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"Out of the box" driving: Multi-discipline racing in a specialized world

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LOUDON, NH - JUNE 25:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Chevrolet, speaks to the media during a press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 25, 2010 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
LOUDON, NH - JUNE 25: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Chevrolet, speaks to the media during a press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 25, 2010 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Getty Images for NASCAR

Danica Patrick was not grinding her teeth. Not physically, anyway. But if her imagination had teeth, they had been worn down to the roots by now.

Sitting in the media center at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, she was near the limits of her patience. It was not because of the bright glare of the lights or the proximity of all of the reporters. In fact, the racing media was not so bad in this respect. In a couple weeks' time, she would be on the red carpet at the ESPY Awards with a horde of TMZ-level media and flashbulbs so bright that they would make this press shindig look polite and deferential by comparison.

Anyway, after all of these years she was used to the media and to the crush of attention. What she was frustrated with right now - and had been ever since the start of the season - was the topic. They would not stop asking her about it. Nor would they at least come up with a new way to ask. Always the same questions, always the same tone in their voice.

And beneath it all lurked the ugly subtext: Shouldn't she stick to what she knows?

By now - over halfway through her racing season - Danica had the routine down pat, giving out her usual rote answers to the usual rote questions. "I think it's probably better for me to say like, you know, I hope this weekend I finish in the top 20 or the top 15 and kind of build myself up," Danica said, echoing comments she had made dozens of times to dozens of reporters. "Hopefully one day they'll be the same expectation levels that I have in IndyCar. But I think it's best for my confidence and my morale to set those kinds of expectation levels."

Over and over she kept answering the same questions. They were dancing around the real question, but Danica knew it was just a matter of time. Finally, someone asked it. Wasn't this (and you could almost hear the mental addendum "ill-advised") foray into NASCAR hurting her career? Was trying to drive a stock car adversely affecting her racing skill?

Outwardly, Danica remained impassive, but inside she was seething. The implication was right there, hanging in the air like the stench from an abattoir. They were basically asking her if she was one-dimensional! Wondering if she thought that she did not have the proper righteous stuff! It was unbelievable.

This, she decided, was a moment for clarity. "I don't see how racing cars can make you a worse race car driver," she said. "I put every ounce of effort into everything that I do... I think it's good for any race car driver to be in the seat a lot, and that's definitely what I'm doing."

That, she believed, should have settled matters. But as usual, it did not. In subsequent days, articles continued to be published that rolled out the hoary cliche that she was struggling to adapt to a car that needed "manhandling" after driving cars that needed "finesse." Poor girl.

What many of Danica's critics fail to realize is that, in truth, the problem is exactly the opposite.

Apples to oranges

It's an easy mistake to make because one sees NASCAR stock cars on the TV fishtailing, their drivers sawing at the steering wheel and looking like they are working hard just to stay on track. IndyCar drivers, meanwhile, are pinned in their seats and make what look like small corrections to a car that looks from afar like it's driving on a rail.

Thus, when Danica Patrick struggles to a 20th place finish, or when Juan Pablo Montoya stuffs his car into the wall for the umpteenth time, or Sam Hornish Jr. qualifies well but then ends his day at the tail end of the finishing order... many people simply assume that they should have stayed in the "easier" cars where they belong.

However, making a snap judgment about one racing category being harder than another ignores context and indicates a lack of understanding about the basic nature of the sport. In the same way that one cannot expect an NFL football player to naturally excel at professional baseball, or for an Olympic marathon runner to be equally adept at speed skating, so do the separate disciplines of IndyCar and NASCAR racing stand divided.

It was not always so. In past eras when the most telling separation between IndyCars and stock cars was that one had an open cockpit and the other did not, several drivers took on both. Foyt, Andretti, Mark Donohue, Cale Yarborough and Tim Richmond are only a few of the names of drivers seen on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line in those days.

But in the modern era, the differences between a NASCAR stock car and an IndyCar go far beyond those of differing weights and horsepower. While the stock cars still retain a great deal of their handling and competitive characteristics from earlier eras, IndyCars have evolved into lightning-fast machines with thousands of pounds of downforce, capable - when sanctions allow it - of reaching average oval-track lap speeds that rival drag racers' straight-line speeds.

As such, the techniques and skills required to drive one car or the other have also diverged until they barely resemble each other. Making an IndyCar and a stock car go fast, therefore, require two completely unique strategies.

Firestone Indy Lights Series racer Pippa Mann has a vivid metaphor for the different sensations between full-bodied racecars and winged open-wheel cars: "To use an analogy, if you take the difference to extremes, one is like skating around on an ice rink - the other would be imagining you're trying to walk through treacle. The treacle requires more effort, but you're probably moving a lot more on the ice rink!"

Instinct versus cunning

"An IndyCar, you drive it according to your instincts," says Max Papis, a former IndyCar and CART/Champ Car driver who is now trying his hand at NASCAR's three top touring series. "It is definitely more reactive. You can definitely be more brutal with your inputs. If you drive in and miss your line by a little bit, you can kind of force it to do different things.

