At the Dirt Nitro Challenge last month, former world champion Robert Batlle charged from eighth on the grid and came within 0.65-seconds of winning his first DNC title — instead, it was fellow IFMAR winner David Ronnefalk who held on by a narrow margin for his first Pro Buggy win. The cat-and-mouse game that took place over the closing stages of the 45-minute affair transformed into Batlle cutting chunks out of Ronnefalk’s lead until the Swede nearly threw all of his hard work away in the final 180-degree corner.
If you’ve ever felt bad about your inability to close out a main event win at a club race, you’re not alone.
If the annals of RC racing were better organized and included the details of main events before the days of archived replay videos, they’d be full of stories of races that were decided — or nearly decided — by drivers whose driving performance totally changed under the pressure of leading a race in the last few laps. And I don't just mean "made a few extra mistakes," but instead drivers who hadn't crashed much for nearly a week suddenly struggling to go around the track like they're suffering a major equipment failure. Combine that with a pursuing driver with little consequence for pushing the pace, and you have the perfect recipe for a blowout victory to become a nail-biting battle in just a few laps.
According to this November 2015 article in The Guardian covering the effects of anxiety in students (How anxiety scrambles your brain and makes it hard to learn, www.theguardian.com/education/2015/nov/21/how-anxiety-scrambles-your-brain-and-makes-it-hard-to-learn)
, a stimulus such as a driver closing the gap to your vehicle or being assigned a difficult exam can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response, which causes a rise of the adrenaline hormone and triggers your sympathetic nervous system to take over. Your heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, your blood pressure and body temperature become elevated, and blood is diverted away from your brain and toward your limbs.
So it’s not just your three weeks of skipped workouts that leave you feeling exhausted after a close race, but actual human biology. This is the kind of natural response that allows the human body to escape a dangerous situation, but it’s bad for filling out a Scantron or driving an RC car at its limits.
The notion of it being easier to follow than lead is not at all exclusive to RC racing, with a number of different explanations applied to other forms of speed competition, from point-to-point automotive rallies to closed-course speed skating. This April 2017 article from Runner’s World (Why Following is Easier Than Setting the Pace, www.runnersworld.com/training/why-following-is-easier-than-setting-the-pace)
details a half-dozen scientific theories from over the last 120 years to describe why competitive distance runners don’t sprint out of the gate. In fact, if you replace the concept of aerodynamic resistance with anything else — say, trackside crowd reaction, PA announcer focus, or navigation of an especially tough obstacle — it’s easy to see the parallels RC racers endure when the master clock expires.
In particular, I found the “Brain Worry Theory” to be the most interesting. I’ve interviewed dozens of winners at nitro races who, immediately after crossing the finish line, talk about having to push the “what if?” thoughts out of their heads — something that the drivers who finished second hardly ever mention. “What if I run out of fuel?” or “what if I forgot to Loctite that?” or “what if this lapped driver takes me out?” don’t make it any easier to click off consistent laps, let alone defend one’s position when suddenly in jeopardy of being passed with less than a lap to go. Consider, too, that variations the “Theory of Hypnotic Suggestions” or the “Automatic Theory” can account for why a driver who has settled into turning 35-second laps may have trouble getting back into a 33-second lap pace when a rival has started catching up.
When watching these radio-controlled vehicles go around the track, it can be easy to forget that there’s a real human, with real thoughts and emotions, influencing his car’s ability to smoothly round a corner or land a large jump on all four tires. As a driver, however, it can be difficult to separate the anticipation of winning from the fact that there’s no imminent threat to his physical safety. That increased excitement is also what makes winning a close race more rewarding than just walking away from the field. Ronnefalk himself compared the DNC win to a hotly-contested prior European Championship, saying that — outside the obvious difference in professional stakes between the events — that winning with significant pressure is all that much sweeter.