Being a race car driver: What does it take?
Through this series, we aim to bring you unique advice from one of the quickest professional drivers around.
Here you’ll learn all about the demands of being a race car driver and the pressures that come with it.
Be A Race Car Driver: What To Expect
There are two types of days as a race car driver: off-season days and in-season days. The best way to describe it is you’re supposed to find the money in the off-season to go racing in-season.
Sometimes, especially at the start of your career, those days will blend. The ideal situation is you find the money in the off-season, then shut off the business side in-season. So you can focus on being a race car driver.
Your off-season days are going to be swallowed up by training harder than ever. In-season, your training is about maintaining fitness, so you do the bulk of the work off-season. This is critical: if you don’t put in the work off-season, you will struggle to get through races in-season. A lot of people don’t know how physically and mentally exhausting racing is. Especially in hot, humid conditions where you shed lbs of water!
As a race car driver, your off-season is consumed by training, finding the money to go racing and finding a team to race with. In-season, you’re maintaining the money, health, fitness, physical preparation and fulfilling sponsor obligations. You will be busy six days a week. Get used to giving up your weekends!
“If you don’t put in the work in the off-season, you’re suddenly trying to make gains in the in-season. That’s when mistakes happen," said Parker Thompson. “You’re training when you should be recovering. Then you show up to the race even more tired than you were, because you’re trying to get stronger. But actually, you’re getting weaker.”
Be A Race Car Driver: Focus On Diet
We could write 10 articles on diet. At the end of the day, what a race car driver puts in their body is their fuel.
You don’t send a high-performance race car out with regular gas-station fuel in it. You need high-octane.
Hands down, a race car driver’s diet can make as much difference as exercise. Not just with physical performance, but also mental performance. Everyone is different. And different diets will suit different people.
“Stick to putting good food into your body, and the right foods with training,” said Parker Thompson.
“You have to add the training. You’re not just going to see physical advances, but mental advances too. If I’m a race car driver who wants every tenth I can get, I’m going to do whatever it takes. If that means I have to cut things out of my diet, I do it without even thinking about it.”
Be Mentally Prepared For Anything
Being a race car driver requires extreme mental toughness. You have to put your life on the line every time you get behind the wheel. If you’re not mentally tough enough, negative thoughts creep in. They say if you have an accident or make a mistake – it could be your last.
“That’s the taboo. Racing has the danger aspect. Regardless if you want to talk about it or not, it’s there. If you’re not at peace with yourself and don’t realize, compartmentalize and accept the dangers you won’t see true performance as a race car driver,” said Parker Thompson.
Further than that, you have to be mentally fit. A lot about being a race car driver is reaction time. It doesn’t matter how physically fit you are, because reaction time is mental. So, cognitively, you have to function at the highest level.
Simple brain exercises can help. Training the right side and left side of the brain to work together.
Then you have vision. Your eyes are disconnected – if you cover up one eye, your point of view shifts. Your depth perception changes. Your peripheral vision changes. Making sure you exercise all of this is key to becoming a race car driver.
Be A Race Car Driver: The Mental-Physical Balance
Finding the right balance between training physically and mentally is tough for any race car driver. Physical fitness is quantitative: you can track your progress. But it’s difficult to track mental fitness.
Be wary of overdoing mental preparation. Doing too much can actually be counter-productive as you become mentally exhausted.
“I train my cognitive function throughout the day. Literally look out of your peripheral vision – look as far to the right or left of your vision as you can. Try and open it up as much as you can,” Parker Thompson said.
“For depth perception, focus on something far away and then focus on something close. Keep diverting your vision as you’re doing different things. Keep vision going far, going near. Going far, going near. I find I use a lot of these little tricks throughout the day in order to keep myself sharp. If you integrate it into your daily life, you don’t think about it.”
Understanding The Sacrifices
As a race car driver, the sacrifices are endless. You have to give up so much because opportunities can be few and far between.
That isn’t easy if you come from a family without a lot of money or connections in motor racing. You’re left to fight tooth and nail for everything.
Even if you have the money, or the connections – you have to be talented enough to succeed. Through go-karting and 1600 series racing, putting together your toolbox of skills is essential.
There are thousands of variables. When you look at being a professional race car driver, it’s not just about going fast. You need to know how to save tires, equipment, how to set up a car. You have to be good with sponsors, you need to communicate well. You need to be likeable to teams and sponsors.
It gets overwhelming.
Compare it to ice hockey. In ice hockey, players are drafted based on skill. It doesn’t matter if they can’t talk, or don’t know how to sell jerseys. If they’re good at hockey, they get drafted.
Being a race car driver, you have to find money to take to a team to go racing with. Then you need to train, which costs more money. You have to travel to races and you’re reliable for every expense to get you to the track. And you still have to be talented enough to be considered for the drive!
“It doesn’t matter if you’re talented – you have to be a triple threat,” says Parker Thompson. “You have to have the sponsorship backing; you have to be likeable and you have to drive a car fast. If you can’t do all three, you’re not going to be on the grid.”
Preparing To Race
No race car driver is the same, so everyone prepares differently. But there are certain things that affect all race car drivers.
Travelling to the racetrack often involves crossing time zones. So you need to get acquainted to time difference and rehydrate accordingly.
The biggest thing is preparing for practise. If you turn up to practise and you’re trying to learn, you’re going to get left in the dust. Every other driver is thinking the same. Study video footage, look at data and memorise the gameplan for the weekend. Understand everything so when you’re heading out for that first lap, you’re making the most of it.
“One thing I couldn’t stress more to race car drivers: the more learning you can do outside the car, the better,” said Parker Thompson. “So when you get in the car, you’re not wasting time or money. That’s when the results yield.”