Four Life Lessons from Drag Racing

Recently, I attended the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing season opener in Pomona, California.  It was my first time going to all four days, and I had the fortune of bringing a different group of guests with me each day.

There is nothing like the energy wave that hits you at the starting line when two top fuel dragsters or funny cars takeoff.  The cars run on nitro methane, and each have 10,000 horsepower, so that’s 20,000 horsepower hitting the throttle at the same time.  Not much of a life lesson in this particular fact, but it is an awesome display of horsepower.  I saw many of life’s lessons on display at the event.  Here’s four of them:

1.  Flawless execution is all about preparation.  Teams worked for months before this season opener to prepare their cars, select their driver, select the right crew members, secure sponsorship, coordinate travel, and address countless other logistical challenges.  A typical top fuel run takes just under four seconds.  When everything goes right for both cars, the winning margin at the finish line is often measured in the thousandths of a second.  Countless hours of preparation come down to a four-second race.  Everything is on the line (the starting and finishing line, that is), in every race.  Flawless execution is a requirement, and can only be achieved through rigorous and disciplined preparation long before it’s time to race.

2.  There’s no “I” in TEAM (but, there is an “I” in WIN).  This apparent contradiction can be confusing.  In drag racing, the driver gets the glory of the win.  The same can be said of many other pursuits…the quarterback, the doctor, the manager, the captain of a ship.  None of these individuals can be successful without a dedicated and skillful team.  It can also be said that the team would have a tough time being successful without the person at “the tip of the spear.”  It’s almost a cliché that we win as a team and lose as a team.  Each team member can have the “I win” moment, even if they aren’t steering the car.  It can only happen if everyone on the team does his or her part.  Trouble starts when team members forget this, or lose respect, trust and gratitude for their fellow team members.

3.  Statistics and past performance don’t guarantee anything.  John Force is a legend in drag racing.  He has won the top fuel funny car season championship 14 times.  His team is extremely talented and well funded.  Statistically, he should win every race he enters, especially against a new team.  But, here’s the thing:  statistics don’t race.  Statistics don’t decide the outcome of any competition.  The bigger, better-funded, more experienced team isn’t guaranteed to win…the same way that the bigger, better-funded, more experienced company isn’t guaranteed to win.  The best teams (and companies) never forget this.

4.  Managing risks is critical to survival, but not a guarantee.  In top fuel drag racing, the risks are plain to see.  During opening weekend, I saw funny cars hit the wall, cross the center line, and one blew up, launching its carbon fiber body high in the air.  I saw a few dragsters blow their engines only 2-3 seconds into their runs.  On final elimination day (Sunday), I saw Antron Brown’s dragster cross the finish line as the winner, only to have his engine and both back tires explode in a fireball.  This sent his car careening out of control at over 300 miles per hour into the wall, and then skidded upside-down until it finally came to rest at least 500 yards away from the finish line.

Managing and preparing for the risks is the key to survival when things go wrong.  Antron Brown walked away from his crash.  Why?  Because his team focused on safety systems as much as they focused on tuning their car for speed and performance.  Safety and risk management weren’t afterthoughts.

While Antron walked away from his crash, the unfortunate truth is that managing risks doesn’t guarantee avoiding all risks.  Drivers sometimes receive debilitating injuries, or are killed, when things go wrong.  Drivers and their teams acknowledge these risks and devote tremendous effort to mitigating them.

They don’t allow the dangers to stop them from their pursuit of higher performance, and winning.  If they did, there’d be nobody to compete in the race.  There are risks in just about every human endeavor.  Acknowledge them and plan for them as best you can…but don’t let them stop your pursuit of higher performance.

You can learn a lot at a drag race…if you are paying attention.

5 thoughts on “Four Life Lessons from Drag Racing

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