Lessons From The Racetrack – Keeping Up vs Getting Ahead

In previous posts I spoke about how my hobby of racing powerful superbikes around various UK racetracks helped me grow and develop professionally.

In this post I’m revisiting the key theme of how the principles of racing successfully can be applied to your professional development.

From the beginning

When racing , we the riders would use a variety of terms to describe hard we were trying. I think there is a parallel between this and the effort we put into our careers.

Racing is about balancing risk vs reward, balancing the need to set competitive lap times and making/taking the overtaking opportunities without taking undue risks.

In this post explore how the value of “undue” can change according to the situation, and how the same judgements apply to progressing your career.

Setting the scene

The ideas I’m discussing crystalised for me in 1986. For the previous six years I hade been racing my existing road bikes in what was called the Production Class, a class allowing only limited performance modifications. These were a range of 70s Italian superbikes which I’d bought because they were what I had read about growing up.

That year I bought my first modern Japanese bike, a Yamaha FZ750. I’m not quite sure how I sold the deal to my bank manager, but I’m fairly sure furniture purchases and home improvements figured somewhere…..

However, the point is that I was racing my only means of transport that I still owed money on. I had to pay for any damage and it was my only transport, yet I wanted to race competitively, . That’s quite a balancing act.

I chose the Yamaha, a sports-tourer, rather than an out and out sports bike, for a variety of reasons: I couldn’t afford even a second hand example of Suzuki’s all-conquering GSX-R1100, and the fast but tricky to ride GSX-R 750 didn’t appeal for something I was going to ride to work evert day.

It worked out surprisingly well, far better than I had expected, but that a topic for another post.

Risk and consequences

It’s important here to think about the the risks and consequences of going racing. The risk is falling off, and I see the consequences in three categories:

Loss of points – Not only have I failed to score any points in this race, if I can’t fix the damage to the satisfaction of the race scrutineers, who have the final say on all safety matters, I wont be able to score any more points for the rest of the day.

Financial – Motorcycle break when lobbed them into the scenery at speed, and the higher the speed, the bigger the bill. For well-sponsored professional riders this is of no consequence as sponsors pay their bills.

For a week-end warrior like me, paying my own bills and racing a motorcycle paid for with a bank loan, this is a real problem.

Injuries and worse – let’s be clear, it’s possible to die crashing a motorcycle, and the higher the speed the more likely this is to happen. Even if the injury is less serious, It may stop me from racing again that day, losing more championship points.

Even worse, I might be out injured for weeks, losing even more championship points.

Real Racers

At this point I need to introduce the idea of a “Real Racer”. To me, a Real Racer is someone who looks at the consequences of falling off in the order above, worrying about not being able to race above all other concerns.

This does not mean that they don’t care about the others, it just describes how they see their priorities.

Think about it: how competitive could I be if my first concern was about the cost of falling off, and how much it would hurt? Would I go for that difficult overtake to gain a place or would I settle for what I had?

What surprised me was that the same applied at work: if I wanted to progress I had to take risks, but not silly ones. Happily, I found that my approach to racing worked well in progressing my career

Here are four terms that I use to explain these ideas.

Riding along:

This means maintaining the same pace as the group around you but not making any special effort to improve your position unless a clear passing opportunity presents itself. This typically happened in the middle stages of longer or endurance (4 and 6 hour) races.

However, the lap times would typically be with a second of our best time, so it’s not a case of going slowly, just conserving energy and resources like tyre and brakes.

Falling off is very unlikely at this speed, short of a mechanical failure. Successful racers can, almost literally, do this in their sleep.

The parallel at work is the need to maintain one’s position without falling behind, but taking opportunities if they arise. The key point is that maintaining your position in a ever changing world is that maintaining the status quo requires continuous improvement.

Yes, what you were doing yesterday may not be enough today.

In a race, if the group you are racing with improves its lap time, you have to increase yours or get left behind. Similarly. I’m now teaching learners with job titles like “sustainability and innovation manager”, new roles that are being put in place to address new and developing threats and issues.

I had to learn about these roles in to understand how my topics related to them, and how I might need to adjust my teaching approach.

