Speed Secrets: How I Won The War Against The Foot That Lifted For The Fast Sweeper

By Ross Bentley

October 25, 2017

As someone who has studied sports psychology, brain function, learning strategies, and more for many years, I have known the power and effectiveness of using visualization for a long time. I have personally used visualization, or more accurately mental imagery, to enhance my performance driving race cars, coaching race drivers, playing tennis, making speeches, and just about everything else in my life for the past thirty-plus years. Imagine my surprise, then, when I made a discovery that made this accepted technique look pale in comparison.

Up until a few years ago, I, like many others, thought that if a person had a strong mental image in their head of an activity, they would perform that activity better. They would perform it almost as if they had it in their mind. By visualizing something, they would improve faster. If they could do it mentally, they could do it physically.

I had much proof that it worked. I had used visualization since I played tennis as a kid. I had used it driving race cars, particularly to enable me to take that “fast sweeper with my foot flat on the throttle.” By driving that fast sweeper in my mind over and over again at full throttle, I would then be able to do it for real on the track.

I observed how well it worked with others. I would have race drivers I was coaching sit with their eyes closed, getting relaxed, and seeing themselves doing in their mind whatever it was that we were working on to improve.

And it worked.

I’ve also read countless numbers of books and research articles on the effectiveness of mental imagery. A couple of my favorites:

A study was conducted with a group of basketball players years ago. Each player was asked to shoot free throws, and their success rate recorded. They were then split into three separate groups, one being asked not to touch a basketball, the second group to physically practice shooting free throws, and the third to simply visualize shooting perfect free throws (without physically touching a basketball). A week later they were retested. Not surprisingly the group that did no practice whatsoever did not improve. The group that physically practiced improved their shooting percentage by 24 percent. And the group that only did mental practice by visualizing? They improved 23 percent.

The second example is of a U.S. army officer who became a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Prior to the war he had been an avid golfer, so each and every day for the seven years he spent in prison, he visualized playing the perfect round of golf. He imagined every little detail: what it looked like, how it felt, what it sounded like, everything. Upon release he went almost immediately to his favorite golf course and shot a round twenty strokes better than he ever had in his life, even though he had not physically touched a golf club in years!

So, there’s no doubt that mental imagery works. But being an impatient person (is it possible to be a patient race driver?), I want results now. Not next season, next race, or even next session. I want it now!

Yes, mental imagery speeds up the learning and improving process, but it still didn’t occur as fast as I would like (did I mention I’m not a patient person?). Then something happened that changed my life – well, at least my racing and coaching life.

I was coaching a young driver practicing on an oval track for his first time. Perhaps the biggest challenge a driver faces when faced with an oval is the cement wall facing him! Let’s face it, letting the car run within inches of a cement wall at high speed is a daunting task, no matter how talented, brave or stupid you are (there’s often a fine line separating those last two).

I told the driver over and over again on the radio to let the car run closer to the wall exiting turns two and four. And each time I did that, he kept the car about four feet away from the wall. So, time for some mental imagery, I thought. The driver spent some time getting a clear mental image of what he wanted, and went back on the track. Again, he drove about four feet from the wall. More mental imagery required, I thought. And back he went, in and out of the car, doing mental imagery and driving the car, each time not getting any closer than four feet from the wall.

Of course, this was not only trying my patience, but his as well. Then it dawned on me. I asked him where he wanted to be exiting the turns. He said, “within a foot.” That was exactly what he had been mentally imaging. I then asked him to radio me each time he came out of the turns and tell me how far his car was from the wall – I was asking him to become more aware of what he was doing. To make a long story shorter, within four laps he began consistently driving “within a foot” of the wall.

The key to his improvement was awareness, for without awareness of what you are doing, all the mental imagery in the world will do little good. You need both components, the mental image and the awareness.

The more I thought about this and used it with other drivers I was coaching, and with myself, the more I realized just how valuable this was. I also knew how common it was for drivers not to have both components.

There are tons of drivers who have a strong mental image of what they want to achieve, but they have no awareness of what or where they are at right now – they don’t know what they need to improve. Others are so bogged down in awareness of what they need to improve (often, negative thoughts like, “why can’t I take Turn 1 faster,” which is really just self-criticism and not awareness), they can’t seem to get a mental image of what they really want to achieve. Without both, the learning or improving will not be as fast as the driver wants. This often leads to some level of frustration or loss of confidence, and the performance spirals downward from there.

