Flow – A Speed Secret to Improve Your Driving by Doing Just About Anything

Flow – A Speed Secret to Improve Your Driving by Doing Just About Anything

by | Mar 6, 2019

Author: Dave Ohst

Preamble – Where this all started, is a bit vague, but here is a Genesis of sorts.

  Regarding driving skills, I am always looking for new ideas. Recently, a key pivot in my thinking came, when I participated in a two day Speed Secrets (Ross Bentley) coaching session at Thunderhill in 2016.    Ross also publishes Speed Secrets Weekly––a great driving skills resource. This combination has proven enticing and expansive, so it’s worth sharing.

 “What drives me? What am I passionate about? Helping others perform better.”–Ross Bentley

Ross always gets me thinking about what really matters–in performance driving, street driving, and elsewhere. Across all of this, one very key factor is flow. However, what exactly is flow and how does it apply to driving? Well, that’s a bit complicated.

However, one cool thing about flow is, that everyone can apply it–no matter the speed, or your driving skills. Flow is universal and egalitarian–from car control clinics, to autocross, track days, and beyond.

How is it possible to improve performance driving by not driving at all? Stay calm, I’ll do my best to take a crack at this.

Everything that follows is specific to performance driving in a safe and controlled environment, like a race track. These techniques can also be applied to improve your regular street driving and safety. However, It is unsafe and irresponsible to drive faster than legal limits on the street!! So, please reserve your performance driving to safe and controlled environments.

The idea of doing just about anything to improve sure seems obtuse, given that there are so many complex variables involved, in driving a car at speed. These variables include: Aerodynamics, suspension settings, tire characteristics and traction curves, eye patterns, situational awareness, braking techniques, confidence, smooth but rapid hands, data analysis, etc.

What is the elusive objective, when we step into a race car or attend a performance driving event? I’ll bet, that for most of us, driving specifics are the first things we think about–safety, reduced lap times, drive fast and smooth without noticeable mistakes, consistently improve race finishes, work on braking techniques, etc. These are all important. Converting them into actionable steps is also important, as Ross Bentley frequently points out.

Let’s step back a minute. Can you remember the last time you drove, and the session went really well? What was it about that time that felt right? Yes, it’s possible to describe this as smoothness, safety, solid lap times, a high race finish, or data graphics. I’ll bet, however, that the accomplishment of meeting a challenge well, divorced from the numbers, was at the heart of it. Let’s peel this onion a bit. What we typically uncover is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others call flow. Flow is best described as an optimal balance of challenge and skill. It’s the addictive groove, where we sometimes match our skills well and seamlessly to a challenge, including:

  • “Going really well without effort”
  • “Tuned in – I found the groove”
  • “Floating in a different world”
  • “Super alive and in control”

It’s not easy because there are distractions abound. Flow is that tricky emotional mix, where we have successfully stepped up to a challenge, but have not over stepped or under stepped. If we over step for our skill level, then it’s anxiety. If we under step, then it’s boredom.

Also, our individual personalities and risk tolerance make the mix of challenge and skill different for each of us. This is what is so attractive, and universal–you do not have to be fast to find flow; you just have to find the right stuff.

If we manage pressure and risk better, then it’s appropriate to take on a bit more challenge. This would be the solid blue arrow in the figure. It is perfectly ok, however, to back down the challenge, if that suits us better and feels right–such as the dotted blue arrow. In the end, it’s about achieving a personal performance groove, which is ours to individually own and cherish, and that matches our psychology and make up. None of us are the same here.

Paradoxically then-–what the speed or lap times were, what the data trace was, or what the race result was-–is not of much consequence. This is because flow is relative to our individual skills, and therefore metrics comparison to others has very limited value. That said, if your job is to win races as a professional, then of course your consequence mix is a bit different.  I argue that it is not that much different-–more on this in a second. Did I just twist everyone’s head? I hope so.

 “There are only three true sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and alpinism;
all the rest are merely games.”
 –Ernest Hemingway

Hmmm, as a performance driver that makes you feel pretty good, right? I like it as well, because it puts performance driving in a cool club-–something that would fit right in-–drinking with the man at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West. That said, Hemingway was spot on because a key flow crux is risk and its related complexities. No one wants a bad day at the track, which makes the flow sweet spot even harder to hit. So, given the risks, what is a good way to chase flow down and surpass it?

