Why it's worth celebrating a ninth place finish

By J.G. Pasterjak
Feb 28, 2023 | Ford, SCCA, Mustang, Column, CAM Mustang project car, SCCA CAM | Posted in Columns | From the Nov. 2017 issue | Never miss an article

There aren’t many opportunities to celebrate ninth-place trophies. In most sports, there are the winners, and then there’s everyone else–the great rabble of non-winners–more commonly known as losers.

But this sport we love called autocross is a little different. At least, I’ve convinced myself it’s different to avoid developing crippling self-pity and a pill addiction. Such was my powerful rationalization when I celebrated my recent ninth-place finish.

I’ll set the scene: Lincoln, Nebraska. The SCCA CAM Invitational Challenge. This is the kickoff event of the Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships week, where the muscle cars of the CAM classes annually do battle for their own bragging rights. It’s a championship within a championship and a chance for the exceptional CAM community to have its own little party to end the season.

This also marked the end of the line for our CAM Mustang project car–its final event before it went to live with its new owner a few weeks later. And because this car had spent the last two years bloodying my knuckles and ferrying me around various autocross courses, I kind of had my sights set on a solid performance to cap things off.

The CAM Invitational has the format of a multi-day autocross but compressed into a single day. Three morning runs. Three afternoon runs. Add your best time of the morning to your best time of the afternoon to get your total time. Best total time wins. All others do not.

If you’ve been following the Mustang build and our social media feeds, you know we’ve done fairly well with the car. It won the first National Tour autocross event this year against a strong field, so clearly we came to this final event with expectations.

But after my first three runs, my only expectation was that I’d spend some portion of my night in a nice dark place listening to Joy Division and crying into a dirty black T-shirt.

To put it bluntly, I sucked. I sent my wife a text message that it felt like the worst I had driven in years. I’ve been autocrossing for over three decades at this point, and while I’m probably not going to dominate a national-level event any time soon, I certainly didn’t expect to find myself barely in the top half of the 50-plus-car field.

So what happened? I mean, I knew empirically that the car and my driving skills were good enough to produce a far better result. The names in front of mine on the results sheet were predominantly those of people I’d bettered in previous events.

But it wasn’t about the car, or my physical skills. It was about my head. My head was all wrong. 

Ultimately, though, that’s what I love so much about this sport. To succeed on any given day, the right driver, in the right car, has to perform at the right level in a very compressed time frame. An entire season of preparation and practice comes down to a few 40-second runs on a piece of concrete in the center of the country. You perform here. Now. 

It’s unforgiving. It’s brutal. And that brutality broke me on the morning of September 2, 2017.

Who knows what the reason actually was. I mean, performing under pressure is one of the things I pride myself in. For decades I’ve done improvisational and standup comedy in the most unforgiving environments imaginable and have never succumbed to panic or doubt the way I did in those three morning runs. 

I wish I could tell you a story about how I fixed it. I wish I could give you the magic mantra you could recite to clear your own head and perform at a level you know you’re capable of every time you sit behind the wheel. I wish I could, but I can’t, because I’m not sure how I did it.

Maybe it’s because the pressure was off. Maybe my anger and frustration at my morning performance gave me an extra dose of adrenaline for the afternoon runs. Maybe a few words from fellow competitor Rob Lewis put things in perspective for me about the course, or my driving, or something.

Whatever it was, it worked. I was third-fastest overall in the afternoon runs and pulled myself up from mid-pack to a ninth-place finish.

I posted a quick social media recap afterward, and one of the comments suggested that this experience would make a great column. Well, I hope it does, because here it is.

Yes, I felt a great sense of relief in the end, but mostly I felt validated: I had overcome not only the inevitable pressure of the event itself, but the pressure of my self-imposed performance anxiety. I had overcome it, but that doesn’t mean I suppressed it. 

I embraced it. 

Our friend Andy Hollis is famous for saying that the laws of physics are the same at Nationals as they are at your local autocross. This is true, but I also think that treating a championship event mentally as “just another event” can be dangerous. It is a big deal. You need to summon every last bit of skill, mental acuity and existential rage you can muster.

The ability to call upon those forces is one thing, and the ability to control them is another. The difference between those skills is the difference between champions and the rest of us. I was briefly able to harness that energy in those afternoon runs. It felt good. No, I didn’t win a championship, but for a few moments I saw clearly how it could be done. That was enough to earn me that ninth-place hardware. I can only hope you’ll have the same moment of clarity at some point behind the wheel.

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racerdave600 UltraDork
10/10/17 3:04 p.m.

My first time there in '94, I was driving a great car,Steve Hoelscher's X1/9, and I ended up driving way under my capability.  Never underestimate the mental part of that event.  To me it was not the same as a local event.  The size of the courses and number of entrants in your class drove that point home.  I dnf'd my first 2 runs, and made a conservative run for the 3rd just to get a time.  The 2nd day was much better but not enough to overcome my first day mindless driving.  I recall going back to the hotel after day one and barely remembering any of the runs.  Getting into the mental aspect of that event is I think half the battle.  Great event though, I recommend it to anyone.  There is nothing like it I've ever been to in any form of racing.

mazdeuce MegaDork
10/10/17 3:20 p.m.

I've been autocrossing off and on for about 15 years. I don't think I have 100 events in, but I'm getting close. I still can't fall asleep the night before a local autocross and I wake up before my alarm. I'm failing at the mental game, but I hope it never goes away. 

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
10/10/17 3:39 p.m.

