How to Master the Driving Self-Critique

By Staff Writer
Jan 7, 2023 | racing | Posted in News and Notes | From the June 2015 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's Note: These Tech Tips first appeared in our June 2015 issue.]

Story by E. Paul Dickinson

Let’s suppose that you want to become your own track coach. You shouldn’t expect to learn any new skills, right? Wrong. Driving coach E. Paul Dickinson explains how you can still monitor and critique your own driving using your built-in data acquisition device–your brain. In the end, you’ll be lapping faster and safer than ever.

1. Don’t Allow Yourself to Plateau


Once drivers practice a skill to their own satisfaction, they often stop looking for improvement. Yet your maximum potential is virtually limitless, provided you have sufficient motivation to reach it.

Improvement is there for the taking only if the effort is invested. On track, focus on the present and save the analysis for the paddock. It is the driver’s job to learn to continuously do the hard thing easily, gracefully, efficiently. The beginner practices until he or she gets it right. The old hand practices until he or she can’t get it wrong.

2. Do More Mental Practice


Stretching the mind prior to action raises confidence: With your eyes closed, replay the course exactly as you intend to drive it. Imagine perfect laps until they become fluid. Mentally rotate the steering wheel, shift gears and brake at appropriate locations. Fine skills and complex techniques can be slowed down and analyzed so that the scenes and actions become familiar. The brain makes little distinction between seen and imagined images.

Building and continuously refining a mental track model is important for processing the abundance of real-time information gathered when increasing speed on track. The quality of your mental model is more important than your technical skills.

3. Practice Scanning Techniques

Take a quick visual scan of the area in front of you. Start on your far left and scan across to your far right. Concentrate on seeing everything between you and the outermost point. Briefly close your eyes and take a mental inventory of what you perceived.

Repeat the scan. This time separate your scan into frames–mental snapshots. Compare the first scan to the second, storyboarded images. Surprisingly, unnoticed details are now apparent.

Practice behind the wheel of a street car, then in the track car at speed. Contrasting track storyboarding with the familiar scenes in your mental model radically improves the odds of doing the right thing at the right time.

4. Point Your Eyes Farther Ahead


Vision is your overwhelmingly dominant sense. Your eyes lead the way and control smoothness. Without proper visual perspective, lapping at high speeds can be like driving in a bank of fog, where planning ahead is unthinkable but critical.

Looking ahead not only gets you where you need to be, it also focuses concentration. Of course, scanning at the point of emerging information is not enough. By the time you’re aware of a mistake, it’s too late to change it.

Once it is accurately perceived and maintained, a well-internalized mental model of the track can be used to anticipate. Anticipation immunizes against accidents.

5. Don’t Scare or Surprise the Brain

When your visual depths of field get shorter, escalating speed progressively increases your anxiety. Once your visual focus is inside your reaction distance, your eye movement becomes fixed. You stop scanning for crucial information.

The fundamental result of progressively increasing anxiety is fear. Fear brings panic inputs, and involuntary panic input is always wrong.

A brain that has been scared sends off commands that don’t help lap times: Lift! Look over here instead of here! Brake in the middle of the turn!

Have a good understanding of what you did right. And have a better understanding of what you did wrong.

6. Don’t Be a Sucker for the Adrenalin Rush


Driving is all about making good judgments. Judgment is not a sensation: It takes the form of thought.

Most feel-fast sensations, for example, are distractions that can be quite unrelated to quick lap times. Carrying demonic amounts of speed into a turn may feel fast or gain you a few hundredths of a second initially, but it sacrifices overall speed and can cost you entire seconds.

7. Don’t Carry Too Much Speed Into a Turn

How much speed is too much? Any amount that keeps you from going precisely where you planned.

The primary purpose of braking is to slow the vehicle to target turn-in speed. It’s the speed at turn-in that establishes your planned positions. Separate braking forces from speed sensing–they are two different things.

8. Don’t Overdrive


Doing something inefficiently (badly) requires physical and emotional strength as you continually snatch yourself back from disaster. Beginners should not expect to post times that world champions would be proud to claim. Old hands should expect to spend practice time refining existing skills.

Fatigue, anger and overconfidence all blur judgment and are the most common explanations for overdriving. Relax, you were just testing the limits. Now you know what needs to change. Recognize the need for a coach to extract and develop your next steps.

