Fear is holding you back

There are 2 kinds of fear holding you back right now. Fear of death and fear of failure. It’s tough to talk about fear, but this is YSAR, and we like difficult subjects.

Fear of death

As drivers move up from novice to intermediate to advanced skill levels, they face a variety of typical fears associated with pain, injury, or death. In some ways, it’s good to have some fear for your health. Racing is a dangerous sport and you literally could get killed or worse doing it. What would be worse than getting killed you ask? Accidentally killing someone else? So let’s take a look at the typical driving fears a driver faces on track and how to get over them.

  • Fear of high speed – Novices are often afraid to drive 100 mph (or whatever). Once they hit some specific speed, they unconsciously lift off the throttle. This may also manifest itself in not shifting into 4th or 5th gear when appropriate. You see this on long straights where the car stops accelerating for no good reason. What’s the fix for this? None needed. It goes away on its own as the driver gains experience. Personally, I don’t experience fear of speed, but that’s probably lack of opportunity more than bravery. My car barely breaks 100 mph, and to be honest, I think I would be scared to go 150 mph.
  • Fear of braking hard – Low intermediates fear pressing the brake pedal. Their braking pressure is often backwards with the highest brake pressure at the end of the braking zone rather than the beginning. They are so gradual on the brakes that they coast into the braking zone. Most cars these days have ABS, but there are plenty of drivers who don’t brake hard enough to engage it. What’s the fix for this? Go to a skid pad or an abandoned street and mash the fuck out of the brake pedal until you realize you aren’t going to damage yourself by braking hard. If you don’t have ABS, either you’ll learn a little about brake modulation or about the cost of tires. I don’t think I ever feared braking hard. Hence, I’ve flat-spotted a few tires back when my driving skills didn’t auto-modulate the brake pedal.
  • Fear of throttle – RWD cars can spin if you mash the throttle. If you experience that, you’ll be wary of that pedal. Even if you don’t have a powerful car, you can spin in the rain. That happened to me one time and it was quite the surprise when it happened because there was no warning of squealing tires. As intermediates progress from low to high, most get better at throttle modulation. I think the progression happens naturally because this form of drifting is fun, and fun will beat fear eventually.
  • Fear of sliding – As the intermediate’s corner speed increases, their tires begin to slide. Suddenly the tires are squealing and the steering is getting light. What to do? Well, if you’re an intermediate, you certainly don’t speed up. What’s the fix? Get used to driving with slip. That’s a lot easier to say than do. You need to practice in a safe environment, like a skid pad or a simulator. I see a lot of a HPDE regulars and coaches who can drive with mid-corner or exit slip but never get comfortable with entry slip. Entry slip is sort of what defines advanced driving.
  • Fear of fast corners – There are good reasons to be afraid of high speed corners. Messing up at 90 mph is going to be a lot more messy than at 50 mph. On the one hand, I don’t have any problem with drivers taking it down one notch. Track driving is dangerous enough as is without pushing the limits. On the other hand, over-braking leaves a ton of time on the track. I don’t know what the fix is for this fear. Riding in the passenger seat? Having a coach in the car?
  • Fear of contact – I think I suffer from this a little. I really don’t want to damage my car. Race position just isn’t that important to me. If that makes me less of a racer than the other guy, I’m okay with it. But let’s be clear, I think it really does make me less of a racer, and one reason I prefer endurance racing to sprint racing is that the mindset favors longevity over position.
  • Fear of rain – Lots of people are afraid to race in the rain. Rain makes traction unpredictable. If you drive your normal limit, you will suddenly find yourself above your limit as traction changes. The solution, for most people, is to drive so far under your limit that you never go accidentally above your limit. I emphasize your because what you think of the limit is actually a broad loss of traction not an absolute value. In the rain, you actually have more time to sort things out because you’re going slowly. However, you have to have your car control skills to the point where you can recover from unexpected understeer and oversteer. I’ll talk more about rain in a future post. The fix is having trust in your ability to control an out-of-control car.

Fear of failure

In addition to the physical fears, there is a more debilitating fear that is entirely abstract: fear of failure. What if you try really hard and still fail? What if you never become as fast as your best friend? In these cases, it’s much easier to protect your ego and stop trying. The alternative is to admit you suck at racing, tear down your ego, and be both honest and critical of your skill. Honesty is painful. So painful that it’s easier to say “they’re just driving harder than me”. As if driving harder is a simple choice that you have decided isn’t worth your time.

If you spend your time making excuses rather than actually training, you may have a fear of failure problem.

  • They are just driving harder than me – Everybody owns their own limit. Own up to yours. Your speed isn’t simply your choice, but your comfort level.
  • My #1 priority is safety – Yes, it should be with everyone. That’s a given. You don’t need to say it, and if you are, it’s because you’re covering up something else.
  • I don’t check my lap times – Because you don’t want to know how slow you are. Own your failures and you’ll also own your successes.
  • I don’t record/post video – Because you don’t want to see all the things you’re doing wrong. Or more likely, because you don’t want others to see it. Protecting your ego will only slow down the learning.
  • I don’t use telemetry – Because you don’t want to know what you’re doing wrong. Or because you don’t know what it means. Don’t let ignorance, intended or not, hold you back.

