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Steely self-belief steers drivers through danger

Some call it ego, or arrogance. Whatever, stars need it to thrive.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 2, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - There would seemingly be no more poignant of a cautionary tale for a race car driver than one of their own dying on the track. But Sunday, less than five hours after rookie Paul Dana was killed in practice after crashing into the disabled car of Ed Carpenter, there were Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves.

Ten laps left at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An exhilarating, dangerous dance at 213 mph. Aggression and nerve and trust.

Castroneves leading. Wheldon hundredths of a second behind.

Their 670-horsepower, carbon fiber and kevlar cars weaved together along the banked track, three times seemingly within inches of bumping their tires - less than "a hair," Castroneves said, from mayhem.

Wheldon tucked back behind, then sprung on the final lap, nosing ahead to win by 0.0147 seconds. The sense of relief was palpable.

Sam Hornish, who trailed the lead pair in third place, had an amazing, chilling perspective.

"I just hoped nothing happened, because at 213 miles an hour, those two get together, I'm probably going to be right in the middle of it, too," he said. "I'm like, "All right, guys, keep 'em straight.' "

Every athlete must overcome pressure, channel it into creative energy or risk being consumed by it. A missed putt on the 18th at Augusta or a tanked foul shot in the Final Four can haunt an athlete for life. But a bad decision while covering more than a football field a second can cost a driver his life.

And a lifetime of methodical preparation, a combination of super-confidence or constructive ego, and a psyche seemingly wired differently from the general population allows drivers to make these decisions without hesitation.

Hundreds of times in a race.

"It's not an ego, you just have to trust your car and trust yourself," driver Tony Kanaan said. "It's not like golf; it's not like any other sport. You are putting yourself at the limit at every shot. Here, you are at it every single lap. Here, it's like now, got to do it."

The trick is finding the fuzzy line between control and conservatism, weighing risk and reward in a sport where opportunity may come just once in a race. Suppressing hesitation becomes almost second nature, Hornish said.

"You have the opportunity that you decide, "Well, I'm going to make this move. I've done it before and it's going to work. It's not a high-risk move,' " he said.

While current drivers resist the use of the term "ego," A.J. Foyt said confidence and arrogance are both required in a truly great driver.

He should know. A winner of a record 67 Indy-style races, he was the first to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and is the only person to win Indy, the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And he has won some scars for his hell-bent attitude and his confidence and arrogance with a race car.

"I had 'em to the point where I got all these scars on my arm," he said, cackling as he displayed a fleshy seam up his right arm.

Foyt nearly lost the arm in a bloody accident against a fence at Michigan Speedway in 1981. In 1990, he went into an embankment at Elkhart Lake, Wis., at 190 mph when the brakes in his car failed at the end of a long straight, shattering both of his legs. Foyt reportedly begged the rescue team to knock him out with a hammer because morphine was ineffective.

Every person in the garage knows the intimate details of what can go wrong - especially in ghastly crashes such as Foyt's - but drivers are programmed to think it cannot happen to them. They will not let it happen.

"I think it's totally in the perception of danger," two-time defending Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais said. "You're always going to find people who think they are like unbreakable or don't think about the risk they are taking and it's very much where you locate that fine line."

Drivers begin groping for that line at very young ages, first in carts and then in increasingly fast and powerful machines. Lessons are learned with the rattling of bones against barricades and the hard-earned knowledge that mistakes hurt. But the rush of racing soon breeds a new confidence - as in any sport - when a gamble works out, maybe even better than expected. Eventually, they don't seem like gambles anymore.

"Confidence comes from the fact you have a sense of control over what you're doing," Bourdais said. "You feel very much an interaction between the car and yourself, like you're making things happen and it's not the other way around where the car goes where it wants to sometimes you lose that sense of control, and then most of the time you crash."

So as much as a lifetime of preparation steels a driver mentally and physically, there is a great deal to be said for what someone is born with - how they're wired, Foyt said.

"I've known people who wanted to drive race cars when I was running that worked 10 times harder than me to do well and couldn't hit their a--," he said. "You get out there and you just know it's going to work out."