Drivers, and Danica, Start Your Engines!

Daytona500“You spend a lot of time thinking about what to do when the time comes. I kept asking up above what was working. You needed a hole, you needed people to help you out.”

[Danica Patrick – comments from her Daytona 500 post race interview when asked about her strategy on the last lap]

Unless you haven’t picked up a paper or watched the TV this last week, you no doubt heard the headlines about this year’s Daytona 500.  It was the first time in history that a female driver won the pole position for any NASCAR race.  But this wasn’t just any NASCAR race – it was the Daytona 500, their most coveted event.  Because of this, the hype for this year’s race was bigger than any other in history.

To be fair, I’m not necessarily a NASCAR fan and have never actually watched a race from start to finish (at least not until this Sunday).  Watching a bunch of cars race in circles over and over didn’t seem like much of a sporting event to me.  Yet I found myself captivated by the story line for this year’s Daytona 500, and spent Sunday afternoon watching this historic race.  In watching it, I felt compelled to reference the race and NASCAR for this week’s Leadership Message.

You are probably asking yourself – “What in the world would a NASCAR race have to do with leadership and success in business?  Isn’t NASCAR just a bunch of ‘Southern’ drivers racing around in juiced-up stock cars with fancy paint jobs?  What possible strategy could there be to running your car around a track 200 times as fast as you can?”  Seriously, I must have lost my mind to even consider referencing it.

Well, truth be told there is much to learn about business, strategy, and leadership from a NASCAR race.  As with so many things in life, what’s below the surface is much more important.  There is more strategy than you might ever imagine.  That’s why the circuit’s biggest names – Jimmy Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, and others – are so successful.  There are clear reasons why those same drivers and their teams always finish at or near the top of every race.

So if you’ll humor me, I’d like to share a few of my observations on the lessons a NASCAR race can teach us about leadership and success in business:

1)      It’s absolutely a team effort – No driver wins a NASCAR race on their own.  Period.  They are completely dependent on their pit crews, their mechanics, their sponsors, and at times their own fellow drivers.  Without the right car, tuned just the right way, the driver simply cannot compete.  And at 196 miles per hour, those cars suck up gas and chew up tires.  And so the pit crew becomes one of race day’s most important assets.  And then there’s drafting – cars benefiting from the air draft created by other drivers, at times intentional.  Note Danica’s quote “…you needed people to help you out”. 

2)      Have a plan, and stick to it – Over the course of 200 laps (500 miles), the lead in this race only changed 13 times.  But on the last lap, the entire top 10 positions changed completely.  Those drivers knew exactly what they had to do to win.  They drove that entire race with a strategy to position themselves to execute at just the right time.  Some held back throughout the race to keep their engines from overheating.  Others stayed tucked in behind the leaders drafting air and saving gas and tires.  Others jockeyed to stay on the top side of the track, while others edged down to take the inside lane.

3)      It’s 90% preparation, 10% perspiration – I can only imagine the hard work and effort put in to each race crew (drivers, mechanics, and pit crews) prior to a race.  A great example of this are the Pit Crews.  Those crews spend weeks and months practicing to get their timing down perfectly.  So that on race day, they have their process down.  And for what?  So they can change four tires and fill up the tank on a car in less than five seconds!  Five seconds!  Do you know how difficult that has to be?  The timing MUST be perfect.  The coordination flawless.  Coming in and out of pit row one second longer than the other drivers can cost you half a dozen spots in the race.

4)      Sometimes bad things happen that are out of your control – Racing around a track at 196 miles an hour, with bumpers literally inches from each other, is a guaranteed accident waiting to happen.  And most times, it’s completely out of your control.  A driver in front of you hits the breaks, or another driver beside you catches a slick spot on the track, and next thing you know, you are scraping along a cement wall or completely missing a bumper.

5)      But you never quit, even when things seem difficult – But what I found interesting about this race was how many of those same drivers and crews quickly recovered from these accidents and found a way to remain in the race.  Even when you thought “that car is done” – 20 seconds later, they are replacing the front bumper or taping the side spoilers back together to get their driver back in the race.  Take Brad Keselowski, who’s front bumper looked like an ad for Duct Tape after being caught up in one of the major wrecks Sunday – yet, he got back in and ended up finishing fourth!

6)      But when its time, execution is everything – Take another look at Danica’s quote from her post-race interview – “You spend a lot of time thinking about what to do when the time comes.  I kept asking up above what was working”.  Coming in to that last lap, she was solidly in third place.  Yet somehow she ended in eighth place. Yet on that last lap, several other drivers dug deeper and found a way to edge her out.  To be fair, I’m not coming down on Danica – eighth place is a tremendous finish.  But when its time, execution is everything.  That’s why several others were able to pull ahead and gain final positions in this race.

Do you see the parallels?  1) In business and in leadership, it is completely a team effort.   There is no “I” in team, and there is no more important person than the rest;  2) You must have a plan, and you must stick to it;  3) Preparation is everything, whether that’s in developing ourselves, having clear and effective processes/practices, or having a sound strategy to act on;  4) Sometimes bad things happen, like the economy turning against us, or a big customer deciding to go in a different direction;  5) But you never quit, even when things seem difficult;  6) And when the time comes, you must execute.

So are you ready for the race?  The time has come.  Drivers, start your engines!!!

3 thoughts on “Drivers, and Danica, Start Your Engines!

  1. I totally see the connections between the strategy and leadership used on the track and in preparing a team for the race and how those same actions apply in other venues. Leadership happens everywhere in every facet of life. The parallels are endless! Thanks for the post.

    • Dragonfly Diva,

      You are so right. There are so many different parallels in live to principles of leadership. And I love finding them in all the unusual places…

  2. Great post here Kip. It is amazing the parallels between sports and business and this is a great example. I have never watched a complete Daytona 500 either but always watch the final 25 laps as there is so much going on….strategy execution, team work, collaboration with fellow teammates, etc…all parallels to what we do everyday.


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