Increasingly, NASCAR is about people, not cars. If a brand of car has an advantage or a disadvantage, NASCAR, in its eternal quest to achieve parity of competition, changes the rules. So the time has come, it seems, particularly in NASCAR Winston Cup, that people are the difference-owners, drivers, pit crews, mechanics, engineers, and guys back at the shop. The edge must come from the physical and mental skills of the racers, and that's never been more important.
With that in mind, I was curious about what goes on at Human Performance International (HPI), located in Huntersville, North Carolina. HPI, directed by Dr. Jacques Dallaire, has been testing and evaluating drivers since 1983.
"Races are won and lost by tenths or (sometimes) a few thousandths of a second," says Canadian-born Dallaire, 46, who earned a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Alberta at Edmonton. "People are where you are going to find those differences-if not now, then in a few years."
The Human MachineWhat HPI does is simple. It seeks to enhance and maxi-mize talent through mental and physical training. It can't create talent and skills, but it can make the most of what a competitor has.
Over a two-day period, Dr. Dallaire and his associate, Frank Alvarez, use various tests to collect more than 1,200 bits of information about an individual. The tests cover five broad areas: physical, mental, vision, nutrition, and sports medicine. Then these bits, each like a piece of a puzzle, are put together to get a profile of a client's personal strengths and weaknesses. Strategies and coaching are implemented for improvement.
Mental AspectI was more interested in the mental aspects of the program, the significance of which, Dallaire says, is often misunderstood and minimized by racing teams-especially those that have fitness programs conducted by physical trainers. Truth be told, I wanted to take the mental tests, which measure timing skills, mind speed, hand-eye coordination, concentration, and short- and long-term memory retrieval, among other things. Most of these skills are evaluated with a computer.
I wanted to see how a 66 year old (me) who moves in slow motion and can't remember where he parked his car stacked up against, say, Jeff Gordon. Personal data is confidential, but I was able to substantiate what I had surmised: I was lousy. But hey, I hear that Gordon's wife Brooke upstaged the three-time champion on the mental tests. There is much more to the program, however, than simply the fun of playing computer games.
A computerized timing test, using a five-foot bar along which light travels at speeds from five to 25 mph, required pushing a button when the light-much like the Christmas tree-starting device in drag racing-reached the end of the bar. I was habitu-ally early or late, inconsistent, and inaccurate.
Well, how does that apply to racing?"It allows us, in thousandths of a second, to understand how people are able to time things," Dallaire says. "In racing, drivers process information all the time and respond to what they see-maybe not right away, but at precisely the right time. Sharp anticipation-driving skills would be valuable for missing a wreck, another car, or taking advantage of an opportunity in traffic when an opening develops."
Mind SpeedI was also given computerized tests for short- and long-term memory, retrieval speed and accuracy involving numbers, combinations of words and letters, and turning off lights. Distraction is a big item with Dallaire. Concentration and the ability to focus without being distracted are critical to race drivers, he says. I was asked to count backward by threes while pushing a button to turn off a light when it came on. Counting resulted in doubling the time I required to react to the lights. On average, my processing time on most of the tests was three to five tenths of a second slower than drivers; they also moved about 200 percent faster.
"The difference in (processing) time seems small," says Dallaire, "until you consider that a race car at 200 mph travels its length in one tenth of a second."
Age is a factor, consoles Dallaire. "Mind speed decreases with age," he explains. This, of course, raises the question of aging drivers that don't know when to quit.
"The question is at what point these natural changes become a liability rather than an asset. The flip side is that experience can compensate for physiological changes (to a point). The young lions have tons of testosterone but not always the experience to make sound judgments," he says.
"What this means is if you have something else in your head while in your race car at speed, there is no way your processing is going to be as good," the doctor says.
"Something else that people, including racers, don't understand is that the mind cannot operate on a negative," Dallaire continues. "You can't not think about something. A race driver may think hard about not driving into a corner too deep, but then he does because that's the image in his head, and the brain doesn't understand the 'don't' side of it."
Dallaire instructed me not to think about a pink elephant wearing purple boxer shorts with large yellow dots. "The only way you cannot think about the elephant (or distractions and negatives) is to put another program in your mental computer and focus intently on that," he says. "That is the dominant program, and it should be what you want-not what you don't."
Dallaire's most powerful tool for explaining how mental training works is a simple pendulum on the end of a chain. He has me hold the chain motionless a half-inch above a table. As I focus, Dallaire tells the pendulum what to do. I don't move, but the pendulum swings slowly forward and backward, then left to right and then in a clockwise spiral, gaining momentum with each movement. It's an amazing test, reminiscent of a Ouija board. Dallaire recalls one Winston Cup driver, upon finishing the test saying in distrust, "You've got some serious explaining to do or I'm out of here. What kind of voodoo is this?"
The Racers' ChoiceHPI has developed a 14-hour seminar series for race teams, covering such topics as communication, team harmony, mental programming for success, dealing with distractions, learning to cope with and manage stress, and how physical fitness and nutrition relate to performance.
HPI's Winston Cup alumni include Gordon; Ward Burton and his crew chief, Tommy Baldwin; Mike Skinner; Bobby Hamilton; Joe Nemechek; Dave Blaney; and big names from 27 countries, among them Emerson Fitipaldi, Nigel Mansell, and Al Unser Jr.
"I would recommend this program highly to others," Gordon says of the series.
"HPI made me aware of my physical and mental weaknesses," says Burton, "and I've worked to make strengths of the weaknesses. I've learned to think differently. You don't have to be a race car driver to benefit from the program."
Skinner says HPI was good for him but declines to elaborate: "If I find a set of shocks that's three tenths faster than the other guy's, I'm not going to tell everybody. That's how I feel about HPI. The program helped me in my racing and personal life so much that I sent my son, Jamie (22), through it."
This is not a commercial for HPI, and it never was intended to be. But if I owned a competitive race team with ample resources, I know I would send my driver and crew chief through the program. Sure, the cost is $2,600 per person for two days of evaluation and a year of follow-up consultation and coaching, but in big-league racing, how much is a second saved here or a tenth gained there really worth at the end of 500 miles?