Have you ever wondered what it would take to play hockey like a NHL pro? Or drive like a Formula One champion? The answer: it would take more than you can imagine.
The gulf that separates the sporting elite from the rest of us began to dawn on me in the 1980s. I was in my twenties, and for a few delusional months, I believed I had the makings of a champion motorcycle racer. I was faster than any of my friends. I never crashed. And a motorcycle dealer gave me a new bike to race.
Then came the cold, hard slap of reality, in the form of a track session with a rider named Michel Mercier, who would go on to become a three-time superbike champion.
Until that fateful afternoon session at Atlantic Motorsport Park, I’d thought I was pretty fast. And I was – for an amateur. Now I was meeting a pro. Putting Mercier on a bike was like placing a guitar in the hands of Jimi Hendrix, and I was about to learn the true meaning of speed.
As I blasted through a scary, off-camber corner at more than 160 km/h, Mercier rode past me, leaned over so hard that his knee was grazing the track. Then the back end of Mercier’s bike slid out, inducing a long, terrifying slide that he somehow managed to ride through. I lowered my pace, realizing that we’d been pushing too hard.
After the session, I went over to congratulate Mercier on surviving his brush with disaster. He burst out laughing and let me in on the trick – he’d tapped his back brake to make his bike slide because he knew it would freak me out (and make me slow down so he could trounce me even more thoroughly).
I had glimpsed the world of the speed pros. Not only could Mercier ride faster than me, he could slide sideways for fun, and play high-speed head games while he did it. And Mercier was tough, brushing off the crashes that come with serious speed. Soon after this meeting, I experienced my first major racetrack crash – a 200 km/h-plus wobble that launched me off the bike and into the air like a leather-clad Wile E. Coyote. This is what’s known as a “high side” crash. If you want to race motorcycles at the top level, you will experience plenty of them.
One high side was enough for me. I retired from motorcycle racing. Mercier went on. He had plenty of crashes. But he also reached levels of skill and speed that I can’t really comprehend.
The pros are different than the rest of us. I was reminded of this recently when I took a ride with four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel around Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP). Vettel learned the track in about three laps. It took me most of a season.
Michelangelo once said: “Genius is infinite painstaking.” It’s true. My son recently showed me a video of Sidney Crosby in an NHL practice session. It was incredible to watch Crosby practise his repertoire of moves, committing them to muscle memory so that he could do any or all of them without thinking, like a rock drummer executing a complex solo.
Vettel isn’t the only top racer I’ve ridden with. I’ve also lapped with pros such as Richard Spenard, Ron Fellows, Dave Empringham and Rick Bye. Unlike most of us, they can actually feel the contact patch of the tires, as if engineering data were being streamed live from each wheel to the palms of their hands and the seat of their pants.
And they’re also comfortable in situations that the rest of us can’t tolerate. You would probably be fine with a medium-speed trip around a racetrack, but at the speeds the pros hit, lapping is a terrifying experience. Getting comfortable with that kind of velocity takes a lifetime. Vettel got his first go-kart when he was three years old.
Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized a theory known as “the 10,000-hour rule,” which holds that greatness depends on honing critical skills through long practice – like the Beatles, who performed live in Hamburg, Germany more than 1,200 times between 1960 and 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of stage time. Or Bill Gates, who spent years writing code in his garage, perfecting the digital chops that would help him rule the world of computers.
All the great drivers I’ve met have logged these kind of hours, and more. And it’s not just racers who become extraordinary. What about the truckers who drive heavily loaded big rigs more than a million miles without crashing? Or the parent who safely transports a family for decades, like my father and so many of his friends did?
Brilliance takes many forms. And it’s never as easy as it looks.
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