|Warning! Random musing ahead!
||[Jun. 22nd, 2008|09:38 pm]
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend about ways to live one's life -- how to pace yourself, when to speed up, when to slow down, and when to get the hell out of town and take a long vacation. It so happened that this took place not long after the Indianapolis 500. As often happens in my head, the two subjects ran squarely into each other and made a horrible noise. When the dust cleared... it made an odd sort of sense. I wrote it down and sent it to the friend in question. She wrote back to me and said that I really ought to post it -- it might even be useful!
I hope it is.
Time for me to wave my checkered flag and my Indiana heritage around a little bit. I'm going to describe life in terms of the Indy 500 -- the whole process, not just race day.
Indy cars are fantastically delicate pieces of engineering. It's almost unthinkable that they're designed to race at well north of 200 mph for hours on end. It's even less plausible that they can actually do that. Here's how it works.
First you have to qualify for the race. This is a very carefully controlled affair: you get the entire track to yourself and your goal is to go as fast as you possibly can for 4 laps. There is noone out there but you. There is no debris on the track. If the weather isn't perfect, you can reschedule within certain bounds. This is the occasion where you squeeze every last drop of performance out of yourself and your car. You push all the limits. You can even afford to break something on the car so long as it makes it through those four laps: there's time to repair it before the real race. Your team of engineers is prepared for that, even expecting it. They're going to be working on the car no matter what.
Then comes race day. You're out on the track, one car out of a field of 33. You have to go 200 laps, not 4. You have to do it in whatever the prevailing weather happens to be. Some of the other drivers are your adversaries. Some are your teammates. That distinction can be pretty fluid in a close race.
The style of driving that is required on Race Day is completely different than what you use when you're qualifying. You use all of your skill just to stay in the race. You slow down when you go into the turn and you accelerate again when you're coming out of it. You drive at a speed that allows you a safety margin for the inevitable occasions where there's debris on the track that you have to dodge or an accident up ahead. Yes, a race can be won or lost by less than the blink of an eye, but if you run your car into the wall on lap 34 because you were pushing it right to its limits you're not going to be on the winner's stand -- you're going to be used as an example of the importance of moderation, caution, and control.
It's even harder than that. Several times through the race you have to take your car in for a pit stop. That means peeling off from the pack, slowing way the hell down, coming to a complete stop for a 10- or 15-second eternity, and then accelerating back out onto the track. If you're very good at doing this and you have a truly exceptional pit crew then you will only have fallen back 10 places or so in the standings. There's no avoiding it. If you don't do that, you run out of gas or your tires wear thin and blow out. Both of those will end your day immediately.
Still, everyone else is stuck with the same requirement. They have to come into pit row every 40 laps, give or take, for the same routine. Like you, they will take the opportunity to recover, refuel, and to re-tune some of the car for whatever the track happens to be doing at the time. When you look at it in that light, stopping to take care of yourself isn't a painful necessity, it's one of the most important parts of the entire race.
Then you have to worry about wrecks. I have never seen an Indy 500 without wrecks. Some years you get lucky and it's 4 or 5. Some years less than half the field finishes the race. There are the straightforward wrecks, where someone takes a turn too fast, loses control, and goes skidding into the wall with a tremendous THUD. Then there are the catastrophic ones that happen in the middle of a pack and take out 3 or 4 other cars that were following so closely that they couldn't get out of the way. (This is much worse in NASCAR than in Indy racing but that's a different discussion.) You will crash now and then. There's no getting around it. You plan for it and you deal with it when it happens. If you're the car that starts it, your responsibility is to get off the track as safely as you can, whether that means staying on the outside of the turn or bringing your car down to the grass on the inside of the field. If you can't do that, you do whatever the hell you can to be predictable and obvious so that everyone else can avoid you. That's not just professional courtesy, by the way. It's rare, but every once in a while a driver dies in a crash. You go way out of your way to prevent that.
Let's suppose that you've got all of that in hand. You're on lap 199 and you're close to the front of the field. You've got four good tires and enough gas in the tank to make it to the end of the race. Now's the time to pour on the speed and to reach for those same limits you pushed during qualification. You drive a spectacular last lap.
You cross the line in third place.
Now is when you step back and look at the larger picture. The Indy 500 may be the biggest race of the year but there are others -- about 16 others, in fact. That one race won't win or lose the season. In fact, if you are consistently in the top 5 out of every race you run, it's all but certain that you'll come out on top when all the points are added up. That's what's going to get you a team, a car, and a sponsor for years to come.
Here's what I've gathered from thinking about this for a while.
There are a few times when the right approach is to open up the throttle and run at your absolute limit. Those are rare. In all the other situations, the right approach is to run at speeds that you know you can sustain indefinitely but still leave yourself a sizable reserve. You will need it.
There are times when you have to drop out of the race briefly to recharge, refuel, and re-tune. Plan for these and make use of them: they're what will keep you going in the long run.
Sometimes you'll crash. The most responsible thing you can do for yourself, for your teammates, and for your adversaries is to get the hell out of the way to minimize the damage you do to them. You're done for the day... but your next race is no more than three weeks away. Also, if you work to keep your colleagues safe, they'll do the same for you. Gain a reputation for wiping out whoever's around you and even your own team will stay away from you.
There's always another race. You succeed in the long term by finishing most of your races in good position, not by winning a couple and failing to finish the rest.
Now if only it were as easy for me to put it into practice as it is to describe it.