The samurai practitioners of Bushido used the tenets of Zen Buddhism to guide themselves morally and spiritually in a life surrounded by the threat of sudden death.
Racing drivers share these circumstances with the samurai. Their chosen careers require that they put themselves in harms way constantly, pushing themselves and their vehicles to the limit in the pursuit of victory. And while the modern world has made racing much, much safer than it was, every driver must come to terms with the fact that even the best drivers in the best prepared cars can still die.
Given this, it's not surprising to find that there seems to be some overlap between zen philosophy and racing. When the stakes are literally life and death (and for racing drivers, it seems that winning and losing are exactly that important) the best state of mind to be in is no mind at all.
Here, let J.R. Hildebrand explain:
"Thinking consciously about what is going on has never been something that works for me, when I'm at my best, I'm in a very subconscious zone, knowing what is happening, reacting to what is going on, but not actually thinking about it specifically. When its all done I can frequently look back and recall the thought process that was going through my head - at any time; practice, qualifying, or race - but at the time its very intuitive."
It's remarkable how much that mindset sounds like this one:
"Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought."
That was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of Hagakure, the book of the samurai. In that book, Tsunetomo advocates living as if you've already died.
"If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling."
In fact, go read Tsunetomo's wikiquotes page. It reads like a race driver's manifesto. Don't think about life or death. Act instantly. Justifications for "irrational" behaviors that put ones life at risk.
The best racing drivers forget all risk when on track. They wipe their mind clean and concentrate wholly on the task at hand.
This is what Senna meant when he said that if you no longer go for a gap, you're no longer a true racing driver. It's why Senna was so damn good- he could put aside fear completely and just drive, acknowledging the potential consequences, but refusing to be dominated by them.
We should all strive to reach this state of mind. Some find it in the martial arts, others in meditation or music. As for me, I'd like to try to find it in a car.