There is a quote from the 1971 movie “LeMans” in which Steve McQueen’s character utters some of the most famous words in the history of racing, even though it was written by screenwriter Harry Kleiner, who also wrote “Fantastic Voyage,” “Bullitt,” and “Red Heat” among other films. It gets shortened a lot and butchered even more often, so here it is in its entirety:
“A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing is important to me, to do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
I think about that quote as often as anyone who goes racing, because there’s an awful lot of truth to it. When we’re between events, what are we thinking about? If we’re not focused on a task, our careers or our families, and our minds wander, they almost invariably drift to racing.
Racing is life, not so much in the sense that it’s all that matters, but that you can find a wealth of parallels in the challenges of racing and the trials of life, and the wherewithal it takes to overcome them. I firmly believe that racing helps push people toward what psychologist Abraham Maslow termed “self actualization.”
Of course, anyone who’s taken an introductory class in psychology has heard of Maslow. His work is still relevant 50 years after his death and taught to this day by professors all over the world. One such professor is Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto. He’s controversial to some, but he’s whip-smart and eminently quotable. One of my favorite tidbits from one of his lectures — many of which are available on YouTube — goes like this, “There are some games you don’t get to play unless you’re all in.”
Racing is one of those games. It requires overarching commitment. It requires an all-in mentality. It requires your mind to wander back to it when it isn’t otherwise occupied. That all-in mentality is fundamental when you’re in the car. It’s as much a responsibility as it is a mindset. It’s what makes our sport so engaging, so stimulating and, at times, so maddening.
“The interesting thing about being alive is that you’re all in,” Peterson said in that same lecture. “No matter what you do, you’re all in. This is going to kill you, so I think you might as well play the most magnificent game you can while you’re waiting. Do you have anything better to do?”
Peterson was lecturing to his students about taking on responsibilities for the purpose of giving life its meaning. I’m inclined to agree.
To give you an example unrelated to racing, last weekend I learned of a professor at the University of Florida who had done extensive research on, of all things, tomatoes. He’d researched what grocery chain buyers seek out in tomatoes — color, shape, stack-ability, a paucity of seeds, size, etc. — and noted that none of those factors had anything to do with flavor. So he took it upon himself to create the most delicious tomato possible. I’m told you can now buy his seeds online or even small plants, but I can tell you from having eaten a home-cooked batch of pasta sauce made from those tomatoes that I’m glad he took on that responsibility. He probably got a lot of out of it, too.
“Why not pick the best thing possible you can do? Why not do that? Maybe you could justify your wretched existence to yourself that way,” Peterson continued. “I think you could. That’s what it looks like. People find such meaning in the responsibilities they adopt. It stops making them ask questions about what life is for.”
I’m inclined to agree.