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There's a cadence to a lap at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Gas, lift, brake, turn the wheel. Gas, lift, brake, turn the wheel. Gas, lift, brake, turn the wheel. The best drivers do each of those things in the same place at the same time on every lap, a mad-dash meets a metronome at more than 100 mph.
Because it has short straightaways, tight corners and little banking, New Hampshire demands mistake-free rhythm, and the drivers who succeed at Loudon coax all four of their limbs to work in concert from the green flag until the checkered. NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Darrell Wallace Jr. has found a unique way off the track to fine-tune his rhythm on the track: He plays the drums. "My mom says I was beating on pots and pans since I was 2 years old. So I guess I had something for it," he says.
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He got his first drum set when he was 11 or 12, and he played the bass drum in the seventh and eighth grade band. He gave the instrument up for a while, and then last year, when he bought a house, he bought a new kit.
Since then, he says, he has practiced the drums daily, often for two hours at a time. "The drums help with hand-eye coordination," he says, which next to patience is the most important attribute a driver needs. "You're doing something different with each arm and each leg on your body. It's something to keep a good rhythm with -- which is what you need. You need a good rhythm with hitting your marks every time. I think that helps out a lot."
New Hampshire, site of this weekend's AutoLotto 200, requires more rhythm and timing than most tracks. (AutoLotto, a new mobile application that allows users to play the Powerball from their smartphones, is also the sponsor on Wallace's No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang.) Intermediate tracks with wide surfaces and ample banking, like Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, allow drivers to move up and down the race track searching for the fastest line. At the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the draft means no two laps are ever exactly the same.
The difference between places like that and places like New Hampshire is the difference between a jam session and a recording session, the difference between going with the flow and being precise. At New Hampshire, if drivers miss the beat, even by a fraction of a second, it could mean the difference between getting booed off stage and being hailed for an encore.
"That place is pretty tough if you can't get around there," Wallace says "You've got to be able to learn how the car will handle under heavy braking. You've got to have a lot of patience through the center of the corner, letting the car rotate and turn. You've got to have good forward drive off the corner. You can't spin the tires coming off the corner. So it's all about rhythm -- where your lifting points are, where your marks are."
The way Wallace prepares to play a song is similar to the way he prepares to race at a track. He listens to the song, and if there is video available, he watches that. Before the New Hampshire race, he plans to watch last year's TV coverage and whatever in-car cameras he can find, including his own, which he will examine to see where on the track he was fast and where he wasn't. For other drivers, he will watch the steering wheel/attitude of the car and listen to the throttle for clues about when and where they hit their marks.
"It's a quick process leading up to the point to play (a song), but then it's going back and recording yourselves thousands of times going back and watching where you're messing up," he says. "It takes time, and it takes patience. There's a lot of tough parts about a certain race track. There's a lot of tough parts about learning a song."