"Take a look at the driver next to you at the track. Does he or she have some physical advantage over you? Does he or she have a third arm?! So what's the difference between drivers? It's mental, right?"
Speed Secrets with Ross Bentley
by Ziva and Michael Allen
Ross Bentley is a well-respected track day coach who has not only lent his expertise to so many drivers at ground zero – the track – but has brought his expertise to the rest of us through his years of writing books, manuals and his now famous Speed Secrets Weekly e-newsletter. He is the guru! To advance at track driving, the key ingredient is seat time. And the more experience you have, the better you are. And so it is with coaching - to be a great driving coach, the key ingredient is teaching experience. Ross Bentley has that experience. He has been in hot demand coaching drivers 150 days a year for decades and spends loads of time on airplanes getting to his many students and speaking events. But what does he bring that is different? Well, what you discover early on about Bentley is his innate ability to communicate, both verbally and in writing. Sure, many of us may have the knowledge. But not all of us know how to express the information as cohesively and helpfully as Bentley. Recently, Bentley provided a free manual for track day instructors wherein he imparts his highly intuitive insights into the world of instructing/coaching. Being granted the opportunity to ask Ross what makes him tick, we took advantage and dove right in with our questions. This is a long one, so be prepared to come back a time or two to complete this fascinating and educational read. If you haven’t yet been exposed to Bentley’s expertise, your driving skills will most certainly get tweaked after reading what he has to say.
Q. What do you make of this track day phenomenon? Is it exploding? Why is it popular?
A. One of the great things about our sport is that it's accessible. If you're a football fan, can you play in your favorite team's stadium? No. If you play tennis, can you play on center court at Wimbledon? No. But if you're a road racing fan, you can drive at Sebring, Daytona, COTA, Laguna Seca, Road America or the Nurburgring.
Any one of those tracks is way more fun than driving in all the traffic we face every day on the street. Add in the fact that manufacturers are making cars with incredible performance levels, and it's far too appealing to anyone with even a hint of driving enthusiast in them to not go to the track!
For so many people these days, it's difficult to shut out all the distractions in our lives and just relax. That's one reason that meditation has become more popular recently. But there is no place more relaxing than driving fast on a race track! It requires so much focus that it's easy to shut out everything. It's surprising to people who don't drive on a track when a performance driver tells them how relaxing spending a day racing around a track can be.
Those are the reasons why the popularity of our sport is growing.
Q. How did you become involved in motorsports driving? Who were your early influences? Who are you influenced by today? When you were first getting started, who were your coaches?
A. My father built and worked on race cars - sprint cars - from the time I was about 5 years old, so I grew up at race tracks. From the time I learned that the Indy 500 existed, I wanted to race there. Then a friend's older brother gave me a stack of old Road & Track magazines - I couldn't have been more excited if you'd given me a stack of Playboys! I read everything about Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill driving the Lotus 49s, about the Ford GT-40s at Le Mans, and A.J. Foyt at Indy. If I wasn't at a track with my dad, I was reading about racing.
I went to a racing school when I was 18, so that was my first and almost only training. The level of instruction and coaching at that time - way back in 1978 - was not good, especially compared to today. Nowadays, one can get better training on the web! Having said that, there is an awful lot of very mediocre free driving advice on the internet.
People that influence me are people who consistently perform well, who put huge effort towards improving, and who live their lives with integrity. Rick Mears is someone I always respected, and today I respect drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Nico Rosberg, Colin Braun, and Scott Dixon. And Daniel Ricciardo is fun because he's enjoying himself, smiling, pushing himself, and he hasn't put any limitations on his performance. Of course, Jackie Stewart is someone that I'll respect forever, as much for what he's done outside of the car as what he did in it.
Q. Tell us about your driving career and its progression. You came very close to success in Indy car racing. We talked to Alan Wilson about Desiré Wilson’s career. She came very close to the ultimate levels of success in Formula One racing, but ran into gender bias and political and financial obstacles. What were the factors that served as your obstacles?
