Author: Bogacki, Luke
Date published: November 12, 2010
Within the handful of columns I have written for National DRAGSTER and throughout the pages of my website, ThisIsBracketRacing.com, I have provided a lot of food for thought, including techniques, situations, and strategies for racers to read and dissect. You could literally spend hours, days, weeks, or even months mulling over all of the available information. The trick to success is to put all of that information to use within the few seconds you spend on the racetrack. Obviously paramount is that you achieve an intense, acute focus for that brief period of time you're on the racetrack so as to maximize the benefits of that preparation. You need to be able to process as much pertinent information as possible and use it to execute the proper strategy that you have rehearsed in your head. How do you consistently achieve that level of brief, intense focus? And how do you reach that state of mind each and every time you stage the car? For me, that process begins with developing and maintaining a positive routine in the race car.
When discussing creating and maintaining a positive routine, you are looking to achieve two distinctly separate goals. First, your routine needs to be rigid enough to be just that: a routine. The goal is to go through the same physical actions run after run. This will in turn create a lot of the same mental thoughts, and a combination of the two develops a level of comfort over time. Comfort breeds confidence, and in this game, like in many aspects of life, there is absolutely no substitute for confidence.
The second goal is for your routine to be just flexible enough that outside forces cannot affect it to the point that it detracts from your focus. Anything that the racer in the other lane does, anything that happens to the pair in front of you on the racetrack, and anything that a track official does during your pre-race process cannot have an effect on the outcome of your routine (the routine that results in a deep state of focus and concentration). So while it may sound contradictory, the goal of a positive routine is to be rigid, yet flexible. What you want to achieve is a calm, comfortable, and consistent level of focus run after run after run. What you want to avoid is making any portion of your routine dependent on someone other than you or your team.
When discussing routine in the race car, you generally think in terms of the time you pull into the water box until the time you pull off of the racing surface. Just for the purpose of discussion, I'm going to use an example that precedes that process. Let's say that I'm making a run in my dragster. It doesn't matter if it's a time trial at my local track or the final round of a national event. When I get into the car in the staging lanes (with my driving pants and jacket already on), I grab the cam-lock portion of my harness. I then click the left lap belt into position. Then I click the right lap belt into position. I click the left shoulder belt. I attach the right shoulder belt. I put on my helmet and strap it. I then slide my left hand into its glove. I slide my right hand into its glove. I put on my neck collar. Next, I clip my left arm restraint. I clip my right arm restraint. Now, assuming the engine is already at the appropriate temperature and my delay box and/or throttle stop settings are all where I want them, I'm ready to pull onto the racetrack.
That's pretty detailed, dry, and very common sense, isn't it? I detailed that routine to prove my point. I do things in that order, in that sequence, every time that I get into the race car. Those same physical actions spur many of the same mental thoughts, and a combination of the two creates a comfort zone. I can't help but think, "I've done this 1,000 times before," because I have, and I'm doing it exactly the same way I have for each of those previous passes. Think now about applying this same attention to detail to each and every facet of your run. Just roll through the same progressions run after run, race after race, until they become second nature.
Apositive routine should focus on all of the little things that can affect the outcome of a drag race. Those of you who have raced for any period of time certainly have developed a long list of various ways to lose a race; I know I have. Eliminate as many of those silly mistakes as possible. When you find new mistakes and new ways to cost yourself a race (and we all do), add a way to eliminate those through your routine as well. A positive routine should help to minimize, if not eliminate, those silly mistakes. A quick guideline of things to add to your routine checklist would include the following (feel free to add any other guidelines you deem appropriate):
* Do a consistent burnout
* Line up properly in the groove, pointed straight ahead, and in as consistent a location (side to side) as possible
* Maintain consistent temperatures (water, oil, transmission, etc.)
* Review your instrumentation (oil and fuel pressure, vacuum, sensors, etc.)
* Make sure all appropriate components and accessories are turned "on" or "off" (water pump, fuel pump, fan, lights, etc.)
* Double-check your delay box settings (if applicable)
* Double-check that the dials are correct, both on the scoreboards and in your delay box (if applicable)
* Pull the car into low gear
* Carefully stage
Your routine should encompass basic fundamentals like this, and your brain should run them like a checklist as you prepare to stage the car. Incorporating these items and more will help you to eliminate the silly mistakes that cost you a handful of rounds each year. Like my fellow columnist Dan Fletcher is quoted for saying repeatedly, "He who makes the least mistakes wins."
In addition to covering the basics, your routine should also serve an equally important purpose: It needs to get you ready to race. What we talked about in the previous paragraphs is all about eliminating variables - doing the little things to take away discrepancies from the things we can control. Now, we'll focus on the trickiest component to a positive routine: mentally preparing to make a successful run down the track.
As mentioned earlier, the goal is to reach an unparalleled state of calm focus and concentration on the racetrack. I think anyone who has raced can attest to the fact that your level of concentration increases as soon as the car is started. We become more attentive, and our senses are that much sharper, simply from feeling the power of the machine. That level of focus is perfect to maintain throughout your pre-race routine, but you need to develop another state that brings you to an even deeper, more focused acute level of concentration. You need to reach that enhanced state as soon as all four of the stage bulbs are lit on the Tree. This is where you need those few seconds of uninterrupted, undeterred focus.
