Speed Secrets: Getting Back on Track After Time Off
By Ross Bentley
July 23, 2014
I recently met Valerie Roedenbeck Maloof while conducting a training program for the Rally Sport Region of the PCA at Grattan Raceway. I immediately appreciated her ability to drive, her ability to articulate what she does behind the wheel, and her perspective on driving. Shortly thereafter, I learned to appreciate Valerie's ability to write, after reading some of her articles posted at PorscheMama. - Ross
For those of us who love to drive, having to take time off because of work, life obligations, or necessary automotive repairs and maintenance is no fun. We inevitably spend the weeks or months in which our cars are parked dreaming about getting back to performance driving at our favorite tracks. Thoughts of driving inevitably lead us to wonder whether our driving skills will have diminished after time away from driving at speed. Will my shifting be as smooth? Will I be able to brake as late as I did on that last session months ago? Will my lap times be the same as they were when I left off?
When I first return to the race track each year, I feel a bit off. I am, by nature, cautious, so my first sessions are slower and deliberate, as if the car and I were getting to know each other once again. Years ago, when I first started participating in performance driving events, my brother (an experienced instructor) explained that everyone - from a novice to the most experienced driver - experiences some loss of skills after spending time away from performance driving. The skillset, of course, was relative to each driver, as was the time each driver took to get back to their previous skill and comfort level. Even though this makes perfect sense, it's easy to become frustrated when one returns to any activity after time off and there is perceived under-performance.
Last year, when I went out for my first lap at Mid-Ohio after having been off for a good seven months, I felt little confidence behind the wheel. The helmet felt restrictive of both my vision and breath, and my Spec Miata felt foreign. My husband offered to go out in front to pace me, but quickly became frustrated with my slow pace and hesitation. The more nervous I became about not keeping up, the more frustrated I became with myself for not maintaining my level of confidence and speed from just a few months before. At the end of that first session, I was ready to quit and hang up the helmet. Why waste time on something that wasn't fun?
Instead of quitting, I gave some thought to why I was so frustrated and realized I was ridiculously expecting to step into the car and magically resume my track session of seven months prior at exactly the same level of confidence and ability. No person in their right mind would expect to show up at a marathon, based on having trained for a similar race a year prior. Yes, the skills are still there - but the body and mind need to become reacquainted with the skillset through practice.
Once I decided to let go of the expectations of what my car control and speed should be, I resolved to have fun and got behind the wheel again. The result? Within one session, my lap times were up to the previous year's. What had been holding me back was not lack of skills, but my own expectations. Often, in various activities, expectations get in the way of our achievements and enjoyment of life.
Last spring, I got back on the treadmill after "surviving" two months of a doctor-prescribed running ban. While I have never been a fast runner (a 9.5-minute mile is a brilliant day for me), after running consistently for nearly seventeen years, I have come to expect that getting through three miles on any given morning is a non-issue. That morning I ran a slower pace, my breathing was a bit tight, my hips and feet were a bit sore, and my stride felt clumsy. The experience reminded me of what it was like when I first started running; it took me months before running didn't feel like I was going through the motions looking (and feeling) like a drunken penguin.
My return to running also allowed me to understand why so many people never get to the point where they enjoy running - so much of the physical discomfort experienced at first goes away in time, but unless you stick with it, it's hard to believe running will ever feel effortless. Likewise, if the driver is having a bad session behind the wheel when he or she first returns to the track, it is hard to trust that with consistent lapping time, their skill set will return (and improve) and everything - from shifting to braking to throttle use - will become more natural and enjoyable.
I've found a good strategy for when you decide to resume an activity you were once confident in, but have not participated in for a long while. One of my favorite phrases to use both when I practice and teach yoga is begin again. Many times when trying a difficult pose or a balance in yoga, one falls. The more frustration sets in and the harder one tries, the more elusive a balance becomes. So it is with cars, too - the more we force our way through the track, the more we become less smooth and see fewer of the results we desire. Instead, I invite you to borrow this mantra and begin again: exhale, and get back up. Try the pose again. Try another lap. Fall again? Don't get the corner quite right? Try again. Every lap is a fresh chance to begin again.
Whether you are driving, running, practicing yoga, or partaking in whatever it may be that brings you joy, simply begin again. Let go of your preconceptions of how you should be driving, how you should be running. Begin again. Let go of what you used to be, and work on being a beginner. Remember how fun being on track for the first time was, when you didn't know any better? You probably smiled from ear to ear because you had turned a lap that you would now call a "parade lap." Remember how excited you were the first time you ran one mile, or a 5K? Tap into that joy and begin again.
Don't waste your time on what you were - invest it in what you are now, and make it better.
- Valerie Roedenbeck Maloof