I fell into a long-winded back-and-forth in one of my Facebook chats where we discussed whether or not it was possible for mere mortals to challenge the driving gods. One friend took the stance that innate talent is what separated the driving aliens from the rest of us, while I argued that it was hard work and focused practice that led to their amazing driving skills.
Obviously, the truth falls somewhere in between those two extremes. But I’d like to present my case, in long form, for speed being 95% hard work.
This friend is a car enthusiast and enjoys watching motorsports, but doesn’t participate in motorsports himself. I can totally understand his point of view, as it appears that the fast drivers are doing the impossible.
I, on the other hand, do participate in motorsports, and from my perspective, the fast drivers aren’t doing the impossible. What I see is that I could do what they did… if I knew what they knew and prepared in the same manner they prepared.
Perhaps this perspective comes from spending years in intense competition. Most of my time has been spent in National Solo (autocross) competition, but I’ve observed similar patterns and am inclined to believe that these ideas hold true, no matter what motorsports discipline you’re looking at. If you want to be a truly fast driver, you have to dive headfirst into the deep end of competition. Your reward: a better understanding of your true skill as a driver than someone who has never attempted to compare oneself against the best.
Racers are naturally optimistic, can-do types — you wouldn’t be competing if you didn’t think you could beat someone else! — but when pride and arrogance tries to blind oneself from the truth, the cold hard facts of racing make perfectly clear where things stand. A stopwatch will tell you exactly how much slower you were than the fastest driver. Your finishing position tells you exactly how well you ran a race.
When you’re really far behind the leaders, it may look like at first that you’ll never be able to catch up with them.
But a funny thing happens when you stick with it and “get serious.” You get faster.
I’ve talked to a lot of the fast people in National Solo scene and asked them how they got so fast. I never heard, “oh, it just came to me.” Their speed origin story was always very long and always very interesting.
One driver was adamant that he really sucked when he first started out, but after putting together dozens of practice events that took place immediately after local autocross competitions, he and several other folks became very fast simply by running many hours of what were essentially driving practice drills — the automotive equivalent of practicing scales on a musical instrument. Another driver that I thought was naturally fast in fact honed his driving skills by working at a karting place and racing karts whenever he was off the clock. Another extremely fast driver spent hours practicing outside of the car using driving simulators.
All of those folks are National Champions.
Just like how entrepreneurs and creatives joke about the 10 years it takes to become an “overnight success,” so it is with driving ability too.
I can see this in myself. I started autocrossing in college, and like a lot of young drivers, I thought I knew it all. All of the folks who were faster than me must have had some sort of deal with the devil — it was the only explanation! Not surprisingly, I was very slow.
Gradually, I started getting deeper and deeper into Solo. By the time I moved to Michigan, I had started competing in National Solo events, and eventually started making the trip out to Lincoln for Solo Nationals. I ate a lot of humble pie for the first several years of National competition. It’s hard to tell yourself you’re hot shit when you’re firmly midpack in a murderously deep class like Street Touring Roadster.
While I haven’t improved as much as I would have liked to over the past decade (though I’m sure every driver wishes they get better faster!), there’s no denying now that I’m a very different driver than the college me over a decade ago. I don’t feel like I’m a great driver at all, but that’s likely because I’m now comparing myself to the folks who would travel across the US to prove themselves the best in the entire nation. I have long since matched or surpassed my earlier benchmarks, and have kept moving the goal posts to tackle harder and harder challenges.
If I were to go back in time and give my younger self a ride along on an autocross run, he would think of me as an alien and assume I made a pact with the devil to get magically faster, while the older me knows just how many hours of seat time he spent to get to his current level of skill.
And with the magic of data and video analysis, it’s no mystery as to why the fast drivers are faster. A driver beat me because she took a better line through a single element and carried more speed out of it. Or maybe the data shows that my car doesn’t have enough power to chase the time trials leader down the back straight of Road Atlanta. I can be faster, if I know what they know and prepared in the same manner they prepared.
So how does talent play into all this? I do not deny that someone who has more innate talen will win if all other conditions are equal. I suggest that this difference really only comes into play at the very extremes.
It’s a riff on the Paradox of Skill, which says that as the competitors become more skilled with less of a gap between the best and the worst, luck begins to play a more important role in determining the winner. If hard work, dedicated practice, and careful set up is 95% of a person’s success, I’d like to propose the rest is made up of 3% luck and 2% innate talent. If two drivers are well matched with identically prepared cars, then it’s a near toss up between talent and luck in determining the winner of a contest.
We’ve all seen this play out both ways. Sometimes the talented driver wins the contest. Sometimes other guy gets really lucky and manages to finish first.
The good news is that nearly anyone can get to that high level of performance, it’s just a matter of putting in the work. Are you improving the Driver Mod? Are you setting up your car to give yourself the best chance of success?
The bad news is that you have to put in the work. It’s okay if you don’t — not everyone is geared to make a run at the pointy end of the pack — but don’t kid yourself otherwise that talent can make up for a missing work ethic.
So while you may not be able to be the fastest person ever, you can get 95-98% of the way there, which is pretty damn good. It may be a bit demoralizing when 2% slower means you’re seconds behind the top driver, which feels like an eternity in motorsports, but be kind to yourself and remember that being just a little bit behind the fastest drivers means you’re already among the driving 1%.