Willing to Fail, Publicly

One of my standard practices over the last several years of writing and editing Speed News in general, and this column in particular, is jotting down little notes to myself about what could be a kernel of an idea for feature stories and columns.

An idea could leap to mind when I’m coming off track or driving home, wrenching on the car or sitting at my desk, and I’ve got a number of different ways to capture the idea before it becomes yet another thing I’ve forgotten. The kernel is often amply formed to carry a whole column from start to finish and sometimes it’s just a lead.

Lately I’d been toying with the idea that when you find something you are willing to fail at publicly, that’s what you really should be doing with your life, what you really want to be doing with your life. In those early uncomfortable moments, that’s where we emerge from our comfort zones. That’s where personal growth comes hard and fast. That’s where personal satisfaction peaks, in affirmation of the adage that you get out of something what you put into it.

I have experienced it myself in the early days of my racing career, and here again lately it seems. You have to walk before you can run. I had seen it several years ago when my daughter and son were younger and involved in ballet, and taekwondo. They struggled at first, of course, like everyone, and then again and again later on as they stretched their boundaries of what was possible. Conveniently enough, just a few days ago I came across a video from Dr. Jordan Peterson — who is credible when he stays in his lane — and he sort of closed the loop on the whole idea of failing publicly.

In the clip he said, “I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, and I’ve always felt like a complete idiot when I started doing them.” For the purposes of this discussion, HPDE and racing are certainly things that are not difficult to fail at publicly. Here in my region in SoCal, if you drop two wheels off at Buttonwillow Raceway, there’s no hiding it. The dust gives you away, and your errors are as public as can be. The bigger the cloud, the more egregious your mistake.

If you pay attention, you can see it in professional racing, too. Mazda’s diesel prototype program was an abysmal failure, but it’s clear the company learned from it because of the successes the followed. Does anyone remember Cadillac’s LMP program from the early 2000s? How about Coloni-Subaru’s Formula 1 team from 1990, or Porsche’s IndyCar program or Red Bull’s NASCAR team?

Psychologist Dr. Carl Jung said, “The fool is the precursor to the savior,” and I’ve witnessed the phenomenon often enough in the young drivers that come into Teen Mazda Challenge and then graduate to higher forms of racing. In the beginning they often struggle to master heel-and-toe work on the pedals, the size of the car and the spatial differences compared with karts, but soon enough they’re finishing farther forward in the pack, then on the podium, then moving on to the next level.

“You have to be willing to be a fool to advance, because when you first move in your new direction, what the hell do you know? You’re just a bumbling dimwit,” Peterson said in the video. “But you won’t be that for long. That’s the thing. Whereas if you stay in your little safe space, temporarily you’re safe. Well that’s not helpful.”

It requires courage to take on something new, and something like what we do, high performance driving and racing, is a bit like taking on something new every time you set a wheel on track. Heck, sometimes we’re taking on something new lap to lap!

We do it because ultimately it gives our lives greater meaning. It might be a stretch in absolute terms to say that it gives our lives purpose, because we’re drawn to the sport solely for the purpose of having fun, but in some small measure, I think it does in terms of the things we learn about ourselves, the personal growth and satisfaction, the friendships we cherish and the hardships we’re able to overcome.

Failing publicly is part of racing. It always has been.


  1. Brett – this column is so very true. For all of life’s challenges, in addition to racing.

    The first ~2 years after I earned my comp license, I had a terrible habit of spinning. I was given a nickname – Spinny McGinsberg. I failed, publicly, many times.

    It gave me drive and focus to learn, increase my situational awareness, and not make those mistakes. It took time, but eventually, my racing improved. Enough that I earned a CMC series season championship in 2009.

    Drive fast, make mistakes, take chances and learn.

    Well written, Brett. Thanks for sharing.

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