Think Fast

One of the books in my library is “Think Fast: the Racer’s Why-To Guide to Winning” by Neil Roberts.

I was on a couple long plane flights recently and read it again. It had been a while, so it felt like reading it for the first time. This time I took some notes on particularly interesting parts. Here’s what I jotted down.

  • The most important ingredients for improving are quality seat time and humility. Seat time is precious. For reasons of time, money, or opportunity, most of us only get to the race track a handful of times per year. In order to improve, you need to treat this precious time with respect. Be prepared to go to work and actually work on your skills. It’s also okay to have fun, but if all you want is fun, there’s no reason to read books on how to improve. On the subject of humility, I would say that one person I know in particular thought he already knew everything about driving. And therefore he learned nothing. When I pointed out to him the specific failings of his driving technique using data, he actually said that the data was wrong.
  • Do autocross with cold race tires as a training tool. You should get the feeling of less traction. My variation of this is advice is to recommend driving on all season tires. I especially like putting all season tires on the back of a car to make it want to oversteer. Being able to manage oversteer is the key to advanced driving. This is true for FWD cars as much as RWD. I was at a track event recently where one of the organizers didn’t want to go on track because his R-comps wouldn’t get up to temperature. He probably also doesn’t drive in the rain. Or improve.
  • Like Ross Bentley, Neil Roberts recommends visualization. It’s been proven to work in just about every sport and performance activity. It doesn’t cost money, and you can do it anywhere. I think of visualization as constructive daydreaming. It doesn’t always have to take place in a meditative pose with your eyes close. I still find myself hitting pretend backhand passing shots because I’m so used to playing pretend tennis.
  • The biggest decision you make is how brave you want to be. You’re never more than one bad decision from disaster. Every driver is estimating the probability of disaster at every level of the sport, even in simulation. The stakes don’t need to be life or death to affect your driving. People who don’t appreciate the dangers end up crashing a lot. People who appreciate them too much under-drive the cars and are slow. Ultimately, everyone must find their own threshold, and hopefully that’s based on an honest recognition of one’s own abilities and the actual danger.
  • Driving is about the vehicle and the track. Racing is about other people. In a race, your attention should go to what everyone is doing around you. Forget about the racing line, the optimal gear for each corner, lap time, etc. None of that matters if you hit or get hit by another car.
  • Always under-drive the car in a race. It takes much more focus/attention to drive the limit. If you drive well under the limit, you will have enough spare attention to deal with all the shenanigans happening on track.
  • Heel-toe shifting is usually a waste of time. I agree. Most people do it wrong anyway. It’s sort of like object-oriented programming that way.
  • The highest payoff in tuning is driver interaction. I think most people who tune their cars are modifying their engines for more power. I recall driving a 1980s Celica with a Ford V8 and OEM brake pads. No, in order for the driver to trail-brake, he needs brakes that don’t overheat in the first corner. I also recall setting up my Yaris for the oversteer I wanted rather than what my drivers wanted. During a race, you don’t want to think about your car, but other cars.
  • Winning requires new tires every race. I think this is the #1 reason I don’t do sprint races. It’s also part of the reason I don’t win anything. I can’t stomach the expense of buying new tires constantly. Winning requires spending money, and fresh tires are major part of that equation.
  • Braking, cornering, and acceleration have different optimal tire pressures. This is a very sobering concept. There is no single best tire pressure. Everything is a compromise.

If you haven’t read this book before, I highly recommend it. There’s much more than the few nuggets I shared. Despite the video-laden age we live in today, I still believe in the value of reading books.

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