What drives a person to want to race? There are certainly less stressful, less expensive, and less tiring ways to spend a weekend. While some people are content to channel surf or grow roses, I’ll wager that the readers of National DRAGSTER have a different idea about the best way to occupy their time.
People race for a variety of reasons. For some, racing is a business – a fortunate few are actually paid to drive race cars, or they earn a living from the sport as a parts manufacturer, engine builder, mechanic, or some related occupation. Others participate because they relish the challenge of competition or the rush of driving a fast car. Racing can be therapeutic, too – a welcome escape from the daily grind of deadlines and minor aggravations.
So if racing fills so many needs, why do I encounter such unhappy people at the races?
I’m not one of those Pollyanna types who perpetually sees the glass as half full. I’ve had my share of bad days at the drags, and I expect that I’ll have a few more before I finally lock up my toolbox. But I’ve also learned to appreciate the time I spend at the track.
One of my customers gave me a fresh perspective when he observed that racing is like a trip. “You should enjoy the journey,” he said, “not just focus on the destination.” I think that’s excellent advice.
Listening to some people complain about everything from the starting line traction to the track dogs, you would think that they had been forced to go to the drag strip at gunpoint. Presumably there was a time when these folks actually enjoyed going to the races – what changed?
My theory is that some racers get too wrapped up in ego and emotion. A car’s performance is not a report card on the people who race it; whether a car is fast or slow does not reflect a person’s ultimate worth as a human being. Unfortunately, some racers have tied their egos so tightly to their race cars that they can no longer separate them.
When emotions overwhelm reason, you can’t see the world clearly. If you are miserable, angry, or upset about your race car’s performance, it is very difficult to make rational decisions about how to improve it.
I watch this drama nearly every weekend at the races: A car makes a poor run, and the crew chief declares, “The tires spun.” The mechanic says, “Ran through the clutch.” Someone from another team chimes in, “Not enough rpm.” So we have heard from a panel of experts without ever looking at the computer data or watching a videotape of the run. Their observations may in fact have no connection to reality, but they have already made up their minds on what happened – and what to do next.
I occasionally encounter the same snap judgments in my engine-building business. Customers have told me, “That carburetor is junk,” or “The torque converter is dead” on the basis of one bad run. When I press for more information to support the conclusion, there often isn’t any. As I’ve noted before, a race car is an incredibly complex mechanical device. What you initially identify as the problem may not be the true culprit at all! A poorly performing carburetor, for example, can really be a symptom of a malfunctioning fuel pump, a kinked fuel line, a clogged filter, a bad air box design, or a hundred other shortcomings. If your ego doesn’t allow you to step back and analyze the situation, then it’s unlikely you will solve the problem correctly.
At the top levels of the sport, we see some pro racers who change cars as often as they change spark plugs. That’s a product of the same irrational thinking. How can a team fairly evaluate a sophisticated race car in a half-dozen passes? With all of the variables of clutch, suspension, shock absorbers, weight distribution, gear ratio, and dozens of other factors, it can take months to sort out a chassis properly. Yet when one builder or another suddenly produces a “magic” chassis, the stampede to his doorstep begins.
I’m not a psychologist, but I do take the time to think about how people behave in racing – and in life. Perhaps it’s human nature to look for external causes for our problems, to place the blame on another person or object rather than ourselves. But when I reflect honestly about races I’ve lost, in the vast majority of instances it was because my teammates or I made bad decisions – not because a part was faulty or the guy in the other lane played staging games.
Every eliminator category in drag racing has its own degree of difficulty. In Pro Stock, we’re obsessed with finding a thousandth of a second in elapsed time. In a heads-up eliminator, it’s all about dialing the car and hitting the light. In every class, the people who think logically and clearly about their racing program usually dominate.
My premise is that racing should be fun. We got involved in the sport initially because we found it enjoyable. But if the only fun is winning, then only one person will be happy at the end of the day. Suppose for a moment that you could win every race; what would be the challenge in that?
Yes, it’s disappointing to lose; racers are competitive people, and the object is to win. It’s healthy to keep winning and losing in perspective. Did you learn something that will improve your performance at the next race? Did you meet a new friend who enriched your life? Most important of all, did you truly experience the day?