Eight Management and Leadership Lessons from 8,000 Miles of Hard Racing

Eight Management and Leadership Lessons from 8,000 Miles of Hard Racing

Eight Lessons from 8,000 Miles of Hard Racing | My teenage years were very different from most kids. While I grew up a couple of miles from the beaches of Southern California, I spent most of my free time in the desert and exploring Baja with my dad. Riding dirt bikes eventually led to prepping and racing trucks and buggies in multiple desert racing series, including Baja 1000. By the time I was 15, I was in charge of rebuilding a Class 8 race truck’s 16 shocks. A year later, I was bouncing across Baja prerunning the 1000-mile racecourse in a Chevy S-10 Blazer (yes, it was a bad idea). I would spend my afternoons after high school spinning wrenches on the race truck before heading home to study. Living in another state during my college years, I shifted focus to planning the massive logistics it took to race 1000 miles down the Baja Peninsula. And I was lucky enough to drive or co-drive in the legendary race multiple times.

Desert racing and the Baja 1000 are unlike any other form of motorsport. The insane pounding a vehicle takes rapidly traversing hundreds of miles of rugged and remote terrain requires meticulous mechanical preparation to avoid failure. Racing for over 35 hours non-stop pushes the limits of human and mechanical endurance. And long before satellite phones, Starlink and GPS, the communication and logistical challenges of moving a small army of people, chase trucks and aircraft across Baja were vast. Just finishing a Baja 1000 race is a feat, but with an OEM sponsorship, we were there to win. Thriving in that harsh crucible of competition taught me many valuable and hard-fought lessons that transcend racing. I will share here what I have learned to save you from pulling cactus needles out of your hands and countless long nights.

THE WAY OF DAVE

A financial wealth management whiz who made rich people richer, Dave owned the team and drove the Class 8 race truck. He somehow combined the laid-back manner of a California surfer with the intense energy of a Wall Street trader. And, unlike many racers of the era, Dave wasn’t an egotistical maniac. He didn’t shout, bark orders or talk down to people, which was extremely rare for the time. Dave’s biggest gift was his empathy and uncanny ability to put himself in your shoes and understand your thoughts and feelings. And he was a genuinely good person who enjoyed being around the people on his team and treated them well. But he wasn’t a pushover either, as a lot had to get done in a short amount of time.

The Lesson: Dave once told me that off-road racing was the harshest teacher of leadership and management imaginable. In an era when many wanted to emulate the management style of Darth Vader, he explained that yelling and harshness didn’t work (it wasn’t his style either). According to him, the role of a leader was to inspire and build a team that didn’t want to let each other or their leader down. Dave’s unique combination of empathy and firmness made him a very effective leader. We all wanted to do our best for him and each other and were bummed when we didn’t. His leadership style flew in the face of the norms of the times but opened my eyes to its effectiveness.

ENTER VEGAS TONY

Our original crew chief had the time management skills of Ozzy Osbourne and, like a dual-sport motorcycle, was marginal at a wide range of tasks. Tony, his eventual replacement, was the complete opposite. A pavement contractor from Sin City running large-scale projects on tight schedules, Tony was highly adept at time management and screwing a race truck together. Wanting to take advantage of the burgeoning off-road racing industry, he proposed letting specialists rebuild each truck component. We would also ditch the giant race shop for his personal one. Instead of a small team trying to handle everything, each competent would go out to its respective specialist. And on top of this, Tony would keep his regular job working on the truck in his spare time.

The Lesson: This sounded somewhat insane to Dave, but he took a chance, and Tony’s plan worked. Specialists working on multiple components saved time, Tony could focus on carefully assembling the truck, and it was back to its winning form. The most obvious lesson is that sometimes you must take a chance. But beyond that, employing specialists skilled in their respective crafts will always produce better results than generalists. Check out this article from Forbes that explains how specialists will consistently outperform multi-taskers.

THE WAY OF WORK

Another innovation that Tony quickly introduced was to divide the truck mechanically into sections. Each section was then assigned to an individual who was entirely responsible for it. That person knew exactly what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by. They were expected to ask for help if they needed it. Additional people might be working underneath them or even outside specialists. But it was on them if something failed in their section or they fell behind schedule. The move immediately sped up the mechanical preparation process and improved it.

