Throughout the history of motorsports, racing drivers have devised catchphrases to put racing into context. Often, their words can apply not just to racing, but also to life in general. Here are 10 life lessons racing drivers have taught us over the years.
Recently, we lost Formula One great Sir Jack Brabham, whose out-of-print 1971 memoir, "When The Flag Drops" is a must-read for anyone who can find a copy. Already a legend by the mid-1960s, Brabham won the 1966 F1 championship behind the wheel of his own car, the Brabham BT19, powered by his own engine (built by Repco from the aluminum Buick/Oldsmobile 215ci, soon to be Rover V8), for his own team. No one had ever done that before, and it doesn't seem likely anyone will again, unless Jutta Benz plans to take over for Lewis Hamilton.
Thinking about Brabham led me to reconsider his title phrase (see below), and how well it applies to all kinds of situations, outside of racing as well. In fact, most great racing quotes — as most great quotes do — teach life lessons out of context. And so, I rounded up some similar racing phrases, that apply just as well to life itself, attributed to other drivers. Consider this your self-help minute, brought to you by the Late Jack Brabham.
When The Flag Drops, The Bullshit Stops
This old saw may never be attributed precisely, but Brabham's deft use of it for his memoir will always resonate with us. Humankind has come up with a million ways to articulate this sentiment — e.g, "put up or shut up," "put your money where your mouth is," "say it don't spray it" (well, sort of) — but in a racing context there's a bracing splash of urgency that helps it land. On race day — or for our purposes just "day" — reality can't be manipulated with words. The stopwatch and running order don't lie. It's not about what you say you can do, it's about what you do you can do.
To Finish First, First You Must Finish
This bit of wordplay is often attributed to four-time Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears, but it's more likely he was calling on an old Indy racing adage. Some say it came out of the mouth of the great maestro of the Grands Prix, Juan Manuel Fangio, but I couldn't confirm it. Most recently, author Garth Stein appropriated it for his racing-as-existential-struggle, dog-as-philosopher novel, "The Art Of Racing In The Rain."
Either way, the point is, endurance matters. Shore up your steely determination so you don't sacrifice long-term goals at the altar of short-term gratification. It's obvious as hell until you're facing down some tedious triangulation of tasks, and you choose a quick way out the door. Don't do that.
Work On The Nut Behind The Wheel Before You Start Fixing Bolts On The Car
While the author of this quote remains unknown, it's clear self-awareness is an important trait among happy and successful humans. In a 2010 study of executives from public and private companies by Green Peak Partners and Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. In fact, while not as sexy as other, "hard" qualities like "leadership" or the ability to mix a proper Old Fashioned, self awareness is a potent psychological catalyst for good things happening.
You Win Some, You Lose Some, You Wreck Some
A classic Dale Earnhardt Sr. bit that adds extra punch to the traditional message of assenting to the reality of a bad situation. It's the motorsports version of the Serenity Prayer or number four of Depak Chopra's "7 Laws of Spiritual Success" or Louis C.K.'s "fuck it" philosophy. Learning to embrace the lesson in every success and failure, no matter how dire, is the key to happiness and resilience. Why? Because the fucking Intimidator said so.
To Achieve Anything In This Game You Must Be Prepared to Dabble in the Boundary of Disaster
Thank you, Sir Stirling Moss, for so eloquently reminding us that nothing ventured is, indeed, nothing gained. Managing risk is the most important skill in the modern world. Everyone who's anyone in the world of quotes has said something about risk. T.S. Eliot said "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." Chuck Yeager said "No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done." DJ William Greenough Thayer Shedd dropped the mic after blasting his Presbyterian congregation in the face with this knowledge: "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for."
And of course, there's this:
"On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, 'Okay, this is the limit.' And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high." ― Ayrton Senna
The Winner Ain't The One With The Fastest Car, It's The One Who Refuses To Lose
Again we look agape upon the mustachioed visage of Dale Earnhardt The Elder for this chestnut of wisdom on perseverance. Others have covered this ground, including Abraham Lincoln, who rendered his own version: "When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on," while buddhist author Joseph Goldstein wrote in his 1976 book, The Experience of Insight, "If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking." Never, ever give up. If you do, imagine the spirit of Dale Sr. flipping you the bird from the finish line and keep going.
We Worked 80-Hour Weeks For 30 Years To Keep From Having To Get A Real Job
Funny Car journeyman, Tom Lemon contributes this NHRA spin on the traditional, "follow your bliss" advice to those who are, say, at an employment impasse. It's largely the same as Kahlil Gibran's, "Work is love made visible," Confucius's often-needlepointed, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life," and Nas's, "Shit is a hassle, the bridge is like a haunted castle, the mic's my religion the system is the devil's lasso."
It Is Not Always Possible To Be The Best, But It Is Always Possible To Improve Your Own Performance
Oh, Sir Jackie Stewart, you sensible bastard. Of course acceptance of one's limitations, and setting on a course of improvement within those parameters, is the key to happiness. Don't be ridiculous!
Cheap, Fast And Reliable. Pick Two.
I'm not sure who this was, but it may have been the great racecar setup artist Carroll Smith. Let's sound it out. You want cheap and fast? You got it. Fast and reliable? Got it. Cheap and reliable? No sweat. All three? Take a hike, Jiminy Cricket. It's like that thing about fooling all the people some and/or all of the time. The key to a successful race, or life, isn't refusing to compromise; the key is to acknowledge that compromise is a necessity and embrace and manage your compromises to increase the odds for a well-defined outcome.
Straight Roads Are For Fast Cars, Turns Are For Fast Drivers
The internet attributes this quote to the late WRC champion Colin "If In Doubt, Flat Out" McRae. Perhaps inadvertently, McRae teaches us the importance of staying nimble and learning how to capitalize on your opportunities. If straight-line speed represents what's possible, and turns represent adversity, McRae's advice can apply to what one's ability to handle bad times says about their character and talent. It's like the old seaman's saying, "a smooth sea never made a skillful mariner." In the end, we'll all be judged by how we handled the rough bits.
In tribute to McRae, I'll leave you with this quote from Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle.
"Adversity is the diamond dust with which Heaven polishes its jewels."
Photo credits: NASCAR/Darryl Moran, Getty Images, McLaren Automotive, Lothar Spurzem