Like everything else that runs seasonally, the racing season has a beginning, middle and end. When I was really young, it seemed like Western Pennsylvania weather dictated the beginning (rain), middle (yay!), and end (cold).
But there’s another pattern we often followed – the opening winners, middle-of-the-season winners and the end-of-the-year winners.
There are a number of things that happen over the course of a season. With each race, teams learn and get faster. Drivers get more in tune with their cars. The crew gels and the cars perform better.
There are also the bad things that happen as the season winds on. Wrecks shake up a perfectly great car and an unproven backup is brought out. Teams run out of money and equipment to travel or even be competitive. Confidence bottoms out.
While some teams are getting better, others are struggling. And a few teams are able to benefit from these scenarios. That’s why you’ll sometimes see less dominant teams get a win at the end of the season.
Often, these wins are a combination of preparation and circumstances. But they’re still a little bit of luck.
[Side note: Don’t get me wrong. These victories are not pure luck. It takes a lot of work to ensure you’ll be competitive at the end of the season. And you have to be competitive. It’s rare that every other team will get a flat tire and a back marker will grab the big check. ]
Winning at the beginning of the year, though, can be difficult. You’re starting cold.
But it sets the tone for the entire season. It tells your competitors, your fans and your team (and don’t forget your own subconscious, if you want to get woo-woo about it) that you’ve already got your stuff together. And winning is what you plan on doing all year long.
That’s why, growing up, beginning of the season wins were always so important to our family team. And it’s something that’s become even more important to Carl as he’s shifted from competitive to dominant in our area.
If you perform well at the outset, you don’t have to get ahead of your competitors. You just have to stay ahead of them.
And while it’s often more advantageous to sit in second place on the track, that theory doesn’t translate to the pits.
The same goes for promoting races. The earlier you can get a fan into the stands and a driver familiar with your track, the more likely they’ll come back. Often.
So how do you hit the ground running at the beginning of the season? Here are a few of my tips:
Prepare. I can’t emphasize this enough. The only way you can beat anyone before you even get to the track (or open the gates) is in the amount of preparation you’ve done in the garage or at the track.
Test everything you can before opening night. Fire up your generator. Build your spares. Make sure the lights and deep fryers work. Invite me to sample your menu. (It’s for the good of racing, people.)
Get your people on board. Whether it’s your staff or your crew, you’ll see a huge difference in performance when you convey this message: opening night isn’t for shaking the rust off. It’s for setting the tone for the rest of the year.
Have a meeting. Remind them of their tasks and the ways they might need to prepare before opening night (Is their uniform clean? Do they have questions about the program?). Create a positive but productive vibe. This is not a trial run.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. At least not without testing. I’m all for improving, overhauling and making positive updates. In fact, that’s one of my favorite things to help tracks with.
But there’s a difference between throwing spaghetti at a wall and investing the time and money to build a beautiful shelf to hold that bowl of spaghetti. You have to know the difference.
If you’re going to try something new, go all the way with it. Test as much of the idea as you can. Research what’s worked and what hasn’t for other people. Have a backup plan or car.
From what I’ve learned over the years, starting off the season with a bang (or a full set of grandstands) comes down to two basic principles: build on what you know works and out-prepare your competition.
One last piece of advice? Read this. You already have a leg up.