"The [NASCAR Sprint] Cup car is a different beast because it has a lot of horsepower [and] the tires are really really small. You are a lot more gentle with the car than with an open-wheel car - gentle in terms of the input that you give and how much load you put on the tires."

Alex Tagliani, who drives the #77 FAZZT Race Team entry in the IZOD IndyCar Series, recently branched out into NASCAR Nationwide Series racing at his home track in Montreal. The way "Tags" describes the difference between IndyCars and NASCAR stock cars, there is a sense that the former requires more visceral bravery and pushing the limits of physical endurance, while the latter is more an exercise in cunning, patience and strategy. "Pushing the limit in an IndyCar is quite hard," he explains. "Physically it's very demanding - you don't have power steering, you're pulling a lot of Gs under braking, a lot of Gs in the corners.

"Driving NASCAR is easier physically, but it's not easier, you know? You just have to push the car and overdrive the car just enough to be fast, but not too much to run out of equipment. And when you wear out the tires and equipment, you still have to drive the car 10/10ths. [It] takes a lot of finesse. You just need to be on the limits, letting it be free and slide and not pinching it. You need to have a car that doesn't have too much understeer in the center but you can't have it too loose or you won't have any rear tires left. It's kind of like a balancing issue.

"An IndyCar, rarely you will even think about brakes. You brake as hard as you can and as deep as you can, and if the car is handling right you are pushing really hard and the limit is very very high. The car is capable of amazing things and if you really want to be quick you have to push it over the limit. The problem is that the limit for an IndyCar is far. On the other hand, the limit for a NASCAR is quite easy to reach because of the weight, the lack of downforce and the tires.

"When the NASCAR car starts sliding around, you can feel it. [If] you want to go further, there's a chance you won't make it. An IndyCar... it's stuck, it's stuck, it's stuck. And then when it goes, it's 'Bye-bye!'"

"You've got to think about the limits of the car," Papis agrees. "In a Cup car you have 100% and that's as far as you can push it. An IndyCar, you may be pushing 100% while the car has 120%, so you need to find that other 20% in you or in the car."

The habit of pushing to the ultimate limit may in fact be a disadvantage for IndyCar drivers trying the more temperamental and unstable stock cars. Juan Pablo Montoya is a perfect case study. Trained in IndyCars and Formula 1 machines whose limits were so far beyond his own human ones, he developed the ability to press amazingly hard. Those talents allowed him to drive as fast - or faster - than anyone else when he moved to stock cars. They also continue to get him into trouble as he routinely drives past the stock car's limits - resulting in blown engines, destroyed tires and premature finishes thanks to contact with other cars or the walls.

For Tagliani, adapting to the lower limits of the stock car changed his driving experience from a physically taxing approach to a more mentally draining one. "[In an IndyCar] you're like, 'Holy s--t, that's where I need to brake?' You hold your breath while you're braking. [A NASCAR stock car] is still difficult to drive - it's not easy to go fast - but physically you can't be pushed to your limit because you hit the limits of the car before you hit your own limits as a person.

"For me it was very much mental when I drove the Nationwide car in Montreal. Every time I came to a corner I would have to say to myself, 'No, can't brake there... slow down, get on the brake!' I'd have to convince myself that, even if I wanted to try to do it because I think I might be able to, not to do it. Because the car will not make the corner, you're going to lock the tires and go straight into the runoff. You just have to accept that you've got those limits."

The disconnect between a driver's experience and having to adapt to new techniques goes both ways, Tagliani says. "If you take a guy from NASCAR and you put him in an IndyCar and you tell him, 'This is where you're going to brake,' the guy's not going to believe you. No freaking way! And you say, 'Yeah, it will, I promise!' And he'll go, 'No no no no no.' You have to convince him that the car is capable of doing it. It's the same problem as we have to convince us that a stock car won't go further. So we fight the same type of things but in a different way."

Still, Pippa Mann finds that for all of the differences in technique between categories there is a level of commonality that drivers can exploit. "I think as a racing driver you're always pushing your personal limits whatever car you're in," she asserts. "Both types of car are different breeds, but essentially it's the same animal underneath. Overdriving in either type of car will result in using up tires before the end of the race. In both types of car you have to manage your aggression.

"It's one of those strange things, on the surface, there are so many differences and so much to learn trying to go from one thing to another. But then, the more you do it, the more you get used to it, the more everything starts to become more similar to what you already knew."

Building - and flexing - unused muscles

The challenges of adapting to widely varying race conditions and techniques are daunting. Yet for multi-discipline drivers like "Mad Max" Papis, "cross-training" is the ultimate means of forcing himself to reach his full potential.

To youngsters like Papis growing up with dreams of checkered flags in their heads, the racers who excelled in more than one series were an inspiration. As an Italian, Papis did not have to look far for a racing idol. "My hero has always been Mario Andretti," he remembers, "and Mario was a guy who was always able to drive the wheels off of anything."

