A Spark of the Divine (a career story)

13 Jul 2022. Bart Craig with Bob Kaplan

Editor's note: Bart Craig is a tenured professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.  

When I started driving cars at high speeds, on race tracks, I wished for a spark of the divine. I've since run across people who have it. They only need to be told what to do once or twice and they go out on a track and execute, if not perfectly, far, far beyond what you'd expect a rank beginner to do, run lap after lap with few mistakes.

But sadly, that's not me. I made the same mistake over and over; it didn't matter how many times the instructor corrected me.

I so badly wanted to be good at it, to be competent, and for the longest time I wasn't. There was a lot of frustration too. I knew what I was supposed to be doing but I failed to do it. I remember having an instructor say, why did you do that and I couldn't say. I wasn't just inept, I was inarticulate.

I was ten, eleven, twelve years old when I caught the driving bug, the car bug. It was my dad I caught it from. He would point out cool cars to me, he had car magazines lying around. He would quiz me: what generation Camaro is that? What size engine does that Trans Am have? I caught on. Before long, I could quote horsepower ratings and zero-to-sixty times for any car made within twenty years of the 1980s.

But it wasn't just my dad, it was my teenage peer group too: one day we would all own exotic cars and live in shacks. I got the sense, this is what life is about.

I couldn't wait to get my license. Well before I was legally able to drive, I bugged my parents or any adult to allow me to drive. My mom would take me to a dirt road and let me drive her truck. In those days you'd take driver's ed in school, you would get a certificate from school, and you take that to the DMV to get a learner's permit. But in my case, my sophomore year in high school I was doing home study, a correspondence thing from the University of Nebraska. To not get a driver's license the minute I turned sixteen would have been a fate worse than death. So I went to a private driving school. I was taught by an elderly Black man and I can still hear his voice in my head: signal before you change lanes, don't try to merge into 60 miles per hour traffic doing 40, think ahead—what might that other car do, and if it does what will you do? It was the first time I realized this driving thing is harder than it looks.

Getting my license as well as having my own car meant freedom. It also meant girls; that is, if you drove the right car.

As it turned out, the cars most attractive to girls were also the ones I found appealing to drive. A VW Scirocco, followed by a Mazda Rx-7. Next a Pontiac Fiero (the GT version, mind you) my faithful steed through college, graduate school, and two years into my first real job—fourteen years in all.

The driving experience—what it feels like to be behind the wheel—is everything to me. Therefore, my car had to have a manual transmission. I want to be the one to decide which gear to be in, not some automatic system. I want to feel the texture of the pavement through the steering wheel. I can convince myself I feel the individual piston strokes turning the engine crank and pushing forward on my seat.

Here's how I got into driving on a track. I bought a BMW, a 323i. BMW encourages you to join the BMW Car Club of America, and the BMW Club encourages you to come out to their High-Performance Driving Education School. I did it once but it felt hideously expensive. It was a while before I did it again. And then for the next three or four years, it was only once a year because that's all I could afford.

An instructor took me aside: "You're never going to get anywhere doing this just once a year—every time you start over." That was a breakthrough moment. I started doing three or four schools a year. At that point I could better afford it. I started to make progress. It was still a slow climb, but I wasn't starting over from scratch again at every school. The mistakes on each lap started to go down. The speeds started to go up. It was almost like the floodgates opened.

Now I do two types of events, quite different from each other. Of course, there's driving on a track, which everyone is familiar with from watching races on TV. With the right car one can hit 160 miles per hour.

But there's also something called autocross. It was my second or third year before I even heard of it. If racing on a track is like downhill skiing, autocross is like doing the slalom. The club sets up a course with cones. You get four to six laps around the course and whatever is your best time, that is your score. I loved it, loved the competitive aspect. The fact that you're seeing your times, and you see yourself improve. That got me hooked on autocross.

In autocross, the speeds are only 50-70 miles per hour but in some ways, it feels faster than on the track. Stuff comes at you at a faster pace and the turns are sharper—it's good preparation for the track. Also, autocross is safer, not just because the speed is lower but because there is usually almost nothing to run into. You're the only one on the course. That's why it's also called solo racing.

Video: autocross

On the track, though, there are many other cars—25, 30 or more—and they're going a lot faster. But the type of track driving I do is a lot safer than what you see on TV. It's controlled. You have to, for example, get permission to pass. You "present" yourself to the car you want to pass, close enough to that car to fill its mirrors. That driver signals which side of their car to pass on. It's controlled but to a casual observer it would probably look like a race.

