The Psychology of Auto Racing

By Shaun Tyrance, Ph.D.
March 26, 2012



Motorsports are popular and dangerous

Motorsport racing is divided into several annual class competitions, the most wide- ly known being the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the Nationwide IndyCar Series. The NASCAR competition is a series of 36 races that began this year with the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla. The IndyCar series includes the Indianapolis 500 and opens this year with the March 25 Honda Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In the accompanying article on the psychology of auto racing, Shaun Tyrance, Ph.D., refers to the fate of British racing driver Dan Wheldon to exemplify the danger of the sport. Wheldon, the 2005 winner of IndyCar series and winner of the Indianapolis 500 in both 2005 and 2011, died Oct. 16, 2011 at age 33 from injuries suffered in a collision at the 2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championship in Las Vegas.

The recent untimely death of Dan Wheldon (former Indianapolis 500 winner) is a stark reminder of the danger NASCAR and Indy Car drivers face every time they strap on their helmets and get behind the wheel.

Regardless of the sport, all athletes risk serious injury when they compete, but “stick and ball” athletes rarely face the dangers that are an accepted way of life in motorsports. Since NASCAR was formed in 1947, 26 Sprint Cup drivers have been killed as a result of injuries suffered from racing accidents, and four drivers have been killed in Indy Car since its inception in 1980.

As a therapist who has worked with numerous Cup, Nationwide, K&N and Whelen series drivers, I have found that the physical and psychological makeup of a successful race car driver is very similar to that of elite athletes in every sport.

Elite drivers have the ability to focus for long periods of time with little to no break in competition. A typical NASCAR Cup race is four hours long and covers 400 to 600 miles. Contrary to popular belief, most of the best drivers in the sport are in great physical condition, as they have to endure the 120 degree-plus temperatures of their cars on race day. After each race, most drivers have lost 10 to 15 pounds of water weight.

A driver’s mental toughness is not only tested through the ability to navigate these conditions, the driver must also have the ability to drive “on the edge.” NASCAR and Indy Car drivers drive at speeds in excess of 180 mph, and in order to be great in their sport, they must be willing to race at these speeds less than two feet from their competition.

In my experience, this willingness is the single biggest deciding factor on whether a driver has “it” or not. If a driver is not will- ing to drive a car into tight spaces on the race track, then he or she will bring the car home in one piece but will not compete for championships.

It takes a unique blend of smarts and daredevil to compete at the highest levels of motorsports. Unfortunately, when drivers push their cars to the edge, accidents occur. As in the case of Dan Wheldon, sometimes these wrecks can be fatal. Drivers at every level understand the dangers they face while competing, and drivers who are unwilling or unable to take chances with their lives on the track do not last long in the sport.

Race car drivers have some of the hard- est jobs in sports. In order to be successful, they must put themselves in harm’s way. Elite drivers have the ability to push their cars over the edge (which typically leads to horrific crashes) and jump back in the car the next weekend and drive with the reckless abandon needed to win races.

It is widely known in racing circles which drivers have lost their ability to compete due to not being able to mentally recover from bad accidents. This is similar to a running back who tears an ACL or a golfer who has shoulder surgery and is unable to trust one’s body enough to compete at the pre-injury level. Unfortunately for drivers, the next bad accident could be his or her last, and many drivers find it difficult to get back behind the wheel after surviving a big wreck.

As a result of the mental complexities of racing, a number of NASCAR and Indy Car teams employ therapists trained in sport psychology to work with their drivers. I worked full-time for a NASCAR team that raced three Cup cars and two Nationwide cars. I have also worked with more than 10 NASCAR developmental drivers as a consultant.

With the start of the race season upon us, each weekend we are reminded of how mentally tough these drivers are for truly putting their life on the line for the sport they love. The sport is more than just a bunch of left turns!

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Shaun Tyrance, Ph.D., is a licensed therapist who specializes in sport psycholo- gy. He earned his Ph.D. in counseling from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his masters in sport psycholo- gy from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was a four-year varsity let- ter winner in football at Davidson College. He worked for the football program at North Carolina State University for three years, and after NCSU he became the sport psychology consultant at Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR. At Chip Ganassi Racing, Tyrance helped Cup and Nationwide Series drivers and pit crew members perform at their highest levels during races. As a con- sultant, he has worked with hundreds of Division I and professional athletes from various institutions including: Revolution Racing (NASCAR), UNC Charlotte, Davidson College, NC State, University of Florida and others. His website is www.90percentmental.com and his email is: styrance@southeastpsych.com.

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