The Lesson: Tony introduced the critical concept of ownership to the team. Its introduction wholly cut through any of the ambiguity or vagueness involved with complicated projects. There was no going back and forth or shifting of blame as everyone knew their clearly-defined roles. It eliminated any b.s. that often swirls around intensive projects involving multiple people. And, just as importantly, it instilled a stronger sense of pride in those performing the work. Introducing the concept of ownership is a must for those needing to get anything done. This article from Indeed gives a great explanation of why ownership is so important.

THE REAR AXLE FROM HELL

In the late 80s, reliable V8 race engines that could survive over 24 hours of punishment were just breaking over 600 horsepower. But most mechanical parts, like rear axles, were still based on heavily-strengthened OEM components. This meant a lot of costly failures as ring and pinon gears or axle shafts continuously shattered into many useless pieces. Swapping out a rear end in the desert wasn’t a way to keep sponsors happy or win races. And upgrading to beefier parts or throwing money at the problem wasn’t the solution either, as we were already running the strongest ones available.

The Lesson: One side effect of ownership is that it can create vertical silos with people only focusing on their areas of responsibility. That isn’t desirable as unique problems often take many brains and ideas to solve. To keep those silos from forming, Dave brought the whole team together to figure out the rear-end issue. The decision was made together to have the rear axle builder attend a race and ride in the truck along with another professional driver. Both deduced that the differential oil wasn’t warmed enough on the starting line, and Dave was “bump throttling” the truck through the whoops. After correcting for both, our rear axle was much happier. Ownership is essential, but don’t let silos form, as solving complex problems often takes a team approach.

Eight Management and Leadership Lessons from 8,000 Miles of Hard Racing

BLOWING BUBBLES IN BAJA

I had been behind the wheel racing in the Baja 1000 for 16 hours straight, and none of it had been easy. We had gone through some of the gnarliest silt beds ever, worked tirelessly to free ourselves after being stuck, bounced off a chase truck going backward on the course and ran out of fuel. I had already been up for another 16 hours before getting in the buggy just before midnight, but my co-driver was doing worse. He had co-drove the long section before me and was now suffering from exhaustion. Most of what he said was incoherent babble, and he was occasionally hallucinating. He was blowing bubbles and needed food, a nap and his juice box.

He was pulled from the car at the next pit stop, and I faced a hard choice: I could either quit or keep driving solo the roughly 200 miles to the finish. It would be dark soon, I was physically spent, still reeking of gasoline from a refueling attempt gone wrong, and I would have to drive very hard to finish under the 38-hour time limit. Knowing that not finishing would devastate the team, I put the transaxle into gear and headed out. The next few hours were mostly a blur, but I crossed the finish line with 12 minutes to spare, officially the second-to-last car to finish the Baja 1000 that year.

The Lesson: People talk about adversity in this era of excessive pampering like it is a bad thing, but it is not. I would never have known I was capable of driving hard for over 20 hours and functioning without sleep for 36 hours if I didn’t push myself hard that very long day. And you will never know what you or your employees are capable of if you don’t occasionally push them. The Harvard Business Review’s exploration of how adversity can positively impact your business is an excellent read.

ANY IDIOT CAN GO FAST (FOR A WHILE)

Most people think winning the Baja 1000 is about mashing the throttle for as long as possible. That is not the case, as rapidly traversing hundreds of miles of harsh terrain involves careful resource management. And the vehicle you are racing in is your most critical resource. Knowing the fastest pace you can run without destroying it is critical to be the first to the checkered flag. That might seem complicated, but it is easy to tell when you are overdriving a racecar. If you constantly bottom out its suspension enough to rattle your teeth and bang every shift off the rev limiter, something will eventually break. And being the first to mile 200 doesn’t matter one iota in a 1,000-mile race.

