What makes a driver a legend? Is it because they are so great at wheeling a car, or is it their ability to communicate what changes are needed to a crew chief? Is it their ability to stay calm under pressure and make split-second decisions lap after lap, or do we idolize them because we wish we had accomplished what they have?
I believe it’s all the above, but more importantly, the reason they become legends is because they lived their passion. They wanted to go racing. They needed to go racing no matter the cost. They didn’t fear failure or dying. In fact, they defied death simply because it was not in their DNA. Some would say racing was in their blood, but the truth is racing was in their heart.
Legends are driven by their passion to win, and their competitive edge, which they have come to master. Something surprisingly monumental is when these legends can make the audience move with them as if they are sitting at the wheel themselves, giving their right foot cause to hard brake in the corner, lean left and right, then lifting off the brake to mash the throttle again.
It takes lightning-fast reflexes, endurance and athleticism, and the ability to ignore personal safety to surpass the ability of all others on any given day. But then there are the ones who stand apart: the legends. Thanks to healthy doses of excessive confidence, boldness and even a certain audacity, these legends have the ability to push themselves well beyond the limits of other competitors. They carve their names into the tarmac of automotive racing history. Excelling in intense, dangerous environments, caught between ferocious competitors and the limits of their machinery, they earn noteworthy victories, fans who live in awe of them, and records that stand long after they’ve retired.
I’ve never met a racing legend whose eyes didn’t light up as they shared tales of races they ran in — and I’ve met a few. I’ve stood and listened to some of the greatest drivers in history, like Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, Bob Bondurant, Al Unser Jr., and my favorite, Hershel McGriff, as they shared memories like, “See that curve right over there? Well, I was running right behind the leader with only four laps to go, and I knew if I just stayed on his tail that he’d make a mistake sooner or later. I had seen him get loose on this corner on the last lap, and sure enough he pushed too hard, got loose, and I was able to get around and I never looked back.” They never looked back then, but years later they relived every lap, every turn, every shift.
I’ve noticed something about them when they share these stories. They’re not really telling me the story. They are reliving those moments in time, as if it were only yesterday. They are whisked away, as if they have a time machine, to a day when they were dashing, daring, young, powerful, virile and could win. They were born to do this. It was written in their destiny to be great, even before they were born.
Every time I’m at a NASA event I look around and ask myself, who will be a NASA legend one day? Do you ever dream about becoming a racing legend? I know I have since I was a boy. These dreams show your competitive spirit and that you are willing to measure yourself against others.