How do you get there? I think the answer is a little bit different for everyone. It comes down to finding out what makes you tick. Doing so is going to take a little bit of practice and trial and error. It's also going to take a lot of honesty. You have to be true to yourself and honest within the process of self-evaluation. Once again, I'll use myself as an example. Let's say that I've done my burnout and I've gone through my mental checklist of the fundamentals that I need to control. I'm ready to stage the car. At this point, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I'm beginning to step into that next level of paramount focus. I go over my pre-race strategy once again in my head, and then I utter a group of sayings that are my mind's way of weeding out the distractions and turning up the concentration. I tell myself on every run:
* "Stare deep into the bulb."
* "Think slow."
* "Let the race come to you."
Why those sayings? At some point I added them to my routine for a particular round or a certain objective, and they helped me. Now, I'm not telling myself anything I don't already know, but the reiteration of those words helps me turn it on. It's almost like that's my mind's cue: It's time. That's part of my routine. It's just as important as eliminating those fundamental variables because it helps me achieve that level of focus to be as consistent, as concise, and as thoughtful as I can be. Now let's be clear, I'm not recommending that each of you regurgitate my phrases. Those work for me. Find out what works for you.
That's the rigidity end of routine. We perform those same actions and those same thoughts run after run to develop comfort. Comfort develops confidence, and confidence wins races. I also mentioned before that your routine needs to be somewhat flexible in that no part of your routine should hinge on the actions of anyone outside of your team. For example, having a routine that includes staging first or staging last isn't healthy; it's dependent on your opponent. In time, you'll run into an opponent with that same routine, or one who is willing to alter their routine solely to throw you off of yours. Don't let that happen. Don't get caught up in what's going on in the other lane. Always remember that you dictate the pace of your routine. It's common to feel rushed when your opponent's routine is quicker than yours. It's also common to feel like your opponent is "burning you down" when their routine is slower than yours. Eliminate that line of thinking. The race cannot start until both drivers are staged. Today, most facilities implement an Auto Start system that monitors the staging process and essentially eliminates any unsportsmanlike foul play. The order in which the staging process occurs is completely irrelevant to the outcome of the race.
The same goes for any outside forces you cannot control. If the dials are wrong, that is part of the checklist in your routine, so you should catch it. Alert the starter, and the tower will correct it. Then you go right back to the portion of your routine you were at when you detected the problem. What's next on the checklist? You can't let that small piece of unordinary data affect the remainder of your routine; it's back to business as usual.
Don't be afraid to write things down. After your burnout, and prior to turning on the pre-stage bulb, there's a sequence of events that you should go through, as outlined above. It's OK to write out a checklist. You probably don't want to keep it in the car - it should be committed to memory (the goal is to eventually make it second nature) - but it should be written out. This way, in addition to having a strict, rigid routine in writing, you've got an easy reference to make adjustments. When you find new ways to lose, you can add something to your routine to help eliminate it, and if you are true to yourself, you will constantly find concentration rituals that help and some that seem to have an adverse affect. My personal routine is constantly tweaked and redefined as I find things that seem to help me and find glitches that I realize are not beneficial.
Those of you who are members of ThisIsBracketRacing.com realize that I like to repeat myself to get my point across. If you're standing at the free throw line and thinking about how you rimmed out your last shot, guess what? If you're hovering over a tee shot on a long par five with trees lining the left side of the fairway and a huge water hazard to the right and think, "I hope I don't knock it in the drink," guess what? The same is true when you stage trying "not" to do something: "Don't red-light." "Don't miss the Tree." Confidence allows you to focus on the things you are trying to accomplish, rather than avoid the things you are not.
It's not my intention to make this a psychological column; Bruce Deveau does a great job of getting us more in touch with our emotions behind the wheel. I'm just trying to explain what I know works for me. Without trying to puff my chest out, I've been very fortunate in racing, and I've got some phenomenal outings to look back on, relive, and build my confidence when it needs a shot in the arm. I've had days when I knew I could do no wrong in the race car, and it all just felt easy. I realize that not everyone has experienced that feeling of invincibility. Capture those moments, relive them, and build upon them. It's every bit as important to build on the things you get right as it is to learn from the things you do wrong. Like anything else, it's a give and take.
I challenge each of you to focus on your routine. Allow it to minimize mistakes and build comfort, confidence, and concentration. I can speak from experience when I say that routine is a calming influence in my racing program. Regardless of the situation, or the stakes of a particular round, if you fall into a common routine, it makes the situation seem familiar. You're going through the same physical motions and thinking many of the same mental thoughts, whether it's the second round at a local track on a Saturday night or the semifinal of the Million Dollar Race. The gravity of the moment tends to disappear as soon as you are able to focus and tune out the distractions. That focus comes from the comfort and confidence that a positive routine develops.
Luke Bogacki earns his living behind the wheel of Sportsman racing machines. He has accumulated event wins and series championships in NHRA and IHRA competition and at countless bigdollar bracket events for more than a decade. In addition, Bogacki created ThisIsBracketRacing.com, an instructional website aimed at Sportsman racers. He also hosts a number of on-track driving schools each year. E-mail questions or comments to