Today is the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, one of America’s premier auto racing events. The race will be held around the two and a half-mile “oval” of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track is called an oval but, geometrically, it’s actually a rectangle. It’s just had its corners rounded off, is all. And the corners, while similar, are each unique and must be taken by the drivers slightly differently.
Cars proceed counterclockwise around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track. From the main straight and start/finish line on the left of the picture, this year in qualifying drivers reached speeds approaching 240 mph as they approached turn 1. Here they will slow slightly, trying to execute the corner as fast as possible and also begin accelerating as soon as possible at a rate they can continue down the short straight between turns 1 and 2 (known as the “Turn 1 Short Chute”) and through turn 2.
The maximum speed out of turn 2 and down the back straight is achieved when the driver has managed to get back on the throttle as early as possible exiting turn 1 and been able to maintain that acceleration through turn 2.
Often, in an attempt to make a pass, a driver will enter turn 1 faster than that ideal speed necessitating a lift off the throttle (or worse, a tap at the brakes) before turn 2 and find that the driver they passed, returns the favor down the back straight.
Turn 3 is approached at speeds similar to turn 1 but the line is slightly different, as the banking of the track and the condition of the asphalt are unique in each corner. Turn 3 was the scene of Gordon Smiley’s horrific crash during qualifying in 1982 which inspired my flash piece, Gordon.
Turn 4 is taken like turn 2 with the driver trying to maintain maximum acceleration down the main straight, past the “yard of bricks” at the start/finish line and into turn 1.
The race was first run in 1911 and with the exception of six years (two during WWI and 4 during WWII), has been run every year since. The track is called the “Brickyard” due to the paving material used shortly after the track opened. The original gravel and asphalt paving proved too dangerous to drive on so the track owner had the entire 2.5 mile circuit paved with 3.2 million bricks. Today only a yard of bricks at the Start/Finish line remain, but the name stuck.
Ever since Dan Gurney did it in 1967 to celebrate his victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, motor sport victories are often accompanied by a celebratory spray of champagne by the winner. But long before that, three-time winner Louis Meyer started the tradition of drinking milk to celebrate winning the 500. Taught by his mother that buttermilk was the best thing to drink after exercise, he requested a glass after winning his second 500 in 1933. When he won his third in 1936, he requested his usual glass of milk and was given a bottle instead. A newspaper photographer snapped a shot of him drinking from the bottle and an Indy 500 tradition was born! The tradition continues nearly uninterrupted today with the American Dairy Association of Indiana providing the milk and a check for $5000 to the winner!
While auto racing remains a male-dominated sport, eleven women have qualified for the 500 throughout its history. Janet Guthrie was the first to break in 1977 and today’s field includes British driver Pippa Mann who is qualified 25th for today’s race.
Helio drives for Team Penske, one of the powerhouse teams at Indy this year fielding four cars, all with a good shot to take the win. Helio is in an interesting position historically being the only driver in the field who might win his fourth Indy 500, a feat only three other drivers have ever accomplished. Helio starts today’s race in ninth position.
Why I Love Coffee, a recent post by Cafe Book Bean author and coffee fan, Abbie Lu, reminded me of a tongue-in-cheek piece I wrote awhile back about coffee. So, for your enjoyment (or otherwise) here is “Driving While Caffeinated.”
I can trace my decision not to drink regular coffee to a day spent Christmas shopping with my mother when I was ten, the small coffee shop she took me to, and the odd man who worked there.
It was early in December and an overnight snow had left a snowy blanket over my hometown of Owego, New York. The streets were freshly plowed and the cars hadn’t yet churned the roadway into a frozen, muddy, slurry. Through my ten-year old eyes, everything seemed pristine. Magical. All the store fronts along River Street were dressed in their holiday best. Garland and lights hung in the windows, framing each store’s merchandise, making everything look new and fascinating to me. I wanted to rush into each store to discover what treats and wonders awaited me but my mother’s gentle guiding hand kept me at her side. Thinking back on it now, it may have been the last time I was innocent enough to walk through the streets unashamedly holding my mother’s hand.
The last shop on the block was a coffee shop where my mother often took me. I never tired of the sensation of being enveloped by the pungent, earthy aroma that flowed around you as you stepped through the door. Today was no exception.
We sat at a table near a wide window and the man came from behind the counter wearing a green apron. He greeted my mother and took a seat directly opposite me and oddly close to my mother. His eyes turned to the ceiling for a moment as he slid a cigarette and a pack of paper matches from the pack in his shirt pocket. His fingers were nimble and his movements almost rehearsed as he placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. It seemed to me like a magician performing a trick, or a priest performing a rite in a compelling yet incomprehensible litany. His eyes returned to us as he drew a long, slow breath and brought the cigarette to life, then exhaled a deep smoky breath that enveloped the three of us at the table. My mother said that the man had something important to tell me and that I should listen closely. Without any further introduction, he began his story.
