Humans are all born with inherent abilities, some more than others. All humans learn much as they grow through life, some absorb more than others.
Motorsports drivers must have a unique mix of nature and nurture that is motivated by a competitive energy that won't often be denied.
When legendary driver Mario Andretti was asked if he could see motorsports abilities in children, his answer was direct and simple, ”Not all kids are created equal.”
Maybe part of the right mix that propels one person more than others, when it comes to being able to race vehicles at high speeds, is what is lacking as well. The absence of fear may seem apparent, in that some can get behind the wheel of a fast car and go fast. Some can't.
But maybe a high tolerance for speed during a race is learned along the way. Most successful professional drivers have years of experience, even if they are young.
It's not easy to define the exact human physical and mental capacity that creates a professional motorsports driver or legend.
Even top drivers have different takes on...well...what it takes. Perhaps the best way to examine the right mix of abilities, those that determine whether one has or doesn't have what it takes to be among the world's best drivers, is to ask some of the world's best drivers about those abilities.
Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Aric Almirola, David Ragan and Austin Dillon know much about their NASCAR world. John Force and Jeg Coughlin Jr. have proven their abilities at incredible NHRA drag racing speeds. Helio Castroneves is a popular and skilled open-wheel IndyCar speedster who often shares good analysis of that world.
All shared their opinions on acquiring top skills that champions and icons have.
A NASCAR star at a young age, Gordon didn't seem to get the edge all at once.
“Every step of the way, you find out,” Gordon said. “The question gets answered. Until I got that first win in Charlotte, I didn’t know if I had what it took to be in the Cup series. That day said a lot to me, my team. From that point on—no turning back.”
NASCAR's living legend Elliott was voted a fan favorite for many years. He knows people.
“You've got to have good people around you,” Elliott said. “That's what it takes.” Elliott understands what made him successful over so many seasons.
“If I look back on my career—the things that happened and transpired throughout, there's always something going on that caused me to either run good or run bad. If you had things going in a good direction and people were working together, then we ran well.”
NHRA Mello Yello drag racing is vastly different style than NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, in that it matches one car against another racing straight to a win light. NSCS is all about hundreds of laps on mostly oval racetracks. The first car to cross the start/finish line after the last lap is the winner.
NHRA Funny Car champion John Force is a drag racing icon known for his many wins and outspoken sound bites. Force emphasizes the importance of confidence.
“I always believed,” Force said. “I got a race car to do the running for me. I've believed I could do something. I don't think I could be a preacher. Might try to change my ways. Ain't going to be a singer, I can't sing. I drive race cars because I believe I can win.”
NHRA Pro Stock champion Coughlin comes from a family of drag racers that made drag racing an international business with JEGS High Performance parts. Coughlins are expected to race, but racing well in professional classes, where each round means win-or-go-home, is another level.
“Growing up in the sport I was fortunate to be hands-on with my dad’s and brother’s cars,” Coughlin said. “Turning 16 in 1986, I was able to race a few times in street eliminator and had great success. That experience, early success hooked me for life.”
Castroneves has been an open-wheel and IndyCar racing standout for many years. The photogenic racer is also known for his winning ways on “Dancing with the Stars” and is proud of that accomplishment. Castroneves seemed to learn early who he wanted to be and how to get there.
“I was 13-years-old," Castroneves said. “I don't eat red meat. I remember watching drivers say they go through a tough diet, give up things to improve their performance in the race. If I start doing it now, when I get there, I won't have any problem.”
NASCAR driver for Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola, seems to align his thoughts with those of Force on the need for confidence.
“Your family always supports you,” Almirola said. “They make you believe you can do anything. As a kid I thought, I’m going to be a race car driver. I didn’t think anything different. I don’t remember a time thinking I wasn’t going to be successful at something.”
Ragan seems to have grown up in NASCAR as he moved up to the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series at age 18. Still young at age 28, Ragan seems to agree with Gordon about learning as you go (fast).
“My first-ever race,” Ragan said. “I was 12-years-old. I bent a spindle in practice. I thought I destroyed the car. Dad fixed it. We went out, ran second. Even as a kid you gain experience and confidence. It’s a building block. It never happens in one race.”
Richard Childress Racing has had many great drivers including Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Mike Skinner, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and more, but now Childress has his grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon moving up in NASCAR’s top classes.
Austin Dillon is only 23-years-old, but he displays a remarkable sense of maturity.
“I don't know if you ever just go, ‘Man, I'm good enough to be up there racing with those guys’. I was brought up kind of where you work hard and hope to one day be able to be racing in the Cup Series.”
Dillon summed up the ever-present task at hand.
“You've just got to go out there and have confidence and go show them that you can do it and prove yourself each and every week.”
It seems, from the comments made by these eight exceptional motorsports professionals, that having good people around one, believing in one's own success and working hard at every level are the real keys to top performance.
Certainly, good hand-eye coordination and strong mental acuity are common among professional drivers and champions.
But these motorsports stars prefer to identify elements they can control and enhance, rather than the physical and mental gifts that occur at birth.
Well, they do know speed.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.