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Why Dyslexia is no bar to F1 champions

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Why Dyslexia is no bar to F1 champions
Jun 30, 2015, 7:36 AM

Being a dyslexic might be a problem when reading in the classroom, but it hasn't stopped some of Britain's greatest racing drivers from achieving s...

Being a dyslexic might be a problem when reading in the classroom, but it hasn't stopped some of Britain's greatest racing drivers from achieving success - men like Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Johhny Herbert. Stewart believes that it ultimately played a key role in his success on track.

Canadian F1 writer and friend of JA on F1, Jeff Pappone investigates:

Dyslexics are always finding work arounds for things that come easily for others, Stewart insisted that his disability led him down paths that others might ignore, something that gave him extra ammo to help defeat his rivals.

“The dyslexic cannot think like the 'clever' folk, so they have to be thinking out of the box and if they are doing that, they are finding new ways of doing things,” said Stewart who was one of the first F1 drivers to cultivate sponsorship.

“When I was a racing driver, I had a really good communication system with my engineers. I could paint pictures of how my car was behaving, what it felt like, how it did this or that, and I could explain it graphically and make them feel it, so they had a better chance of thinking 'Hey, I never thought of that.'”

Jackie Stewart

The Scotsman's 17 poles, 27 wins, and 43 podiums in only 99 F1 starts between 1965 and 1973 makes it pretty tough to disagree. Stewart's racing career will be honoured in October by the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, which named the 76-year-old as its as its 2015 International Inductee this week.

Vancouver neurotherapist Mari Swingle insisted there's scientific basis for Stewart's theory, saying that dyslexics' brains have an affinity for things like racing.

“There's a different form of spacial perception that dyslexics have, so it's almost fundamentally what hurts them in their learning to read actually helps them on courses and tracks,” said Swingle, author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones Computers Gaming and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains Our Behaviour and the Evolution of Our Species.

“If it's harnessed in the right way, they can fly.”

Swingle also contended that a dyslexic mind can display exceptional focus when they “get in the zone” which leads to extraordinary calmness that allows them to outperform others. This ability to find serenity probably contributed to Stewart being a champion skeet shooter becoming a famous racing driver, she said.

Stewart isn't alone in being a successful racing driver who is also dyslexic. 1992 Formula One world champion Nigel Mansell diagnosed with dyslexia along with his son Greg, when Mansell was in his early 40s, after his F1 career had ended. Coincidentally, Mansell became the the most successful British Grand Prix driver when he surpassed Stewart's record 27 wins in 1992. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton recently pushed that mark to 37.

XPB.cc

Instinctively Mansell always watched Stewart closely as he rose through the F1 ranks, took cues from the way he conducted himself in public and with sponsors, possibly aware that he had the same issues with self-expression. As children at school, both had problems with other kids teasing them and telling them they would amount to nothing. Both men had a strong desire to prove the world wrong.

Other dyslexic racers include F1 race winner and 1991 Le Mans champion Johnny Herbert, 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier and former F1 and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson.

In his case, Wilson remembers how the cockpit served as a welcome respite from the insults of the classroom, where kids cruelly taunted him because of his struggles to read.

Justin Wlison

“One day in class the teacher asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up and when it came to me, I said I wanted to race, and one of the kids in the back of the class shot back: 'You're too stupid to be a racing driver',” he recalled.

“You kind of just dig your heels in and prove them wrong. I could get in a go-kart and drive and nobody told me I was doing it wrong. It adds a little bit of focus too.”

When it came to furthering his career, Wilson found new ways of doing things, too. Faced with the daunting task of funding a seat in F1, Wilson devised a novel plan that saw him sell shares in himself to investors who would get a cut of his future salary and winnings. It worked and Wilson got himself in a Minardi in 2003 and moved to Jaguar later that year.

Although F1 didn't pan out, Wilson went on to race in IndyCar for 11 seasons, scoring seven wins mostly for poorly-funded backmarkers.

Stewart wasn't diagnosed until a decade following his retirement from racing in 1973 and only realised later that the disability helped him in ways he never knew as he crushed the opposition on track.

For example, he believes that it instilled a strong work ethic in him as a young boy, something that always made him push harder than his rivals.

“In my day sport was a big part of the educational system and if you were good at any sport, it was your escape,” said Stewart.

“You grab it because you can't do geometry or algebra and you can't read or spell, and you put much more into it than a 'clever' person would because they can do anything — you are more ardent, more focused, more committed and more frightened of failure so you try harder and put more hours in.”

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