“Well, I don’t tell everyone this story. It’s really kind of embarrassing. You see, a few months back, I was at a party with some friends, and everyone was drinking coffee. I knew I should have had decaf. I mean, who hasn’t seen those public service commercials on TV, but I figured I could handle a cup or two of regular.”
The man inhaled another breath of smoke and continued. “Anyway, I had a cup. A cup turned into two. Two turned into three, and before I knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. and everybody was doing shots of espresso. There was a guy in the kitchen making lattes and cappuccinos. Everybody was talking a lot. And really fast. Completely out of control! I had to leave because I had to get up early for work the next day but I figured I was okay to drive.”
The man stared at me and took another long drag on his cigarette. “I mean, I can handle my caffeine. Okay? I ain’t no wimp.” So, there I was at 1:30 in the morning, driving home. You know how it goes. Singing along to the radio way to loud and way too fast.” The man winked at my mother. “That’s when I came up on a Caffeination Checkpoint.”
“I told myself to just be cool, but I couldn’t stop my heart from leaping into my throat. The cop came up to my car and motioned me to roll down the window. then he stuck his head inside the car, right next to my face and asked I’d been drinking coffee, almost like he already knew. I tried to speak slowly and carefully but I blurted out, “Yes sir, I’ve had a cup or two a few hours ago but nothing for a while really.”
“My hands were shaking and he could tell by how fast I as talking that I was lying. He asked me for my license and registration then had me step out of the car and stand facing the flashing blue lights on his patrol car with my hands straight out in front of me.”
The man thrust his hands out over the table to demonstrate and I could see they were shaking. Ash from his cigarette dropped onto the table. He ground his cigarette out in an ash tray and continued. “The cop made me recite the alphabet. Slowly. I tried, I really did, but I flew through L-M-N-O-P like it was one damn letter. He made me do it twice just to satisfy himself and I knew I was sunk. He asked me to turn around and I felt the cold steel of his handcuff on my wrists, I knew it was over. Arrested for driving while caffinated.”
The man quickly lit another cigarette in the same smooth motion as before. “It was my first offense, so I didn’t get any jail time, but the judge ordered me to attend a county Caffeine Awareness Training class where once a week I spent the day with 30 other Caffeine Offenders and learned all about the evil of caffeine. The judge also sentenced me to serve fifteen hours a week community service working at a coffee shop. I guess he figured being around caffeine and having to exercise good judgement about it every day would help me develop the skills necessary to avoid that kind of trouble in the future. Truth, is I still sneak a cup every once in a while.”
He winked quickly at me and then slid his chair a little closer to my mother’s. “They issued me this apron and I’ve been here ever since.” He paused, as if to let his story sink in, then he slowly pushed his chair away from the table and stood up.
“I’ve got to tell you, though. I really did learn my lesson! Now, whenever I go to a party, I’m the Designated Decaf.”
He butted his cigarette on the ash tray, thrust his hands into his front pockets, and gave us a little shrug. “Sure, some of my friends mock me. They say things like, “Come on, it’s just a latte,” or “Hey! One shot of espresso never hurt anybody!” but there’s no way I going to take the chance of getting busted again. No way.”
“Well, I better get back to work,” he said and he gave my mother a hug. She leaned in as if to whisper in his ear and I saw she kissed his cheek instead.
The man started to turn away then stopped and gave me a look that made my breath catch in my throat. “Son, I hope you listened to my story. Now, your mom may not appreciate me saying this part but I think you’re old enough to hear it and I think you need to know; if you ever get sent away to Coffee Prison, there are guys in there, big ugly guys, who would just love to get their hands on a sweet young boy like you and grind your beans.” Then he walked away and disappeared into the back room of the coffee shop.
It would be years before I was old enough to really understand exactly what he meant by his last remark. Even now I’m not sure I get the allusion. But the one thing that has stuck with me was his foreboding tone, and it’s the reason why you’ll never, ever catch me drinking coffee, even on a dare.
In the previous installment of The Sensual Driver we took a quick look at some of the relaxation techniques designed to help you become more aware of the sensations your body experiences as you drive provided by Sir John Whitmore in his excellent driver training book, “Superdriver.”
If you haven’t read Part I, that’s okay. You can go back and pick it up later. Here’s the link: The Sensual Driver, Part I.
Awareness of what’s going on in your body and mind is essential to improving your driving skill. But awareness is only the general starting point. Now let’s take it a step further and use that awareness to focus on the things you may feel while driving that can interfere with your inner Super Driver. The first is tension.
We’ve all felt it and it has many causes. Maybe it’s being stuck in heavy rush-hour traffic, or being tail-gated by a tractor trailer on the highway, or even trying to navigate through an unfamiliar part of town while the kids are screaming in the back seat. You feel it in your hands, your knuckles going white as you grip the wheel. You feel it in your neck and shoulders, like someone is twisting a hot knife between your shoulder blades. Tension. Not only is it unenjoyable and possibly painful, it can interfere with your ability to operate your vehicle as well as you can, and if left unchecked, can cause you to begin to despise the act of driving itself.
Sir John Whitmore provides an exercise.
Try the exercise below. If you consciously use this technique every ten minutes or so for a few days while you are driving you will soon find you can do it very quickly; before long, a regular check on your tension will be as easy as a glance at the fuel gauge. Notice that it is not a case of forcing yourself to relax, which is a contradiction in terms. By merely becoming aware of your tensions and focusing your attention on the sensations in some detail, they will be reduced. Do not analyse, judge, criticize yourself or develop a lot of opinions about your tension. Just experience the various sensations, rather as you would listen to a piece of music.
While you are driving, check through your body from head to toe to see if you are experiencing tension.
If you are, you need to find out exactly what your body sensations are, when they occur, where in the body they are located, and how strong they are. Check your facial, neck, and shoulder muscles. Is your grip on the wheel too tight? As you monitor the sensations, they may move and alter in form, but almost certainly they will begin to dissolve. When you are monitoring tension, it may be useful to grade it on a one-to-ten scale, with five being the starting level. The figure may rise briefly as you become aware of the tension, but it will soon fall again.
Now that you are armed with some awareness and relaxation techniques, it’s time to reveal the ultimate secret to raising your sensual awareness while driving. You may be surprised to find out that when it comes to driving–and to many other aspects of life–the secret is to focus on your butt!
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “driving by the seat of your pants.” It’s not just a clever saying. How you sit in your vehicle affects your comfort, your alertness, your ability to operate your vehicle’s controls, and your internal vehicle and traffic awareness. Just as you need a solid foundation to build a quality house, when looking to improve your driving, it’s best to start with the foundation – your driving position.
There are many different opinions about the “best” driving position, but most experts agree that the most important aspect is to be comfortable in the position you choose. You simply cannot give your driving the attention it needs if your basic driving position is uncomfortable or inadequate. The follow items are key:
Also, I should add the warning that you should never make adjustments to your driving position while your vehicle is in motion. That should go without saying but you’d be surprised how many accidents are caused by drivers trying to adjust their seats while moving and losing control of their vehicles!
Following these guidelines will provide a foundation upon which you can build the driving skills that will help make your driving experience more comfortable, enjoyable, and safe.
Even a casual look around at other drivers on your morning commute will confirm that for many people, driving is an automatic response, something they do with no more awareness than chewing a piece of gum. Many drivers think nothing of checking a map, reading the morning paper, or even sending text messages while driving. I once saw a woman in a mini-van eating a bowl of cereal resting on her steering wheel while she drove 70 mph down the highway with her two small children in the back seats!
A more realistic view of driving is that it is an act which entails great potential for serious, and sometimes irreversible, consequences. Guiding a vehicle weighing several tons, hurtling down the road at highway speeds is an act that requires one’s attention. And while I’m not suggesting that driving should be looked at with any more caution than necessary, one thing is clear: everyone can improve their level of concentration and awareness of their driving. Luckily there are a number of simple techniques you can utilize to focus on and improve your awareness while you drive.
When it comes driving, the most important parts of your anatomy – besides your brain – are your back and backside. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “driving by the seat of your pants”? It’s not just an odd expression! Improving your driving begins with driving awareness, and driving awareness begins with a focus on of those parts of your body that are the most in contact with your vehicle through the seat. It’s through the nerves and muscles in your back and backside that your brain senses what is going on with your vehicle as you drive.
Awareness, and along with it relaxation, are key aspects doing anything well, so it’s no surprise that in his excellent book “Superdriver” Sir John Whitmore spends considerable time discussing them and providing exercises to help drivers increase both.
He writes, “… here is an exercise to illustrate what I mean when I use the term awareness. (As you sit reading this) Place your attention on the points of contact between you and the seat which supports you. What does the pressure feel like? Where exactly on your body are those points, how hard is the pressure, what is the relative firmness of that pressure on your bottom, your back, and on your feet? Now move, and note how those feelings shift.”
It should be noted that this book was written in 1988, when it was more reasonable than not that a reader was sitting, holding a physical book. Modern readers may adjust this exercise to focus on the points of contact between themselves and the ground, the air, water, or whatever they are in contact with as they read this on their phones, tablets, Google glasses, or whatever. Where you are and what you’re doing don’t matter. Only the focus does.
Sir John continues, “… close your eyes and you may be able to feel more, as this will eliminate the dominant visual sense on which we are normally so dependent. Your tactile sense ‘expands’ to fill the gap and make up for the lack of vision.
