About 20 years ago, I discovered a long-lost teenage crush online. Thousands of miles apart, we spent many emails catching up on our lives. And remembering my obsession with car racing, she asked why I loved racing cars so much and why I had wanted so passionately to be racing car driver.

She asked: how did you feel when you raced?  What is it that you like about it?  Is it just the speed and the threat of impending death, or is there something else?

What interesting questions! I knew the answers, although I’d never considered how to put them into words.

Why I loved racing cars so passionately

I’d wanted to race from the time I was 14 when my best friend David got his Scalextric slot-racing set out.  Racing the little electric cars and then radio controlled racing car models just convinced me all the more that I needed to get my butt in a real racing car seat.

But what was it that drove this passion and excited me about it all? Did it have anything to do with this notion of avoiding impending death (a question often asked of drivers)?

It certainly was true that during this time in racing history our teen-age heroes seemed to be falling like flies:  Jochen Rindt, Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriquez, Roger Williamson, Francois Cevert, Peter Revson, and many more died violently just in the first few years of the ’70s.

But strangely enough that didn’t deter me — and it wasn’t because, as my friend suggested, I was excited at the prospect of cheating impending death.  Quite the opposite — as others have said before me, if I had spent my time thinking that I could die, I would not be able to focus on driving quickly.

Instead, there is just maximum confidence in your ability to stay out of trouble and a major competitive drive to be first.

One of my favorite movies is LeMans, starring Steve McQueen which, as I’ve discovered, is a movie that most motorsport fans love but most others don’t. In the movie, McQueen’s character is asked “What is so important about driving faster than anyone else?”

He replies: “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well.” (In this more enlightened age, we know women can do it well too!)

And then he delivers the classic line of the movie: “Racing … is life. Anything else that happens before or afterwards, is just waiting.”

And that’s the starting point. It really applies to any passion you have in life — if you’re not working on your passion, it just seems like you’re marking time until you can do it again.

That was certainly true for me. My passion for car racing superseded any other interest I might have as an adolescent. No, really…!

Racing brought out my competitive side

I’m not normally one who thrives on competition. In most situations, I’d rather cooperate or work alone.

But racing seemed to bring competitiveness out in me, perhaps because I was very confident in my ability to compete on the track and do well. Starting with the little slot cars and then into karting and the few actual racing cars I drove, the competitive spirit was just … appeared.

I remember one time a friend from work coming to the track for the first time, and he had to question whether he was actually watching me or someone else because my on-track persona seemed to be so different than the Derek he knew.

I loved the speed and the control.  I loved the individualism of doing well or not doing well based completely on my own merit.  

slaloming at St Laurent shopping center in Ottawa

It taught me a lot of other skills too, such as patience and keeping my emotions in check when they could be detrimental to the outcome of an event. And off track, it taught me the importance of spending time preparing and organizing, to present myself well, and to be articulate.

Driving fast and the adrenaline rush

Most of all, what it did to your mind during a race was, well… mind-blowing!

When I was driving as fast as I could, especially in a race where there was traffic around me, or even just behind me, it’s like your senses were heightened many times over. It was absolute total focus and concentration.   

The adrenaline was rushing to your mind as much as to your body so that it could process information super fast, make decisions quickly, and move instantaneously to the next one.

Any lapse in that concentration and you’d be off the track and out of the race. And when it all came together and you made a pass or even won the race, there was no feeling of gratification like it anywhere.  

At times, during an intense race, my mind would not even hold onto the memory of what happened on track.

It was like your mind saw the situation, processed your action, executed, and then immediately threw the memory out because it needed all the processing power it could muster for the next challenge.

There have been several times when people mentioned me passing them during the race and I would look blankly at them and respond “Oh, I did…?”

For many years, I would tell close friends that racing a car was better than sex, and at the time I absolutely meant it.   

Of course, I’ve changed my mind since then. But i have to say racing was damned close!  🙂

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