmet you can rent so your day won’t be over before it starts. But how safe do you feel strapping yourself into the car with only half of your safety gear? What thought will be in your head as you come to that ‘favourite’ corner with the concrete wall? Are you still going to be comfortable pushing the car to near its limit? Probably your thought process will be at least a little cluttered. So make sure you are prepared with clean, comfortable safety gear that is in good repair.
And lastly, if you plan to work on your car at the track, check that you have all your tools and equipment organized and ready to go … more on this later.
Plan for the “unexpected.” Let’s be honest … dropping a valve is unexpected, but most things that might affect your Zen-like state are not. Is there a 40% chance of rain in the forecast? Assume its 100% and prepare for it by packing your rain jacket. Are you driving a fuel-sucking turbo that might run out of gas halfway through the third session? Prepare by calling the track or checking Google maps to see where you can get fuel. If it’s a long drive for fuel, pack a lunch you can eat on the way so you won’t be jammed for time because of the lunch line at the track. Food sensitivities? Call the commissary and see what’s on the menu, or pack a fallback such as your favourite energy bar. The common theme here is to think think through the activities that will make up your track day and plan ahead so that nothing “unexpected” takes your focus away from driving and having fun.
Develop a track arrival routine. What do you need to do when you arrive at the track, and where is the equipment you’ll be using? If you have a trailer, think about organizing it so that everything you need first thing in the morning is readily accessible. Your helmet and gear bag, tire gauge, and torque wrench should all be accessible without unpacking anything else. If you will likely be changing tires, your jack, jack stands, impact wrench and air hose all need to be easily accessible. This allows you to get through the critical tasks quickly and without any frustration.
If you don’t have a trailer, purchase a couple of Rubbermaid totes specifically for your track gear. These are great for keeping your car and your paddock space tidy, keeping prying eyes out of your precious stuff while you’re out on track, and keeping your gear dry should it rain. This also keeps everything in one place so you can find it the night before your event … no worries about forgetting to pack that special tool you need to adjust shocks, for example.
Little things make a big difference. Looking into the early morning sun through a dirty windshield will absolutely rattle you, so make sure you pack some glass cleaner. Spend a few minutes looking around your garage for the things you use often, and that could be very helpful at the track … a quart of motor oil, spare wheel nuts, a roll of duct tape, a selection of tie wraps, hand cleaning wipes. A used set of brake pads, for example, may be just enough to get you through the rest of a day (or get you home from the track) … far better than having to worry whether your last session will be cut short “unexpectedly.” Knowing you are prepared settles your mind.
Develop a car entry routine. There are ten specific things I have to remember to do, in order, when I slip behind the wheel of my race car. I am my own support crew, so if I miss step 1 or 2, I have to unstrap, climb out, and start over. I’ve seen lots of cars with a checklist on the dash. Label tape works great for this. (I should listen to myself here … maybe it would stop me from forgetting to turn on my Traqmate, or having to pit after the first lap when I notice the red “Remove before flight” tabs from my fire system flapping wildly in my mirror.)
Develop a post-session routine.  The first thing I do when I come off the track is adjust tire pressures, so I leave my tire gauge by the door of my trailer. I don’t even have to take off my helmet … I just hop out of the car, reach in the door to grab my tire gauge, and get to work. But I am not so hurried that I can’t leave my belts in the perfect position for the next session, so that I can slide back into the car, and into my Zen-like state.
Your post-session routine should include a few minutes to analyze your session. What went right? What went wrong? What are the faster drivers doing differently? What do you need to do differently next session? WRITE IT DOWN. This will help to commit the experience to memory, but also give you something to refer to later in the day. This is a good time to also commit to the one or two things you intend to focus on during the next session.
Make a perpetual checklist. And revise it often. If you are like most of us, you have a lot on the go. I’m often running the event I’m driving in, so its not unusual for me to run around like a headless chicken for two straight days before actually getting in the car. If I didn’t have lists, I would forget something important at EVERY event.
Your list does not have to go into excruciating detail; it just has to jog your memory. Mine is posted online here: Pre-Event-Schedule. The items in black are intended to remind me if I’ve unloaded some equipment or used the last of something, whereas the items in red are things I absolutely need to do before each event.
Before you leave the track … dig out your list and look over your car in preparation for your next event. How much tire and brake pad are left? What sundry items did you use the last of? Take a quick look through your Rubbermaid totes or your trailer. How much air is left in your nitrogen tank? How much fuel did you use, and how much is left in your track car? Make notes, send yourself an email, whatever works so that you are not “just finding out” the night before your next event that your brake pads are done.
“So, how well does all this work?”, you ask. Probably the best insight would come from asking my wife about my ability to stick to a routine. She would likely tell you that I juggle too many priorities, am easily distracted by intrusive stimuli, and can be somewhat absent-minded. Not the best qualities for someone who is responsible not only for their own safety on a race track, but the safety of seventy-five others, as well. Yet, I seem to be able to overcome those shortcomings by having a clear picture of what I want to achieve, starting the planning process early, and making LOTS of notes and checklists.
But routines and checklists are not just for easily distracted, absent-minded amateurs like me. There isn’t a successful professional race team out there that doesn’t have every critical task carefully planned, documented, and practiced so it is performed to the same high standard every time, without deviating from established routine - including a robust set of checklists to keep everyone on track (pun intended). If the pros who perform the same tasks as you week in and week out benefit from checklists (and the accompanying Zen-like state of relaxed readiness), wouldn’t you?
- Paul Conquest