On fear and focus at the racetrack...
I can't claim to have always known who Lord Kitchener was, but I knew his face well before I knew his name. I first encountered it in an old school history textbook, from whose black and white pages he looked up at me, sternly pointing. It turned out that Kitchener, the British War Minister, was also the poster boy for that country's recruitment campaign for the armed forces during World War I. He glared out at everyone who looked at the poster and urged them to enlist because the country needed "you". It's the same sort of poster that the Americans used later on, only with Uncle Sam on it. But somehow Kitchener was more effective. A glimpse of his unsmiling face, finger accusingly pointing, with the word "you" standing out, and I'd at once feel guilty for not going back in time myself and enlisting. Even if the world knew nothing about my misdeeds or fears, Kitchener did. Oh, he knew everything.
Maybe it's strange that it's Lord Kitchener that I am thinking about as I'm padding up for a day at the Lausitzring. I wear four layers as protection against the cold, before I begin tugging on my race suit and balaclava. I look at myself sternly in the mirror and point. It's an attempt to motivate myself. "You" can do this, my reflection tries to tell me. But other than appearing somewhat Bibendum-like owing to the many layers, I don't cut quite the dashing figure that Kitchener did. Was it his moustache that made the difference?
Driving at racetracks in general makes me get a little jittery. But driving on a racetrack in Germany is much worse. You can't fling a pair of earplugs away in Germany without hitting a former racecar driver. And the Germans you run into at racetracks also have this rather annoying habit of nonchalantly saying things like "Oh, not really raced. Just two European titles under my belt." Or the more modest, "I'm not used to driving fast. My daily drive is ze old Porsche 993. Only 450PS. Nothing zpecial." It can be very, very unnerving.
But as I sit down for the theory class, trying to get rid of the thought that one instructor planted nicely in my head when he said, "In your country you have the gearbox on the wrong side," I try hard to concentrate. On thoughts other than the fact that my clumsy right hand might slot the car into the wrong gear and break the whole gearshift. I try instead to keep in mind the many do's and the even longer list of don't's that are projected on the screen. And I tell myself that it's unlikely that the car will do anything I don't ask it to do.
Our first 20-minute stint out on track seems to go on for ages. It's those 'F' words. Fear and focus. I need to focus, but the fear of doing something wrong, and the fact that I'm not used to the car aren't allowing me to. At the same time, if I just determinedly focus, I might get ahead of myself. So maybe a little fear isn't such a bad thing? In the past I've had racers tell me that they still get scared and that it's alright to be scared. And there have been others who have told me that it isn't fear any longer, if you managed to twist it around in your mind and turn it into respect. And as I'm navigating these thoughts, the radio crackles and the voice of my instructor booms through. "You're at 30 per cent. There's much more potential. You need to focus more."
Outside the car, he's more encouraging. It's fine that I have been slow and gotten used to the track, but a finger is wagged in my face for not paying as close attention to my racing line as I should have. I mustn't react so late. Of course he's right. If I'm left to my own devices, my mind wanders off to other times and other worlds. I'm only jolted back into the present when I have the rather nasty shock of a McLaren P1 going past me down the main straight all of a sudden.
So begins the second stint an exercise in mind control. I talk to myself all through, looking from corner to corner, pointing myself in the right direction and repeating in my head. Brake. Shift down. Turn in. Accelerate. Shift up. Accelerate more. It's a constant unbroken string of words. A constant unbroken string of corners. Like playing high speed join the dots. And slowly, I find myself going faster each lap. My instructor isn't able to pull away quite so easily as he was before. And we're now going fast enough to have to brake later than we were in the previous stint. But most importantly, I can feel the rust and dust and grime that had collected in my mind being dislodged. My brain feels all well oiled and alive. I think it's that thing they call adrenaline.
The third stint goes even better. And when we're done, I'm greeted by the instructor leaping out of his car and giving me a big thumbs up. I've ended the day, I'm told, between 70 and 85 per cent. A marked improvement from my initial performance.
When I'm tugging off my race suit, looking a little less like Bibendum as each layer is peeled away, I reflect over all that I have learned that day. I have learned that mind control, whether we speak of the racetrack or of life itself, is our single biggest task. That time is relative because 20 minutes on a circuit can, when you're going fast and having fun, feel like five. That a day at the racetrack sometimes teaches you more about yourself than a year spent doing anything else. And that everything worthwhile lies on the other side of fear.
And just when I tell myself that I didn't do so badly after all, once again there's that mustachioed face, finger pointing at me, saying "You" could have done better.
Next time, Lord Kitchener. Next time.
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