Theoretically Speaking

“If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.” How many times have you heard people say that, or read it on a bumper sticker or T-shirt? How many times have you said it? And if you have, you were probably talking about racing, weren’t you?

It’s interesting because it’s simultaneously a self-defeating and fully explanatory statement. It helps some people understand. Others, maybe not so much. How would you explain an amateur racer taking two weeks off his day job to drive all the way across the country to race in the NASA Championships? How do you explain the time, money and effort you put into racing to a next-door neighbor who doesn’t “get” racing or cars. You know the type. He drives a Camry. His hobby is gardening.

Racing can be difficult to explain, logically anyway. A guy I once worked with used to tell and retell a story about a buddy of his, whose wife issued the ultimatum, “It’s either me or that racecar.” You know what he told her? “Well, I’ve known Chevrolet a lot longer than I’ve known you” And that was that.

Racing is powerful. It makes you do things other people would find odd — or insane — like taking two weeks off to go racing on the other side of the country. We do it because we love it. We do it because we can’t imagine not doing it. For many of us, we don’t know when or how or why we got into cars or going fast. It’s just something that was always “there.” We might not be able to explain it, but believe it or not, there are a couple of theories in academic research that might be helpful.

The first one I stumbled upon is involvement theory, which holds that the greater the amount of physical and psychological energy you put into something, the greater your chances for success. Of course, the more successful you become, the more you want to be part of it. The theory has its roots in education research, which shows that the more involved students are, the greater their chances for academic achievement.

Commodity theory, I think, also applies. It holds that scarcity enhances the value or desirability of anything that can be possessed, and is useful to its possessor. If we’re lucky, we get to race eight or nine times a year, which makes it that much more valuable to us. Another tenet of the theory is that we value what we have worked hard to achieve. That’s why a hard-fought win feels so much better than running away with it.

There is one more that applies. In simple terms, reciprocity theory means you get out of something what you put into it. Even if you only have time and inclination to put in a minimal effort, racing still demands a lot of you. And because of those demands, we end up getting more out of it, so inevitably we become more involved.

And, as we have learned, greater involvement leads to greater chance for success, which we tend to value because of how hard we’ve worked for it. So everything comes full circle and makes perfect sense, theoretically speaking.

Of course, that’s a pretty big conversation to have with your neighbor over the hedge. So just tell him, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand,” and you can go back to the garage to work on your racecar.