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.

My Favorite Destination

If you sign up for the Air France frequent flier program, you’ll get a list of security questions to answer in case you forget your password.  The first question presented:  My favorite destination is…

What could that be?  Yosemite with its beautiful trails and waterfalls?  Milford Sound in New Zealand, with its other-worldly (Middle Earth) landscape?  How about the Three Sisters in Australia?  England, where you learn quickly the meaning of “mind the gap.”  Islamorada, in the Florida Keys?  The clear tropical waters of Tahiti?  How about the top of Mauna Kea at sunset?  The top of Mount Whitney?  Mike’s Sky Ranch?  Aruba?  The Panama Canal?  The South Rim of the Grand Canyon?  Mammoth Cave in Kentucky?  Napa Valley?

This favorite destination thing can be challenging.  How about the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon?  Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee?  The top of the Empire State Building?  The Acropolis in Greece?  Wrigley Field?  Floating lazily on Lake Mead?  The top of St. Peter’s Basilica?   The Grand Bizarre in Istanbul?  The Lincoln Memorial?  Cape Canaveral?  How about the Taj Mahal?  The Kon Tiki Inn in Pismo Beach definitely makes the list.  Sunrise in just about any desert?  Glacier Bay in Alaska, playing basketball with your kids on the top deck of a cruise ship?

I’ve had the fortune of visiting these and many other destinations, but none rise to the level of favorite.

At the risk of breaching security protocols, here’s my answer:  home

I used to think…

I used to think rain was a bad thing.  It meant my carefree childhood would be interrupted by the realities of rent and the cost of groceries.  I’d have to worry about why my mom and dad were upset…sometimes with each other.  Rain brought a feeling of hopelessness into our house that wouldn’t leave until it stopped.

Rain meant that my dad didn’t work.  Oh, sure, he’d get up early in the morning just like a normal work day.  He would even make the call to his company to ask if they had anything going.  He always sounded so comfortable with what he was hearing from the other end of the phone.  I knew different.  They rarely had anything going on a rainy day.  If they did have something, that work went to someone with higher seniority.  I learned at an early age what it meant to be low in seniority.

I didn’t have the same fun other kids had splashing in puddles.  I remember one kid used to run as fast as he could and slide in the wet grass, just to see how far he could go.  Every slide was a world record in his mind.  Somehow I always had my parents in mind.  I knew they were worried about how long the rain would fall.  When would things dry out enough for dad to go back to work?  Would this be a long winter?  Would we make it to Spring?

Jeff Williams always wore his Mammoth Mountain sweatshirt in the winter.  He used to go snow skiing on the weekends.  Sometimes, his parents let him skip a day to go during the week.  He was one of the kids with the cool owl eyes.  The ones that come from having your sunglasses on while snow skiing.  He knew that rain meant snow, and snow meant good ski conditions.  I never skied as a child.  That wasn’t an option.  Rain meant no money, whatever the ski conditions.

Rain taught me early, too early, about the realities of economics.  As each year passed, with the same cycle of foreboding, I decided I would never let rain threaten my economic life.  When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the list of choices I’d rattle off were always jobs that didn’t stop because of rain.  It didn’t matter what the job was…only that the weather couldn’t touch it.

For my entire adult life, I’ve lived by the promise I made to myself as a child…always choosing jobs that the rain can’t touch.  Today, I can enjoy rain.  In fact, I’m listening to a passing shower as I write.  I love the sound it makes, cascading off the roof.  Rain has a unique purity.  Nothing compares to the clear, brisk air after the rain has passed.

Yet, even as I appreciate the magnificent beauty of rain, I can’t help but feel a slight twinge of anxiety…an echo from my childhood.

Campfire Moments

I love campfires.  I don’t get to sit around one as often as I’d like, but I treasure each opportunity. Gathering around a fire with family and friends, watching the flames, feeling its warmth, roasting marshmallows, helping kids make the perfect S’more, being blinded by smoke.  Always a good time.

We were recently on a Mediterranean cruise.  The trip was awesome, and for most of our 10-day journey, the seas were calm.  But, toward the end of the cruise, we had a rough sea day.  A combination of 12-foot seas and 45-knot winds meant we were rocking and rolling.  Not good for a guy who can get seasick standing on a dock.

Breakfast is served near the top deck, which, thanks to the laws of physics, rolls much more than the lower decks.  As I finished up my custom omelet (one of the best things about a cruise), and looked out at the churning seas wondering if that omelet was such a good idea, I was surprised when my father-in-law said, “Looks just like a campfire to me…I could watch these seas all day.”  Where I saw whitecaps, swells in every direction, hopelessness and nausea, he saw a campfire.

The beauty of life is in the eye of the beholder.  Cherish your campfire moments.  They don’t always require a fire.

Entitlement versus Gratitude

In the grand scheme of things, what are you entitled to receive from life?  From your loved ones?  From the people around you?  From your career?

I submit that dwelling on what you are entitled to receive diminishes happiness.  Time spent being grateful for life, your loved ones, the people around you, your career…increases happiness.

Gratitude is the foundation of true happiness.  Entitlement is at the other end of the spectrum where things like disappointment, envy, and sadness reside.

My twist on Bobby McFerrin’s famous song:  “Be Grateful, Be Happy!”

