Sal Biondo Guest Editorial
By Sal Biondo
Over the years, I’ve driven a lot of different race cars down the track in a variety of classes and events. I actually started out in an old station wagon that my father towed his race car with (I think Luke will include a picture of it in my biography). Since then I’ve raced dragsters, fast door cars, slow door cars, and lots of NHRA “class” cars in Stock, Super Stock, and Competition Eliminator.
The more I raced, and the more comfortable I got in the seat of a particular car, it seemed my round wins would dwindle. It was almost as if I would get “too” comfortable, and a little complacent within my familiar surroundings. I started to realize that it was a case of “An over thinking racer”. It is so commonplace, but most of us rarely know about this debilitating drag race driver’s disease. Through the years, I seemed to do well when I drove a car for the first time, at times even winning the first time out with a new car. With that success, I had to ask myself why I often perform better in a car that I’ve never driven than in one I was very comfortable in. I think the answer is that it forces me to focus on the basics of racing, the fundamentals if you will.
The first time I realized how true this was for me, was Gainesville, 2010. Vinny Barone bought a Super Stock car from Jeff Taylor, and I was to fly to the National Event and drive this car that I had never sat in. When I arrived at the track, and sat in the car, I realized that I could not reach the pedals AT ALL, not even with my toes. We moved the seat up about 7 inches, and I sat with some cushion behind me, but I still felt like I was in another country. Typical Gainesville wasn’t without typical rainfall, and we were pushed from Thursday time trials to one run Sunday morning and then went right into eliminations! I was intimidated by many things of course. I was 1,000 miles from home, missing family and work, and I sat in the rain for three days, to race a car at this National Event without the experience of a burnout in this machine. And, as I grow older, and past the age of 40, it seems my goals changed from winning, to going out there and not tripping on the big stage. Winning is somewhat second on the list.
As I pulled out for the first run, I tried to think of everything, like making sure the burnout was good, not over revving the engine, and also hoping the car, brakes and line lock would hold sufficiently in the water. I was also thinking, that perhaps when I floored the pedal, I was not even going to reach full throttle. Another thing that came across my mind was to have the discipline not to “floor” the car too fast and cause a bog, or flutter to the low side of the chip, which can easily happen, especially since the weather was cool, and crisp. All of this was going to be detrimental in achieving an accurate reaction time, and E.T. for the one and only time trial before a seven hour lapse prior to first round later that evening.
Well, the time trial went well, I think I was .030, and the car was easy to drive. We then had to wait approximately the entire day for eliminations, and the plan was to race until completion that Sunday night. Things went very well through the rounds, and I made it to the final. I was getting chased in the final, and as it was, I could barely see over the dash, or reach the pedals. Now I was burdened with the task of trying to turn around and find my opponent. Once again, things worked out well, I caught a glimpse of my opponent, Chuck Gallagher enough to kill some E.T. for the win.
After the thrill of victory sank in, and I was traveling home evaluating my time slips, it really became evident to me how, and why I won. The rounds of the race progressed from day to night, and of course that creates worry for many racers, and I usually take time to think about RPM changes, BUT NOT THIS TIME. I do not remember even thinking about it. I had a few .020’s and was happy to be there, and never thought twice about RPM’s. And, when it came to a dial in, I looked at the weather station, gave a quick thought for a dial in, kept it in my mind, then right back to more seat, and belt adjustments every round since I never felt comfortable.
All the detailed items and routines of my normal race program went out the window, and I did not scrutinize much of anything except getting the car safely from A to B. I have often heard of baseball players, who are in hitting slumps, being told by the coaches to go out there and act “dumb”. They are told not to concentrate on how they are holding the bat, or even how they are standing. If they can go out there and act like they know nothing, natural instinct will kick in, and succeeding will be easier.
A clean slate, no bad habits, and the need to concentrate on the basics, and only the basics, are instrumental, especially during any type of slump. We all know that paying attention to all the details will provide the best results over time, but occasionally there is a need to go back to the basics, get some round wins, or “hits” to raise your confidence level. Confidence can go a long way.
Racing through the years I have had a few things that seem to keep me calm. Your opponent is as nervous as you, so you are both in the same boat. I know sometimes when I look at an opponent, and he is fumbling around, tripping, and shaking nervously, that can make me feel better and less nervous. I’ve also tried to adapt somewhat of a “poker face” while racing. If you look cool and comfortable, it could have the opposite effect on your competitor.
Another method I try is, if I am ever nervous and feel like I may not perform or react to the tree consistently, I try to put myself in “robot mode”. This mode for me is exactly how it sounds. I stare at the bulb, and pretend that my arm is a mechanical and separate entity, that will automatically react to the bulb. This relates to the idea of being “dumb”, like my reference to the slumping batter. It seems to get me through the tough rounds, specifically after rain delays or days between rounds.
2011 has been very good to me. It has been one of my most successful seasons in quite some time. The majority of the credit is owed to the purchase of a house over a year ago. My wife and I endured some distress, all starting from the home inspector we hired who missed some crucial problems with the house. I was about to take a year off since we needed to fix up the house, and move in. Team owner Vinny Barone was not having it, and wanted to go for a Championship. He had just purchased a new car, and was very eager for the year to begin. So, we basically put the house on hold for the entire year, and worked on it slowly whenever we could. I like driving cars for the first time, so I was a bit excited. But, the stress of two houses, two sets of bills, etc, was on my conscience 24/7. All of this is leading to the effects of psychology on racing. Stressing about life issues, and putting less strain on myself for racing made hitting the tree easier this year. Compared to the pressing issues of life, racing was almost an afterthought. As a result, I was more aggressive, and had more fun with it. When I was 20, racing was first on the list of priorities, so it was harder to perform successfully, and consistently. I do not think this is true for everyone, some perform better under stress, and some could freeze up when the spot light is turned on. For me, I almost seem to perform better when I’m a little bit distracted. If I am completely focused on the task at hand, I tend to overanalyze things and make mistakes. When I’m more laid back, I seem to make decisions and execute them more naturally.
As humans we cannot compartmentalize our thoughts. Our brains keep the life problems and the stress mixed in with stress of competition. If we only had doors where we can throw all our problems in one room of the brain when we go up to make a run, we may all be successful racers.
As racers, the correct state of mind is crucial for competition, and we must somewhat be our own doctor to find out what makes our mind be the best that it can be. Some racers may need a dozen passes in a vehicle before they can concentrate well. Others do better in new cars. Whatever it may be, the solution is unique and independent to each driver. My challenge for you is to find out what YOU need to help your own program.
It was very evident to me all year that if my mind was pre-occupied by certain factors it may work better during the stressful situations. And the house purchase did just that. Trust me, I am not preaching to try to get a rise in the real estate market, I am simply making a comparison to my life, and the season we had. AND, I am not going to buy a house every year just for win lights.. Hmm, or maybe I should just see what’s up for sale. Just kidding.
Now that I have moved, and we’re starting to get settled, I thought of a great method to make myself perfectly uncomfortable for next season. I am right handed, from writing to throwing, etc.. So next year, I am going to release the transbrake button with my left hand. That should mess me up perfectly, and maybe I can get a few wins out of it.