A common misconception is that faster drivers do everything better than average drivers.
Average autocrossers may lack a few major driving tools/skills. For example, they might struggle with car placement, lack smoothness, etc. They also have a less clear idea of what they are doing wrong or how to fix it. That said, average autocrossers occasionally shine, and collect trophies at national events from time to time. Good autocrossers often make the same mistakes as average autocrossers, but usually recognize their mistakes, and have strategies to avoid those mistakes in the future. Good autocrossers will frequently have success, win national events, but struggle to do it consistently. Great autocrossers enjoy repeated success at the highest levels because they have put in the work, and are experts at limiting mistakes and executing under pressure.
A couple of months ago, I reached out to some top tier drivers (Bryan Heitkotter, Brian Peters, Andy Hollis, Erik Strelnieks, Sam Strano, Tom O’Gorman, John Vitamvas, Dave Ogburn, Daniel McCelvey, Andrew Pallotta, and more) to dig into the differences between average, good, and great autocrossers. Even though their thoughts on the subject varied based on their own experiences and paths to success, there were several clear themes that emerged.
One of them wrote a sentence that resonated particularly well with me, and was remarkably succinct:
“Average autocrossers turn to miss cones; good autocrossers turn around cones; great autocrossers turn into cones, but don’t hit them.”
The point isn’t about how or when we turn in relation to cones, but is about considering ALL of the pieces that go into making that happen. Driving fast involves a collection of learned skills… grip sensitivity, yaw sensitivity, using weight transfer, using vision effectively, knowing how to “make” speed (cutting distance when appropriate, being less smooth when needed, etc), slaloming technique, braking ability, etc. Progressing from average to good requires improving many of these physical skills and a few mental skills. Progressing from good to great is much more about optimizing our approach to learning and mastering the mental side of the game than it is about any particular driving technique.
It is cliche to say, but a big part of the difference between average, good, and great comes down to looking ahead. While we all know and preach this idea, there is more to it than simply looking ahead. Rather, it’s important to understand why we look ahead, and critically, to then use that information to inform how we attack the course. The objective is to process, as early as possible, the sequence of actions we need to take, in order to proceed through the course at maximum velocity. How and when we processes this information plays a huge role in the pace we are able to realize.
We’ve all heard some drivers (or ourselves) say, “You know, I feel like I’m looking ahead, but I’m just not getting it.”
How we use our vision matters, but only if we use it to translate information into action.
The mere action of looking ahead is not enough on its own. We have to be able to take that information and translate it into inputs – throttle, braking, steering, even shifting. The good autocrosser focuses on improving that translation time into inputs, while the average autocrosser simply looks because everyone has been telling them forever to look ahead.
Car control and sensitivity to the limit
The limits of a vehicle are not static; they are constantly changing as the weight of the vehicle moves around. It is to our benefit to not just be aware of how this weight transfer affects available grip (at each axle, as well as the vehicle as a whole), but to also know how to manipulate weight transfer to our advantage when needed! Instead of just feeling the limit of the tires at each axle to tell if one end of the car is about to slide, we need to hone our ability to feel the limit of the vehicle as a whole to evaluate if we are moving the car on our intended trajectory with maximum efficiency.
Great car control is not about catching and holding slides; it is about controlling the position and rotation of our vehicle at the highest possible velocity.
Perhaps the most overlooked nuance is that the greatest drivers tend to load into and come off the tire’s limits with a softness or finesse that results in “more area under the curve”. The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. The best drivers are able to enjoy the benefit of more grip (during the transitional phases of cornering) than less advanced drivers because how they load and unload the tires results in more available grip. They actively manipulate the rate and placement of weight transfer instead of just reacting to it.
Commitment to learning and practice
To improve in a sport as ego driven as racing, we must put our egos aside and truly evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. It is human nature to draw comfort from the things we already do well, and lose focus on the things we need to improve. How many of us watch our own videos and fall into the trap of celebrating what we did well and making excuses for what we did poorly? How many of us are able to (consistently) objectively review our performances, make detailed notes about what we need to improve, formulate a plan to work on it, and track our progress?
I love how one of the respondents phrased it: “When we make excuses about our performance and pin the blame on things that are outside of our control, we miss the point. We lost. That means we can be better. Sure, maybe the car, tires, phase of the moon, karma, etc let us down, but it is also likely that we did not perform at 100% of our capability, or that 100% of our current capability is not good enough (yet).”
If there’s something we don’t know, we shouldn’t use lack of knowledge as an excuse. Learn! Read a book, or ask someone (who actually knows what they are talking about) for help. Everybody (and I mean everybody, including those with 10+ national championships) has a part of their game that is weaker than others. There is a wealth of knowledge out there in books, the internet, podcasts, people, etc. Attack what you don’t know, and learn it. It will not happen overnight.
Another respondent had this to say about practice: “Average autocrossers don’t practice enough, and don’t do enough big events against the best drivers. Good autocrossers practice but don’t focus on quality practice. I see tons of really good drivers burning up tires taking 10, 20, 30 runs on the practice course at nationals, making the same mistakes over and over. They make changes to the car, not knowing what those changes are doing, but convincing themselves that they’re making the car better. Great drivers keep detailed setup logs and if they test, they test in a rigorous manner. Great drivers admit when they need help and they seek it out from people who have the strengths that they themselves lack.”
Average autocrossers don’t have a plan when they take a run. They don’t have a plan for how to improve from run to run other than “go faster”. Good autocrossers often develop a rigid plan for how to attack the course. They may brake somewhere on the course because during their course walks they were sure that was a “slow” section. Great autocrossers develop a plan for where they want the car, and let their visual cues determine how fast they can go. They have no preconceived notions about where to brake or where to get on the gas, but they have a very vivid idea of where they want the car to be.
Great autocrossers spend time on mental preparation. This ranges from knowing how to get themselves in the zone, to identifying their weaknesses and developing a plan to mitigate them. Great drivers are not thinking about losing because they are committed to winning.
If losing makes you want to give up, you need to reprogram your mindset. Losing should make you pissed off and want to work harder, not give up.
The mental fortitude required for autocross is outrageous. So often, championships are won and lost on a single run, a single turn, a single cone. We typically only get one shot at a course to make it count when conditions are optimized. Great drivers are able to push through and make that one run when they need to. You don’t get to that level without a well thought out plan and extreme focus.
99% of autocross is spent not on course, and great drivers maximize that time to prepare for the 1% of the time that they are.
Willingness to put in the work
Not all of us aim to be great, and that is perfectly fine! Having fun is important. But I suspect that most of us are drawn to autocross not just for the “fun”, but also because we are competitive, which means we want to perform well (and improve). And the reality is that, as with any activity, if we want to get better at autocross, it is going to take work. There are real life hurdles that get in the way… our day jobs, family, other interests, money, etc. But let’s be clear about one thing; the great autocrossers make the time to put in the work.
I really like what one respondent had to say about this: “Note that someone who is great, may not be great all the time. If real life gets in the way of their focus, or financial constraints get in the way of prep, or time constraints get in the way of practice, their performance suffers.”
Greatness is temporary and only lasts with constant upkeep.
Just because we don’t see the work they put in doesn’t mean it comes easier for them. There are no shortcuts. It is very easy to convince ourselves that we have reached our potential and there is nothing more we can do because anyone faster than us is simply more talented. There is a fantastic post about this from the iRacing Virtual Racing School. The sentiment can be summed up with this: The moment you resign yourself to believing you’ll never be great is when you guarantee it being the case.
People love to debate how much talent matters (or not), but the fact is, that discussion is pointless because we have no idea how talented other people are! We only know our own experience. The only thing that is directly in our control is deciding how much work we are willing to put in to realize our potential.
A closing thought about how our brains work
In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells us that our brains have 2 “systems” that make up how we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and runs as a background task on auto-pilot. System 2 is the opposite; slow, deliberate, logical, and is computationally expensive and demands conscious attention. The more of our driving tasks that we are able to hand off to System 1, the more mental capacity we free up to deal with the things we cannot plan for.
One final thought: Learning happens when we process information, and turn it into actionable insights, and eventually into habits. “Seat time” is one source of information, but it is far from the only source. Don’t limit your sources.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to co-drive with some top talent. One other thing that I have noticed is that the great drivers are able to step outside the “textbook” approach for driving an element when they know there is speed to be gained. For example, we’re always taught to backside the first cone in a slalom, and never dive into the second cone – which in 99% of cases is absolutely the right and best way. But I’ve seen great drivers do the “wrong” thing and make it stick when they’ve needed to and find huge gains. However, as “good” drivers, we must go through the learning process of doing everything correctly and be perfect in that regard before we can “break out” and find speed in the “wrong” ways.
The other thing I’ll echo, that I have personally been guilty of, is seeing a great driver make a blistering run and telling myself “there is no way I’ll get to that point”. But, when we compare the data, I’m right there for 98% of the run but usually one mistake was the cause in the time difference. It does give some hope that everyone can get there with the right commitment and preparation. Confidence is also a huge deal and personally, I struggle with that.
To your last point, that happens all the time! People always assume that they are losing time to the top drivers ALL over the course. More commonly, most of us are very close to one another for the majority of the course, and lose time in just 1-2 elements.
This is where data can be invaluable. I too was shocked when I started comparing runs to folks faster than me and folks I was faster than. Sometimes a 1+ second difference is from a single element. It blew my mind when I stumbled into this.
Its easy to lose a full second in one element with one mistake. Too much gas or too early on the gas, and having the tail slide out just a foot, with a little rear wheel spin on exit, and you’ve lost a ton of time. In just a brief moment. Or coming in too deep and bogging down…same result.
To your point, I had Jay Toussaint in my class at a recent event and lost to him by 2 seconds. But he was in a faster car, and I was able to ID a couple spots where I’d made correctable mistakes on my best run. being an intermediate, I decided to feel encouraged by the results.
Great article that sums it up very well. I particularly love the pat about greatness being temporary. If you don’t continue to focus on the tangibles, yet relying on just the intangibles, you’ll realize real quick that you’re no longer great. It takes serious commitment and focus behind the scene to stay there.
Great post – thanks for doing the research!
One challenge I think many drivers face at regional events is the level of competition may be holding us back. I’m lucky enough to have some national champs in our region, but going to Nationals for the first time this year was not only a humbling experience, it also showed me just how much faster I have the potential to be in my class. Knowing this is another great motivator to put in the time and do the work.
Thank you for posting this. The level of professionalism is so much greater today, than at the first Nationals. Those who were successful in the early days were the individuals totally committed in their quest for supremacy, and had put in the time necessary, to know their car, and most importantly themselves.
It mattered not that you had to drive your car half way across the continent to get home; coming in first at that moment was all that counted.
“Second place is First Loser!”