Book Review: Optimum Drive

Emergency, we interrupt the “It’s raining lies” series for an important service announcement. I just read a really great book.

Amazon had suggested this book to me several times. I was initially turned off by the cover, which looks like it came from a Tron movie poster. The title, : “Optimum Drive: The Road Map to Driving Greatness”, sounds a bit too much like an advertisement. Looking beyond the cover, we get to these summary sentences.

  • Optimum Drive is the complete step-by-step guide to maximizing human performance in any endeavor you choose to conquer
  • Optimum Drive is a motivational book that uses top level race car driving as a metaphor for peak performance.

Is this or is this not a book on driving? If it’s a book on driving, I’m interested. Self-help? Not so much. That said, “The Inner Game of Tennis”, by Timmothy Gallwey, has become a must-read in performance psychology. On the surface, it sounds like Optimum is trying to be the auto racing equivalent. The Inner Game is fantastic book, but I don’t recall there was that much Tennis. It’s not going to teach how to hit a topspin second serve, for example, which is the most crucial stroke in the game.

So let’s turn a few pages to see what’s inside Optimum Drive. I love audiobooks. I listen to them while working out, doing chores around the house, working on the racecars, and commuting. I even had this crazy idea of doing a Lemons theme with the Yaris (it has a complete sound system) where racers listen to an audiobook while driving and then give a quick synopsis while the next driver was getting in. Anyway, I didn’t actually turn any pages of Optimum Drive, but rather listened to it. As audiobooks go, it’s not very long: 3.5 hours. At first I didn’t love the narrator, but he grew on me and by the end I thought he was a great match for the content.

So is Optimum Drive another Inner Game? Yes and no. Yes, it is another performance psychology book that talks about flow psychology. That’s the modern term for getting in the zone. But overlap isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if the content was largely the same, it’s often very useful to have domain-specific books because the examples are more relevant. I see this all the time when teaching Biology students how to program. It’s much harder to learn fundamental principles of computer science when the exercises are things you don’t care about. But let’s be clear here, Optimum Drive is more than just a flow psychology book, it’s a damn good driving book. It teaches you the topspin second serve of driving. Will it transcend autosport and become as important as The Inner Game? I suppose it could, but tennis is more approachable. Anyone can pick up a tennis racquet but not everyone gets to drive a racecar. Should you get it? Absolutely. Here’s the brief 5-star review I wrote on Amazon.

I have a pretty large library of racing books. I’ve even written one of my own called “You Suck at Racing: a crash course for the novice driver”. I’d be flattered if you picked up my book but this book is better than mine. Read it, unlearn your bad habits and start from the root cause. This applies to all things, but very much so to driving where there’s so much misinformation and years of coping mechanisms.

Let’s look at one very specific example of the author’s way of thinking. Suppose you’re coaching a driver who is looking no farther down the track than the hood of his car. Saying “eyes up” or “look farther down the track” doesn’t really help the driver. The problem isn’t where his vision is. It’s that he is so concerned with what the car is doing this instant that he can’t plan for the future. The root cause is that he doesn’t have the car control skills to let his subconscious drive. The fix in this specific case is to slow down so the driver has more time. In order to solve problems, you need to get to the root of the problem. If you don’t, you’ll just lay some coping mechanisms on top that will prevent you from actually improving. And then later when you want to get better, you’ll have to break down these walls, which is a waste of time and will see you getting worse before getting better.

There are similarities between Paul Gerrard’s Optimum Drive and Carroll Smiths Drive to Win. They both have a bluntly honest writing style. However Gerrard would never say “other sports beckon”. He feels like anyone can attain greatness. Personally, I don’t need to be great and I have no aspirations of racing professionally. As a hobby racer, I don’t need to be an A+ driver. I tell my son that the best grade to get is A-. Above that you have diminishing returns that prevent you from learning more stuff. Why get an A+ in one class when with the same effort you can get an A- in two? Anyway, the parts of Optimum Drive that are out of my direct interests were still really fun to listen to. It’s great hearing what it’s like in the pro ranks even though I’ll never be there.

So what is the topspin second serve of driving? He calls it zerosteer. The driver who turns less wins. How can you get around a racetrack using less steering than the other guy? By driving with the correct amount of yaw. You can’t ask your front tires to do all the work because racing really comes down to tire management. Yes, you can progress up the tennis ladder hitting flat serves. But if your second serve is a patty cake, it puts a lot of stress on your return game. So you focus on your ground strokes because you like them more and they win you more games. That’s basically where B level tennis ends. Once in the A group, you have to win your serve and pressure your opponent’s.

Fucking tennis digressions… back to driving. Until you have the confidence to let your muscle memory drive a sliding car, you will enter corners too slow and with too little yaw. The entry determines everything about a corner. Unfortunately, most drivers have coping mechanisms between themselves and driving with enough yaw. Getting the car to step out a little isn’t something you do with the throttle. That’s too late. It has to be under braking. Zerosteer starts with trail-braking. I’ve talked a lot about trail-braking on this blog. I believe it’s the single most important skill in racing. It’s so nice to have that opinion validated.

Gerrard also talks about how to set up a car. Every tuning adjustment is a compromise. Making a car faster in one corner may make it slower in another. The job of the driver is to enjoy the corners where the car is set up perfectly and to earn his paycheck where it’s not. The setup used for qualifying is not the same as racing. In qualifying and time trials you are looking for the fastest single lap. But racing requires the driver to make constant changes throughout the race, and it’s the average lap time that matters more than the best. The word he uses to describe this is compliance. A setup that makes a car mathematically ideal may not work in practice because there is too little compliance for the human operator to work with. The struggle between engineers and drivers is finding the proper compliance.

If I have one criticism of Optimum Drive it’s that Gerrard only briefly talks about the importance of simulation training. At the very end he mentions that the top drivers spend more time in simulation than in real cars. Skid pads are his favorite tool for beginners. I also love them. But a sim rig is a lot more convenient, and in my experience it’s 90% as good as the real thing. If you have a chance to get on a skid pad, do it! Whatever your training plan is, you have to put in the hours. This is what he calls process. One reason I don’t like autocross is that there isn’t enough time spent driving. It can be a great reward for training, but it’s not training unless you can do it for hours upon hours. Musicians practice scales endlessly. Why should driving be any different? What you do on the street has almost zero overlap with what you do on track, so street hours don’t count. There are no shortcuts in the process. You have to put in the hours. Sometimes it may feel like Hell. You know what the trick is when going through Hell? Don’t stop, keep going.

After posting this, the author contacted me and told me that the ‘Tron’ car on the cover was his actual car, which took 2nd place at Pike’s Peak in the unlimited class. It’s unfortunately illegal to run anywhere else. I find it both humorous and humbling that I have written a review of his book and that he has talked to me about his car. More on the car: 7000 lbs of downforce at 12,000 ft, 5G cornering and braking, and 1.8G accelerating in 4th gear. The reason it looks like a spaceship is because it actually is one.

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