This article was produced in partnership with Lexus.
Racing a car around a track at over 200 mph takes more than just raw nerve. It requires a mind as highly tuned as a 700 horsepower engine. Drivers must react to constantly changing situations in a heartbeat—anticipating competitors’ moves and executing their own, all at breakneck speeds.
Mere amateurs will likely never get to drive hot laps in an open-wheeled rocket ship, but they can feel some of that thrill behind the wheel of the 472 horsepower 2022 Lexus IS 500, especially on a race track where safety is paramount.
Sustaining focus and readiness are challenges every racer faces—amped to crazy velocities and enormous stakes at the professional level. J.R. Hildebrand is an 11-year IndyCar veteran currently racing for A.J. Foyt Enterprises. We caught up with the California native to discuss race preparation, mindset behind the wheel, and the huge (but infinitesimally small) difference between winning and losing.
Men’s Journal: How do you mentally prepare for a race?
J.R. Hildebrand: There’s definitely a strong correlation between getting your mind and body right heading into it. Some of that is nutrition. Some of it’s just making sure you’re properly rested. Then there’s all those little things that factor into your mental approach going into the race to help you feel totally ready. Before an event, you want to have a clear sense of how you think the race is going to play out—and some of the various situations and strategies. But after racing in 11 Indy 500s, I think the biggest thing you learn over time is there’s only so much you can control going into a race. Once it’s happening, you operate at your highest level, when your mind is most adaptive to what’s going on. A lot of it’s just trying to get into a settled state of mind while being ready for unplanned events that are inevitably going to happen.
Quick pit stop: You talk about adaptivity during the race. What about beforehand? Same rules apply?
I can say with certainty the more you try to plan out a race ahead of time, the less adaptive you’ll end up being in those scenarios. You just need to accept what’s going to happen is not directly in your control. It’s impossible to plan for it. Accepting that beforehand frees you up to be more instinctive and reactive when the race is playing out. That tends to create better, quicker, more intuitive responses.
In those seconds right before a race starts, what’s going through your mind?
As little as possible. When the green flag flies, I want to be in a relaxed state, but where my body is highly—I don’t want to say tense, but ready to react—coiled up, observant of all the things going on around me, while not really thinking about any one specific thing. In Indy, where I’m most familiar racing, it’s not a standing start. It’s a rolling start where everybody is reacting to each other. When the green flag flies, so much is going on at once, so your gaze isn’t on one particular thing. Your ears aren’t listening for one thing. You’re open to it all happening as it begins. The less you’re focused on one precise thing, the more you’re open to just taking it all in as it happens.
How do you maintain that open focus during the race?
The big thing is to focus on the little things. The stuff you need to do to rip lap times. It can be easy to get distracted by a situation that isn’t happening the way you thought, or stress over how the race is playing out. Far better to focus on stuff within your control, like where you’re braking for the next corner or where you’re turning in. You do all those little things well, they’ll stack up.
Do you have a strategy for balancing all that adrenaline during a race?
You need to be aware of it, but I think that’s just one of those things you take as it comes. I’m a pretty low-key person. I think most racing drivers have a high tolerance for stressful situations. Tapping back into the immediate task at hand can help offset those triggers. Those physical, repetitive things you’re doing in the car can help shift your focus away from all the excitement and drama. Another important part of it is the type of communication happening with your team—your strategists, engineers, and managers. You’ll hear the really good ones on the pit stand helping to keep their driver in the right state of mind over the course of the race.
Does that state of mind adjust at all when you’re in the lead?
It can, for sure. There are different types of leads in a race. There are some where you know you’re off strategy, or where you’re constantly fighting guys off. Then there are those bigger leads where your mindset is just—”I’m gonna bury everybody.” Leads can look stressful from an outsider’s perspective. But inside the car, there’s a tremendous amount of confidence that goes with it. Usually you’re in the lead for a reason. So even if you’re in a situation where you’re really having to work to fight guys off, you’re still in the catbird seat—and that’s almost always where you wanna be.
If you need to make up ground, how do you assess risk and adjust your risk tolerance?
Racing cars is a high-risk endeavor, one way or another. Once you’re there, if you’ve got the equipment underneath you to chase guys down, make passes, and work your way toward the front, you’re often willing to tolerate a lot more risk if you know you can do it. You really just put your head down and focus up. Making your way through a pack of cars with that sustained focus is really one of the best feelings you can have during a race.
How do you know when you’ve reached a car’s absolute limit?
It’s an instinctive feeling. During a qualifying lap when you’re not concerned about fuel mileage, tire wear, or any of that stuff, you’re really dancing with the ragged edge of the car. But it’s always a balancing act. The fastest qualifying lap isn’t always made by the guy who’s hanging it out on the edge for every extra inch of track. It’s the driver who fully understands where that limit is—manipulating the car in a way that results in the fastest lap time. It’s usually during practice when you’re really experimenting with that absolute limit. From there, you work backwards to gain some understanding and figure out what’s going to work best. Where are the places that the maximum speed of the car through corner X or Y comes from having it on the edge? Where do I need to rein it back to get the most speed out of the car?
You’re not alone out there. How do you anticipate your competitors’ moves and strategies?
Mainly you need to be hyper-observant of what other drivers are doing, because every competitor will do things a bit differently. What’s that guy in front of me doing that’s working better than what I’m doing? Is there something different that I might be able to try? During a race, I’m constantly asking those questions, analyzing, studying cars around me, and gauging strengths and weaknesses. Where are the places I’ll have the biggest advantage? If I know I’m really good on the brakes, I’m gonna see if there’s somewhere they’re particularly bad on them. It’s a lot of evaluating what other drivers are doing and getting a sense of how their cars are working. You mash that up with what you know you can do best—how to make those big moves.
There’s no perfect race. How do you shake off the odd mistake behind the wheel?
Just like that. You shake it off—and learn from it. That’s gotta be your attitude and mental approach. No Formula One World Champions will ever say they put together a perfect lap. Mistakes, big or small, are just part of it all. Sometimes they’re so insignificant that I’m the only guy who knows I didn’t do it just right. The bigger mistakes that impact your race will help you correct things and do it a little bit better next time. During the race, you have to compartmentalize, let go, and immediately move on. After, if it cost you a good finish or a win, you have to be willing to revisit what happened out there. How can I do that better? How can I learn from that mistake moving forward?
What’s the difference between winning and losing?
To me, it has to do with how present you are in the moment. If you’re just focused on the outcome or envisioning a race happening in a specific way in order for you to win, it’s never going to happen. The championship-winning drivers are the ones with clear intention. They know what they need from their car. They know what they need from their team. They know exactly what they need to do. But they’re also highly adaptive to things as they play out. This enables them to take full advantage of opportunities as they arise. To win races, you have to be in that state. You need to see those opportunities when they present themselves, and to seize them—instantly.
Still have a need for speed? Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the License to Thrill documentary (and head to Lexus.com to watch the IS 500 in action in the full 6-minute video), read our full review of the 2022 Lexus IS 500 F SPORT Performance, and get an inside look at racing in a track experience for the first time.
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