01/14/2013 01:05 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

Lessons From the Fast Lane

Sometimes inspiration and motivation come from the strangest places, like accidentally catching a few minutes of a televised auto race at Laguna Seca raceway in California. Something about the sleek Formula One racing machines grabbed my attention. I was in the mood to try something entirely new and different, something that would shake up my routine and give me a fresh perspective on life. Zipping around a racecourse at more than 100 miles an hour seemed like just the thing, provided I didn't kill myself.

As it turns out, Laguna Seca was only 40 miles away from our house, and the raceway offered the opportunity to learn how to drive a Formula One racing car, then get behind the wheel and take a high-speed spin around the 11-turn, 2.2-mile course.

I asked my wife, Kat, if she'd like to try it, and to my surprise, an enthusiastic "yes" came out of her mouth before I even finished my question.

"Great, I'll give you some pointers," I said, feeling that this was really a guy thing (apologies to Danica Patrick of GoDaddy fame). Plus, I was sure that I'd been born with far more impressive driving talents than Kat's.

"Wow, thanks, hon," Kat replied.

We called in a reservation for the next class, which was a week later. On the way to the raceway, I fantasized about leading the pack around the course and getting high praise for my driving prowess. Kat would sure be proud of me, I figured.

We parked in the visitors' lot of the raceway and climbed the steps to the second floor of an adjacent building where classes were held. During the classes you were supposed to learn critical concepts and techniques that could save your life. Kat and the other 10 people in the group paid close attention; I was more interested in looking out the window at the racecars and drivers below.

Two hours later, we were ready for the next phase: Twenty laps around the course in a Mazda RX8 stripped of all amenities except the driver's seat and a passenger seat. A driving coach assigned to me slipped into the passenger seat. "Remember, Rob," he said, "the car is more stable when it's going faster. You have to resist the temptation to brake when you go into a curve. If you brake, you'll wind up in a gravel trap. Don't start overthinking at 100 miles an hour. In the practice runs, you'll teach your body what do to; it has 'cellular' memory. Just look where you want to go, and your body will take care of the rest."

I began to wish I'd paid more attention in class -- all that stuff about aerodynamics and matching the rear wheels to the engine speed might actually matter.

Driving straight ahead in the Mazda at 80 miles per hour was easy. When we came to the first turn, though, I panicked and instinctively went for the brakes. The instructor was a step ahead and yelled while pushing my face to the left, "Speed, Rob! And look around the corner where you want to go, not at the gravel trap at the corner!"

We made it past the first turn without flying into the gravel trap. I couldn't help but notice that Kat was way ahead of me -- she sailed through the turn just like the pros do on the televised races. "Beginner's luck," I thought to myself.

The second and third corners required more yelling and face-shoving, but by the sixth, I eased up and let my body do the work. By the 20th lap, I wasn't half bad at it, though my neck was sore from having my face shoved to avert disaster.

Now we were ready for the main attraction: the Formula One cars, sleek, beautiful machines with massive engines and wheels -- "beasts," as they're called, hungry for speed. Decked out in our white fireproof suits and white helmets with Plexiglas face shields, we looked more like a troupe of astronauts than fledgling racecar drivers. When everyone had climbed into a car, an instructor's voice boomed over the two-way radios built into our helmets. "Cinch it tight," he barked several times. "Adjust your seat so your knees and elbows have a slight bend. Ready? When you push the starter button, you won't be able to hear me. You'll be on your own."

He wasn't kidding -- the engine roar was deafening, the vibrations bone-rattling.

Then, just like in the real races, a guy with a checkered flag came out in front of the cars. He waved the flag, and we were off! My body shook as I was slammed into the seat. What a pure adrenaline rush!

The lead car was the "pacer," a professional driver who stayed at the head of the pack, gating everyone else to about 75 miles per hour for the initial three laps. He glided around the first corner, followed by guess who? Kat. As I got closer to the corner, I felt a wave of panic, and I went for the brake. The rear tires started thumping, meaning I was heading for trouble. Where was the instructor when I needed him to yell and shove my head to the left? I stopped thinking and something remarkable happened: My foot punched the throttle harder, and I flew around the corner, rear tires humming as they matched the engine speed. It wasn't elegant, but I was looking toward where I wanted to go instead of staring at the corner, and I made it in one piece.

The second corner was a little easier; by the third lap, I was only vaguely aware that I was "driving." The car had become an extension of my body. After three laps, we made a pit stop for one minute, then took off again. The pacer ramped us up to 90 miles per hour. I was feeling comfortable for the next three laps. After one more pit stop, we headed into the final round at 110 miles per hour. I went from feeling comfortable to feeling in command. I suspect Kat felt that way on the first lap. So much for my "pointers."

On the way home, Kat and I were exuberant (despite feeling like we'd regressed to the horse-and-buggy era in our clumsy Range Rover). How strange. I wanted to do something that would shake things up and provide new insights, but what I drove away with was a reaffirmation of some of life's basics:

Look where you want to go, not at the curves in your way.

Don't hesitate; excuses will kill your progress.

Don't overthink; let your intuition get involved as you progress around the track of life.

Listen for the thumping sounds in your life -- they mean you're not hugging the road, and you're heading for a crash.

And perhaps most important, realize that all parts of your life have to mesh together like a fine-tuned machine. That's what winners do.

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