Speed Secrets: Why Do We Do What We Do?

By Ross Bentley

May 25, 2015

Image: SCCA Track Night in America
Some people would say that driving around a race track is not the smartest thing to do! In fact, you may have had your sanity questioned more than once. Perhaps you’ve had someone give you THAT look when you tell them how much you spend on your passion. Or they’ve questioned your concern for the environment, your safety, or the care for your family.
I’ve talked to thousands of drivers over the past few decades, specifically asking the question, "Why do you race or participate in performance driving?" A couple of months ago, I asked that question in this publication and on Facebook (the ultimate source of scientific research, right?). Some of the comments I’ve heard over the years are:
  • "The constant and never-ending learning. You can never learn too much. There's always more."
  • "I enjoy the camaraderie at the track. When you're with like-minded people who are passionate about what we do, there's nothing more enjoyable than that. It's fun."
  • "I love the feeling of driving close to or at the limit, having the car on the knife edge of control."
  • "I've always loved being around cars. There's something about them that I love. And the people that hang out with them are great."
  • "It's the ultimate challenge. It's thrilling, it's difficult, and the penalty for getting it wrong is extreme."
  • "The sense of satisfaction that comes from doing it well."
  • "Competition. I want to beat every other driver on the track, whether I'm faster or not - I just want to be in the lead at the end of the race."
  • "To be completely honest, it's the glory, the ego trip. I get off on being the best, on winning, on taking home the trophies. But I might not admit that to everyone!"
  • "I have too much money, and I can't think of an easier and quicker way to get rid of my money than to spend it on cars and driving!"
For some of us, we do what we do because of things that happened at an early age. When I was 6 years old, I got a DinkyToy of a Jaguar D-type. There was something about the lines and the shape of that car had an effect on me. A couple of years later, a friend and I were walking alongside of a rural road, and something happened that imprinted itself on my memory: a lemon-colored Lotus Europa approached an intersection, and without slowing down one MPH - it may have even sped up - zipped around a corner as if on a slot car track. I literally stopped in my tracks, my eyes got bigger, my jaw dropped, and then my face dissolved into a huge smile.
Later that year, another friend's older brother gave me a stack of Road & Track magazines, dating from about 1963 to 1968. I had recently become a teenager, but these were more attractive than a stack of Playboys. I read about Jimmy Clark and Grand Prix racing, and the Ford GT40s at Le Mans. Who needed centerfold models when I could gaze upon the gorgeous curves of a Lotus 49, and stare into the throttle trumpets of a Cosworth DFV?  
Then, thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, my study of the Indy 500 began.
I had been going to races with my dad since I was 5 years old, watching sprint cars on short oval tracks in the Pacific Northwest. I can still smell the burning gasoline, oil, and tires. I can still hear the thunder of two dozen sprint cars scrambling their way into Turn One, slipping and sliding sideways as the drivers struggled for control. I can still see the yellow, black, white, red, and blue of their minimalist bodies. Still. That droved my desire to race at Indy, and like some kids can name all the players on their favorite football team, I knew every Indy 500 winner from Ray Harroun to A.J. Foyt.
Mixed in with my all-consuming passion for Indy came the Gulf Porsche 917s, in magazines and ultimately in the movie Le Mans, further fueling my day (and night) dreams.
There are moments like this for everyone who drives on a track. A moment or series of moments that changed their lives, that triggered the burning desire to go back again and again. It may have been a certain car, an image, a smell, an event...
Yes, childhood experiences are often responsible for what some people think of as the irresponsible behavior of driving around race tracks at high speed. And perhaps that's part of why we do what we do: the sense of being irresponsible. Since we're expected to spend so much of our adult lives being responsible, driving on the track is a release, an escape. Maybe that’s why some don’t get addicted to driving until they’re older – when they need an escape.
Or maybe we're just lazy. Or at least, want to feel lazy, relaxed for awhile.
I’m sure you agree that performance driving or racing is the most relaxing thing you do. The average person - the person who has never driven on a track - has a hard time understanding how driving a car at or near the limit, sometimes wheel-to-wheel with another car, could be relaxing. But it requires such total focus, total commitment, that it is. It's that escape. Nothing else matters. Business, family, other commitments, all go out the window at speed. And that's an extremely attractive thing for so many people today. As our lives are inundated with technology and demands on our time, that escape is more and more important.
While it can be an escape, there's also a sense of belonging, of being at home. There are times on the track when we can't help but think that it's just where we belong.
As Steve McQueen famously said in the movie, Le Mans, "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting." Racing or performance driving is what some of us are meant to do.​
My first time driving on a race track, other than the local go-kart track, was at Willow Springs, in the oven-like sun of the Mojave Desert. It was in a Formula Ford. And it was magic. The challenge of tying together the lines through the turns, the dance of the footwork on the pedals to adjust speed and weight transfer, the subtle but deliberate rotation of the steering wheel, and where my vision and attention was focused still gives me sweaty goose bumps just thinking about it. Oh, and that sound… the sound that can only come from a car at speed, full RPM, full throttle, wind whistling by.
Along with this flood of sensory input there’s also a technical and intellectual challenge.
Think about the thousands of movements, skills, and techniques you perform over the course of one single lap. Think of the variations in track conditions, and of your car and that of other drivers' cars. Then think how often, even with all those variables, you and another driver can be separated by fractions of a second, fractions of a percentage of lap time. It's mind-boggling. And thrilling to think we control those minute differences.
The reasons we drive are varied, personal, and many. Perhaps that's it. Perhaps it's because we can't put our finger on it. We work to make money to do other things. We exercise to keep our bodies fit. We have relationships because they make us feel better, more complete. We take vacations to relax and re-energize. We have sex because... well, you know…sex.
The thing is, we know why we do all of those things. We have reasons for doing them. But the fact that it's difficult to define the exact reason why we drive may be the reason we do it. Maybe not being able to define the reason is the reason. It's the journey. It's not the destination that matters. Well, except for the destination of the finish line at the end of the next lap, just that fraction of a second sooner than ever before….
- Ross Bentley
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