As Per (and everybody else who knows me) would tell you, I have a penchant for sticking my face in where it doesn't belong and over-coaching people whether they like it or not.  Chalk it up to 15 years as a track & field competitor and another 5 years as a high school coach.  Therefore, I feel the need to burden you with my thoughts.

First of all, bear in mind the approaching hurricane took up a buttload of brain pan, since your bride and birds were back in the belly of the blowing beast. That's not a concern for Canadian competitors.

However, if you plan on returning to the Nationals next year, take someone along with you whose sole job is to do all the video recording and removing any distractions so you can quiet your mind and spend some time preparing for each run.

Since we saw a lot of the pre-run mishegas and the runs themselves, we were also privy to a lot of camera adjusting and general futzing right up to the starter.  Someone else should be interviewing competitors and playing videographer so you can use the brain space for something more conducive to getting your mind right.  Do what you want to do rather than what you think we want you to do.

From what I've seen, Nationals is unlike any other event.  If you have a bad day on the Tour, you can pick up the slack on the next race weekend.  At the Nationals, you have to be ready today, as in right now.  If you're not, your options to regain lost ground are minimal.

Your ability to multitask is commendable.  However, there are times when you need to focus on the job at hand, not on fulfilling our voyeuristic desire to know all the gory details about the competition.

Preparing yourself mentally takes many forms.  I'm sure you have one.  If not, find one that's useful to you and work it (psychocybernetics might be a good way to start or whatever you did before ImprovSports).  Give yourself some time to utilize it and don't be shy about carving out a little space for yourself in that regard.



Bobzilla MegaDork
10/10/17 4:01 p.m.
mazdeuce said:

I've been autocrossing off and on for about 15 years. I don't think I have 100 events in, but I'm getting close. I still can't fall asleep the night before a local autocross and I wake up before my alarm. I'm failing at the mental game, but I hope it never goes away. 

This year was the first in a while for me. I think it's because A.) I knew that no matter what I did, the 40yo farm truck was going to be in the bottom 10% and 2.) I was just goingto have fun and hang with friends. I chucked the competitive part of me to the curb. I know that I just don't have the funds to make my new toy a top national contender and I really don't want to. I want it to be enjoyable, fun and a great conversation starter. I want it to be the reason a newb brings his 15 year old Camry to an autocross and run, not watch. 

Its sounds counter-productive but taking the competition side out of this sport makes it more fun and competitive. 

Streetwiseguy UltimaDork
10/10/17 6:47 p.m.

I race a ministock neon.  I'm also one of the tech inspectors for the late model series.  I was doing both one day this past summer, and had decided to forgo hotlaps because of the double workload of the day, but five minutes before hotlaps were to start, i decided i had nothing to do, so I suited up quick, went out, and crashed into a guy who had spun on the back straight.

My head wasn't where it needed to be.

conesare2seconds Dork
10/10/17 11:30 p.m.

I guess the mental part could be split into maybe three types of mistakes: overdriving, underdriving and failure to have learned the course. Anyone want to suggest additional categories?

For overdriving, it has helped to mentally write off the runs and "slow down to speed up", falling back on the basics and just concentrating on getting clean runs. Some days the result is surprisingly good, others not, but the practice is worth it anyway. 

For under-driving I've tried to watch my competitors and ID one or two places on the course where they seem to really get something I haven't yet, work up a theory on how to change my approach and try it their way. Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. cheeky

I had a nationals-type situation once where I just hadn't gotten a handle on the course and DNFed on all 3 of my runs, so I'm no help with that one. That sucked. Sure, it was raining like mad and there were 10 times more cones than I'd ever seen on a course but damn that was embarrassing. 

TheRX7Project New Reader
10/11/17 12:49 a.m.

In reply to conesare2seconds :

Another one we all forget is: fear.
This year was the first time I autocrossed my RX7 (3 times, actually) and my very first time out with the car, I was afraid to push it. I spent too much time worrying about not breaking it. This last time out, while I was still really slow, I could feel myself pushing the car harder than before. I took it off my mind that the car was fragile, because it's proven that it's not. I trusted it, and it rewarded me with faster runs.
Add to that, FoF (Fear of Failure). It's what kept me from getting started in autocross for a long time. I had friends that were doing it, so I knew it couldn't be too hard. My brother went and couldn't stop talking about how fun it was. What finally inspired me? Oddly enough, it was an ad for Track Night in America, "What are you waiting for? Make this the year you get on track!" and while I haven't done a track day yet, it did inspire me to break down my barriers and just do it.

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
10/11/17 9:28 a.m.

I think this mindset carries true in other aspects as well.  

When it comes to sports, I know I'm a very competitive person.  Sometimes this intensity hurts the overall performance.  I play men's softball, and see this all the time.  Guys get all amped up, and try too hard.  Going for a home run, they pop out--- or trying to  make a good play, they freak out and make an error.

In a lot of ways, it's the same as autocross.  What I do to relax, and perform better is:

* Recognize you are a grown man, playing a kids game

* Realize there is no prize money, no interviews with Kimmel or Conan..... 

* Accept the silliness, and absurdity of it all  (either 40 year olds playing ball, or grownups racing through cones in a parking lot)

* Relax and enjoy the moment---- because in the end....that's why we do this stuff

Bobzilla MegaDork
10/11/17 9:43 a.m.

In reply to TheRX7Project :

we have an event at the Indy Speedrome. Walls and all. I always do well there because I trust our course designer and push just as hard as I do at Grissom. I've seen so many people that were always quite a bit faster than me fall because of fear. 

FlightService MegaDork
10/11/17 9:45 a.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Did you just admit to being 45% mental?

Because I think all of us would put that number much higher.  laugh

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