The Lesson: Yes, we said previously that it is vital to sometimes push yourself and your team. But, just like racing in the Baja 1000, “running hard” is not something you can always do. Constantly pushing your employees beyond their limits, expecting them to work very long hours every weekend, or not having enough of them will eventually “break” them. And your employees are your brand’s most vital resource, so losing them isn’t a good option. Knowing the fastest pace you can maintain over the long term is the key to success in both business and Baja.

THERE IS NO BAD LUCK IN RACING

Dave would never settle for the explanation that a part failed because of bad luck. According to him, a mechanical component only failed because its design parameters were exceeded, there was a manufacturing flaw or a mistake made during its installation. Anything else was an excuse. With his analytical nature from his financial background and factory sponsorship on the line, Dave wanted to know exactly why a part failed. But what was just as important was the way he went about it. Without a giant ego getting in the way, Dave didn’t yell or scream and wasn’t looking to assign blame (unless it kept happening). His main priority was to rectify the issue and ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

The Lesson: Some managers approach problem-solving with the sole focus of assigning blame and taking punitive measures. But that creates an environment where people are afraid to speak up, try to mask the issue or shift the blame. Usually, it will only temporarily solve an issue, if at all. And that doesn’t fly in the racing world. Dave was a skilled problem solver because he created an environment where people weren’t afraid to speak up. With Tony’s concept of ownership deeply engrained in the team, nobody was afraid to “own” the problem either. And all of us knew the goal was to win, so we cared about solving any issues too. If you genuinely want to solve any problems with your business, Dave’s method is a great way to do it.

Eight Management and Leadership Lessons from 8,000 Miles of Hard Racing

NO DAVE, I DON’T SPEAK JAPANESE

Racing the Baja 1000 was big in Japan during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Adventurous Japanese men, women and even families would fly over, rent motorcycles and pit support, and take on the race. Dubbed “rent-a-racers,” most were fairly slow without much experience. But these amateur competitors weren’t looking to win but for a memorable adventure. Even though they started hours ahead of the four-wheeled vehicles, catching up to them wasn’t unheard of. And a full-size Class 8 race truck driven in anger trying to get around an inexperienced motorcyclist made for some seriously sketchy situations.

It was around 3 a.m. during a 1,200-mile race to La Paz when Dave and I encountered our first rent-a-racer. We were running third, driving hard to catch the next truck, and I was being kept busy as a co-driver in the right seat. We flew around a corner at maximum attack only to encounter a motorcycle parked in the middle of the racecourse. Dave immediately slammed on the brakes, but there wasn’t enough room, and our massive front bumper centerpunched the Kawasaki sending it flying. The KDX 200 had developed a terminal engine problem, and its rider, unaware of the speed of the frontrunners, had put it on the course hoping someone would stop. Dave was still trying to process what happened when the excitable Japanese rider leaped out of the bushes next to the race truck. Unfortunately, he only spoke his native language and extremely rapidly. Still in shock and possibly in the truck for too long, Dave turned to me and politely inquired if I spoke Japanese. I pointed down the course and told Dave I didn’t speak it and that we needed to keep racing in very blunt terms. The colorful language snapped Dave out of his momentary stupidity. We sped off into the night, running over the poor little Kawasaki a second time as it was still in the middle of the course.

The Lesson: Before the mass adoption of GPS, a co-driver had the important role of a navigator. But they also operated as a “second brain” for the driver ensuring they made sound decisions. And doing that required open and constant communication without fear of retribution. You need a co-driver for your business if you don’t have one. Even the fastest drivers and best leaders can make a mistake. Someone to bounce ideas off of and help you navigate decisions ensures you make less of them. But they must be able to speak their mind to give the best advice.

LET US BE YOUR “SECOND BRAIN”

At Kahn Media, we can be a knowledgeable co-driver for your brand. With decades of cumulative experience among our staff, we are experts in developing business strategies that work. As a full-service and fully-integrated marketing agency, we also specialize in social media management, influencer relations, content creation, public relations, digital marketing and experiential events. We can operate as a complete turnkey marketing department for your brand, amplifying its message, presence and sales. And we can do that at a price that is often more affordable than hiring your own specialists. Contact us to see what we can do for your brand.