I won my first race ever, driving a 600-HP Sprint Car, then won a lot in the next two seasons of Formula Ford. But as I tried to move up through Formula Atlantic and Trans-Am, I struggled with low budget teams and rarely was ever able to put a full season together. When Indy car first held a race in my hometown of Vancouver, I got a chance to drive what I'd always dreamt of. I then spent four years struggling to put the budget together to drive a front-running Indy car effort. I learned a TON from driving an underfunded Indy car - it forced me to do everything I could to find a way to be competitive. Most fans don't realize how many good drivers there are towards the back of the pack, but they're there because they just don't have the equipment to be competitive. Desiré Wilson knows that - she was good enough to be at the front, but didn't get the opportunities to showcase everything she had.
Fortunately for me, what I did in Indy cars led to some sports car teams looking at me, and I got hired - yep, paid - to drive for them for the next decade or so. And win some races and championships with them. Yes, I still wish I'd had a chance in a competitive Indy car, but I made it farther than most - and I did race Indy cars! And that led to getting paid to drive sports cars, which isn't all that bad!
Q. Can you share any anecdotes about the racing legends you have known?
A. When Nigel Mansell came to Indy cars in 1993, he'd just won the Formula One World Championship, and then gotten into battle with his Williams F1 team and decided to leave. In his first race in an Indy car, at the Australian Gold Coast race, he won. I can remember being passed by him at one point and thinking, "Wow, that guy is committed." The speed that he threw his car into a chicane with, trusting that he'd be able to catch it, was unbelievable. I learned a lot from that. But prior to the next race on the oval at Phoenix, we had an off-site driver’s association meeting. During the meeting, Mansell stood up and complained about how little we were all getting paid (he was probably getting $5 million at the time). I sat there thinking about the fact that I wasn't making a penny, that I was lucky to be able to pay my rent at the time, and that I was actually going into debt every month to chase the goal I'd set for myself. After the meeting, we're all filing out of the room and Nigel comes up and puts his arm around my shoulder and says something like, "Man, we've got to stick together and demand more pay from our team owners." I just looked at him and replied, "Sorry, but you're talking to the wrong guy. If I can make it to the next race, I'll be happy." Interestingly, he seemed to go out of his way to talk to me that season. It was like he'd make a point to sit beside me at drivers meetings so we could talk.
Q. In the public speaking tab on your website, you describe your entertaining stories. Can you share some of those with our readers? For example, stories about the Daytona 24 Hour team win or the BMW-Porsche battles?
A. In 2003 I do-drove with 3 other drivers in a Lola-Nissan LMP-2 car at Daytona. That was the first year of the Grand-Am series, and they mandated a spec wing for the cars. Well, that Lola was not designed for anything like that spec wing, and the car was absolutely evil to drive. It was like trying to shoot an arrow backwards - aerodynamically is was incredibly unstable. In practice we were at least 3 seconds off the fastest cars in our class, and we all felt as though we were going to die driving even that fast. But in qualifying I took some massive risks and threw down one lap that was a couple of tenths off pole. It made our competitors think we were faster and stronger than we really were. At the start of the race, I put everything I had into it, and stayed close enough that it put pressure on the fast guys. So did my co-drivers when they got in. And a few hours into the race you could see the competition was worried about us, and they started taking bigger chances - our strategy was to stay close, but not take big chances until the very end. Pretty soon, the fast guys started making mistakes, and with a couple of hours to go it was our team car and us on the lead lap. But then our brake lights stopped working - something in the wiring broke. If we pitted to fix them - which the officials were about to make us do because the rules say you have to have them - we'd lose too much to ever win. As my engineer talked to me on the radio about the problem and when we'll pit to fix them, I looked over and noticed the rain light switch on the dash. So, as I entered turn one and began to brake, I reached over and turned on the rain light as I braked and downshifted, then turned it off as I finished braking while turning in. I did that at turns 3, 5, 6 and the bus stop, too. Every lap through to the end of the race, and we never did have to stop to fix the brake lights. And we won by less than a lap. That was a very rewarding win because we focused on our own performance, and not the competition, and out-smarted everyone.
