CEO Insider

Speed, Preparation, and Specialization – What Leaders Can Learn From Car Racing

Jim Cantrell

As the founder and CEO of Phantom Space, which aims to build hundreds of automated rockets to ferry thousands of satellites into space, I took my team to the car racetrack a few months ago. 

I wanted everyone to watch the pit crews.

The incredibly fast teamwork, the specialization and separation of duties as different members re-fueled the car, changed tires, and checked the vehicle’s mechanical condition — all these different contributors working as one.

And here we thought the driver was the only star. No one person is bigger than the team, and each member’s job is integral to success.

This is one of myriad parallels between car racing and startups that I have come across in my lifelong allegiance to both. 

I am a lifelong fan of car racing, a driver and team owner, starting with go-carts as a kid, drag racing by age 20 and later road racing at amateur and professional levels for the past 20 years.  My most recent race was in 2022 and I finished in second place after starting at the rear of the field. 

Jim Cantrell

As I grew older, I started to see how the lessons I learned in racing could help me succeed in my entrepreneurial endeavors. For the benefit of leaders and founders who haven’t had the experience of driving a proper race car at 200 MPH on the oval at Daytona International Raceway, these thoughts may be helpful.

  1. Preparation is Fundamental
    Luck finds those who are prepared to receive it. That is something I preach a lot.What we sometimes perceive in “lucky” individuals is actually a product of their own preparedness. Successful individuals stay ready, spot opportunities, and take advantage of them, even at the misfortune of others.

    When I drive in any race, the preparation started long before the engine’s first roar, entailing assessment and analysis of the track, mechanics, maintenance, strategy, and, especially, the competition. I have been known to literally walk the track the day before the race to get a close up feel for its surface as part of the race preparation.

    It also entailed thinking ahead: what is my plan if someone crashes into me, someone ahead of me loses a part, or another driver cuts to the inside on a crucial corner? Seat time, as we call it, alongside mental preparation easily can change the outcome of such incidents.  Building a new business requires hope and optimism—yet, always, you must plan for what can go wrong.

  2. Passion is Key
    Everyone says this, right? But what if you just aren’t feeling it? The trick then becomes how to find it, how to pick the right pursuit that will unlock your passion. It is in there, somewhere.  Without the passion for what you are doing, you will not succeed.Money has little to do with the roots of success. Ultimately, it comes down to three factors that must co-exist:

    – if you can be really good at something you do, you will like it more;
    – if you can match your ability and passion to something that is in demand, you will thrive;
    – and when you thrive, its because you are inherently passionate about what you are doing.

    While money is motivating for many, your emotional and personal energy is driven by passion.

  3. Be Invigorated by Failure
    If I quit the first time I failed, the worlds of business and racing would just be ‘what-ifs’ to me.If you let the fear of failure get in your way, you never will reach your full potential and tap your true capabilities. On the racecourse, you can push your car to the brink, beyond its abilities, and while you might spin out or drive off track, you keep pushing forward to the finish line.

    In Gath Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, he talks about a winner’s mentality of accepting your fate but never quitting. You may fall behind and be at a disadvantage, but until the contest is over, you still have life in the race.

    Rather than accept defeat, take it head-on and confront it—defeat it. It is too easy to give up and move on to a new project. Create a positive pattern and a champion’s mentality by never giving up.

    And always know: you will persevere.

  4. Keep Your Eyes on the End Game
    Too often, racecar drivers focus too much on the car in front of them instead of seeing the field ahead. They end up losing speed or following other racers into bad situations.Same goes for life and business. Before you start any task or project, define up front what your final outcome is supposed to be. No matter what your end goal is, it is easy to get distracted by the obstacles around you.

    If you take your eyes off the end goal to focus on your competitors and the next obstacle, you can lose sight of where you were going. Focus on what you can control and figure out your best route to the finish line.

  5. Check Your Ego
    Your personal success is part of a greater team. In racing, you have a pit crew, a crew chief, sponsors, suppliers, families. In business, your team is made up of executives, investors, mid-level management, and junior staff, all of whom play an important role in the overall success of the company.  In fact, for each individual, success is contingent on the success of those around us.Be great at your craft, but be gracious, poised, and humble. Even at your best, you are nothing without your team. Losing sight of this will deprive you of your own truth and your own success.

And Now, the Final Lap

Your untapped potential is limitless if you allow it to be. Keep an open mind, maintain focus, and stay motivated.  Don’t just finish the race, win it.   

To quote The Art of Racing in the Rain, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live.” 

Written by Jim Cantrell, CEO & Co-Founder of Phantom Space.
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Jim Cantrell
Jim Cantrell is an inventor, entrepreneur and the CEO and Co-Founder of Phantom Space – a space applications company. With more than 30 years of proven leadership experience and significant contributions to space technology, he is considered a luminary in the aerospace industry. Jim also served as a founding team member at SpaceX.

Jim Cantrell is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn.