Two Hours Until Dawn

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My love for road racing is one of the forces in my life that continues to propel me forward. It challenges me to further develop my best capabilities. It drives me to improve my outcomes. The passion of competing against others in a contest of speed, talent and judgment is much like being an entrepreneur and the lessons drawn from it apply directly to my experiences as an entreprenuer.  I have competed in a number of 24 hour races. Compared to shorter 30 minute sprint races and eight hour endurance events, the 24 hour race is in a class of its own. It's a contest of preparation, machinery, team experience, skill, personal ability, team preparedness, team work and personal attitude. In this way, racing closely resembles startups and entrepreneurship in general. 

In a long 24 hour endurance event, we begin the race with a finite resource (a car that must last the duration), a finite supply of tires, a limited set of spare parts, and limited team energy.  Often we enter these events on a tight financial budget so we have to watch both our technical and financial resource expenditure.  This starts to sound a lot more like a startup with every phase.

The most valuable lesson I have learned from endurance racing is to never, ever give up. Simply put, the outcome is not determined until the race is over. The race usually starts off with the great fanfare, a military fly over, the national anthem, and all the pageantry of a major motorsports event.  Everything is perfect at this time. Like any fight or any war, everything changes once the race begins and contact is made with the competitors. Strategy must be fluid. The team must be able to adapt to changing circumstances and changing situations. Sometimes the beginning hours of the race go exceptionally well. Your car is out and your drivers are hitting their marks. The machine seems to be marching along perfectly and is running in top condition. After a few hours, human nature dictates that the team be lured into a false sense of security and eventually complacency.  An experienced team won't allow this to happen and stays attentive and alert. However, more often than not, the inexperienced team lives high on the initial euphoria until there is an incident or a significant problem develops. Sometimes a problem results from driver complacency. Sometimes it originates from a careless crew member during a pit stop like forgetting a vital operation. Sometimes it simply results from another driver with the same complacency or suffering a high ego to talent ratio.  In any case, this moment of complacency can really bite hard and in some cases ends the race. More often than not, it results in bringing the car off the track for repair. The team loses track position every second it is behind the wall. There is tremendous time pressure to get the car back on the track yet do it in such a way that the fix is solid.

During these times, it’s imperative that the team acts based on its training and good judgment. Often team members panic and react with more emotion than judgment resulting in unproductive brownian motion. Sometimes there are even more serious outcomes. It’s imperative that the team gather itself, find a calm state of mind, think through the problem, fix it and get back out on the track. It’s too easy to say ‘we’re finished let’s go home’. That's what losers do. It’s much harder to get back in the ring. Winners get back into the race knowing that while they have suffered a setback, anything is still possible. Experienced endurance racers know that the outcome of the race is completely indeterminate until the very last minutes of the race. Never ever give up. Keep pressing and keep moving.

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The hardest part of a twenty four hour race is the two hours just before dawn. By this time, the crew has grown weary, the crew chief has become grumpy and the drivers are tired and distracted. This is my favorite time to be in the car. My body rhythms naturally work well in the early mornings and I find this time to be one where I can make great gains. I am aware that most people see driving a race car at this time of night as somehow being the most insane thing they have ever done. Some begin to question the basic idea of every putting a car into a 24 hour endurance contest and having consented to participation in the event. Tempers get short. Drivers get inattentive and the mood sours. 

I find the promise and the draw of the dawn to be intoxicating. Its easy to imagine that there is not much good that can come from careening around a track at 120 mph in the pitch black dark jousting with other competitors. I love it because the combination of dark and an early hour makes me see the world in a whole new light (no pun intended). I have to transform what I know about the track from the daylight into a new environment with less information in the dark. I have to simultaneously filter out potentially distracting features of other cars lights and the glare of the pit wall lighting. It's a mental intensity that one rarely gets to experience. It's one of the single most intense experiences of my life.  I do get bored at times because the crew doesn’t talk much on the radio at this time of the night. Because of that, I have developed the habit to singing to myself to keep alert and to help my focus. A mental jukebox runs incessantly in my head and I sing out loud in the car. Sometimes its heavy metal. Sometimes its the Rolling Stones. Sometimes its John Denver. I have been known to torture my crew chief by singing whatever is going through my head over the radio at this ungodly hour. It has created some hilarious moments.

The best part of the two hours before dawn is the end of the stint which normally ends at dawn. Finishing this phases generates an enormous sense of renewal and optimism. To see the sun come up over the track from the driver's seat means that you as the driver and crew have defeated the night. The normalcy of the daytime has returned and the crew is energized by a combination of cat naps during the night and the sunlight hitting their eyes. The transformation is almost miraculous. I am always struck by the scenery on and next to the track as the dawn breaks.  A few laps in the light reveal twisted pieces of race cars off to the sides of the track, exhaust systems discarded in the night and the occasional hood or bumper off in the runoff areas. Its almost like the sun rising over a battle field. You can also see the battle scarred cars more clearly. Some are dented, some are missing parts and most are filthy with rubber marks, grime and oil. This patina almost seems like a beauty of its own.

As I enter the pits for the driver change and refueling, I am proud of myself but relieved to be handing the reigns over to a new driver. After two hours behind the wheel, I am physically exhausted and parts if my body seem to have lost their connection with my nervous system. Getting out of the car is a major exertion. As the outgoing driver, you must help the incoming driver get strapped in and ready for the next stint. As I finish my duty, cross over the pit wall and take my helmet off, the energy of the night is still in my head. It's firing my neurons faster than anything else does in life. In fact it makes me feel so much more alive than I feel doing anything else in 'normal life'. All except being an entreprenuer. 

There is much that entrepreneurs can learn from endurance racing. The problem of resources, teams, schedules and problem solving all have major themes in common with running a startup. Most importantly is the requirement of a desire to win, determination to finish the race and the grit and determination to never ever give up. I have had times in various startups where it felt like two hours before dawn. Nothing seems to go right and everyone is down about the prospects of prevailing. There is a sea of risk that you are wading through and the only way through it is to get down and dirty with it and engage. Staying out of the fight is the only sure fire way to lose. I have drawn on the energy and experience from endurance racing to carry me through those moments as an entreprenuer.

If you are an entreprenuer, don’t ever ever ever give up. Your success depends on it. It may be nearly two hours until dawn.

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