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Behind the Helmet: Racing Driver Psychology



(Timeslive) October 16 2011. It was a day that would make the sports world sick to the core. For just 11 laps into an IZOD IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, things got ugly very quickly. Storming around the 2.4km tri-oval at speeds in excess of 320km/h, one of the branded, winged projectiles suddenly broke formation and spun out of control: a screeching, tyre-smoking pirouette that would throw the rest of the charging pack into disarray.

Choreography made way for chaos and in a split-second the synchronous wail of engines had been replaced by the sounds of destruction. The crash! boom! and bang! of exotic materials disintegrating against concrete. Concrete that doesn’t discriminate.

Closing in from the back of the 34-strong field (he had been given a $5000000 incentive to win the race from last position) 33-year-old Dan Wheldon (pictured) had nowhere to go. Slamming into one of his fellow competitors, his car became airborne and flew into the catch fence: a tumbling, flaming tomb of carbon fibre. Extricated and airlifted to hospital, Wheldon was pronounced dead at 1:54 Pacific Daylight Time. He left behind a wife and two young sons.

Gaping at the slow-motion replays that haunted international TV news networks for days after his passing, this display of professionally orchestrated violence shed a sobering light on the world of racing.

Interspersed with the twisted, tear-stained faces of Wheldon’s family and friends, it also got me questioning why people risk life and limb to chase the checkered flag in the first place. I mean, what is it about this particular sport that makes them – despite all the inherent dangers that can play out in seconds – want to risk it all?

“If you ask sportsmen and women why they choose to participate in a specific sport, they will always tell you it is because they enjoy it,” says sports psychologist and University of Johannesburg psychology lecturer Dr Leon van Niekerk. “Some individuals enjoy the excitement and speed associated with motor racing. Researchers refer to this specific attraction as paratelic dominance, which is nothing more than arousal-seeking.”

Being an amateur racing driver myself, I can certainly identify with what the good doctor is talking about here. I’ve ridden those ridiculous fairground rides; screamed my guts out in the back of a Mazda Zoom-Zoom aerobatics plane, but neither of these two fripperies come close to the flat-out, primal thrill of piloting a racecar around a circuit like Kyalami. I can only imagine what it must be like to tackle the Indy 500 – absolute sensory overload.

In fact, during their off seasons, I’ve heard that professional racing drivers actually find themselves craving the cocktail of chemicals that rush through their bloodstream during an event. Could this be a substitute for something – a substance or emotion perhaps – that they simply cannot extract from the comparative boredom of everyday, nine-to-five life?

“You are quite right,” says Van Niekerk, “the chemical associated with this behaviour is called dopamine. Individuals who seek out these kinds of activities seem less able to regulate their dopamine secretion when stimulated. It gives them a rush that has an addictive quality – hence their continuous participation in these events. They get such a high from the sensation that they want to experience it again.

“I suppose you can liken it to somebody who rides a roller coaster and then gets back on it repeatedly to experience the thrill. The problem with its addictive character is that you need a bigger thrill to reach the same high as before. So after a few rides on that roller coaster, it becomes less exciting.

“Applied to the world of racing, this could explain why some drivers might almost tempt injury or death because, as the experience of the thrill wears off, they have to do more to experience more. This explains the risk-taking behaviour that could put them in danger.”

Fair enough. But remember that we Homo sapiens have a built-in trip switch; a kind of genetic fuse that melts away and saves us from self-destruction. After all, let’s not forget we are a species that prides itself on survival. And when witness to the horror that unfolded at Las Vegas Speedway, surely common sense must prevail. Flight should outweigh fight.

Van Niekerk, however, shares a different hypothesis. “Reversal theory suggests that thrill seekers – racing drivers – enjoy risk and danger because they interpret the accompanying arousal levels as pleasant. On the other hand, they are also so focused on the execution of their movements behind the wheel that they do not have time to focus on their fears. Concentrating on fear would become a distraction with detrimental effect. Even one mistake at the speeds typically reached within a race would lead to dangerous and spectacular outcomes for the driver.”

Psychology and chemical reactions aside, perhaps this blind, almost terrifying level of devotion shown by professional racing drivers could also be put down to the lifestyle that goes along with it. The travel. The adoration. The money. The fans. The limelight. The feeling of drenching yourself in champagne after a down-to-the-wire duel through the streets of Monaco.

I don’t know about you, but I’d happily live the life of Lewis Hamilton, knowing that serious injury, even death, might be lurking around the next chicane. Perhaps this plays a far bigger part in why, after slipping on that helmet, the men and women in IndyCar, Nascar and Formula One are so numb to the fear and risks.
Whatever the exact combination might be, you can be sure that those souls helplessly addicted to motor sport will continue chasing down one more win, one more fastest lap, one more shot at glory.

“Racing drivers are driven personalities,” Van Niekerk concludes, “who won’t back off for anyone or anything in their pursuit of excellence and achievement.”

Credit: Thomas Falkiner

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