Whether you think you can or you think you can’t — you’re right
Tony Funicello is an amazing guy. At age 67, this trim, muscular athletic man is an accomplished race car driver and one of the leading racing instructors in the country. During the summer season he commutes to Upstate New York from his Florida residence to conduct race training at Watkins Glen International Raceway.
His training sessions are animated with illustrations, demonstrations and war stories from his racing experiences.
One of his favorite demonstrations is to call a student to the front of the class and ask him to raise both arms above his head and clench his hands together into a fist.
Then Tony instructs the student to “Try and resist my pushing your arms down.” He is always able to push the student’s arms down. Then he has the student raise his arms again and says: “Do your best to keep me from pushing your arms down again.”
This time the student stiffens his resistance and is able to keep his arms upright.
Tony explains, “The first time I asked him to try and resist; the second time I told him to do your best. The first time his brain was wired only to try; the second time his brain was wired to release adrenalin to his muscles – and do it!”
According to Tony, this demonstration never fails. I have witnessed it and can attest to its effectiveness, thus acknowledging the human mind’s incredible control over the body.
Racing cars is a young man’s game. Perhaps no other sport calls for faster reflexes and greater concentration. However, age does not take much of a toll on reflexes — it does take a toll on concentration.
In the major leagues of racing, a race car driver is old at 50. One notable exception was Paul Newman, who happens to be my role model for more than just being a major league race car driver. Newman was never caught up in his fame and fortune and dedicated much of his life to helping others. His creation of the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang,” a camp for youths with terminal cancer, is but one example of his inspirational life. His last race was the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona when he was 79. Incidentally, Paul’s race car proudly displayed the number 79.
I started racing at age 69 and proudly display that number on my race car.
Racing is one of the greatest challenges of my life and after almost a decade of racing it is still a challenge — more so than being an airplane pilot.
The most difficult aspect is the tremendous concentration that is required. While racing, at up to 150 miles an hour (not to mention the 200-plus MPH speeds that an Indy car driver achieves), you must be aware of what is going on all around you, while at the same time concentrating on the road ahead, and being prepared for a possible emergency around the next corner.
Tony says that if you divert your eyes into the cockpit (to check instruments for example) it takes two fifths of a second to refocus on the road ahead. At 150 MPH that is half the length of a football field.
After a few hours of racing it is not hard to understand why your concentration wanes. Racing is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. More than any other sport, it illustrates the tremendous capacity of the human brain for mind over matter.
The point of all this is that aging is as much a mental condition as it is a physical condition.
I have written many times in this column about people who retire to their easy chair, let the world go by and prepare to die.
Usually, their mind precedes their body to the grave.
There is ample evidence to suggest that aging can be controlled and extended by exercising the brain and the body. The brain is much like a muscle: if you do not exercise it regularly, it will atrophy.
Studies have shown that those who regularly do mental exercise, such as cross word puzzles, word games, and even watching Jeopardy, are much less likely to suffer dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
To this we add racing as an exciting, rewarding and challenging mind exercise. Not for everyone but for the few of us old frogs who get a kick out hearing from our fellow racers — “you’re how old?”