All this led to my discovery. The holy grail of learning, of improving, of becoming the driver you really want to be is this: MI + A = G. I call it “The Learning Formula,” for if you use it, you will learn and progress faster than ever before. MI stands for Mental Image, A for Awareness, and G for the Goal you are trying to achieve, whether that’s taking that fast sweeper at full throttle, hitting a later apex, or shaving the last two tenths off your last solo run.

So how do you use MI + A = G? Using the fast sweeper as an example, first spend some time getting a clear, strong mental image of what you want to achieve – taking it at full throttle. Get yourself in a comfortable position (possibly sitting in your race car), close your eyes, breathe deeply and slowly, and relax. Focus on slowing your breathing for a few minutes. Once you feel yourself in a very relaxed state, see yourself driving through that sweeper with your foot flat to the floor. Imagine the feeling of the g-forces, the effort required to turn the steering wheel, the lateral weight transfer, your foot pushing hard on the throttle, and the tires gripping the track. Imagine the engine note, the sound from the air rushing past the car, and the tire noise.

By the way, you may have noticed I don’t like to use the word visualization. Why? Because it is incomplete. By definition visualization uses only one of your senses: visual. Mental imagery uses all your senses, or at least visual, kinesthetic (feel, balance and motion) and auditory (hearing), and is much more effective because of this. In the previous paragraph, in describing the process of mental imagery, notice I used the sense of feel and hearing as well as visual.

Now that you have a clear, strong mental image – the MI – of what you want, time to head onto the track and simply become aware. With each lap through the sweeper, don’t try to keep your foot flat on the throttle. Just be aware of what you are doing with your foot. Are you lifting? How much? How close to flat are you? With each lap, by comparing where you are right now – how close to flat to the floor your foot is – with the mental image you have, your brain will close the gap until there is no gap – which is the G, your goal.

Another example. You’ve completed your first run of a solo event. You know that you are giving up time in the far hairpin. If you could carry a bit more speed into the corner, get the car to rotate using heavy trail braking, and then stand on the throttle once the car is pointed out of the turn, you know you would find at least another three-tenths of a second.

Start again with getting a clear mental image of the procedure – brake late, trail off the brakes as you turn crisply into the corner, pause for a fraction of a second while the car rotates around on its nose, and then control the car’s rotation by squeezing hard on the throttle - using the same relaxation and mental imagery technique as presented above. Then, as you line up to begin your next runs, focus entirely on simply being aware of how close to this mental image you perform this turn. My bet is with this approach you will find your three-tenths, and maybe more.

Most solo drivers are very good at visualization. They need to be to get the line down in such a short period of time. Some are even good at mental imagery. The difference, of course, being that mental imagery uses more than just visual imagined information. Far fewer are good at adding the A, the awareness to the equation. Why? Because when it’s time to go for that last couple of tenths, most drivers “try.” And what happens when you try? Most often, you go slower – or at least no faster. By simply being aware of how you are doing, of how close to your mental image you are, you cannot “try.” You end up trusting your mental image, your mental program, your subconscious to drive the car.

Of course, the same thing applies to the race track, especially in qualifying. Many drivers try much too hard when it comes time to qualify. It’s hard not to! Unless, of course, you add your vivid MI to your A. With a clear mental image and an awareness of what you are doing at that very moment, you will naturally drive at the subconscious level.

And have you ever noticed how much better you perform when you stop thinking – when you do things at the subconscious level, rather than the conscious level? Try catching a ball at the conscious level, thinking about when to raise your hand, when to squeeze your hand around the ball, and about the timing of it all. Go ahead, try it. I mean really try it. Try really hard to do it right….

Get my point? When you try to do something at the conscious level, you will never perform as well as if you simply become aware of how you are doing something that you have programmed into your subconscious through mental imagery.

This is perhaps the most amazing thing to me about this technique, and about us as humans. If you have a mental image of what you want, and awareness of where you are right now, your brain will bring the two together. It’s as if your brain says, “I guess you want these two to match.”

MI + A = G. The Learning Formula. It is the fastest, most effective, and perhaps most natural method of learning. And by the way, it works not only in racing, but in everything else in your life. Put it to use.

Ross Bentley

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