Speed Secrets: Approaching - and Surpassing - Your Limit

By Ross Bentley

December 01, 2014

I'm really pleased to have Mike Zimicki join the team of Speed Secrets Weekly contributors. Mike has coached drivers such as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Ashley Freiberg, John Edwards, and Jon Fogarty (to name just a few), so there's no doubt he knows how to help pros win. But as he's worked at Skip Barber for years, he also knows how to help novices and drivers of all levels and types. So, learn from and enjoy what Mike has to share! - Ross
“Works of art are indeed always products of having-been-in-danger, of having-gone-to-the- very-end in an experience, to where no man can go further.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
Athletes who are exceptional in their sport push and establish and change what are perceived to be limits. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the holy grail of running was the sub 4-minute mile. Despite the many attempts and incentives to break the barrier, many of those involved in the sport thought it was unobtainable. Then, in 1954, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4-minute mile, after years of attempts. His record was broken twice more within two months, and by larger margins.
Many people felt it was more of a mental barrier that was broken than a physical one.
Whether you are a gymnast about to try a move never done before in competition, a runner trying to lower another record, or a driver about to roll out for a session, you most probably have a preconceived notion about what can be accomplished. What you think is the maximum can limit your performance. How do we not limit ourselves?
Find and explore the maximum. By incorporating maximum effort and steadily pushing against and breaking through your comfort zone, you will develop and establish new skill levels which will not only bring you more speed, but will also force you to invent and strengthen your coping skills for catching and correcting mistakes. Additionally, this will lead to more confidence in your abilities. Keep lightly pushing against those barriers and they will move back.
How do we approach this? The gymnast trying a new move in practice lands on the mats if they miss. At the track the consequences can be harsher, so our approach needs to be well-planned!
At a test day, the engineer and the driver have the same ultimate goal: to make the car/driver combo as quick and consistent as possible. Within these goals there can be some conflicts. The engineer wants a driver to be as robotic as possible, driving the same, lap after lap, so that the changes to the car can be clearly felt, seen, and reported on. The driver needs to be exploring and expanding their comfort zone, and in the process, developing their recovery/coping skills. The happy medium is an engineer who understands that every driver needs to continue to push their comfort zone in order to perform during the race weekend, and a driver who pushes their comfort zone in a reasonable manner, so that when mistakes occur - and no lap is without mistakes - they are small enough not to be catastrophic.
Small, constant pushing for more speed is the way.
Smooth. How often have I used that word to describe an aspect of driving? It can be a trap, though. What you feel in the car and what the car looks like from the outside can be two very different things.
I once worked with an engineer who said that one of the biggest lessons he learned about driving came from watching his driver (the current champion) on a test day, at part of the circuit where he could look down into the car (this is pre-data!). He was amazed at how much hand movement his driver used to make the car look so smooth. He said he never realized how hard the driver was working with small, early corrections in order to keep the car balanced and flowing at its maximum.
You should be working hard in there.
You have to incorporate and train at this maximum level and break though your comfort zone in order to be able to perform on the race weekend.
Prior to and during a race weekend, be careful of preconceived limits and goals. If you have studied prior data, you may think a previous best time of 1.34.2 is a good goal or a minimum speed of 87 mph in a corner is what you want to strive for.
Do not think of any data or numbers as goals; rather think of them as references to reach and then be surpassed. Do not let them limit your approach. Never stop pushing for a lower lap time.
It really should be, “Am I at my maximum? Have I extracted everything I can?”
Prior to turning a lap on a race weekend, know what corners are important in terms of overall lap time, and then, as part of your pre-session meeting, make sure you and your engineer agree which corners should be the priority to establish car balance.
You should also think of corners in terms of how aggressively your comfort level can be pushed. Risk versus reward is at play here - the corner with no runoff? Not the place to be constantly pushing for new limits. The corner with acres of grass on the edge? A better choice, but I need to stress that your approach should be incremental enough where a mistake is a correction and a loss of speed, not a spin or an off.
Once on the track, analyze and adapt to what you have, and always keep striving to find a new maximum. One of your tasks is also to have feedback for the engineer of what you need to push even harder in terms of balance and drivability.
Mistakes will happen, every lap. By pushing in a way that you know what you are changing, the mistakes will be small and can be corrected as they happen; they won't have a big effect on your goal. Analyze, understand, and put them behind you by the next corner, not to be repeated again. There is no perfect lap, so do not let a mistake set you back mentally for the rest of that lap or longer. I have seen plenty of pole laps with a “big” mistake in them.
Working on pushing your comfort level will not only find you more speed and develop your coping/recovery skills, but will make you better on race day when it all really counts. Do not let others or your own mind limit what you can achieve.
- Mike Zimicki
Twitter: @mfzimicki
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe 
Also be sure to check out Ross Bentley's book, Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving.