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How Wheldon’s mindset was key to epic last-corner Indy 500 win

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How Wheldon’s mindset was key to epic last-corner Indy 500 win
May 17, 2017, 8:20 PM

In this exclusive extract from the new book, In The Zone, the late Dan Wheldon told Clyde Brolin his view of one of Indianapolis’s most-thrilling finishes of all time – and how his mental preparedness was a key factor.

J.R. Hildebrand, Panther Racing crashes on the last lap
J.R. Hildebrand, Panther Racing is passed by Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian after crashing
Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing
Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing
Winners photoshoot: Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb / Agajanian and his son
Pit stop for Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb / Agajanian
Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian
Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb / Agajanian
Victory circle: race winner Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb / Agajanian celebrates
Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport
Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian celebrates
Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing
Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing
Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing

When JR Hildebrand hit the wall at the final corner of the 2011 Indianapolis 500, he so nearly got away with it. The rookie kept his foot to the floor in a desperate attempt to keep his remaining two wheels moving for the last few hundred yards, and he duly crossed the yard of bricks three seconds clear of all his rivals – bar one.

Even the eventual winner was just 2.1 seconds ahead at the line. And he only made it because, having been 20 seconds back with 15 laps left, he had his brain firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately for Hildebrand, Dan Wheldon was in the ‘Zone’.

“The last 20 laps were incredibly important,” Wheldon told me a few weeks later. “There were two different strategies but I had to drive flat out. It wasn’t about saving fuel, it was about maximising the draft from other cars and making sure every one of those laps was the best it could possibly be.

“But when you’re in the Zone – especially in a confident time of your career – you do things and you’re like… really? The team later told me I’d made an adjustment to the weight jacker and anti-roll bars at every single corner for the last 20 laps. And I didn’t know it.

“In fact I didn’t believe them. I told them I wasn’t doing that many changes, no way. So they showed me the data. I was doing them without even knowing. When you get in the Zone you have the ability to do things totally naturally.”

Finding the subconscious edge

This “natural” ability is the holy grail of performance in any sport, as I found during seven years of hunting down legends of everything from tennis to gymnastics, boxing and skydiving for In The Zone. It happens only when the subconscious mind filled by years of practice is allowed to do its job – uncluttered by the superfluous information, doubts and worries dreamt up in our conscious thoughts.

Of course, adjustments to the weight jacker and anti-roll bar aren’t the most natural part of driving a car. They’re hardly as ingrained as using wheel and pedals to control speed and direction, but they are crucial to oval racing at 200mph. At the Indy 500 it’s assumed you are pushing the car to its limit.

These set-up changes allow that limit to be pushed ever further. By making so many micro-adjustments without thinking, Dan Wheldon gained seconds that would prove invaluable on that fateful final lap.

Yet this wasn’t even his first time in the Zone around Indianapolis…

“Sometimes you do the best things when you don’t win and people don’t notice,” he smiled. “Talking of the Zone: when I came second in 2009, with 10 laps left my car wasn’t as quick as Helio [Castroneves]’s. It was incredibly loose and getting looser by the minute. I’d hold my breath for the corners, purely because I could barely turn the wheel.

“I was never scared but I was astounded as to how I didn’t crash because it was that loose. I’ve never had to hold my breath before. You know when you want to be really quiet and tiptoe in your house when you’re a kid? It was exactly like that.

“It was just tiny increments on the wheel. It was crazy. If anything that was an even higher level of performance given the equipment. That blew my mind.”

Why Wheldon was ready for anything

Most top-level racers have experienced similar peaks but Wheldon is a good example of a driver for whom the Zone did not just appear by chance. A meticulous planner by nature, he always obsessively ensured his overalls were laid out neatly, even after the race.

But he paid the same attention to his mind, using techniques like visualisation to be “prepared for anything” and bring on this elusive state when it mattered.

“I never told anybody about the confidence I had at Indianapolis in 2011,” he added. “It’s one of those things you keep to yourself, but I always had a feeling something good would happen. You can visualise not doing well too, so it’s visualisation with confidence. That, for me, is what completes it.

“Then once the race starts it’s just complete concentration. In IndyCars anything can happen quickly. Particularly on the ovals, there are times when the car will snap, so it’s about being able to react quickly.

“If your mind’s elsewhere, if you’re not 100 per cent in that Zone, the car will go. So you think of nothing other than making sure you are racing the car as hard as you can.

“What feels most magical is when you’ve got a lot of confidence, your car’s not quite right and you’re still able to extract the fun out of it. That is the magical moment for me: to nail that perfect performance.”

In The Zone by Clyde Brolin out now RRP £18.99 (Blink Publishing)

http://bit.ly/InTheZoneBook

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Dan Wheldon , J.R. Hildebrand