We’ve all heard the stories about Paul Newman not starting racing until he was 47 years old, and Juan Manuel Fangio winning five World Championships while in his forties. But these seem to be exceptions to the rule in a sport where youth is the norm – at least in professional racing. Hey, Max Verstappen made his debut in Formula One at age 17. But, we’re not talking Formula One here!
Motorsport – from HPDE events to pro racing – may be more accessible to older participants than other sports. No matter what your age – or level of abilities – there is almost always some type of motorsport you can participate in. But isn’t there an advantage to being young in this sport?
Comparing older drivers to younger ones, I think it comes down to desire, effort, resources, experience and fitness (physical and mental).
To me, the single biggest difference between a young driver and an older one is simply the level of risk one is willing to take. This mostly comes down to an awareness of what can happen, and how much the driver has to “lose” if something goes wrong. Many young drivers are naïve to what can happen – they don’t think anything can happen to them – whereas some older drivers have seen enough in their lives to believe that it can happen to them.
This is the risk-reward balance, and ultimately it comes down to just how bad you want it. It’s how strong your desire is, and whether you’re willing to accept the risks that go along with it.
Related to this awareness of risk is the desire to put in the effort to do what it takes. Often, the older driver has many other demands on his or her time, so even if they want to put the effort in, it’s difficult to do. But there’s no doubt that to be the best you can be, it’s going to take effort. It’s going to take time and effort, both at the track, and away from the track. In fact, I’d say the biggest difference can actually be made away from the track, as the time on the track is so limited. If you want to improve, either to get ahead of younger drivers or to keep up, what you do away from the track (mental and physical training) is likely to make the biggest difference.
When I talk about resources, I’m referring primarily to money and time, as well as access to other people.
This can work in a few different ways: The driver with money to spend but very little time due to family and/or business life commitments, the driver who has gotten their professional life to a point where they have time on their hands but is having to watch the budget very closely, or some other combination. One thing that most older drivers have as an advantage over younger drivers is access to other people – other resources to help them improve – through a larger network they’ve built over many years.
Of course, desire, effort and resources are interrelated.
In motorsport – no matter what type or level, competitive or non-competitive – experience is an advantage. Unfortunately, age doesn’t necessarily equal experience. No, simply having another birthday doesn’t result in more driving experience – only driving does.
What is experience? It’s mental programming. Taken to an extreme, if you were to watch videos of cars crashing on a track over and over again, all day long, for months and months, your mental programming would be that “cars crash on the track.” And, because that would be your experience, that would be your mental programming. Would that impact the amount of risk you’d likely be willing to take when driving on the track? Yes.
So, needless to say, I don’t recommend watching video of cars crashing over and over again! In fact, what I do recommend is playing video of cars not crashing over and over again. How do you do that? With mental imagery.
We develop experience through physically and mentally doing things, so build your experience by playing “video” in your mind, with your imagination. How far you take this is completely up to you, but you can develop physical skills with mental imagery. You can build on your experience. This goes back to what I said earlier about how much you’re willing to do away from the track.
What about reaction times? You can look at this in two ways: your physical reaction to something (research has shown that the best drivers don’t necessarily have superior reaction times), and your “anticipatory reactions.” It’s this second one that we rely on the most when driving (and it seems this is the area that the best drivers have an edge over others). If you’ve ever had the experience of “just knowing” that a car was going to change lanes quickly in front of you on the highway, and you avoided it, then you know what I’m talking about. This comes from experience, so the more you drive – a benefit of getting older – the better your anticipatory reactions are going to be. Oh, and you can pre-play scenarios in your mind, experiencing reacting in the right way over and over again, thousands of times.
Of course, physical reactions are important in our sport. If you stay physically active, playing other sports and working on your fitness, you can maintain your reactions far longer than most people think. I strongly recommend playing sports that require good hand-eye coordination and reaction times, such as tennis, squash, basketball, and volleyball. Mountain biking may not put as much stress on your reaction times (depending on the type and level of riding), but it helps – and it’s great for maintaining and developing your sense of balance, and great for overall fitness.
What about eyesight? Don’t we lose our vision when aging, and doesn’t that impact my driving? Sure, there are some physiological changes to the cones and rods in our eyes, and that does impact how well we can see. Typically, it hurts our central vision acuity the most, the part of vision that is tested when we read the eye chart at the doctor’s office.
But there are things we can do to maintain our overall vision skills (peripheral, contrast, color, depth perception, and the ability to sense movement - the stuff that matters most, more than just being able to read the eye chart). Borrowing from the field of sports vision therapy, the two exercises that I recommend to drivers are Lazy 8s and Focus Stretches. Done on a regular basis, you will definitely notice either that your vision is staying strong, or it actually improves (if it has deteriorated to some extent over time). Now, these exercises cannot perform miracles and cure blindness, but they do make a difference. Combined with experience, your vision may not have any limiting effect on your driving performance. But you do need to do the work. (Again, I highly recommend these two exercises, but it’s also worth doing some research on sports vision therapy, and working with a therapist).
I also recommend the brain integration exercises, Cross Crawls and Centering. They help your overall mental fitness, and we all know that performance and race driving heavily stress our mental capacity.
To recap, what specifically can an older driver do to keep up and ahead of younger drivers – even if “ahead” simply means learning more in the non-competitive track day world?
- Consider just how much risk you’re willing to take, and how much effort you’re willing to put in, and be realistic about how far you can go with these in mind.
- Get as much experience as you can, both on the track and off.
- Work on your fitness level with regular exercise.
- Play sports that benefit your reaction times and balance.
- Use mental imagery to manage your risk assessment, and develop your anticipatory reactions.
- Use mental imagery to build on your experience, to develop new skills and techniques.
- Use exercises such as Lazy 8s and Focus Stretches to maintain and improve your visual abilities.
- Use Cross Crawls and Centering to enhance your brain’s ability to process information, and enhance your sense of balance.
(Note: Lazy 8s, Focus Stretches, Cross Crawls and Centering are all things I teach in my Inner Speed Secrets 201 eCourse, available at www.Learn.SpeedSecrets.com)
Research over the past couple of decades about neuroplasticity, or our ability for our brain to adapt and grow is emphasizing the opposite of what we’ve been told in the past: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can. You just need to use the right strategy.
Having said that, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. How does one know when to hang up the helmet?
Ultimately, that’s a personal decision, but to me when the effort outweighs the benefits it’s time call it quits. When desire is overwhelmed by the physical and mental strains (and possibly the strain on resources).
What about when one’s skills have diminished to a point where there is a danger to yourself, and others on the track? For sure, if the risk has risen to a level that you and others find unacceptable, it’s time to find something else, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave motorsport completely. There are other types of motorsport that might fit your level better, and even if you do stop driving there are many things you can continue to do (anywhere from organizational to mentoring and instructing).
Becoming a better driver is all about listening and learning from others. The same is true when deciding when to quit: Ask and listen.
Ultimately, how long you participate in motorsport is up to you and your desire. If the desire is strong enough, you can overcome most age-related so-called limitations - and maybe even turn them into an advantage. Imagine that.