Throughout my 20 years in racing and high-performance driving, there is one thing I have found in common among the best drivers: Confidence. Whether behind the wheel, instructing and coaching numerous drivers during the past eight years, or spending three years with developing drivers as the PR rep for an entry-level pro racing series, I’ve found confidence is a key ingredient to improving on the track.
More important than finding the ideal line or optimal braking point, confidence is a critical skill on which any high-performance driver can focus and continue to develop during their time in the sport. This is not a new idea in the context of driving a race car but is easily overlooked by novice and experienced drivers alike.
Early auto racing superstars, like Juan Manuel Fangio and Jimmy Clark, possessed a high level of confidence in their ability behind the wheel of a racecar. At the time, those outside the relatively small fraternity of racers would say Fangio, Clark, and their peers suffered from delirious overconfidence that bordered on recklessness.
The public saw many drivers as the ultimate daredevils who had little care for their own safety and enjoyed staring death in the face. But, for the aforementioned legends and others who have made their mark on the sport, a danger-seeking attitude is the exact opposite of their approach to driving fast.
Everyone who finds enjoyment in exploring the limits of motor vehicles accepts a degree of risk of injury, but I would argue that successful high-performance drivers are some of the most calculated athletes in the world. By all accounts, Fangio and Clark were extremely intelligent, thoughtful men who did not undertake the risks of racing lightly.
On the track, neither driver had a habit of taking extreme risks in situations where there was little or nothing to gain. This is a common thread for drivers who have multiple titles and accolades credited to their name and can be traced throughout the history of motorsports. In trying to avoid no-win situations on-track, Fangio, Clark, and more recent examples like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Lewis Hamilton, did (and continue to do) unique and seemingly impossible things behind the wheel.
At their most awe-inspiring points, each of these drivers exudes confidence in their own skill, confidence in their equipment, and most importantly, confidence in their ability to overcome any bad circumstances or self-inflicted mistake.
While confidence behind the wheel is necessary for any driver looking to develop their high-performance driving ability, excessive or unfounded confidence can become a barrier to improvement. It could cause bad decision-making which leads to a mistake with serious consequences. A less-experienced driver with an inflated and unrealistic expectation regarding their own abilities to control a vehicle as it approaches the edge of the performance envelope is almost always more hazardous than a driver with zero confidence.
Both types of novice drivers are prone to tunnel vision, causing them to miss important communication from corner workers and other indicators of a problem down-track. An overconfident driver can also exhibit a close-mindedness to constructive feedback from a coach or other event official, which just creates additional problems. The unconfident driver can exhibit many of the same close-minded behaviors but is often using their brainpower to think about fear rather than processing any advice or feedback.
Any high-performance driver wanting to grow their behind-the-wheel skills should always look to build confidence from past experiences while adding new information to the database during each on-track session. The goal should be to put in laps behind the wheel to compile an ever-growing collection of episodes where past experiences can help to produce a favorable outcome in a future situation.
Circling back to the legendary race car drivers, their confidence stems from the belief that on-track situations from their past help develop a safe response to any situation that may arise on-track, even those with unique circumstances.
Takeaways for Coaches and Instructors
Throughout my time instructing at a racetrack or in advanced defensive-driving courses, I have been able to work with teens who have minimal driving time to experienced road drivers with limited on-track experience. Each time I sit in the right seat, my number-one goal is to build the confidence of my students. Like any experienced trainer or educator, I make sure to go out of my way to praise and reinforce the things a student does right, while at the same time not jumping on them when they brake too late or turn into a corner too early.
One of the quickest ways I found to increase the confidence of a novice driver is by allowing a student to fix low-risk errors instead of telling them how to avoid a mistake. In my opinion, the typical mindset of many HPDE coaches is to keep their student from making a mistake. If a student brakes too late, then tries to make a corner with too much entry speed, a valuable lesson can be learned from a spin in a low-risk area without any surrounding traffic, instead of stepping in to tell the student how to avoid the error. Depending on a student’s personality, this can cause the student to worry more about being perfect instead of learning how to handle any situation they may encounter on a racetrack.
As a result of this teaching method (and some good luck), I have been fortunate enough to keep from confronting a situation where I have truly felt unsafe in the right seat of a student’s vehicle. My belief is praising a student’s positive actions and giving them the chance to analyze and fix their own mistakes allows them a chance to develop this very useful habit.
As an HPDE coach, the focus should be less about driving the perfect racing line lap after lap, and more about teaching the correct approach when pushing a vehicle to its performance limits. After all, even the pros make mistakes from which they must recover.
End Of Session
In the end, those interested in becoming a faster, safer, and more proficient high-performance driver, must learn how to develop and grow their level of confidence based on the information obtained during each on-track session.
While this ability to develop confidence is important for drivers, instructors of high-performance driving need to have a better idea of how confidence affects their student’s ability to receive and retain information or feedback. With this understanding, coaches can better transfer some of their personal knowledge and experience to the student. After all, that is the whole reason for being a coach.
Continue to keep an eye on this space. The goal is to discuss a different aspect of high-performance driving from the perspective of a driving coach, and how on-track potential can be maximized, both behind the wheel and sitting in the right seat.