How this lawyer finds Zen at the racetrack

One weekend behind the wheel can be a mind-clearing ritual

By Andrew Fitzpatrick

On Monday November 9th, 2020


You’re busy. You’ve got filings, closings, pre-trials, clients, business development. I get it. And that doesn’t even include thinking about the life part of work-life balance. Unwinding is hard in a connected 24/7 world. But what is a lawyer to do to shut it all down and clear the mental space?

Every chance I get, I wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to head to a racetrack northeast of Toronto for a weekend of performance driving, sometimes referred to as lapping.

Performance driving is not racing. The objective is not to see the biggest number on your speedometer or record the lowest lap time. The objective, instead, is perfection. One helpful analogy is golf. Par at most golf courses is around 72. The pros make 72 perfect shots almost all the time. On the track, there is an optimum place to be at all times; it’s called “the line.” To stay on the line, there are a number of technical elements to satisfy, like where to turn, where to brake, where to get back on the throttle (and how much throttle) and, assuming you’re driving a proper sports car (a whole other column), where to upshift and downshift. To do all of these elements perfectly at every corner, on every lap, every time, while experiencing G-forces and significant adrenal and cardiac loads is essentially impossible. This is why Lewis Hamilton is world champion, and I have a law degree.

The only person you are competing with is yourself, your own nerves, adrenaline and heart rate. The activity requires 100 percent of your attention. You must, therefore, be completely present and in the moment. There can be no lapse in attention. Your mind can’t wander to Monday’s meeting, the kids or the mortgage. The diversion of even a scintilla of focus will reveal itself immediately and can have serious consequences. These can range from simply ruining your lap to a rapid unplanned customization of your vehicle to severe bodily harm, or worse.

The uninitiated might think this stressful. But among fellow track enthusiasts, the view is universal: a weekend at the track is the most mind-clearing, stress-busting thing in our lives. To drive well on the track is, mostly, a mental exercise. Control of your breathing and heart rate is key. Slow and smooth is the mantra. By slowing down your mind, hands and feet, everything becomes safer and faster. A type-A personality approach does not work. It’s more yoga than boxing.

Sessions on the track last 20 minutes to 30 minutes, but those minutes are so mentally exhausting that between sessions all I can do is sit in a folding lawn chair, pour some of the fluid I just lost back into my body and watch the heat waves rise from the brakes, my mind an absolute blissful blank. I won’t have one thought of work from sun up Saturday until long after sundown Sunday.

Learning to drive on the track also makes you a better everyday driver, potentially saving you and your family from coming to grief on the road. And it makes you realize how stupid it is to speed on the streets. The folks you see street racing on the police-chopper night-vision video tend not to hang out at the track. If they did, they would realize how dangerous driving in public is with so many people texting, talking and generally not paying attention.

I have spent the majority of my time on track at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (which to the chagrin of marketers everywhere will remain known forevermore as Mosport). Mosport has hosted the highest level of racing, Formula 1, and is legendary for elevation changes and fast blind corners. Mosport is also close enough to Toronto — exactly 100 kilometres from my driveway — that I can make it home easily for Saturday night. Alternatively, there’s a Toronto Motorsport Park in Cayuga (near Hamilton) and another track in Shannonville (close to Bellville).

In this year of COVID, events in my club have been limited to drivers who have been “signed off” to drive without an instructor, meaning there are significantly fewer people at the track. But in normal times, the camaraderie of like-minded folks who don’t think you are crazy for saying things like “my car is too heavy, so I think I need to get rid of the carpet and the three extra seats” is an important off-track benefit.

While I don’t expect everyone who reads this to sign up for the next track day, there is a deeper lesson here. When your job requires contorting your brain into all kinds of odd shapes on a daily basis, you need to find an activity that allows it to spring back to a more-or-less two-hemisphere normal. Something so all-consuming that there is no space left for anything else. For me, that’s the track. It might be for you, too.

Andrew-FitzpatrickAndrew Fitzpatrick is the assistant vice-president of government relations and public policy at Canada Life.