CLASS IS about tobegin. The driver's-ed instructor this after-noon in the Irish Hills ofsouthern Michigan is a skinny 23-year-old dressed in a black T-shirt, baggyjeans and large sunglasses, an outfit befitting the outlaw vibe of NASCAR'sreigning bad boy, Kyle Busch. But today he is sitting behind the wheel of a2008 Toyota Highlander, parked in the infield at Michigan InternationalSpeedway. Busch takes off the sunglasses and, with his eyes closed, eases thesteering wheel of his idling SUV to the left, imagining that he's rippingthrough a turn at 160 mph. He is trying to explain what he does best: drive astock car really, really fast.
"The key todriving is your ass," says Busch. "You have to feel what your car isdoing, and that feel is in your rear end. You have to be able to drive your carto the edge, to go as fast as possible without crashing, and it all comes downto feel."
O.K., so credit asensitive tush as one factor in Busch's being the winningest driver in theSprint Cup series this year—eight victories plus the points lead at theconclusion of the regular season—and the choice for most talented racer in SI'spoll of Cup drivers (page 74). But what exactly is driving talent? Unlike instick-and-ball sports, in which the athletes' skills are easily observed andevaluated, a NASCAR driver's talent is hard to pinpoint and difficult toquantify. The racers ply their skills while concealed in a 3,400-pound stockcar, not in a batter's box or on a basketball court for all to see.
A study conducted20 years ago by University of Miami neuro--critical care physician StephenOlvey, who's currently a fellow with the Paris-based FIA Institute for MotorSports Safety, found that the reaction time of race car drivers is about 33%quicker than that of the average person behind the wheel. But there's much moreto racing skill than reaction time and a feel for the car. What about theability to anticipate—while traveling the equivalent of a football field persecond—what the competitors around you will do? Or exceptional hand-eye-footcoordination? Or a tankful of courage? Or the ability to succinctly articulateto the crew chief what changes need to be made to the car during pit stops?Or....
"It's all ofthat," Busch says, "but driving talent is basically something youeither have or don't have. It's a born skill, like being able to run fast. It'salmost something you can't describe. You can only see it when somebody hasit."
SI recently took alap around the Cup garage to learn more about it.
THE FIRST stop isDale Earnhardt Jr.'s hauler, which serves as the garage headquarters for thenumber 88 team. Junior has just finished his first practice session at Bristol(Tenn.) Motor Speedway, placing 11th on the speed chart. As engineers fromHendrick Motorsports man the four laptops in the cramped room and process datacollected during the practice run—from the vehicle's aerodynamic efficiency toits rate of fuel consumption—Earnhardt peers over their shoulders, eager tolearn how he can gain speed.
"To besuccessful you obviously have to be on a good team with a great crew chief andgreat engineers and a great crew because no matter how talented of a driver youare, you won't do squat if your car isn't any good," says Earnhardt, 32,who finished the regular season fourth in the point standings. "But to be agood driver, you have to start at a young age and you have learn at a young ageto let the fear go. You have to be a daredevil and be willing to push it to theedge."
Earnhardt, whostarted racing street stock cars at age 17, has been exposed to the dangers ofthe sport more than most. After his father was killed in a crash on the lastturn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior was back in his race carfive days later, in Rockingham, N.C. "At that point I honestly didn't givea s--- what happened to me," he says. "But the one thing I knew wasthat I had to keep racing because that's what I do and it's who I am. This isthe way I'm wired, and it's the way all the great ones are wired."
JEFF GORDON is oneof the great ones. The four-time Cup champion is standing in the garagegreeting a couple of dozen fans lined up in front of him, every one clutching aposter or a hat or a T-shirt for Gordon to sign. In 2007 he had six wins amonga career-high 30 top 10s, and he wound up second in the point standings behindhis Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. This year, Gordon's 16th on the Cuplevel, has been different. Gordon has yet to reach Victory Lane, and he entersthe Chase for the Sprint Cup, which kicks off this Sunday with the Sylvania 300in Loudon, N.H., as a long shot to win his fifth championship. (Points areadjusted before the beginning of the Chase, with all qualifiers starting with5,000 points, plus a 10-point bonus for each regular-season victory, whichmeans that Gordon will be 80 points behind Busch.)
So does that meanGordon suddenly lost his ability to drive this season? "Absolutelynot," Gordon says, before bringing up the reengineered vehicle, formerlyknown as the Car of Tomorrow, that went into full-time use this season."With this new car it's harder to make a mediocre car into a good carduring the race because there are fewer things you can change on it [during pitstops] than in the older car. My experience in the older car is actuallyhurting me, because the new car often does the exact opposite of what the oldcar did, like how it behaves when it goes through the corners. I think thisfavors younger guys like Kyle Busch, who don't have as many old habits tobreak."
