What Does It Mean To Be Fast? | Shift-S3ctor 2020

Updated: Dec 17, 2020


Introduction to the full length vlog/podcast on The Science of Speed, first episode featuring Shift-S3ctor recapped from a previous live stream on the Miss Maserati channel.



/ (spiːd) /


A scalar measure of the rate of movement of a body expressed either as the distance travelled divided by the time taken (average speed) or the rate of change of position with respect to time at a particular point (instantaneous speed). It is measured in metres per second, miles per hour, etc

That’s a mouthful or it could merely be defined like this….

We discuss science and its relevance to motorsports frequently in the community. There’s so much theory crafting and learning to be done because force is an abstract concept. Defined in physics as any interaction that will change the motion of an object when unopposed.

Measurements that stand out are the measurements of horsepower and torque, two of the most important numbers anyone would want to guess when about to face off head to head at Shift-S3ctor.

The power produced by an engine is called its horsepower. Torque is the expression of a rotational or twisting force. For race cars, horsepower means speed. That torque part though, that’s the thing that pushes you back in the seat and takes your breath away. Torque is more representative of the strength in an engine. The relationship or distinctions between these two might be obvious to car people, but for the average individual it’s simply just, “the car goes.” Intertwined these two result in the rate at which a car is going to haul ass down a track.

However, as much as we can predict what might happen according to science in any given race, I’ll go back to a reminder that force is still an abstract concept, making prediction slightly more tricky. Other factors involved include the aerodynamics of downforce and drag, but perhaps driver mod still matters most of all. How fast is the human being that’s behind the wheel? No matter what wheel they get behind.

The Mental Skills of Speed: Perception & Translation Mechanisms

This is where we circle back to neuroscience in racing and just how much might be happening inside the brain in the quite short time that driver’s are flying low down the runway. Since the brain is dependent on stimulus information from the senses, that input is most of what’s available to process a situation and create micro decisions while executing a race, but also included was existing knowledge from a racer’s past experience. It’s perhaps what many may refer to as “instincts”.

Visual speed is a completely separate process than how a driver decides what to do with that visual information, and it happens in a separate region of the brain that must coordinate in order to save one’s tuckus from sudden wreckage or launch within fractions of a second. Light passes through the eye and travels down the optic never before reaching the occipital lobes located at the back of our brain, this is where our minds attempt to translate reality for us back into an image and although this seems like a simple mechanism, it involves complex processing in the brain as a human reconstructs a version of the world inside their head. Because of this, we may not be seeing a direct translation but rather our own interpretation, this can lead to errors in perspective.

No light, no prep either. All conditions which have to be calculated into the equation to get from point “A” to point “B” intact.

This is where the work of cognitive ability comes in, defined as the time it takes a human to do a mental task. It's relational to the speed at which a human can understand and react to the task, hands falling means “Go!” One might wonder if this factor is related to intelligence but the two are not interrelated, a high IQ would not predict faster processing but rather cognitive ability affects the speed of completion. The adaptive skill can become the hinge point for the race no matter what horsepower and torque numbers govern the cars involved.

This interpretation speed is laying the groundwork for what physical sets of muscles will be enacted in order to achieve a launch or a shift. All of this is happening within a split second inside the brain as the different regions chain together the kind of responses we rarely break down into it’s quite complicated process. From here the nervous system is transponding the signal by way of the motor unit, which transmits an activation signal and transforms it into contractile activity. Contractile properties of muscle comprise its force capacity (strength and power), the rate at which it can develop force (contractile speed) is much like concepts behind power generation in cars for horsepower and torque.

What does it mean to be fast?

In the chain of what happens from watching the hands fall to moving one’s foot to the accelerator there are links that are also trainable skills since perception is not a fixed ability. It’s something that can be highly impacted by even a temporary frame of mind. “Instincts” can be broken down into the categories of genetic memory that comes pre-installed at birth versus those which can be managed by emotional resilience over time. The differences here can be illustrated in the common evolutionary fear of spiders as a trait that comes natural to many, while some phobias can be attached to previous negative experiences, such as developing a fear of dogs after being bitten. The latter is conditioned. Others can have more nuanced thoughts attached to them like fear of tests after several failures. In driver development the point is teaching conditioned responses to potentially dangerous situations that will avoid wrecks while accounting for the situational factors involving speed and force in those precious split seconds. This is not an innate skill in humans but one that is concreted over a lifetime of how the individual handles general life circumstances. Their emotions and thought processes will determine how fast they can go.