Landon Cassill self-engineering a way to NASCAR success
As the sun rose in a cloudless sky on Port Orange, Fla., the serene silence of a February morning was broken by the flap of legs hitting the surface of the water at the Port Orange YMCA.
Cedar Rapids native and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Landon Cassill was getting in an early-morning workout alongside his dad, Roger Cassill — a world champion triathlete — and Tim Phillips — a Team USA swimmer who competed in the last U.S. Olympic trials.
Cassill finished the third of three 400m warmups and held the wall of the pool, looking at his fitness watch to check his pace. Phillips, a lane over, finished a lap at the same time. He popped up and looked over at Cassill and joked, “Man, swimming sucks.”
Cassill laughed and responded, “Right?” before kicking off for the next part of his workout.
There wasn’t really time for too much banter — both because the workout demanded a short rest, but also because of a new idea Cassill has that’s much broader.
What if there was a way to cut out wasted time? What if there was a way for a person to engineer the last component to a racecar that hadn’t yet been over-engineered — the driver themselves? What if there was a way to reconfigure a weeklong schedule to fit in testing that others aren’t doing? What if there was a way to write race reports that would transform the feedback a team gets and from which a driver can learn?
That’s the 2017 Cassill has planned — answering those questions — and the roots run deep to a place some might have shrank from.
“I can confidently say the inspiration from a lot of these things is the fear of being irrelevant,” Cassill said. “Three years ago when I decided to become a real athlete instead of just calling myself one, the inspiration there was, ‘I’m tired of blaming my car for everything.’ We were starting and parking, running used tires. It was no secret. What good would I be doing by telling people, ‘We suck because my car is no good,’ you know? We knew that. So that’s when I knew I needed to get to work.
“That’s the inspiration for me — the taste of irrelevance.”
Being an endurance athlete no longer is enough.
There’s been a tangible benefit to being in good enough shape to swim 1.2 miles, ride a bike 56 miles and then run 13.1 miles (a half-marathon) in a single Ironman 70.3 race. It’s helped Cassill — as it has seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and others — physically withstand the rigors of driving a racecar. It’s also helped his public image; gaining him national media attention and sponsors. Particularly Johnson’s effect on endurance training has made the practice trickle to many more drivers, but there are still plenty, as Cassill put it, “who wake up Monday morning and go golfing.”
Now, though, there are steps to be taken to make sure the endurance training isn’t just vanity.
Cassill wants to tap into what affects reaction time and mental fatigue in the racecar. Sitting in a simulator for four or eight hours, running lap after lap, Cassill said he knows better what losing focus or getting tired does in a controlled environment.
His mental and physical fatigue leads to the specificity and clarity of feedback to crew chief Donnie Wingo. It’s all a domino effect. Cassill is trying to control when the dominoes fall.
“Instead of just writing a race report, I’ve restructured the way I write race reports to quantify my feelings about the changes or about how the car felt in a way that the team can trace the trends of what I felt,” Cassill said. “I’ve discovered a lot of things, I feel like, in the simulator over the past two years — as the simulators we use develop and become more relevant — I’ve noticed a lot of things in the simulator that I feel like are variables; that the driver is a variable of.
“I’ve seen the effects of that and how it relates to my ability to give feedback on my lap times and my ability to feel what’s going on and my focus. You kind of have to snap yourself back into it and things like that. That’s a little bit of a part of this evolution.”
Being able to focus so intensely on a new approach to race preparation required a total re-evaluation of how Cassill spent the time between the end of one race and the beginning of another. Adding more things to a schedule that already is pretty darn full can be taxing on a young family.
He and his wife, Kaitlin, had “kind of a team meeting,” where they said, “‘This is how we accomplish these goals and still have family time.’” Things aren’t scheduled after 5 p.m. during the week. The impromptu dinners and trips to see buddies at Late Model shops nearby have been almost completely cut out.
Cassill said he filled a 4x6-foot white board in his office with everything “I need to do, think I should do; have done to be a better racecar driver.” That includes everything from endurance training to things like the driver’s meeting on Sundays. When he got that white board full, he started erasing things that weren’t absolutely necessary.
Efficiency is king in most sports, and that’s what Cassill was after.
“I started looking at the gaps in my schedule, and I said, ‘OK, here’s where I have room left to revisit this list of things I can do to be a better racecar driver,’” Cassill said. “I kind of found a group of a handful of things that I felt like I could fit into my weekly routine that I felt like are of the highest priority that would have the highest impact to make me a better racecar driver.”
Roger Cassill leans on a theory in his triathlon training that if he can be mentally tougher than his fellow athletes, that’s where he has the biggest edge. His son believes that wholeheartedly, and it’s on the list of the many things they discuss when they speak daily.
Cassill didn’t share the entirety of his new approach because he can’t give away what he feels like is an advantage he might find over the other drivers in the Cup garage. Still, a lot of it is information that’s out there — albeit information many aren’t using. It’s tapping into the gray areas that are left where Cassill believes he’ll make the gains he wants.
“There’s a lot of science that proves that the brain limits the body of its last 10 percent of potential performance. You can improve your performance potential as an athlete by a couple percent without actually improving your fitness — just by raising the ceiling of your neurological limitations,” Cassill said. “Whether you’re an endurance athlete and you’re helping push harder for longer or, in my opinion, as a racecar driver, allowing your reaction times to stay at an elite level for longer. It’s all very unproven, though, especially when it comes to racecar drivers. This is a journey nobody has gone down. It’s why I feel like I keep some of it close to the chest, to a degree.”
Gains to be made
There’s a scientific side to all this, and a psychological side.
The threshold of a person’s brain to either limit or allow a high level of performance varies from person to person. What fatigues someone mentally also varies.