9. Recognize Fatigue

Become fatigue-aware: Adhere to the Three Mistakes Rule. Once you have identified three successive mental and/or physical mistakes, realize that many more have already gone unnoticed. Break routine: Slow down or go into the pits if necessary.

Why driving leads to fatigue is no mystery: You are poised for flight. Your muscle systems are cocked for emergencies– and releases–that never come. You become tired of being poised, but can’t will yourself to let go.

Fatigue itself is a snowballing mechanism: Tired muscles contract themselves involuntarily and thus use still more energy, generating more fatigue in the uncontrolled effort. Fatigue focuses concentration on your body. If your attention is on your body, then it is not on your driving.

10. Learn to Make Mistakes


Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning. They are, in an important sense, the primary opportunity for learning something truly new.

When you’re on track, pre-plan three different potential mistakes for the same corner. Run the exercise for five successive laps and then evaluate immediately thereafter.

A mistake does not become a failure until you refuse to admit it and correct it. The secret is knowing when and how to make mistakes so that nobody gets hurt and you can learn from the experience.

11. Don’t Be Resistant to Change

Our society tends to be expert-centric, and experts do not make mistakes. Perpetuating that is the attitude that success is driven by self-image, requiring us to be experts rather than learners.

There’s nothing worse than flailing around, trying to fix something you don’t comprehend. You’ll only make things worse. Admitting you need help and asking for it often requires more courage than trying to do it on your own.

The most important lesson of all is to trust that mistakes are inevitable, but that you can constantly challenge yourself to improve.

12. Be in the Zone


When you’re in the zone, effort is optimized, not overstressed, and endurance is increased. You’re performing “within” yourself. Concentration slows time to allow for confidence, the ultimate tool for getting control of the time sequence.

More interesting is what control of the time sequence within the movement does for skill. Different arcs or portions of arcs within a sequence of motion can be moved with brilliant results. It is not the gizmo, not the tool, but you, the tool user, that makes the real difference.

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Duke MegaDork
1/17/18 2:34 p.m.

I think I've already mastered the driving self-critique: "Cheebus, I suck."

Trackmouse UltraDork
1/17/18 5:31 p.m.

Might I add mental flow to the list? This has been the single biggest factor in driving for me. When I am tapped into my mental flow I feel invincible because I am in principle. It causes me to perform at my best

te72 New Reader
1/17/18 9:09 p.m.

I may never be class champion, but you know what? I've yet to not enjoy myself on track. Those first couple laps, I tend to look like a puppy on hardwood floors trying to chase a toy. Composed, my driving is not. Once I calm down a bit, and start to realize how much was too much (we're not talking track "offs" here, just exceeding the grip levels a bit and pushing off line or drifting a bit), then I focus and start shaving seconds off my runs.


Looking ahead, and focusing on being smooth have always helped me out.

klodkrawler05 Reader
1/18/18 9:20 a.m.

I think this is overwhelmingly what I enjoyed most about One lap. It's so easy to fall into those traps of not mentally preparing, not analyzing, not pushing yourself when you are at a track you've been on dozens of times.

Knowing you'll only get 6 laps around a unfamiliar place and every one of them counting means you have to really hone in on mental preparation, analyzing morning runs to find time in the afternoon runs etc.

After returning from OLOA I focused on doing some of the same things at my home tracks and was surprised how much faster I was able to go than previously.

akylekoz HalfDork
1/18/18 11:27 a.m.

Running a familiar track that was damp convinced me.  Going really slow and smooth only took a second or two off of my lap times, after that I just reduced the slow and kept the smooth, BAM four second reduction.

On being in the zone, at Lemons races there are times when you run for 30 to 60 minutes with little or no action, just clean track time.  At times I will lose several laps and wonder how long I have been driving, only to find later that I completed a whole pile of consistent and on pace laps.  Not asleep, just not trying too hard and in a nice flow.  That is also when I start paying focusing on one corner at a time to improve on while ignoring the others.

Trying to fix it all at once doesn't work for me. 

chuckles Dork
4/25/18 8:41 p.m.

It's an interesting challenge running a good lap, before we even talk about racing. It is your own, fragile body out there. It's mainly about finding out how to keep the power on, so learn a track by trying to late-apex everything. Relax and be receptive of information and don't try to hurry until you know what you're doing, meaning that at every point on the track, you know what comes next.

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