25 thoughts on “Fear is holding you back

  1. Apt timing. I was just thinking this morning (I did a DE weekend last weekend) about fast corners. I know intellectually that my RS4s communicate audibly long before they run out of grip, but on one long sweeper in particular I have a hard time convincing my brain that its okay to just do a lift instead of a brake. I’m going on the assumption that seat time will fix that to some degree, but if any other readers can recommend some drills I’d love to hear them.


    1. Lifting instead of braking is a good progression I think. Do a long lift and then make it shorter over time. In terms of lap times, sometimes a small lift doesn’t impact lap time very much, maybe a couple tenths. But that little lift can be a security blanket whose benefits outweigh its costs.


  2. I know what’s keeping me from putting down some really great lap times for our car.
    I am very uncomfortable sliding a car into a corner.

    What a real hot-shoe (former Pro3 champ) can do in our car: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjopZbdhIqM
    Dude put down a 1:39 lap in a VW Fox!

    What I’m capable of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxNy65twuMw
    The best I managed was a few 1:42 laps with most at 1:43. Nick on Sunday managed a single 1:40 and a lot of 1:41 laps, this was after coaching from Cody on Saturday night.

    Where did I lose most of the time? Entry into turns two and eight are way slower. Every single time I entered two I told myself “Don’t brake as much! You can carry more speed!” yet I couldn’t actually do it. I don’t think it’s fear, it’s more like my brain saying “This is the maximum entry speed for this corner if you want to stay on the track.” even though it isn’t.
    I haven’t driven this track much, on tracks where I’ve driven a lot I do enter corners faster but still not as hard as my teammates. I think the only way to improve is a lot more seat time which isn’t going to happen as the nearest low-risk track is a three hour drive and a border crossing away. I’m just not going to get more time outside of race weekends. I also think my family would revolt if I spent even more money on racing :-)


    1. Your brain may be correct when it says “this is the maximum entry speed for this corner if you want to stay on track”. There’s only so fast you can enter a corner, and that speed is partly determined by entry yaw. If the rear is tacked down and you try to carry more speed, you’ll fall off the track at the exit. If you slide the rear out a little, you can carry more speed. But that requires making steering and throttle adjustments to prevent spinning. It takes a lot of practice to drive with more entry yaw. It’s not something that’s easy to practice during a race or HPDE. You need hours and hours of training to make your steering corrections automatic.

      Alternatively, your brain is wrong, and you can enter the corner faster even without changing your driving style. But even if that’s true, you still want to learn how to drive a sliding car. What happens in the rain when you suddenly lose traction? If the steering corrections are automatic, no problem.


      1. Interesting point. I’m trying to learn what I think is a related skill, carrying more throttle/speed on exit out of some turns while unwinding the wheel to the point that my brain insists that we’re going to drive straight off the track by design – the idea being to allow the rear to slip but not enough to need a correction beyond unwinding “too quickly”, allowing the car to dance gently. I’ve always been amazed watching pro drivers, especially in some of the vintage goodwood races, as to how straight the steering wheel is even while the car is turning dramatically.


    2. Your driving looked pretty good. I saw you making some steering corrections in T2, so you weren’t driving way below the limit. If your median lap is only 2 seconds off, that’s good enough if you’re taking care of the car and not taking risks. BTW, what is the big display on the rollbar supposed to show? Doesn’t look like it is turned on.


      1. Thanks for the kind words. Since I built most of the car I’m loath to wreck it.

        The display is on it’s just a cheap low-contrast five year old LCD dashboard I made. If the sunlight hits it just right the camera can read it. It’s easily readable by the driver.
        It’s got water temp, oil temp, oil pressure, air/fuel, fuel gauge, and digital tach only there for debugging. It also had a really bright 1 watt red led as the “Oh shit” light. You can see it blinking as a white dot more and more as the oil pumps out of the engine during my stint. I’m a programmer by trade specializing in low level and embedded stuff. Hardware drivers, kernel coding, and optimization, that sort of thing. Building a digital dash isn’t very hard.


  3. I can share my experience of trying to push my own fear limits in turn 6 at Laguna Seca (but it really applies to any turn) which I think qualifies as a “fast corner”.