Dan McGehee, director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division of the UI Public Policy Center, leads research with the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) in Iowa City. While the primary focus for NADS is day-to-day traffic safety, McGehee and his fellow researchers deal with what distracts and fatigues drivers on the road, and that translates — albeit on a much more concentrated level — to what Cassill deals with in the racecar.
McGehee highlighted the fact that Cassill is like many elite athletes who use repetitive practice to become an expert. He said simulator testing can be extremely beneficial, but “one of the things that’s a limitation of any simulator — and I don’t know if theirs (in North Carolina) is set up more as an interactive or more of a game — but one thing is you have to drive the same track and the randomness may not be there.”
"He’s making it work for him. Having all the advantages might even work against you sometimes. You have all the advantages and get complacent. This guy is hungry. He wants to get there."
- Steve DeVries
All the training in the world is going to fall short of experiencing the actual effects of being in the racecar.
“The environmental conditions are obviously different in a simulator compared to in a racing condition, especially in places like Daytona or places where the ambient temperature brings a lot of heat. It’s extremely intense,” McGehee said. “The noise, the vibration; the adrenaline that is moving in a driver is enormous. It’s one of the most physically and mentally taxing sports out there in terms of sustained attention demand required to operate this huge machine at 200 mph for literally hours.”
Steve DeVries, a professor of Kinesiology and sports psychologist at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, said Cassill’s approach is a solid one.
While he wasn’t as firm in the science behind Cassill’s 10 percent theory, DeVries said it doesn’t really matter if the science behind that is accurate or not. If Cassill believes that there’s 10 percent to be gained, he’ll do everything he can to gain it.
DeVries said belief in that kind of thing “helps you understand it’s all about process,” and that while “I don’t know of any neurological or physiological research to explain something like that, I think we use those devices as a natural thing to help keep ourselves on track to buy into the idea that you can always get better or always improve.”
Every bit of what Cassill is doing to achieve the desired improvements matters, DeVries said. Routine has to be consistent. Getting rid of or adapting superstitions can even be a factor. Using imagery — distraction imagery, where you imagine yourself on a beach, or mastery imagery, where you imagine yourself powerful and successful — is a factor. Self-talk; convincing yourself of success is a factor.
It all builds to strengthening the mind.
“Mental toughness has been studied a lot, and it seems like the thing that’s mentioned the most by elite athletes is the thing that helps them with mental toughness is belief in their own ability,” DeVries said. “If they believe that and believe they’re operating at 90 percent, they’re going to work their tails off to get the extra 10 percent. I think someone like him; he doesn’t win every race he participates in, so he’s got to be resilient. He’s got to be able to bounce back with increased determination the next time out and not let any kind of adversity affect him and get in the way next time he competes.
“He’s making it work for him. Having all the advantages might even work against you sometimes. You have all the advantages and get complacent. This guy is hungry. He wants to get there.”
Dare to be relevant
When Cassill finished the swim workout on that Thursday morning, he climbed from the water and sat silently in the sun for a bit.
He liked that workout. It was a speed and focus workout, meant primarily to prepare for the swim portion of a triathlon, and he does it on any given swim day. Of course, the focus part connects directly to his new mission.
There are plenty of unanswered questions, to be certain.
Is this going to work? Is he taking the right path to success? Is adding so much to his schedule feasible, and will things fall through the cracks? If he never lost the shot he got in 2007 to begin with, is this even a conversation?
“If this was my 10th year at Hendrick, would it be the same? I don’t know,” Cassill said. “I think I’ve been challenged in so many ways.”
After the Xfinity Series ride went away with JR Motorsports following the 2008 season, Cassill spent 2009 almost completely behind the scenes, doing the aforementioned simulator testing and on-track testing with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team — for which he has a championship ring. The 2010 season saw 22 starts across Cup and Xfinity, but mostly start-and-park situations.
Then, after he finished a career-best third in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona in 2011, Cassill sat in the media center and fielded a question about what his plans were for the season. At that moment, it was as tentative as a schedule could get.
“For me, I don’t have anything in place. There’s no contract; there’s no sponsor. It’s week-to-week. If I go to Phoenix and miss the race, hopefully the Germains will still run me at Vegas,” Cassill said then.
That’s a level of uncertainty that most adults would never be able to handle when it comes to their livelihood. It’s a level of uncertainty with which many of Cassill’s fellow Cup racers cannot identify.
“I look at drivers — and won’t name any specifically — but there are drivers that have had their entire Cup career has been one three-year contract after another,” Cassill said. “And so each time they’ve renewed a deal, they have had the opportunity to be mediocre for two and a half years, but turn it on for just a long enough time to get a contract extension. That’s literally how they’ve made their careers. I think they have done that without even realizing it because they’ve never been pushed to reflect on themselves that much.”
There’s been plenty of reflection over the last 10 or so years for the 27-year-old Cedar Rapids Jefferson graduate.
He’s lived a lot of life now as a married father of two. Every experience, on and off the track, has culminated in this new self-engineering approach to achieving dreams of which he believes himself fully capable.
If the economy never busts and his deal with Hendrick Motorsports never runs dry, maybe folks are talking about Cassill like they do Joey Logano, who came onto the scene at the same time. Then again, maybe not.
When Cassill finally stood from the bench next to that Port Orange YMCA pool, he was already planning his next workout — for the following morning, hours after he would race in the Can-Am Duel 150 qualifying races. He didn’t sit for long.
There was too much to be done.
“Do I think I would’ve been one of those mediocre drivers who just went from one three-year contract to the next? I sure hope not. But I don’t know,” Cassill said. “I guess the best way for me to answer that question is no, because I feel like I have the drive to win that even if I was in one of those rides, the training and mindset is to win those races. Maybe it’s the taste of completely losing your opportunities in the sport that kind of open your eyes to what you can do.”
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