Q. How do you approach coaching an HPDE driver? Who is your ideal student or who would benefit most from your level of coaching? Share some actual examples of one or two individuals you helped and what specific information you imparted to them that helped them improve. In what ways did they improve and why?
A. I enjoy instructing and coaching drivers of all levels, from novice HPDE drivers to pro racers. All I care about is that they have an open mind and want to learn. My approach with a HPDE driver is no different from when I coach an elite level racer - I dig to the core of the problem, and find the fix for that. And I ensure my student knows the "why" behind what I ask him or her to do.
Earlier this year I was asked to conduct an instructor training session for a car club. Late in the day I asked an intermediate student if I could ride with him for a few laps, as I hadn't had a chance to be on track - I'd been in the classroom all day. After a couple of laps I asked if he wanted any coaching, and he said yes. I asked why he was driving a particular turn the way he was, and his reply was, "That's what I've been told to do. An instructor told me to do it that way." When I asked if it felt right, you'd have thought I'd just asked him to explain the Theory of Relativity, he had such a confused look on his face. We went into the pit lane to have a short discussion about where he began braking, where and how quickly he released the brakes, and the resulting line he drove. I asked him to change his braking, actually making it easier for him and the car, and back on the track we went. After a couple of laps to get the timing and pressure of braking that I was asking for right, he got this huge grin on his face, and he actually started laughing. A few laps later he pulled into the pits to talk. He shook my hand and said, "Now I get it!" He truly understood, now, why he was doing what he was doing. And it was a little different from what he'd been taught, but faster and safer. Later I talked to all the instructors about this particular situation, and the corner, and they are now approaching it the way I suggested. And they are more focused on teaching students why they're being told to do something.
Q. What advice would you offer someone who is interested in becoming involved in track day driving? What would you recommend to someone who is just getting started?
A. That's simple: do it and focus on learning. Start with the basics and don't be in a hurry to move onto the more advanced stuff. In fact, the advanced stuff is really just fine-tuning the basics. For example, trail braking - what many would consider advanced stuff - is really just the well-timed, smooth release of the brakes - which is the basics, done well.
There is a lot of information out there in print, videos, online, everywhere. Take it in, but be selective with what you keep. There's also a lot of poor quality information out there. Although I do give away an eBook and have video tips for free, don't always trust everything that is free out there. Remember, you get what you pay for.
It surprises me how many people show up for a HPDE program or driving school, and they've not read one bit of information about what they're about to do. To me, it's the easy stuff that you should take advantage of. Take a little time to prepare and you'll get a lot more out of your experience. Read a book, watch a video, whatever. But that little preparation will make a world of difference when you get to the track.
Q. Talk to us about mental and physical preparation for a track day event. How can relaxation and imagery be incorporated into one’s preparation? What physical conditioning do you recommend and why?
A. Anyone who has done even one track day knows that it's much more mentally and physically demanding than they ever thought it would be. And the mental game, what I call Inner Speed Secrets, is critical to one's performance.
I don't need to remind anyone reading this that motorsport is expensive! Therefore, it only makes sense to be as efficient as possible, and learn as much as possible when physically on the track. Through mental imagery, and some other strategies that I teach in my Inner Speed Secrets program, one can prepare a lot prior to getting on the track, taking advantage of every second there.
Take a look at the driver next to you at the track. Does he or she have some physical advantage over you? Does he or she have a third arm?! So what's the difference between drivers? It's mental, right? That's why it's so important to focus on this aspect of the sport. The problem is that most drivers don't know what to do with their mental game. If they did, they would work on it. Of course, that's why I developed Inner Speed Secrets - to help drivers with their mental game.
