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The Speed at Which We Unwind

[Without a finished entry to post this week, I was already thinking about re-blogging this article I wrote for my friend's new website Ladies of Speed. When I received this week's edition of Ross Bentley's Speed Secrets Weekly, Ingrid Steffensen's contribution about what we can all do to get more people interested in performance driving decided me to get this article out there once again. So here it is - the Five Greatest Reasons Why We Drive.]

It’s no surprise in today’s fast-paced world that people seek out new ways to slow down for a time, to relax, to do something that gives meaning and enjoyment to their daily routines. For some that means spending time in the evenings to run on the beach, take a bike ride, or go for a hike. For others that means taking a few days away to go camping, visit new cities, and try new food and drink.​

And then there is a group of people united by their common lust for good lines (both 2- and 3-dimensional), the heady aroma of high octane and hot brakes, and, of course, speed. It seems contrary to imagine that these unusual folks (some might call them crazy, insane, demented, etc.) actually find the act of repeatedly hurtling themselves around a paved circuit while strapped to the inside a tin can relaxing – but it’s true. Why? How can something with peril lurking around every corner help a body and soul unwind from the stresses of work-a-day life?

As with anything worthwhile, the reasons are almost too many to enumerate; however, the major reasons can be summarized in looking at five categories: aesthetic attraction, mechanical inclination, physical activity, mental challenge, and social atmosphere.

It may be a generalization, but I think it’s safe to say that most motor heads develop the proclivity at an early age. ​For me the relationship began as a young girl, with toys like MicroMachines and Hot Wheels, television series such as Knight Rider and Magnum PI, and I think the real clincher was the acquisition of a red Ferrari 308 GTS for my Barbie, a to-scale replica of the car Thomas Magnum borrowed from millionaire-patron Robin Masters. ​Between the garish colors, well-engineered aerodynamics, flashing lights, roaring engines, and hunky detectives (sigh), I was done for. And whether or not a person has a passion for the machinery itself, I'd like to believe that most can appreciate the combination of elegance and function that designers and engineers so lovingly express in each car they create. But beyond that, the automobile has always presented a canvas for self-expression – from something as simple as color choice or window tint, to more extreme modifications of bodywork, suspension, wheels, sound system, interior, etc.​

Next there is the sheer joy of getting a little grease under the fingernails (or, in my case, getting a lot of brake dust all over my face). I’m not the most mechanically inclined person ever, but I do have a natural sense of curiosity about the world around me and the things I come in contact with. Driving has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about the engineering behind these incredible machines, not to mention the confidence boost I’ve gotten from knowing that I can rely a little less on someone else and also have intelligent conversations with other enthusiasts. While any project is not without its frustrations, it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to look at something complex and know that you understand it, to know that you can put your hands on it and break it down to its components and get it back together again. In fact, it’s something like making love, to find that physical intimacy with a strange creature that works hard to please you and take care of you, to give you a thrill and still make sure you pull safely into the garage at the end of the day.

I think it’s also this physicality, this aspect of doing something, that makes driving rewarding. So many of us spend our weekdays parked at a desk, or if we are out and about we’re busy navigating traffic and getting little reward for the effort put forth. But a day driving at the track is a day of doing something purely for our own pleasure, and purely of our own choice. At the track you’re out in nature, with grand vistas of the high desert or rolling hills (here in the West anyway), where you’re able to get out and stretch your legs or simply find a shady spot in which to set up your lawn chair. And that’s not even the part where you get to drive, harder and faster than you could ever drive on the street, exploring and pushing your limits and the limits of the car, riding the edge of traction and managing the little miscalculations or over-enthusiasms. It’s those little heart-stopping moments that get the adrenaline (excuse me, epinephrine) pumping, and the celebratory rush when you power out of a slide, wherein lies the reward. Not to mention the bench racing that you can do later on.

Along with the physical is also the mental game, as all modern sports psychologists will agree. For many drivers, myself included, this aspect of the sport has as much appeal as the physical act of driving fast, for any skill requires both study and practice to improve and excel. It is extremely challenging to acquire and maintain the mental focus needed to make split-second decisions at high speeds and under the exertion of great forces on the car and on the human body, and the reward for doing so is something that very few people get to experience: flow. When the human subconscious becomes so practiced that it is truly capable, the speed at which it can execute a repertoire of skills is astounding – so long as the conscious mind is also capable of stepping back, of not interfering and overthinking. ​This “getting in the zone,” or what is known as “flow” in psychology, is difficult to achieve and therefore very, very rewarding. And, most unbelievably, it’s also very, very relaxing. Almost like having an out-of-body experience, it’s a time when you are fully aware of having two separate consciousnesses: the subconscious one reacting, quickly making decisions, and processing information while the conscious one collects and evaluates a huge amount of detail in a slow and pleasurable manner before deciding which information to pass along to the subconscious and which to simply relish. Experiencing and being able to access this zone or flow is confidence inspiring, and the things a person can do when tapped into it can also inspire the admiration of others – and what greater reward is there in life than being praised by your peers? At that level, the level for which we all strive as drivers, it’s as much artistry as effort, and that’s just a whole lot of fun. But mostly, it’s all worthwhile because we know that at the end of the day, whatever happens or doesn’t happen, we’re each accountable only for ourselves, for our own actions and reactions, for our own abilities and skills.

​Finally, we join this cult for the same reason that populates all cults: camaraderie. There’s really nothing like sharing something you love with other enthusiasts, rejoicing and bemoaning together, talking technicalities in your own special vernacular, and learning from one another. For myself, I look forward as much to the dinners as I do to the drives. I look forward to the good wines we share, the beers we cheers each other with, the inappropriate humor and ribald teasing that gets bandied about because, after all, nothing makes you feel more like acting childish than risking your pride together on a closed circuit, thundering only inches above squealing rubber and rough tarmac. The lounging and the learning, the eating and the laughing, these are the memories that will endure. By looking ahead to these opportunities, to these curves that decorate the highway of our lives, we will always be confident in our ability to unwind.

[Photo Credit on the #9 BRZ photo: Justin Northcraft, Ten Six Photography]

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