The key point is that hadn’t put in the time and effort to do this, I could easily have lost my hard-won reputation as an effective teacher.

Making Progress:

This is a step up from Riding Along,. In this phase I am actively looking for to improve lap times and make/take overtaking opportunities but without taking undue risks.

This stage typically occurs when I see that the rider or riders ahead of me are starting to pull away and have made the decision to try and keep up with them

Staying on is a priority but there is a slightly higher risk of falling off. This is where the difference between real racers and those doing it just for fun starts to emerge: Real racers quickly learn to do this and accept the risk.

At work, this could be choosing to gain a new skill or qualification. This is a low risk activity which requires some additional effort but there is very little risk if it going wrong.

Arguably the biggest risk not pressing on from time to time, but staying in your comfort zone, and the world leaving you behind.

Pressing on: 

At some point Making Progress may not be enough. To stay competitive I need to improve my lap times and/or gain places, say to gain championship points over one or more opponents, and I will be outside of my comfort zone.

More risk are taken and falling off is more likely but staying on is still important. However, if I don’t Press On, I won’t achieve my goals.

At work this would be taking a new job in your existing area of competence. It’s a risk, but not an undue one. In general, an organisation does not normally promote someone to a job they think that person cannot grow into and learn to do well.

And, like racing, if you don’t Press On at work from time to time, you will be overtaken or left behind by those that do.

Going for it

At some point, typically towards the end of a race, even more in the latter changes of a championship, there is an urgent need to make overtakes to gain championship points and places. This is put up or shut time.

Already Pressing On, a decision has to be made to go that bit faster again, and make overtaking manoeuvres than you would normally consider too risky. There is a significant risk of falling off, but not taking the risk means that the required improvements will not be made.

The big difference between Going For It and the other three states is that you can only Go For It for a short period of time simply because of the level of concentration and physical effort required.

This decision separates the Real Racers from the rest.

This is like taking a new job in a new area of work. While the same argument applies, that the appointing organisation will not appoint someone to a role that they think they won’t grow into and learn to do well, there are also other issue like how much you will like the new work/organisation/colleagues. And, like in racing, it’s not something you do with any regularity.

Ultimately it is a significant risk, but one which may lead to significant rewards. It did for me….

How did this work for me

The Yamaha was a great choice for me. I could regularly finish in the top six of 1300cc production races against the lighter and more powerful 1100s and, on one memorable day, managed to win two races outright. Did that fell good or what?

It was also an absolutely brilliant endurance racer, allowing me and my partner to finish third in class against the professionals at a national 6-hour event. Not bad for something I couldn’t afford to fall off.

Work was also successful. Having built a useful but unspectacular career working in a water testing laboratory, I got a job during a reorganisation as the then new role as a Field Scientist.

This was great – I’d escaped the labs – but it meant moving 150 miles way and taking on a role that had few rules and procedures. Scary or what?

However, it worked out well. I found creating new ways of working far more interesting and satisfying than the stultifying procedural rigour of the labs, and my scientific understanding of water chemistry helped me understand the specific technical needs of large, as in oil refinery large, industrial customers.

My racing continued to improve. I replaced the FZ with a brand new Yamaha FZR 1000 in the hope that the extra power would help me win more regularly.

It didn’t quite work out – another lesson: not everything you try will work out – but it was quick enough to win an Open Class championship against the real racers.

At work, after four years as a Field Scientist I got a job as a Works Manager, running the water supplies to a number of holiday towns in east Lincolnshire. Here I learned about being a manager the hard way, getting it wrong more than I got it right – but eventually grew into it.

I subsequently progressed well up the operational ranks before leaving my employer of 27 years – Going For It anyone? – for a new adventure as a contractor on the Isle of Man, and later the Head of Research for a Sector Skills Council, before returning to the water industry a a freelance trainer.

And today

Today, thanks to the various choices I made, my house and car are paid for, I have a decent set of pensions. This means I’m free to do more of what I want to – helping others build the live and careers they want – and less of what I have to.

One final thought. Just imagine I hadn’t talked my bank manager into the loan for the FZ. Where would a be today? I’ll never know but I do know I wouldn’t have given up trying.


I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you have any questions or thoughts, leave a comment below.


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