Racing IQ

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Awhile back, I was watching the NBA playoffs with my son when former coach and current commentator Stan Van Gundy said something that struck me as poignant. To paraphrase, his words were something to this extent:

There are a lot of talented players, but there has never been and will never be a super star that doesn’t possess incredible “Basketball IQ”

What he’s describing is not “smarts” in the sense that most of us tend to think about them, but rather on-court decision making. He’s talking about players who seem to constantly be in the right place at the right time, who play unselfishly, who consistently make decisions appropriate to time and score.

Naturally, I thought about this concept within the confines of our own form of competition, and I think that Van Gundy’s quote rings true within our sport as well. In racing, the best of the best have a tendency to find themselves (or perhaps, put themselves) in the right place, at the right time.

The best sportsman racers know when to trust their car. They know when to dial-up and “hold” or “sandbag.” They have a sense of when to cross the finish line first, and when to get behind on purpose. While I’d argue that most successful racers have a consistently aggressive approach on the starting line, there are often situations that justify “rolling the dice” and dialing that aggression up a notch (increasing the possibility of a red light). And there are situations in which dialing it back a notch – approaching a round with more caution – is warranted.

That’s Racing IQ.

In my work coaching racers for well over a decade, I’ve come to realize that by and large, we’re a results-based lot. When we’re unsuccessful, we have a tendency to look back on our performance with the 20/20 vision that hindsight provides. Once we know that we gave back a would-be winning round by stepping off the throttle before the finish line, it’s easy to say “I knew I was going to run dead-on… Why did I lift?”

It’s just as easy, following a breakout to say “Geez, I can’t believe I didn’t lift! I was so far ahead!”

In retrospect, when we know the answers, these decisions are so clear. But coming into the round… before you knew the answers, were you confident in your dial-in, or was there a shadow of doubt? If you weren’t sure that you could hold it wide open and run dead-on, was it really a mistake to lift before the finish line? If you were sure that you could run dead on without lifting, was it really a mistake to hold the throttle to the floor?

What I find more instructive than looking back and saying “I should’ve (done the obvious)” in hindsight, is backing up the retrospection a bit farther… Rather than reverting to the moment of decision – those fractions of a second on the race track – back it up to the moment when you didn’t have all the answers. Before you pulled into the waterbox, what was your gameplan? What was your mindset for that round? In retrospect, was that strategy justifiable?

While we tend to believe that most of our mistakes are the result of poor execution, in my experience I’d actually argue that most of our mistakes are the result of poor, or insufficient strategy and preparation.

Strategy… That’s an interesting term, right? You may be thinking that “strategy” in sportsman or “bracket” racing is simple… “I’m going to be .00 on the tree, and run dead-on my dial in… That’s my strategy!”

Sure. That’s a great strategy. And when the stars align and we execute it with precision, it’s nearly unbeatable. The problem is that, situationally, that strategy is more difficult to execute at some times than others… That applies to both us, and to our opponents.

Understanding that, and more importantly how to overcome it and/or take advantage of it: that’s situational awareness. That’s Racing IQ.

In my mind, there are three facets of Racing IQ.
The first is Base IQ. Simply put, this is a keen understanding of what needs to happen on the race track and why. It’s understanding the math of sportsman drag racing, the blueprint that reaction time lays for the rest of the run, and what has to line up in order to make the math fall in your favor. Base IQ includes the basics that, to be honest, I find lacking in a strikingly significant portion of sportsman competitors. If you’re thinking “Geez, it’d be nice to find a resource to learn those fundamentals from a reliable, objective source,” allow me to insert a shameless plug: check out our comprehensive library of instructional resources at ThisIsBracketRacing.com!)

The second facet of racing IQ is Technical IQ. This can get pretty divergent and specific, but at its core Technical IQ is an understanding of how we need our equipment to perform, and how to adjust that equipment to make it more conducive for success. I can name several successful racers that don’t have a great hands-on knowledge of the mechanics of their vehicles… But if they’re successful, they’ve aligned with someone who does! In this day and age more than ever, the best driver isn’t going to have consistent success without a great race car.

To be clear, there are a lot of good racers – successful racers – who possess these two facets of Racing IQ. While essential, this level of understanding and comprehension is not all that unique in this day and age. Developing Base IQ and Technical IQ can (and will) make you a good racer. But it won’t make you a great racer.

What great racers tap into that good racers do not, is the third facet of Racing IQ. I’d argue that while it’s the most important facet to possess, it’s also useless if its not built on the foundation of the first two facets. It’s Individual IQ, or better put: knowledge of yourself.

Ultimately, we can read all the instruction available. We can spend hours tinkering on the mechanics. But knowledge must be applied, and these cars don’t drive themselves. They’re driven by us: real, flawed, human beings. In addition to a keen understanding of the fundamentals, and a solid grasp on the technical aspect, the best racers typically possess an extreme level of self-awareness. They’re acutely aware of what they’re capable of and comfortable with. Perhaps more importantly, they’re also aware of what they’re seldom capable of, and often uncomfortable with. And they’re willing to alter strategy situationally to cater to those strengths, and to guard against those weaknesses.

That’s the biggest difference. It’s not necessarily a greater knowledge base. At the highest levels of our sport, the majority of the field has a similar grasp on Base IQ. And it’s oversimplified to say that Technical IQ is the differentiator: at the highest levels, seemingly everyone has great cars. I’d argue that in most cases, the best of the best don’t even possess dramatically greater skills than the rest of the field. They simply understand how to put themselves in the best position to showcase those skills race after race and round after round. That’s situational awareness. That’s Racing IQ.

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