In an Eagle’s Shadow

I ran in the shadow of an eagle today.  Sounds cliché, doesn’t it?  But this was an actual eagle.  I was lucky enough to be running on a trail where the eagle wanted to fly.  That eagle may have been thinking about its next meal, making sure there were no other eagles in its territory, or any number of other things that eagles think about while soaring effortlessly through the sky.  As I ran, all the eagle and its shadow brought me were peace and tranquility.  I ran with the eagle for quite a ways before our paths went in separate directions.

Each of us share paths with those around us…family, friends, co-workers, customers, our boss, and even people we’ve never met.  Here’s hoping that as we share our path, we can bring the same peace that my soaring friend brought to me today.

Chasing Mice


Which one do you spend more time chasing…mice, or elephants?

Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically. Mice represent the small details, interesting diversions from the real questions, symptoms instead of root causes, etc. Elephants are the big strategic decisions, the tough questions, the root causes.

When budgeting for expenses (whether at home, or at work), do you spend a lot of time comparing the cost of paper clips between two vendors? Do you worry about the cost of an additional travel day associated with attending a trade show, or the strategic benefit of attending the show in the first place?

Do you worry about the cost differences for toner and paper, or consider ways to modify your processes and eliminate the use of paper-based documents?

How often have you been in a disagreement with a friend, relative, colleague, or spouse over a “mouse” issue, and let that disagreement mask one or more “elephant” issues? The mouse issue may seem worthy of all the effort, but rarely is.

Chasing mice while the elephants run free is almost always a bad idea. It wastes energy, and our most important commodity, time.

Better to chase more elephants.

Simulated Progress

I read the term “simulated progress” in a blog post by Seth Godin.  He wasn’t talking specifically about this term, but it is what I remembered from his post.  I’ve been sort of obsessing on it ever since, thinking about all the ways I have participated in activities that simulate progress.  Status meetings, strategic planning updates, budget reviews, process improvement meetings where ideas get discussed and never implemented, exercising to burn the extra calories I choose to consume, etc.

Sometimes simulated progress can lead to real progress.  But, more often than not, simulated progress only serves to make us feel good, create some fleeting sense of accountability, and generally limits actual changes to the status quo.  The intangible feeling of progress merely masks the fact that no real progress has occurred.  We are no closer to actually achieving something meaningful.

I’ve participated in, and even led, activities that (in retrospect) were only creating simulated progress.  I wasn’t doing it purposely, and I’m sure I had the best of intentions.  The others who were participating along with me were motivated to create some type of positive result…progress toward goals we had identified.  These activities weren’t 100% simulated progress, but I know some that had a high percentage.

I could go on.  Suffice it to say that the road to status quo and competitive disadvantage is surely littered with examples of simulated progress.

Riding Your Fender?

This is a term I learned from motorcycling.  It refers to a rider who always sees his fender.   In order to see his fender the fender rider isn’t looking out very far ahead.  Obstacles seem to come out of nowhere.  The fender rider often gets lost, or ignores the easiest path, since so much effort is given to looking at the trail in front of the fender.  When asked to describe the ride, the fender rider usually can’t tell you much, except that it was a harrowing challenge and he is worn out.

For those who have never ridden a motorcycle, consider driving down the freeway at 75 mph (or 65 mph, if you prefer to stay within the speed limit).  If you’re looking down at the road as it whizzes by, or looking just in front of your bumper, the world is moving extremely fast.  Everything in front of you is a blur, and you are a danger to yourself and everyone who shares the road with you.

By looking up, extending your horizon, driving at freeway speeds is much easier.  You can see what’s coming and plan your route more effectively.  Small course corrections make it easier to avoid big obstacles ahead.

Consider your personal and professional life.  Are you riding your fender?  If so, it’s time to look up.

Enjoy Your Journey


I can’t wait until recess starts.
When summer vacation starts, I will…
When I get the right score on my SAT, I will be able to get into the college of my choice.
When I graduate from high school, I will…
When I get accepted to college, I will…
What major best fits my skills and interests?
When I graduate from college, I will get my real job.
Once I get promoted, I will be able to afford…
I can’t wait until I get married. I will be able to…
If I can get that new job, we will be able to afford a new car.
We really should buy a house before we do anything else.
Now that we have our first baby, we need to put off some of the things we wanted to do.
Once the baby starts preschool, I will have more time to…
With both kids in soccer, dance, and baseball, we are pretty much the parental chauffer service.
Once soccer season ends, we can…
The new position at work will require a lot of travel. Once I get things set up, I won’t have to travel as much and I won’t miss as many of our kids’ practices or games. What about their homework?
Once summer vacation starts, we will have time to…
I sure can’t wait until the kids are in high school and can drive. I will have a lot more time to…
I hope they get good grades and score well on their SAT’s so they can…
Once the kids graduate, we can…
Now that our kids are in college, we are…
It sure will be great when they graduate from college and can do…
When we pay off our house, we can…
Once I retire, I will have a lot more time to…

Someone once said, “Life is that thing that happens while you are busy making other plans.”
Life is a journey…you only get one. Most of the really good stuff happens between the milestones.

*By the way, those are my daughters in the picture. My oldest (on the right) got married this past June. She and her husband are expecting their first child in May. Time flies! Enjoy your journey!

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