The rain stopped just as you pulled into grid. The clouds are breaking up, the sun is starting to peek out, and the breeze is beginning to dry the standing water on the pavement.
You know every run will be more dry than the last. This is going to be a "one-run event." Are you ready?
This time, we're talking about dealing with adversity. How do you recover from a mistake? Go into your third run dirty, clean it up, AND go hella-fast? Or scramble to repair a major mechanical failure, miss your second run while getting it fixed, and still lay the smack down?
Watching people over the years, what has always intrigued me most is how there are certain people who seem to magically pull a rabbit out of a hat. More so, they do it over and over. They are able to consistently pull off a great finish, even when it wasn't looking good.
Conversely, there are a few people who seem to have a knack for doing the exact opposite. If everything goes perfectly, they're very fast. But as soon as something goes wrong, they implode. For the first few years of my autocross career, that description fit me rather well.
There's too much of a pattern here to ignore. So, what's the trick?
Let's be real: There's no automatic, magic formula. It isn't easy for anyone, and everybody has a bad day. But here are some ideas to try when you find yourself standing on dirty runs.
Relax and Have Fun
I'd be lying if I said I never got frustrated. But the first step to overcoming adversity is to get over yourself. Accept whatever is happening. Deal. Do it right away, because if you don't, you're almost 100% guaranteed to fail.
But to maximize your chances to succeed, it has to be more than that. You have to re-ground yourself, hit the reset button, and put it all in perspective.
For me, the easiest way to do that is to remember that we're all driving cars around traffic cones for a plastic trophy. We do this because it is FUN, and because we're spending time with our friends. This is your weekend/vacation/whatever. For Pete's sake, enjoy it!
It is uncanny how attitude impacts success. You know you've seen them: The ones who go postal in grid when something goes wrong. They make a mistake, or something breaks. Then the helmet flies, the door slams...and it is just about guaranteed to go nowhere from there. If they have any runs left, they'll be slow or riddled with more mistakes. It's a pretty safe bet.
Don't underestimate the impact that co-drivers (and bystanders, spouses, etc.) can have on this, too. Having a co-driver who can pull you back from the cliff is one of the most valuable assets you can have. Conversely, letting yourself get cranky can ruin your co-driver's chances, too. More on this in a future post, but the main point is to be aware of your impact on others, and surround yourself with people who have a positive impact on you.
Believe, Commit, and Don't Give Up
Sounds cheezy, but the only way to guarantee failure is to expect it. Maybe you can't make your own luck, but you have to capitalize on whatever luck comes your way.
Defeatism is a powerful enemy. And its most deadly weapon is its ability to cloak itself. You can tell yourself you believe while still not really believing. Some people have an amazing ability to pretend they can still win, even to the point of delusion. But that hasn't worked for me.
One technique I use is to simply say "I don't know what will happen." Be open to the possibility that something strange and wonderful could occur. And be ready to pounce on any opportunity that arises.
Short story: One of my most memorable moments was standing on two fast-but-dirty runs at Nats a few years ago. I went out on my third run and completely over-cooked the first big sweeper.
I was only 10 seconds into the course, and I'd already screwed the pooch. My first reaction was that I'd just thrown away the entire event. But then something inside me said, "What the heck?" and decided to make the rest of the run as good as I could and see what happened.
There was a tricky section just before the finish, and I somehow found a new line through it. Looking at the data later, I'd lost about 0.6 in the first sweeper, but found nearly a full second in that tricky section before the finish. Despite the big mistake, my run was even faster. I couldn't believe the time when I crossed the line, and that remains my best finish at Nationals to this day.
Next time the chips are down, channel your inner Braveheart. Do your best regardless of the odds. Who knows what might happen?
Manage Risk, and Make a Plan
Sure, we're all driving around rubber cones for a plastic trophy. But that doesn't mean it isn't serious business! The biggest step in winning consistently is to maximize your chances for success.
Look at your situation objectively, and figure out what you REALLY have to do. Eliminate all the distractions, and focus on that. Build a plan.
Example: If you've got two dirty runs, what is your plan?
Are you going to give 'er heck and go for the glory? If you are, be prepared to see your name at the bottom of the results. You might pull off a miracle, but you're more likely to make a mistake and tag another cone. If you've got nothing to lose, then why not?
On the flip side, if you've got a fast-but-dirty run on the books, it is probably a lot less risk to visualize that same run without the cone. Pick out the one place where you're going to give that cone a few extra inches. Maybe fix an obvious mistake or two. But do the same run. Maybe you decrease your chance of winning or moving WAY up the ranks, but you might increase your chance of salvaging a good finish.
Try to consider all the possible approaches, scenarios, and outcomes. Guess at the risk involved in each approach and which outcomes you can live with.
This is where your course walking skills might come in really handy, because even if you haven't been able to take a run yet, you can use that information to decide where the most risk is. Make a guess as to how much time it will cost you to be conservative in those sections. Decide how much you're willing to lose, and place your bet!
Analyze your situation, pick the approach with the best potential outcome at an acceptable risk. Then take a breath, ground yourself, and do everything you can to improve your chances. Then pull up to the line and execute your plan!
And don't forget to have fun.