While most would agree that performance driving is more mental than it is physical, it still does tire out a body. Cardio training, along with some basic muscle toning exercises will make you a better driver. If you're out of breath when you come in from a session, you're either holding your breath - which can be cured by mental programming yourself to breathe - or your cardio fitness level is not good enough yet. Most drivers have their necks, shoulders, arms and core muscles tire out during a day of driving, so it's obvious which ones to focus on. The good news is that it won't take a lot of time and effort to get fit enough to drive, unless you're driving a serious race car - in which case, you need to do a lot of fitness training to prepare.
Q. Tell us about Brake, Brake, BRAKE: The HPDE Instructor Manifesto. What makes for a good instructor?
A. First of all, I wanted to write that eBook for two reasons. Number one was I wanted to give back to all those volunteers who give up their time to help new people come into our sport - some of whom I get to train, present to in a seminar, and/or coach at some time in the future. These instructors are the ones most responsible for growing our sport.
Second, I've seen a lot of HPDE programs and instructors and, I hate to say it, but there are a lot that could use some improvement! Interestingly, when I talk to car clubs and organizations, just about every one of them say they're better than everyone else - they're better than average. Well, I may not have a degree in statistics, but even I know that everyone can't be above average!
Volunteer instructors, and even many paid instructors, have a difficult job. They do something that is very dangerous, but only do it half a dozen - maybe a couple of dozen - times per year. I don't know of any activity that you can improve at if you only do it that many times per year. If you played tennis 12 times a year, would you improve? Fortunately, I've spent decades doing upwards of 150 days per year of instructing and coaching, so I've learned a few things along the way. I want to share what I've learned, help all instructors be better, keep students and instructors safe, and help everyone have even more fun.
So, what makes a great instructor? An open mind to learning themselves - one should never stop learning. A focus on the student more than on themselves. Great communication skills - which includes listening and physical communication as much or more than just talking. An ability to relate to the student. A willingness to ask questions, even when one knows the answer. In other words, controlling one's ego is critical.
Notice I never said that to be a great instructor you have to be a great driver. Too many organizations select their instructors based on how they drive. That's just plain wrong to do it that way.
Q. Describe the programming theory of performance and balancing challenge and confidence.
A. We do what we do because we're programmed to do so. We don't do what we want sometimes because we either don't have the right mental program or because we accessed the wrong program.
When I talk about being programmed, I'm talking about having an activity, a movement, a skill or technique down to the point where you no longer have to think about it - you just do it. You could call it a habit, but it's when you have that activity to the point where it's a mental program. And sometimes we either don't have the program to do something yet, or we access the wrong program at the wrong time. For example, if you've ever shifted from second to fifth, instead of third, you accessed the wrong program.
We develop these programs for doing something by physically doing it over and over again, or we can do it in our mind. Typically we call that visualizing, but if you use more senses than just your vision - which you should - it's actually mental imagery or mental programming. If you imagine the sights, the feel, the sounds, and move your body as you imagine, let's say, driving on a track, then you're programming your mind. And you'll be better at driving that track when you physically do it.
Mental imagery is an incredibly powerful way of programming yourself to be able to do something physically. And that's a big part of preparation.
Research has shown that one of the keys to getting into the zone, no matter what you're doing, is to feel challenged, yet have the belief that you can handle the challenge.
If you're about to do something that you don't feel challenged by, nor do you believe you can handle it, you won't even want to do it - and you'll never get in the zone that way. If you feel it isn't much of a challenge and you believe you can handle it easily, you'll feel bored by it and probably not put the effort into it enough to get into the zone. If you feel like you're facing a big challenge and don't believe that you can handle it, you'll feel anxious and not get into the zone. But when you feel challenged and yet feel that you can handle it, you're much more likely to get into the zone.
