Race-car drivers multi-task at all times

Published May. 25, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

You’re packing up the minivan for a family trip on Memorial Day weekend.

A 500-mile jaunt to Disney World, or a four-hour trek to the beach?

You know this might be a bad idea — it is a holiday weekend, after all — but everyone needs a vacation.

The cooler is packed, the DVD player loaded and ready. The kids have grabbed the necessary toys and technology, and your spouse is bringing along pillows and blankets for what you hope will be some long naps.

You’re all set.

There’s only one catch. You’re in a hurry. It’s a three-day weekend, which means two days of driving and one day of fun.

No worries. You do this all the time. You’re a pro at battling rush-hour madness, much like a driver at the Indianapolis 500. You’ve learned how to dart in and out of traffic, switching lanes like you’re drafting at Talladega, leaning on the horn, pushing and prodding your way forward.


You’ve watched enough races on television to do this in your sleep.

So it’s pedal to the metal. Everyone sit back and relax — and hold on.

After two hours — about the halfway point of one of your TV races — you’re way off pace. You’ve made bathroom stops, dealt with spilled beverages, broken up three fights, almost thrown your cell phone out the window.

You’re about 50 miles from pulling over and leaving everyone on the side of the road, or unleashing a Kurt Busch-like tirade that would teach the children words they’re too young to know.

Your mini-vacation has turned into a road trip from hell.

Now think back to all the times you told yourself those drivers you watch on TV have nothing on you. Do you still think that way, considering how you’re handling your current distractions and aggravation?

Try racing 200 mph for 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an oven-hot stock car that won’t handle right while you’re getting lapped every 50 circuits around the 1.5-mile track.

You’ve dropped the water bottle the crew handed you during your last pit stop and it’s rolling around the floorboard under your feet. The chocolate-covered granola bar they gave you to eat has melted all over your uniform, and it’s starting to smell like you’ve soiled your fire suit.

You’ve got a spotter hollering, “Inside, inside, clear, clear” in one ear and your crew chief reading off lap times like a math professor in the other.

Your crew wants to know how many tires need to be changed on the next pit stop; the engineers need to know how many rounds of wedge to jack into the right rear.

Oh, and there’s a car beating on your rear bumper because you ran him up the track when you got loose in Turn 4. And you’ve only run 200 miles — and 400 more remain.

Perhaps this will give you a different perspective on Sunday — the biggest day of auto racing in the world — when the skills of the world’s greatest drivers are showcased in the Indy 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco.

It’s a celebration of racing, of the automobile and of driving.

But, first and foremost, it’s a display of the remarkable skill it takes to drive a race car — skills you do not have, no matter how much you think you do.

While most of us can’t get through a weekend car trip without losing our cool, drivers at Charlotte, Indy and Monaco will race at mind-boggling speeds in pressure situations in three of the biggest races in the world.

And they will make one of the most intense, dangerous professions look easy.

You think that just because you dart in and out of rush-hour traffic every day that you can drive a lightning-fast Indy car? You think that just because you can drive a minivan at 80 mph with kids screaming in the back that you can drive a 3,500-pound hunk of metal known as a stock car?

Think again.

Imagine doing all that at twice the speed — for four hours. With a car to your inside, one on your outside and another banging on your rear bumper. With the rear end about to slide out from underneath you, the front wheels chattering and the steering wheel about to shake out of your hand.

And at the same time, you’ve got to analyze your car’s handling characteristics so you can relay setup information to your crew chief so he will know how to make the car faster.

“As far as the things that actually make a difference between us and the guy driving down the street, what is actually the talent of driving a race car, a lot of people don’t really understand that,” said NASCAR points leader Carl Edwards, who won the Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday at Charlotte and will be a favorite in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “They think, ‘So what, you drive close to another guy and go 200 mph; that is not unimaginable.’”

What is unimaginable is doing it with the car sliding around the slick track, veering toward a concrete wall, and you’re trying desperately not to wreck.

“The hard part to describe or convey, especially at a place like this, is that the whole time you are in that corner you aren’t going as fast as the car can go. You are going as fast as you can make it go,” Edwards said.

“The difficult part is balancing that car as you are sliding and managing those tires and the slide around the corner. That is racing. That is auto racing.

“A lot of the fans don’t even know we are sliding the car around the corner. It looks like we are tracking really straight, but if you watch our hands in there, we are correcting the cars all the way around. That is the difference between the racetrack and the street.”

Doing that for one or two laps is one thing. Doing it for 400 laps, 600 miles, is quite another.

It takes mental and physical stamina that the average fan — or everyday driver — can’t comprehend. Edwards is one of the most physically fit athletes in the world, as is 52-year-old Mark Martin.

“There’s a physical aspect to what we do that is not really common knowledge,” said Martin, who has won 89 races in NASCAR’s top two series.

“Anything you do on a professional level, like the Indy 500 or the Coca-Cola 600, is extremely intense, physically and mentally.”

So when you get to Disney World or the beach this weekend, and you are mentally, physically and emotionally drained, when your nerves are so frayed you’re having unpleasant thoughts about your family and deeply regretting this trip, just be thankful you don’t have another 200 miles to go.

At 200 mph.


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