Call me dense, but I could never quite understand the allure of NASCAR. To me it seemed a lot like driving down Interstate 5 from Sacramento to Los Angeles: simply put your foot to the floor and get there as fast as you can. Sure, just like Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart you sometimes need mad driving skills to weave in and out of traffic on I-5 to avoid those “pack drivers” huddled together bumper to bumper at 80 mph or to sidestep a car crash in the making. But other than that, to me stock car racing always seemed more about the noise, speed, a blatant display of machismo, and beer. I thought the NASCAR formula for victory was pretty simple: fast car + great driver = winning.
Then I came across an article describing something I hadn’t realized: pit stop strategy.
That recalibrated my thinking. As a kid, my carefully crafted definition of a pit stop came from long road trips in the family station wagon. It was synonymous with taking a pee. It was a sprint race to the bathroom by five squirrely brothers. The toilet seat was our winners circle and the mad dash as we bolted from the car had all the simplicity and noise of drag racing. It was all or nothing. Flat out - get to the restroom first (or maybe second) or end up doing that wiggly little kid dance holding your private parts in line desperately waiting for the flushing sound as you moved up in the queue. There was no strategy involved. Put the pedal to the metal or you’ll wet your pants!
On the race track, however, strategy may be everything. Often the difference between the checkered flag and eating someone’s exhaust is how efficiently and strategically you execute a pit strategy.
Wikipedia provided more insight in the value of pit stops:
“By making pit stops cars can carry less fuel, and therefore be lighter and faster, and use softer tires that wear faster but provide more grip. Teams usually plan for each of their cars to pit following a planned schedule, the number of stops determined by the fuel capacity of the car, tire lifespan, and tradeoff of time lost in the pits versus how much time may be gained on the race track through the benefits of pit stops. Choosing the optimum pit strategy of how many stops to make and when to make them is crucial in having a successful race. It is also important for teams to take competitors' strategies into account when planning pit stops, to avoid being "held up" behind other cars. An unscheduled or extended stop, such as for a repair, can be very costly for a driver's chance of success, because while the car is stopped for service, cars remaining on the track can rapidly gain distance on the stopped car.”
Then I went to NASCAR.com and read some comments from driver Carl Edwards in an online article on by Mark Aumann. What's happened, according to Edwards, is that pit strategy can negate any advantage a faster car may have on the track. "You will not win these races repeatedly if you don't have the right calls on the pit box," Edwards said. Aumann concluded: “Winning the championship requires a certain level of consistency. . . and the key, in his (Edwards) opinion, is walking that delicate balance of knowing when to be aggressive and when to be cautious.”
So, to win the race you don’t just drive until you run out of gas, burn up your pistons, and blow out your tires? I guess not. As school communicators, I think we can learn a lot from race car drivers as we Race to the Top. Obviously, we need to build in a Professional Pit Stop Strategy into our careers so we don’t sputter along running on fumes or actually burn out.
Here are a few of my perceptions about effective Professional Pit Stop Strategies:
Be your own pace car
Schools have only been in session for a few weeks and if you’re already tired and your gas is running low you are in trouble. You won’t be able to finish the race to June. And, when it really counts in a crisis or high profile, intricate situation you may not have the fuel in your tank to stay on track. Maintain a consistent pace in your job that enables you to gain ground steadily.
Take a personal retreat so you can advance
We create communication plans and district plans, but we rarely have a personal professional plan to guide our work. Twice a year, take yourself on a one-day personal/professional retreat (maybe with your favorite beverage, a friend/mentor, and a notepad). Create a plan for you. Know where you want to go, why you want to get there, the road map for reaching the destination, how long it’s going to take, and how you’ll know when you’ve arrived. It isn’t about doing things right, if you’re not doing the right things!
Know when to say “enough”
Adding a lot of “other duties as assigned” like cord wood in the work pile on your desk doesn’t make you indispensable, it makes you overworked. Be thoughtful about fitting requests into your schedule. Are they true priorities that should trump what you already have to do? Watch for the “dump trucks” on your professional speedway that drop off their problems at your desk instead of solving them on their own. Making marginal progress across a broad front of tasks and assignments won’t be satisfying or memorable. Get things done, but remember you are never going to be caught up.
Top off your own gas tank periodically
It’s important to keep your professional tires balanced, front end aligned, and engine tuned up. Maintaining the right balance between a healthy lifestyle, family, spiritual needs, intellectual pursuits, and professional networking will keep you psychologically sane and physically sound. Find those turnoffs in the rat race that can be “filling stations” to keep you moving forward.
Look out the windshield, not the rear view mirror
Learn to put the past behind you. Learn from mistakes, but don’t dwell on them. Build a proven track record and a solid body of accomplishment, but don’t sit on your laurels. There will always be another race and people are counting on you to be up for it.
Assemble a good pit crew
At a NASCAR race, the average pit stop takes just 15 seconds to change four tires, fill the tank, and check the engine. In that time your competition can be a quarter mile down the road. If you’ve ever watched a pit crew in slow motion it’s like sophisticated choreography as a team of specialists works together in a synchronized dance. You cannot do your job without help, so surround yourself with a great pit crew of associates, advisors, resources and networks that enable you to be the best driver you can be. Teamwork is a winning combination.
In life, and in your career, more pit stops along the way can make the journey much more enjoyable. In hindsight, I often wish my Dad had executed a better pit strategy during those long road trips. We could have traveled with a lot less fuel in our tanks.
I’m still wondering why the NASCAR drivers don’t have to take a pit stop to pee during a 400-mile race? Maybe they just do the wiggly dance and ask their crew chief . . . Are we there yet?