Race tracks and autocross courses are basically straights punctuated by curves, and to perform well you need to acquire two big categories of skills. One is to drive on "the line." It's the sum total of all the decisions you make about the path you take around the track—where to turn the wheels and where to unwind the wheels. Every turn is three decisions to make: where to turn in, where is the turn's apex, where to track out. So you're making those decisions all around the track. You slow down to turn and, back on the straight, you speed up—you get back on throttle—but you can't get back on throttle while the steering wheel is turned. So I have to figure out how to take the turn to allow me to get back on throttle faster, and whoever does that best wins.

Video: track lap

Precision is at a premium. I happen to love precision, and my day job as a research psychologist requires it. It turns out that a lot of amateur drivers who race have technical jobs like engineering or computer programming. Why? Because you have to go with the math, the geometry, not your intuition. But technical background or not, almost every beginner struggles to learn racing lines. I was certainly no exception.

The other category of skills that I had to learn was car control, the purely physical part, making fine movements with your hands and feet. Beginners stab at the gas and brake pedals or turn too sharply. That's exactly what I did and it took me a long time to stop doing it. I had to learn to make my movements smooth, super smooth. That's because any input you make—accelerating, braking, turning—is transferring weight among the four springs the car sits on. There is a saying, slow is smooth and smooth is fast—not driving slow but making slow inputs.

There probably is one best line for a given car with a given setup from a physics standpoint. But even if you know what that is, you don't always get to drive it. You're always having to adjust. For example, when it's raining, then the line is wherever the water isn't. Geometry's out the window. Or maybe another car dumps fluid on the track. Or maybe you made a late pass and you are not where you want to be for the next turn.

Learning is unlearning. When I started out, I had to suppress my habits from the street because most of your street habits are wrong at the track. You definitely do not use the full width of a city street but you have to use the full width of the track. So you have to supersede what you've learned on the street. It was all very effortful when I started out, but slowly, slowly, with lots of practice, it became more automatic.

But the first thing I needed to learn was to get comfortable with speed. At first, my heart was pounding, my palms were sweaty, I even got muscle cramps—just the tension building up. I was going faster than I was used to and I didn't have confidence in my ability to cope with what might happen. Not only did I feel the stress, but I caught myself holding back when I got that "okay, this is fast enough" feeling. But as I habituated to that environment, I got calmer, and I had more mental capacity for other things.

I also needed to learn to brake, strange as that might sound. Braking is a skill unto itself. Of course, I already knew how to brake on the street but that way is the wrong way for the track. On the street you press the brake pedal lightly first and press harder as you come to a stop. On the track, with very few exceptions you're never stopping; you're slowing, and you want to get your slowing done in the shortest distance possible. So it's the complete opposite with how you usually use the pedal: it's maximum braking first and then you trail off the pedal at the end.

Again, to learn is to unlearn. At first, I braked too lightly and over too long a distance. I also released the pedal too abruptly. Getting it right took a lot of instructor feedback and a lot of practice.

Another thing I needed to learn is where to look—farther ahead. It's arguably the single most important skill. On the street you're looking at what is closest to the car—pedestrians, other cars—but on the track you must look farther away because that farther away place will get here sooner. As you approach a turn, you look all the way through the turn. You see one arc instead of multiple small arcs. Instructors can catch you not looking ahead, and they did in my case. Ideally you make one turn of the steering wheel, hold it, and unwind it. But doing that was so hard for me. I had a habit of turning in too early that I struggled to break. There was fatalism, hopelessness: I'm never going to get good at it. It's a hobby and you're supposed to enjoy it and I'm spending the whole weekend in self-loathing.

I felt terrible about my performance but I don't think I ever seriously considered quitting. I did, though, consider giving up on the goal of ever being good at it—I'd have fun with it but I'd be stuck in the lower ranks forever. But quitting was never really an option because driving is so core to my identity.

Finally, the clouds began to part. And ultimately when it's going well, I'm at one with the car and I'm hurtling through space, in control but at the very limit of control. Moments like that are transcendent, in their own way divine. It's very gratifying to come back at the end of a session and say to myself, that was really good. If no one else knows whether I just had a great run or a terrible one, that's okay with me. But usually my wife, Denise, knows. That's because she's there too. She also drives.

At first she came with me to events and would just hang out. I, still a learner, was not allowed to take her out for rides but an instructor could. She reported back it was an impossible level of driving, the things that they could do with cars. The turning point, I think, was when she happened to meet a female instructor in the paddock, the parking lot where drivers wait for their next turn on the track. "Why aren't you doing this too?" the instructor asked. Now when Denise or I do autocrosses, the other one is often in the car too, as pictured below: 

Your spouse in the car too: unheard of! Side note: I've had to learn when to offer advice and when to just keep my mouth shut.

Around the ten-year mark I was invited to become an instructor, a high compliment. Completing instructor school easily ranks up there with earning my PhD.

If somebody etched 'DRIVER' on my headstone, that would be perfectly fine with me.