Racing as a do

A few weeks ago, I got into a debate where someone was asserting that racing cars was not a sport. Part of his assertion relies upon the premise that driving is not an athletic activity. It would be entertaining to give him enough training that he could drive at near race speeds, bundle him up in the multiple layers of firesuit, and send him hour for half an hour or an hour of 10/10ths driving in 90-100 degree weather. I'm reasonably muscular, and I've ended the day at the track with rather sore arms. These days it seems to be mostly tendonitis. But I digress.

If you are not familiar with the terms "jutsu" and "do", check out this: google pointed me to it, and it seems to be a pretty good explanation.

While my primary focus is auto racing, most of what I'm writing can apply to racing motorcycles, planes, or even horses or on foot.

My martial background include heavy fighting in the SCA, many more years of aikido than my 3rd kyu rank would imply, a few months (and one tournament) in shotokan and some informal sparring with shinai (bamboo kendo swords). None of these directly apply as a jutsu, all of them could arguably be "do as sport", and the aikido is definitely "do as path". While shotokan can definitely be "do as path", the classes I took, in the cubberly gym, through a junior college, definitely weren't. Espeically at my level.

Wheel to wheel racing, is by definition, a competition. I do not know if it qualifies as "sparring" but, from the inside, the similarities are striking. It most resembles the competition the SCA calls a melee, where you start out with many people on the field, no structure, and in the end, one person wins. During the course of a melee, you will fight multiple people, usually one-on-one, and when you have won that fight, you continue on to the next. There are, of course differences, if you beat someone in a melee, they are out of the fight, if you pass someone in a race, they can pass you back. However, the theme of a competition among many, which usually resolves into a series of one-on-one duels, is common to both. It is arguable whether these duels in racing count as sparring. You are not simulating physical combat, however the "feel" or "flavor" is closer to sparring than any other sort of competition or game that I've done.

Racing is explicitly not a "jutsu". People do get hurt, and even die, but I don't know of any case where someone has intended to do physical harm to the driver. The car maybe, and I can envision someone losing their temper and wanting to hurt the other driver, but it is very much an aberrance, rather than the accepted goal.

But, is racing a "do as path"? There is a simple answer that any activity can be a path to enlightenment, whether it is aikido, yoga, meditation, tea ceremony, dancing or whatever you use to focus your personal and spiritual growth. Many of these have an orthodoxy, or an intrinsic philosophy. The different schools of various martial arts are differentiated more by internal, their philosophy and how the physical expression reflects that philosophy, rather than by the external, the physical differences in performing the techniques.

I am confident that there is no central orthodoxy to the philosophy attached to racing. So, as a path, it is not like many martial arts, where you learn a philosophy, and practice it's expression through the physical techniques, often coupled with meditation. If it is a do, it is generally a private one, where each practitioner finds their own way. Even so, there are important philosophical discoveries that one learns in racing.

"When the green flag drops, the bullshit stops". One could probably write a bestselling self-help book on this sentence alone. Throughout our life, we are faced with deadlines and due dates of every kind. Very, very few of them are immutable. If you miss a test at school because you were sick, you can usually take a "make-up" test. In high-tech, people damn near expect you to miss deadlines and project slippage is planned for. If, however, you aren't on track, ready to go, when the green flag comes out. That's it. You don't race. Game over. Racing will teach you about deadlines, about meeting them, about the consequences of missing them, and which deadlines can or cannot be missed.

Likewise, racing is a quantitative sport, not a qualitative sport. In gymnastics, dance, or drifting, there are judges who decide how well you did. In a close competition, with different judges, or even the same judge in a different mood, the scores could change. In racing, there is no bullshit. At the end of the race, were you ahead of the other guy? There are no points for style, there is just win, or lose.

"In order to finish first, you must first finish". This is so central to racing, and also has tremendous implications for life outside of the racetrack. There is the ultimate goal, and there are the intermediate goals along the way. In order to achieve your goal, there are other things that must be accomplished, and trying to take shortcuts to the final goal (a risky pass) that put the intermediate goals (finishing the race) in jeopardy, can keep you from achieving your ultimate goal (winning).

"Slow in the slow parts, fast in the fast parts". Again, it is a case of learning your priorities. There are places on a racetrack where you have to go slower than you might be able to, so that you can go faster where it does you more good. Jackie Stewart once said "Better in slow and out fast, than in fast and out dead".

"Slow down to go faster". This is not quite the same as "Slow in the slow parts", but there are times when it applies. The core meaning of this phrase is that if you back off, and concentrate on doing the job right, you will often end up faster than if you just thrash and try to go as fast as you can. There is a simple reason for this. When you back off, and concentrate on doing it right, you make fewer mistakes. When driving you are "ahead of the car". If you are simply trying to go fast, you get sloppy, you make mistakes, and you are expending energy and focus reacting to and recovering from those mistakes.

"If you never spin out, you aren't going fast enough". If you never attempt to exceed your limits, you will never know what those limits really are. It may seemed like you were trying at 95%, but was it really 95, 98, 100 or 85%?

There are other things that one learns and practices in racing, that aren't philosophical, and aren't just kinesthetic either. One of which is managing fear. Doing something because it needs to be done, despite the fact that our natural instincts tell us that not to do it. For example taking certain turns flat out. There is simply perfecting kinesthetic skills. There are the whole sets of skills that are the difference between driving fast and racecraft.

I've got other things I need to do today, I think I have assuaged the inspiration that wasn't going to let me focus until I explored this path. Hopefully, I'll be able to come back to this later. I think that I can learn a lot by analyzing this subject. Copyright (C) 2004 Larry Colen

Most recently modified by lrc at Thu Oct 21 22:16:01 PDT 2004