Busch, who is inhis fourth full season on the Cup circuit, vehemently discounts Gordon'stheory. He points to the extra time he has spent behind the wheel thisseason—61 starts through Sunday across NASCAR's three premier series (SprintCup, Nationwide and the Craftsman Truck Series) plus 16 test sessions—comparedwith Gordon's 26 starts and about 15 tests. "You need seat time in all thecars to understand the vehicle dynamics and the feel," says Busch, "andJeff hasn't spent as much time [on the track this year] as I have."
THE NEXT stop isJimmie Johnson's hauler. Over the latter part of the 2007 season HendrickMotorsports devoted its vast resources to testing and perfecting the number 48Lowe's Chevy that Johnson was then driving; the payoff was that Johnson, at 32,became the 10th driver in the 59-year history of NASCAR to win back-to-backchampionships. But while Hendrick was trying to find more speed in the old car,every other team was building and testing the new car for '08. As aconsequence, in the season after he won 10 races, Johnson struggled early. Buthe has four victories, three of which have come in the last seven races;Johnson, once his car was sorted out and back on the top level, was again ableto bring his skills to bear.
It took a brushwith death to set Johnson on the path to becoming an elite driver. In the fallof 1995, when he was only 20, Johnson competed in the Baja 1,000, an off-roadrace in Baja California that took the winner 20 hours to complete. Near the endof the event, while cruising at 90 mph just before daybreak, Johnson shut hiseyes and, for an instant, fell asleep. His 6,000-pound Chevy Silverado hit alarge rock, and he was jolted awake when the truck went off the road andcartwheeled down a steep hillside. Johnson was fortunate to escape seriousinjury, but it took until after nightfall for a rescue team to reach him."That was the defining moment of my career," says Johnson. "Ilearned right then that I had to be more patient and not push the car 120percent. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast."
Johnson is knownin the garage as the smoothest driver on the circuit. He's doesn't bang his wayto the front the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did; instead, he works to keep hismistakes to a minimum, relying on an uncanny sense of anticipation and acautious approach. He usually runs his car at 80% capacity early in the race,allowing himself to get into his racing rhythm. Only over the last third of therace does Johnson push his car to its limit.
"I comparedriving well to a golf swing," says Johnson. "There's a rhythm to bothof them. Each swing is like making it through a corner. You have to be relaxedand calm enough in this crazy environment so you can feel what's going oninside the car and be able to relate that to your crew. It's not somethingthat's taught; you just get that rhythm from experience, like a golfer doeswith his swing."
IF ANYONE knowshow to judge driving talent, it's 66-year-old Jack Roush, who has been a teamowner in the Cup series for 21 seasons and has won two championships (in 2003with Matt Kenseth and the following year with Kurt Busch). Roush has alsohosted several so-called Gong Shows, which are open tryouts for spots in theCraftsman Truck Series and for open-wheel teams, during which drivers turn lapsin identically prepared cars under the scrutiny of Roush and his team. Whatdoes Roush look for in the minor league racers trying to move up?
"The firstthing you look at is the stopwatch," says Roush, who charts the drivers'lap times, "but you can't tell if someone is going to succeed until theyget out there and compete. This is why I love [Roush Fenway Racing's topdriver] Carl Edwards. If he's in contention near the end of the race, he'll doeverything he can to win. He's a gunfighter."
But there'ssomething else that has made Edwards—winner of six races this season and secondseed in the Chase—such a powerful force on the circuit. Growing up in Columbia,Mo., he raced on tiny dirt tracks around the Midwest and became comfortabledriving a loose race car (meaning the back end of the car slides up the trackin the turns). On dirt, cars constantly slide through the corners; similarly,this season drivers have been loose through the turns in the CoT because thenew design creates only about half the rear downforce of the old model.
"Carl'sdirt-track experience has helped him immensely," says Roush. "He's asgood at driving a loose car as anyone today. He can drive the car from the backend. Couple that with the fact that he's a winner, and I think Carl has a greatshot at the championship."
Roush's point wasproved in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol. Late in the race Edwards was runningsecond behind Kyle Busch. When Edwards finally caught up to the leader, he madecontact with Busch's rear bumper as the two barreled into a turn, causing Buschto get extra loose and slide up the racetrack. Edwards maintained command ofhis car, dived to the low line, passed Busch and went on to win.
CLASS IS over fornow. Busch steps out of the Highlander. But before he hops onto a golf cart andheads off to watch the Nationwide race, he stops and turns. Like an instructorwho just remembered the most important part of his lecture after the bell hasrung, he adds, "You also have to be confident. You have to believe thatyou're going to make it through to the other side of the turn while going asfast as you can. I always believe I'm going to make it. That's not being cocky,that's just trusting your ability."
So aseat-of-the-pants sense of the car's movement, reaction time, guts,anticipation, familiarity with the car, a get-the-hell-out-of-my-way mentalityand confidence are all at the core of what defines driving talent. If you haveany further questions, just keep an eye on Professor Busch. He'll be teaching arefresher course each of the next 10 weekends.
"Driving talent is something you either have ordon't have," says Busch. "It's a BORN SKILL."
"I compare DRIVING WELL TO A GOLF SWING," saysJohnson. "There's a rhythm to both of them."
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