Whether you're about to drive a new track or one you've been to many times, whether you're managing employees on the job or helping your children in school, or whatever... If you can frame the activity as challenging and yet you can handle it, you're more likely to perform better, and even get into the zone.
Q. Give us some real track driving examples of teaching, instructing and coaching?
A. There's a definite difference between instructing and coaching. I look at teaching or instructing as putting information into the student, whereas coaching is drawing the information out. There's a time and place for instructing, and there's a time and place for coaching. Typically - but not always - you would want to teach or instruct a novice because they don't have the knowledge or information in them yet; you would coach a more advanced student because they have it in them, and your job is to just draw it out of them. That's a bit of a simplistic overview, but it's a good guideline to start with.
As an example, an instructor might tell an inexperienced student to look further ahead, whereas a coach of an experienced student might ask him or her, "How far ahead are you looking? Tell me where you're looking." The first example is putting the information in, and the second is drawing out the knowledge that's already in there - and making the student more aware of it. Another example might be where an instructor tells the student to smoothly turn the steering wheel, and the coach asks the student how smoothly they're turning the wheel.
Coaching is no better than instructing, by the way. Again, it's a matter of what's appropriate for the student. And, there are people out there who call themselves coaches, when really all they do is instruct.
Q. Tell us about your writing career and how you go about making education entertaining and fun.
A. If you'd have told my high school English teacher that something I wrote - let alone nine books - would be published someday, he would have fallen down laughing. And laughing. And laughing even more until the paramedics would have had to come and revive him. Writing is something that's evolved over time, from simply being a way to get my ideas and thoughts about driving down on paper, to it being my main creative outlet now. I really enjoy writing, and that's how I spend all my time on airplanes.
People tell me that my writing sounds just like I'm talking and they like that natural style. I also seem to be able to explain things in a simple way, which is probably because I need to simplify things so my tiny, little brain understands it! I enjoy throwing a little humor in (the comment about my small brain was not humor - that's reality) and I've always believed that you can't learn if you're not having fun. Oh, and if I can use a story to illustrate a point, even better. Did I tell you about my high school English teacher?
My writing has improved through practice and studying how great writers write, and I always aim to make it down to earth, and fun.
Q. Who do you like to read and who are your writing and literary influences?
A. You mean, besides everything in Auto Track Day Monthly?! Without a doubt, Peter Egan is at the top of my list. He's incredibly funny, and writes in a way that you can't help but think, "Oh yeah, I've been there. I've felt that way." It's easy to relate to what he writes. With some of my creative non-fiction, I suppose Egan's style is something I emulate.
I'm sure there is a photo of me on the wall at Amazon and Barnes & Noble with a caption under it that says, "Our best customer." I read tons of books, from neuroscience to business books, from memoirs and biographies to travel stories, and everything in between. I'm a learning junkie and reading is an important source of knowledge and information for me. I like to not just read for content but I look at the writing style as well.
Q. Talk to us about the epidemic of street racing and any ideas you might have to curb it. What are your opinions about Hollywood’s glorification of street racing? Video games? 707 horsepower street legal cars?
A. Well, I agree with the old Mark Donahue quote when he said something along the lines of, "If I can't spin the rear tires in top gear, then it doesn't have enough horsepower." Having said that, there's a time and place for everything, and the street is not the place to use mega horsepower. Unfortunately, we've seen a few high profile deaths in the past few years. Driving that fast, using all the performance of a modern car on the street is just plain stupid.
That's why it's so important to encourage anyone with a car that has more than 100 horsepower - or whatever - to go and participate in track days. Many more people would if they knew where and how, so do your bit for our sport and talk to people about how they can get involved in track days.
I've never bothered to watch movies like The Fast and The Furious so I can't comment directly on the content. But it certainly makes sense that between things like that and video games, where the consequences of crashing are nil, is not a good thing. I wish someone would make a movie about being a good driver, but I guess that would be a box office flop!