“Now check through your body inside your skin, starting with your toes. Notice any feelings of warmth or coolness, tension or tiredness. Notice what you feel in each part of your body. Don’t judge it, don’t analyze it, just experience it.
“Now move a little and notice how the experience of different parts of your body changes. Experience and enjoy those feelings in the same passive way as you would hear and enjoy the sounds of a piece of music: one phrase after another, non-judgmentally.”
And this exercise, practiced numerous times, leads to a direct application to driving (though with the eyes open)!
“Now do the same thing while you are driving. To begin with, try it for short periods of time.
“As you are driving, focus on the pressure points between you and the seat, your hands and the wheel, your feet and the pedals when you push them. Notice the sensations and feel them change.
“Check inside your body also. Notice any tightness, tiredness, or discomfort in your muscles. Don’t try to do anything about it, just register it in as much detail as you can. What exactly is the sensation? Where exactly in your body do you experience it? When does it occur as you drive? All the time, or only when traffic is heavy, for example? How strong is the sensation? Call it five as it is now, on a scale of one to ten and notice if it increases or decreases as you watch it. Keep rating it on that scale for a while.
“You will find that as you maintain your focus upon it, the numbers will decrease and the discomfort will dissolve. You may find yourself altering your position in the seat or even wanting to move the seat. Go ahead and do it–your body is telling you what it wants, and, like an athlete, you are now listening to your body.”
Many people take driving for granted. They get in their cars and they go where they want, but they do it in a way that’s disconnected from the experience. Driving to them is a necessary evil, a boring (and often anxiety-inducing) means to end. Nothing more.
But I find the act of driving an immensely enjoyable experience, and more so as I focus on what my body feels as I do it. I’ve felt this same enjoyment in slow-motion, stop-and-go city traffic and I’ve felt it on the race track at the very limits of car control. The key to that enjoyment, I find, is awareness of how your body and your vehicle relate to each other.
And while you may not aspire to be a world famous race car driver (not that I am one, mind you!), there are so many aspects to performance driving that apply to daily driving as well. And at the very least, as you elevate your general driving skills you can transform your boring, daily commute into an almost sensual experience.
And who wouldn’t want that every day?!
Superdriver by Sir John Whitmore
It was 1990 and I had just taken up go kart racing as a hobby. I had a passion for it and wanted be as good at it as I could be, but I had a disadvantage. The kart’s brake pedal was on the left and I couldn’t left-foot brake. I’d always used my right. My left was useless and I kept locking the rear brakes and spinning out and finishing last.
I bought the book, “Superdriver” from a race parts catalog off an advertisement in that spoke of “exercises for high concentration, high-performance driving.” Exactly what I was looking for. I started using the techniques and exercises right away to teach my left foot to be as good as my right.
My daily drive at the time was a blue 1984 Dodge Omni, an automatic. So one Saturday I hopped in and decided to I would only use my left foot to brake from then on when I drove it. I pulled out of my driveway and rolled through the neighborhood. I stopped halfway into the intersection at the first stop sign and ten feet short at the next. Luckily no one else was out as I lurched and jerked through the neighborhood, my left foot lunging at the brake pedal, the sensations completely unfamiliar to me. It seemed odd to me that braking with the other foot felt like a foreign act to me even though the other foot did it all the time.
But, as I wound my way through the neighborhood and out into traffic, it got better. I could stop at the stop line with barely a lurch. As I did it over time, in the days and weeks ahead, it gave me a distinct advantage over the other racers, the one who hadn’t read this book.
By 1992 the difference showed!
I’m watching you lay out the photographs tonight. The handful from the other shoe box. Spread them out on the bathroom floor. I don’t know why. I guess it seems right there. We never did agree on some things, like what it was to me. Obsession? Passion? I didn’t then but I see it more from your view now, the progression of it. Maybe why you were worried. Always faster.
Slot car racing with Nicole in the living room of the house in Chesapeake. Nicole grim-faced with new braces. Always faster.
My go kart on its trailer in the driveway. The street race in Indiana. The rain. Always faster.
The formula Vee the next year, slashing through plumes of spray in the wet at Summit Point. Me leaning on the fence on the grid. Smiling in my blue driver’s suit, chatting with other drivers. Waiting our turn to race under a crystal clear sky. Me in the cockpit face-on to the camera. You can’t see but I was smiling inside my helmet.
The car’s sleek body glittering in the summer sun. The blaze orange roll-over bar jutting above my helmeted head.
… I promised never to call it that.
Before the Crash
It’s the accumulation of it, like the odor of a cherished pipe long kept in a white oak desk drawer. Eventually, nothing can cleanse the scent of it from your nostrils.
It’s the irony of the relationship now that causes such dissonance in my mind, the distance between us so evident and in such contrast to the memory of our intimacy.
To the effect that I hear myself asking, “Which is true? What I saw then or what I see now?”
And the question distracts.