The Psychology of TalladegaBy Mary Jo Buchanan
“There are certain things in the 36 race season that are special,” Dr. Jack Stark, a performance psychologist practicing in NASCAR as well as other sports, said. “Obviously Daytona is special. I think Bristol has some special appeal and there are a number of tracks that do.”
“But superspeedways and restrictor plate racing, especially at Talladega, is always special.”
Another interesting psychological aspect of Talladega, as well as other superspeedways, is that literally anyone can win. The prime example of that according to Dr. Stark is Trevor Bayne’s victory at last year’s Daytona 500.
“You can be 20th with two laps to go and win it,” Stark said. “That’s another thing that is unique and keeps people glued to their seats until the end.”
Dr. Stark also credits the action at Talladega as making it especially challenging from a psychological perspective. But he believes that this weekend’s race may be especially action packed given the fact that some drivers who have been struggling this season to date may be trying very hard to turn their luck around.
“It’s been kind of a strange year so far because a lot of top drivers have had bad luck and struggled at various tracks,” Stark said. “So, yes, there will be some drivers that will be pressing.”
“Every driver has tracks where they run better, whether it is a short track, an intermediate track or a superspeedway,” Stark continued. “Some of the young guys just like to go fast and there are others who have been on dirt that like the sliding around.”
“But at this track this weekend, the drivers will be definitely going hard.”
One of the teams that may be pressing for the ‘Dega win most diligently is Hendrick Motorsports, who as a team have been trying to score that elusive 200th victory for the organization ever since the green flag dropped at Daytona.
But Dr. Stark, who has served as the team psychologist at HMS for the last eleven years, acknowledges that there is constant pressure to succeed at that organization.
“There’s always pressure on them to win,” Stark said. “In some respects, it’s come pretty easy in the past.”
“Last year, there were three drivers in the Chase but this year, the team doesn’t have a win,” Stark continued. “It’s frustrating and disappointing to the organization as it is so used to doing better.”
“The team has had some good luck and bad luck but not enough luck to win yet.”
Dr. Stark acknowledged that one driver in particular in the Hendrick organization especially feels the brunt of the psychological pressure of coming to the Talladega race weekend. But he also feels strongly that the driver and crew chief combination in place for that team will be the key to overcoming that pressure packed race.
“I don’t think there is another athlete in the world that has the following and the high hopeful expectations of the fan base that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has,” Stark said. “It’s quite amazing to walk through the garage and look at the fans who just want him to win so badly.”
“So many people root for him and care for him and he is a special guy who doesn’t want to let them down,” Stark continued. “Everybody puts a ton of pressure on him for different reasons.”
“Stevie (Letarte) is absolutely the perfect crew chief for Dale Junior,” Stark said. “I think that was one of the more brilliant moves that Rick Hendrick ever made.”
“The relationship between a driver and crew chief is all about chemistry and they spend more time together than with your spouse or girl friend,” Stark continued. “So, you’ve got to be really, really in sync.”
“Stevie is a great people person and handles Junior beautifully,” Stark said. “Stevie and Dale Junior will be ready for Talladega this weekend.”
In addition to his work with Hendrick Motorsports, Dr. Stark has further advice and counsel for all of the 43 drivers set to compete in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega this race weekend. First and foremost, he counsels the drivers must put any negative feelings right out of their minds.
“The driver just has to block out any negativity he or she may have about the track,” Stark said. “There is a feeling that you may have the best car but it’s a crap shoot at the superspeedways.”
“So, some drivers convince themselves that the racing there is not so much a function of skill but of luck,” Stark continued. “I try to convince drivers that it is a strategy race too.”
“Let’s figure out how to do this because you can be in the back and draft up and you can play the strategy game and win.”
Dr. Stark also acknowledges that lurking in the back of every driver’s mind at the superspeedways is that element of danger. He said it has been especially present since the recent passing of Dan Wheldon in the IndyCar Series in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last fall.
“You’re going such high speeds and things can happen,” Stark said. “It’s interesting from a psychology point of view.”
“Each driver has their own defense mechanisms,” Stark continued. “Some act like they are not into it but what I find is that every one of them wants to win and are very intense about it.”
“Some seem nonchalant and others seem very focused,” Stark said. “It all depends on their personality and is a function of past experiences at the track.”
“It’s their way of coping,” Stark continued. “Some guys have to keep busy and joke around to prepare, while others are listening to hip hop music. Each has their own approach and I have to be careful not to judge their coping mechanisms.”
“The Dan Wheldon tragedy had a huge impact on a lot of people,” Stark said. “Nobody quit driving because of it but it is in the back of everyone’s minds.”
“I do think down the road we may see drivers not driving to the Mark Martin age,” Stark continued. “If you really dug into it and talked to those who retired recently, many have promised their spouse that they would stop driving.”
Another stressful element of the sport, even though the season is young with just nine races under the drivers’ belts, is the demanding schedule imposed on all involved. Dr. Stark acknowledges that is another important element that must be managed from a psychological perspective.
“Some of the stress is not just the danger but the demands of the sport,” Stark said. “NASCAR is the most demanding sport that I’ve ever been a part of and I’ve been a part of every sport, from basketball, football, hockey, the Olympics.”
“NASCAR is just the most difficult.”
So, what would Dr. Stark’s sage counsel be for the drivers that are headed off to Talladega, one of the most physically and psychologically demanding tracks on the NASCAR circuit, for this race weekend?
“I counsel drivers to try to drive intensely relaxed,” Stark said. “I know that is a dichotomy, but you have to relax in the intensity.”
“It’s definitely all about pacing yourself,” Stark said. “You will definitely need a relaxed intensity at Talladega this weekend.”