Of course, you could get me on my soapbox about the pitiful training that new drivers – teens - get in the U.S. and Canada before getting a driver’s license. That's at least as big a problem as street racers - basic drivers who know little or nothing about how to really drive. They can practically get a driver’s license by having their photo taken. Again, don't get me started down that road because I'll continue ranting...
Q. You offer a range of informational services. Tell us about those: your newsletter, book series, speaking engagements.
A. I get a big kick out of sharing what I've learned with others. It's one of the things that drives me and fortunately drivers and instructors of all levels seem to like what I put out there.
I have an e-newsletter - Speed Secrets Weekly - that I like to think of as more like an "inbox magazine" because the quality of content is higher than most newsletters provide - and it's conveniently delivered to subscribers' email inboxes. It comes out every Tuesday morning, and it's learning in a fun, convenient way. I write tips, advice, and opinions every week, but the best thing is that I have guest contributors - one every week, from David Brabham to Peter Krause, Colin Braun to Ingrid Steffensen, David Ray to Johannes van Overbeek, and dozens more. It's aimed at drivers of all levels.
I have eBooks about shock absorbers and using mental imagery to improve one's driving, as well as The HPDE Instructor Manifesto, which has been very popular. Of course, it's free! I'm sure that helps!
I'm launching a series of free video tips that'll be posted on my website, starting in the next week or so. And I'm planning webinars in the near future, too. As I said, I love sharing what I've learned.
In fact, some of my favorite things to do are seminars, workshops and keynote talks for car clubs and other organizations. The topics range from the mental game of driving - Inner Speed Secrets - to instructor training, and from advanced driving techniques to car setup info.
Q. We recently spoke to Gamaliel Aguilar-Gamez about his smart phone data and video logging app, Track Attack. How are you involved in this project and what do you see for the future of remote coaching?
A. Track Attack is an awesome tool. There are so many great ways to improve one's driving through the use of technology these days and this app is one of the best that I've seen, especially considering what it can do for the price. Because I can't be in two places at once - yet - I'm working on that! - I'm always looking for ways to help drivers when I can't be there in person. I offer a program where I review, analyze and make recommendations - and coach - looking at data and video after-the-fact. It's surprisingly effective. But Track Attack is a tool that I'll be able to use to do this type of thing even more, so I'm providing my input to Gamaliel on what a coach needs and how that can be integrated in their app. Obviously, if I can use it, the driver can too. If only there had been something like Track Attack when I started racing... or cell phones... or the internet... or cars without wooden wheels. Okay, maybe not quite that last one!
Q. Anything you would like to add about what you are into these days? What is on the horizon?
A. I'll spend over 150 days on the road this year coaching drivers, doing seminars and talks for car clubs and other organizations, and doing group coaching/training. While I love every moment of what I do, the travel does get a little tiring. The reality is that I can only reach a small percentage of performance and race drivers and instructors out there, doing what I do in person. And I love sharing my knowledge and experience with others - it's what drives me. So I'm developing more and more methods of delivering my knowledge and experience without having to get on a plane.
Obviously, I've done that for many years through my Speed Secrets books but some people don't read (those people are not reading this!). I provide what I call remote coaching, where I review, analyze and coach based on data and video, and I plan to do more of that, as it's more affordable for drivers too. I am planning on adding to my line of eBooks and I'm creating some training videos that'll be launched on my website in the next couple of weeks. I'm going to do an Inner Speed Secrets webinar in the Fall. I'm working on some training modules that'll be available on a smartphone so you can access them at the track. And I'm going to re-launch a phone app soon. I've created a bit of a community on my Speed Secrets Facebook page () and would like to expand that type of thing - I love connecting with drivers and instructors so I can share more with them. People can sign up on my website at to receive information about what I'm doing.
Oh, and I have a travel memoir that I'd like to release in the next year or so, just for fun.
So that's it. Other than that, I'll be sitting around doing nothing.