Fighting The First-Time Jitters 

Mazda racers give you tips to curtail the nervousness of these nerve-racking occasions

We previously shared several tips from the pros on defeating pre-race jitters before a big event. Much of eliminating nervousness is by doing as much preparation as possible to boost confidence heading into the weekend. There’s a special case, though, for which preparations can be especially difficult, and thus one where it becomes much harder to remain calm and collected beforehand: your first. That could be your first autocross, your first road race after getting your competition license, or your first national-level event after competing at a local level.

These situations call for being as prepared as possible by watching video, doing simulation work or whatever else you can do to bolster your confidence. Ultimately, though, it’s going to come down to your own personal battle with nerves. Consequently, turned to several racers who have been there before in order to discover how they won the battle of nerves.

“My first Daytona 24 was in 2013 – I was 17-years old, in the Mazda6 Diesel GX car,” recounts Tristan Nunez, now driver of the No. 77 Mazda RT24-P in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “At that point I was still just a young whippersnapper and didn’t fear anything. The pressure didn’t set in until later in my career once I had to pay bills and become an adult. It was then that the pressure sets in of having to perform. You want to do the best job for the brand because there are so many people behind the scenes putting a lot of money into the program. When you’re driving, you have the best job of everyone out there; it’s really the easiest part about racing. Being able to talk to your engineers, being able to provide valid feedback and improve the car, that’s where the pressure really sets in.”

And there’s the first lesson: Unless you’re a teenager who aspires to be a professional racer like Nunez and have your eyes set on that Mazda Road to 24 scholarship to race in Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich, you’re probably doing this for fun. The only expectations are the ones you put on yourself and, frankly, if you’re a rookie, no one is expecting you to do well anyway.

Peter Ensor is a rookie in the MX-5 Cup. He got there in part by earning a scholarship for winning the Spec MX-5 Challenge Championship. So for him, there were certain expectations. To meet those, he prepared the best he could.

“I was nervous and excited – a good kind of nervous,” he says of his first MX-5 Cup race at Circuit of The Americas, a track he knew from the prior year’s NASA Nationals, where he sat on the pole for the Toyo Tires Classic Spec Miata race. “I knew the competition was going to be very tough, and I’d wanted, since I started racing, to get up to MX-5 Cup as quickly as I could. I had tested a couple of weeks before the event to get some seat time in the car, and during the race weekend, getting to know some of the other drivers I hadn’t raced with before just gave me a little bit more confidence.”

And there’s lesson number two: be social. Once you know the people with whom you’re going to be racing, it’s another unknown that’s been dealt with. Ensor knew the car, he knew the track, and by the time he started his first MX-5 Cup race, he knew some of his competitors. The fewer unknowns, the more confidence you’re going to have.

Reducing unknowns is how Deana Kelley approached her first Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships. That event, held annually in Lincoln, Neb., attracts more than 1,200 competitors each year. Kelley’s class, C Street, is one of the most popular in both the Open and Ladies classes. Getting rid of as many uncertainties as possible helped her confidence leading up to the event.

“There was some car prep and extra planning involved, but going into it I was very meticulous about walking the course a bunch of times and making sure I knew it,” Kelley says. “Before that, I was getting a lot of practice and seat time in my own car at local events in the month prior, trying to hit every event I could in a three-hour radius.”

Being as prepared as possible means that once in the car, getting ready for the start or your runs, you won’t be thinking your way through a tangle of what-ifs, allowing you to concentrate on the tasks at hand. And doing so is the best way to kill any residual nervousness.

“I really just try to not focus on my own nervousness,” Kelley adds. “If it’s an autocross, I’m going through the course in my head and making a plan for how I’m going to attack it. For a road race, I’m going through the track in my head and thinking, ‘This is how the start is going to go – Turn 1 is probably going to be a mess. Just keep your eyes up.’ Making a plan and really trying to prepare myself [keeps the] focus on my actions and not my nervous reaction.”

Doing the appropriate homework and preparation will greatly boost your confidence as you enter the event weekend. Continuing to learn through practice and qualifying – or course walking – will only increase it. Then focus on the task at hand to all but eliminate nervousness, and your first big event is likely to go much more smoothly. And remember, any pressure is what you put on yourself, because you want to do well.

“When you’re actually driving, you’re out there for the love of it,” says Nunez. “But because we love it so much, that’s why there is pressure. If we didn’t care, there wouldn’t be any nervousness. It all stems from the fact that we love the sport so much.”