“It is not always possible to be the best, but it is always possible
to improve your performance – gentle, smooth and progressive.” —
Sir Jackie Stewart

Sir Jackie Stewart brings us to a central, and timeless tenet. Make incremental improvements, backed by larger goals and a plan of action-–then repeat.

When we do this, a couple of interesting things happen. First, we manage risk better, because speed comes in increments. From time-to-time this may mean that we under step the challenge. However, that’s not a bad thing, because we then better understand where our personal limits are, and approach judiciously. Also, good plans of action are never things like-–“take 3 tenths off in turn 7”. Instead, technique focus gets you there, and that 3 tenths is the result. With technique, presence of mind, and focus, we are working on the challenge and skill balance to create flow. If technique and associated flow come first, then the results will come naturally. Others may be faster because their situation is different, but nothing is faster for you, than your present flow state. So, stepping back from the results trap can be a good thing, because it partially takes away distraction.

 One way to also think about flow, no matter your skill level is, how it relates to tire traction and slip angles.

If traction and slip angles are unfamiliar, here is a short explanation.    As you increase the force on a tire it deflects, because it is soft rubber and not rigid steel.   The more the tire deflects (the slip angle), the greater the traction up to a point.   If the force and the corresponding slip angle are large enough, then the tire loses grip and the car slides or spins … sometimes into the ditch.   For the scholars, please see  http://racingcardynamics.com/racing-tires-lateral-force/.

Because driving at greater slip angles, requires greater skill-–there is Slow Flow, Moderate Flow, and Fast Flow. These flows depend on your proficiency. The cool thing is that once you gain flow, the rewards are the same no matter where on the curve you end up. No one wants to go into the ditch–on the far right of the curve–but that’s about the only exception. We just have to figure out, individually, where we should be on the traction curve, depending on the event and our skills versus challenge mix.

It’s all much easier said, than done. However, IT IS EASY to apply flow’s challenge/skill mix across just about any endeavor. So, let’s move on to broader benefits, and more esoteric, emotional, and soft-feely factors. This is the timeless and real beauty of flow.

We can practice just about anywhere! Plus, the more you search across a diverse range, the better you get. This is because your judgment of challenge and skill improves. For example, applying eye movement patterns and situational awareness on the street is close to home.  Plus, Ross just illustrated a good example in his Fitness-for-Drivers webinar. One of the videos was about catching balls on a balance board-–a perfect flow example. Other possibilities include: yoga, juggling, dance, and skiing or anything related that involves physical and mental skills-–similar to driving. Any of these can help develop and refine flow’s elusive emotions and consciousness. The more you chase flow, the better you get at the challenge-skills balance.

Stepping further sideways, to twist everyone again, here is an applicable short story. This may not appear relevant at first, but I argue that it is spot on. What’s the message?

Some of you may have seen the recent movie Free Solo. If you have not, it is a must see. Free Solo is a fantastic and inspiring example, of a life devoted to excellence and flow-–and it just won an Oscar! Hemingway would have loved it. Here is my own more modest version, which hopefully illustrates the elusive emotional balance, that is part of the right stuff (with apologies to Tom Wolfe).

The Right Stuff on El Capitan, Yosemite – It was 1979, and John Bacher-–perhaps the greatest adventure sports athlete of the 20th century, and the Alex Honnold of the 70s-–was at the height of his powers. John used to relax in the evening, by playing the Saxophone-–more flow. That June, I was half way up the Salathé Wall route on top of El Cap Spire, with two of my most trusted climbing partners. This is the same route that Alex recently climbed solo in the film! After some epic pitches, it was hard to unwind, at the end of a big day. Then a few Sax notes floated up from El Cap meadow, and then a few more. Bacher was playing Coltrane, and the notes matched the sublime evening light. At that instant, we looked at each other and knew-–we would ace the 2nd half. This was an epiphany of atomic youth-–as crisp for the three of us now, as it was the instant we heard Coltrane-–an indelible memory. Thanks for the timeless notes, John!

Enjoy your quest for the Right Stuff! Maybe I’ll see you at the track!  

Dave Ohst


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