    1. Watching videos from other similar/identical cars helps — you can compare entry/apex/exit speeds, notice that you’re 5-10mph slower everywhere and push a bit more next time, comparing the telemetry, and then pushing a bit more again.
    2. Simulator helps — I wouldn’t compare speed numbers much but the simulator certainly helps to get everything else under control (reference points, line, steering, car control), including what to do when you make a mistake. Knowing that you can probably recover from 2 wheels off at the exit even at high speed is useful.
    3. Probably the most efficient way — get a coach in the passenger seat. At my last track day at Laguna Seca I had a very positive experience with a HOD coach who’s a Spec Miata racer (and I have a Miata too). He was carefully pushing me to go faster and faster and faster even when I thought “omg” and was certainly out of my comfort zone.


    1. Thanks for your very useful comments.

      LS T6 is a scary corner. It’s mostly blind and has a strange shape. Too far to the left and you could destroy your car. Winter weather has a way of digging that out apex and turning it into a pit. Too far right and you are in the gravel approaching a wall. Here’s a video from a few years ago showing the fast lap of various drivers.

      The minimum corner speeds at T6 were as follows: 65, 65, 64, 72. You can look at those numbers and say to the slower drivers “hey, it’s possible to drive that 6-7 mph faster” but doing that is another thing entirely.

      If you had to choose only one among video/telemetry/simulator/coaching, which would you pick and why?

      For the record, I’ve only once had a coach in my car, and it was on my 2nd track day for 2 laps. I’m very good at self-education in most things, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use some coaching from time to time.


      1. I’d choose a good coach if if I had to choose one thing but that’s easier said than done. I got very lucky with my last coach because he was able to offer what I needed. I also had much less positive experiences where a coach in the car would only slow me down. Compatible personality and attitude is very important.

        There are several additional things that I think were critical in that situation. First, I had enough mental capacity to talk and try new things at the same time. Fear is one thing and mental capacity is another. Second, supporting what you wrote about sliding, I already got more-or-less comfortable sliding the car in other corners before that session. Without some spare mental capacity or previous experience sliding I don’t think that the same coaching session would be productive.

        Oh, I’ve remembered another trick that can help overcome fear in fast corners: following identical fast cars. I know that for _some_ people chasing someone allows to focus more on driving and forget about fears. Although sometimes people also forget about flags and common sense in such situations too and that’s less great. :)

        P.S.: Turn 6 in that video is even scarier than it is now because they recently added green astroturf at the exit. The corner is even faster because of that but I feel like the extra room at the exit makes things less scary.


    2. Pacific is a bit of a self-preservation kind of track. It’s a late 50’s track that has not (and for the most part cannot) be upgraded to modern safety guidelines. They did just repave the back half and fix a couple of big issues with 5a/5b so now if you hit the curbs you won’t automatically flip your car. 👍

      Turn two is the big 180* left after the long straight with a downhill at the end, exit speeds are north of 80mph. If you do go too wide, there’s a narrowing strip of dirt/gravel with a dirt berm with trees on top of it. Not a fun place to go off.


      1. I need to do this track. I’m headed to ORP 7/1, and with that off the list I’ve got Pacific and Ridge at the top of the list.


      2. You’re not coming out for the LDRL ORP race in September? It’s our former team leader’s memorial race, it was his favorite track. You need to be there for a race so you can run it a bunch in both direction.
        We’ll be at the Lemons race at the Ridge at the end of July, assuming the engine and trans are put back together by then. We had the singularly most odd engine failure at Pacific. The valve guide for cylinder three exhaust disappeared without any valve, piston, or head damage. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
        The valve was still in place, just no guide or seal., it just started pumping oil out of the tailpipe.


      3. You’re going to love ORP. Study all the video you can, although video does not do that course justice.
        If you’re the kind who gets motion sickness be sure to bring whatever you need to combat it; it’s a paved roller coaster with no real breaks.
        Also don’t forget to bring everything you need. There is absolutely nothing nearby. Hell, the nearest gas station is over a half an hour away.
        Don’t speed through any of the small towns near the track, the local officers take enforcement seriously.


      4. On the ORP website there’s a list of “local” places of interest: https://oregonraceway.com/our-partners/
        Under “Problem Solvers” are links to the closest auto parts stores and stuff like that. Most of the close stuff is in The Dalles, which is about an hour away. Unless you’ve booked a local B&B there’s nothing besides camping.
        On the good side are the bathrooms/showers at the track. They’re nicer than what most people have at home.


      5. Hope you feel better.
        We’ll be at the Lemons race at the Ridge at the end of July.


  4. Don’t forget two other factors:

    Embarrassment: you spin off track into a swamp. The tow truck has to come out and yard you out of the muck. All are watching. “how come our session was cut short? Oh! That guy in the Miata!”

    Financial: you go off course and find large rocks (or I have no idea what I hit). Bent wheel and tire that is toast.

    Keep up the good analysis, you are correct, I will try to keep my foot planted on turn one.



  5. Timely post. Just finished another weekend at Buttonwillow where I left plenty on the table in Riverside. My car has only 1 seat so I’m left with data (which I do use), video of others, and following similar cars. I was actually able to follow others on a few occasions and picked up 5 MPH or so.

    I think more frequent track time is key.


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