So enamored of Andretti's career was Papis that he set out to emulate him. Papis' resume does not have as many championships as Andretti's, but it certainly has not been for a lack of trying. "You're talking to a guy who is a very rare example of a modern race car driver," Papis explains. "I'm a guy that has twenty-three 24-hour starts under my belt, one hundred twenty IndyCar starts, Le Mans 24-Hours, Indy 500, [and] twenty-four stock car starts."

As rare as his "cross-training" approach is, Papis is not alone. Novato, California's Memo Gidley has raced so many types of vehicles - he essentially stopped counting when he reached thirty - that Cytosport, his personal sponsor, decided to drop the whole "racecar driver" concept and call him a "Muscle Milk Extreme Athlete" instead.

Gidley came to racing relatively late for a modern racer - his early 20s - but once he got hooked he decided he would be an omnivore. "Many times people say that a winning racer of one sport will be a winner in anything," he says. "I believe this because I have found most of the traits are the same in any type of racing."

Gidley has raced everywhere and everything. This season, he's split time between his Grand American Daytona Prototype and competitive jetski racing - sometimes on consecutive days on either end of the country. It makes for a lot of frequent flyer miles and more than a little jetlag, but Gidley would not have it any other way.

"Things like reflexes, reaction time, physical strength and balance apply to any type of racing," says Gidley. "And I believe that just like a muscle, these qualities need constant use to be at their top level.  If I can't race my car every weekend, just racing something has great benefits."

Alex Tagliani agrees. "I think that once you're driving something that you're not used to, you have to do things you're forced to do, not what comes naturally. And once you have that inside of you, you can use those techniques when they are required even in your own series. The circumstances might be different but the techniques can be similar. I think driving different kinds of cars pushes you to adapt to certain circumstances and then when you need it, you can use it for whatever series you are in."

Taking the leap

Sadly, cross-discipline racing is a rarity these days because young drivers are brought up to specialize in a certain developmental path. A youngster is "groomed" to become an F1 driver or an IndyCar driver or a NASCAR driver, and departures from the paths that lead to those goals are far less likely than in the "olden golden days" when racing was less of a business and more of a hobby.

"That's the wrong way to think about it," opines Papis. "[But] that's how the kids are brought up, and that's why I think it's going to be more and more difficult to see another Mario Andretti coming up because now everyone is specialized. They're specialized in a way that I think is almost obsessive."

Specialization is one thing, but Papis also thinks there is another big stumbling block that keeps other racers from attempting to go outside of their comfort zones. "For many other people I think they're just afraid of looking bad, and I think that's a big weakness because in order for you to be a champion you need to be versatile. There are situations in racing where there are unknowns that you get thrown into. There is no way to be prepared for them if you don't try."

The key to managing a career filled with a cornucopia of different racing disciplines is to give yourself the proper preparation and time to focus. "It can be tough, but scheduling is the key for me being able to race multiple programs," Gidley says. "Everything I race requires specific preparation depending on the vehicle. I must be able to have the time to instantly switch focus and then have the time to completely focus on that new machine leading up to the race."

The more perceptive observers of Danica Patrick's stock car career point to the way her schedule often forces her to switch mindsets on the fly - racing stock cars one week, then IndyCars the next, and then back to stock cars again. Papis, for one, believes that this, much more than the differences in car behaviors, is the primary reason why Danica has struggled. "I don't think that going from driving six races in an open-wheel car, then five races in a stock car, five races in an open-wheel car again... that's not the way to do it," he suggests. "You can't be [properly] focused on it that way."

Whatever the reasons, Danica's struggles continued at New Hampshire during her NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Only eight laps into the event, she was spun out by sixty-something veteran Morgan Shepherd. She spent the balance of the race trying to stay out of the leaders' way as they repeatedly put her laps down.

The result was a godsend for her critics: more ammunition for their critical campaign. For those who see Patrick's nascent stock car career as simply a promotional move - a sort of LeBron James ego boost for the motorsports set - her struggles are karmic retribution for what they believe is her "presumption."

Max Papis certainly does not buy into such ridiculous thinking. In fact, you will not find a bigger fan of Danica's shot at NASCAR stock car racing than "Mad Max," who in fact is trying to pull off basically the same feat. Instead, he empathizes with Danica because he sees his own history being repeated by proxy.

"When I came from open-wheel, I was way too narrow-minded. If everything wasn't perfect, I was not going to be competitive. If the steering wheel was not in the right place, if the pedals weren't in the right place... but I learned how to adapt.

"And I think that makes you a better driver," he continues. "It made me a better driver, and I was able to go out there and say, 'Screw that, who cares if things aren't exactly perfect? Just go out there and make it happen.'

"I take my hat off to Danica and what she's trying to do," Papis says. "I don't think that it's exactly the right way to do it - I'd have done more races at the beginning of the season and then more races after the championship was over - but I think it takes a lot of balls for her to go there and try to do something different."