Mario Andretti Teaches You How to Conquer Fear on Your First Track Day
Lessons in courage, courtesy of Mario Andretti.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told us, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” One wonders if he would have held to that belief had he gotten a chance to wheel his ’39 Lincoln limousine through Turn 2 at Mosport or Road Atlanta’s Turn 12 foot-to-the-floor, downhill right-hander.
Point being, there’s a lot to fear on a racetrack. An incomplete list: Other drivers’ mistakes, your mistakes, mechanical failure, oil on the track, and ultimately, injury or even death. But in spite of the real dangers, the experts echo FDR. To drive a car at its limits, one must learn to control fear.
“If you are afraid, you don’t belong there,” says Mario Andretti. “Fear itself can be quite dangerous in the sense that it would make you tentative. A driver that’s tentative does a disservice to him- or herself.”
Science backs the veteran-racer bravado. “Driving is incredibly precise and very cognitive. When we get too activated, both those things deteriorate,” says Tom George, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan. Fear, George explains, triggers changes throughout the body—nerves tingle, muscles tense, the field of vision narrows. A certain amount of this stimulation is helpful. That’s why coaches sometimes yell at and threaten athletes. But too much makes you jerky, tense—the opposite of what’s needed to deliver the smooth, controlled inputs required for a fast lap.
Being afraid is also, inherently, a distraction. “Fear is an emotion that comes from a certain perception that one has—cognition, thoughts,” George says. “Which means you’re not thinking about what you need to be thinking about, which is racing.”
The ability to control such thoughts varies from person to person and is, at some level, innate. “There’s certainly some genetic basis,” George says. It’s one of the things that separate elite athletes from the rest of us. Andretti recalls when Gordon Smiley was killed during Indy qualifying in 1982. It was a gruesome crash; his car hit the wall at some 200 mph. When the wreckage was cleared, Andretti was among the first back on track. “If you are going to be in the business, you have to go out there with confidence and think, It’s not gonna happen to me,” Andretti says.
We can’t all be Mario, but we can learn to be more like him. It starts with preparation. “If you’re extremely fit, and you’re confident in your equipment, fear can be pushed away,” says instructor and former professional racing driver Divina Galica. Flushing brake fluid, checking the torque on lug nuts, watching tire wear—all stuff you should be doing anyway—can have the bonus effect of putting the mind at ease.
George recommends coming to the track with a plan, perhaps a specific skill you’d like to hone. “Think about what you want to do,” he says, rather than fearing what you don’t want. When the lump in your throat starts rising, simple cue words (“Stay flat!”) can get you refocused. “When you’re telling yourself what to do, behavior follows,” George adds.
For novices in particular, fear can come simply from not knowing how fast is too fast. Those drivers should build pace slowly, taking the hair-raising corners as many times as possible to get comfortable. Galica also recommends racing simulators, where one can build speed in a danger-free environment. “If you’ve got fear on a simulation . . . take up fishing,” she laughs.
Finally, don’t confuse courage with carelessness. “I feel a responsibility when I’m driving,” Andretti says. “I sure as hell don’t want to hurt myself or anyone else around me.” He draws a distinction between concern—for the equipment, track conditions, and one’s own readiness—and fear. “You need to be smart. You need to be concerned.”
Everyone who ventures onto a racetrack is choosing to tolerate a certain amount of risk. To minimize that risk and drive at the highest level, one must make another choice: To be fearless. That’s not easy, but it is vital. It is also, perhaps, the point of the whole enterprise. “Quite honestly,” says Andretti, “if there was no chance of something happening, the lure would not be there.”