On my most recent trip North to Brainerd International Raceway, I stumbled into an amazing used bookstore that rests literally footsteps from the main entrance to the track: Emily’s Used Books is a national treasure! Yes… I’m outing my nerdiness: despite the beautiful Minnesota summer, the incredible on-track action, even the unforgettable zoo, spending an afternoon inside Emily’s was a highlight of my trip.
There, I picked up a biography of basketball star Larry Bird, copyright 1988 (when Larry Legend was at the peak of his professional career, immediately following 3 consecutive NBA MVP seasons from ’84-’86).
What struck me immediately from the book was the cultural differences in basketball from that era to today. Perhaps our society as a whole has shifted congruently, but the change in the atmosphere around hoops is retrospectively obvious! I guess it shouldn’t come as a complete shock. Perhaps you’ve seen footage (if not, google it: it’s fantastic!) of Kareem waylaying Kent Benson with a right hook under the basket ,literally 2-minutes into Benson’s first professional game, in response to an elbow to the ribs. Juxtapose that, and society’s reaction to it, to the “brawls” of today.
But Larry Bird? As a 40-year-old man who’s never been in a fistfight in his life, I thought I could relate to Larry Legend! In my mind, he was this humble, unassuming baller rooted in finesse! Yet seemingly every other chapter featured a story about Bird throwing fists: On the court… In the locker room… With other players. With fans. With referees. Heck, he even tried to break down the door of an opposing locker room to get a shot at an assistant coach! Bird wasn’t just this mildly athletic white guy with a godly shooting touch: he was a badass!
My point: perception is rarely reality. I think as a society we’ve come to recognize this in the case of celebrities. What we see, read, or think is skewed: our insight is but a snippet of a public figure’s existence (a snippet that is often branded into who or what that individual and his or her marketing team want to be portrayed).
The flaws of perception extend far beyond celebrity, especially in our social-media driven culture. Think about it; we don’t need marketing teams in 2021: we all essentially act as our own PR representative! I think it’s normal (perhaps the word “human” is a better fit) to highlight the best version of ourselves within our social profiles and online presence. While we often aren’t willing to admit that the perception of ourselves that we portray isn’t necessarily accurate, I find that often I’m even less willing to accept that my friends and mentors are anything other than that which is portrayed!
In thinking about this dynamic, I was temporarily eased by thoughts of the racing community. We don’t fall victim to this because we see each other in the flesh at the track on a regular basis. We have real conversations, face-to-face, so there’s less room for misinterpretation! While I’ll admit there could be SOME truth to that idea, the more I thought about it the more I realized that I’m guilty of misperception in real-life too.
Let’s rewind to 2010: I found myself engaged in the NHRA championship chase for the first time. It was essentially a three-way battle between a very young Ray Miller III, (then) 2x world champion Gary Stinnett, and myself. Spoiler alert: at season’s end, Gary was a 3-time champion (a year later he added a fourth)! It was natural for me to view Gary as an adversary, a threat. As a result, it was easy for me to label him, from afar, as aloof – perhaps even standoffish. For lack of a better vocabulary, I kinda assumed he was a prick.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew Gary was incredibly smart and supremely talented. I respected him, on and off the track. I just wasn’t interested in hanging out with him. It felt like enemy territory. It’s a perception that I held on to for years.
Looking back, I’m not certain that I can pinpoint the moment that perception changed. Perhaps it was more subtle than sudden. Today, conversations with Gary are some of my favorite conversations. He makes me think, he’s entertaining, and he’s – get this – hilarious! Once again, perception is not reality; even in a situation where real dialogue and face-to-face communication is the accepted means of interaction!
I think it’s natural in competition to mistake a contemporary for an adversary. I’ve been embroiled in points chases with racers who I didn’t know particularly well beforehand; from Ray Ray, to Trevor Larson, to Kyle Cultrera, and more. In each instance, I pigeon-holed each of them as someone who, for one reason or another, was unlikeable. In each case, in the years since our direct contests, I’ve realized that we’re all far more alike than I ever wanted to admit in the moment. Think about it; ultimately we’re chasing the same things. We know firsthand the amount of work, sacrifice, and effort that goes into that pursuit. We’re typically cut from much the same cloth; it just feels unnatural to admit that in the moment.
Let’s circle back to Stinnett, who has shared with me some incredible stories (none of which I will attempt to repeat) of his days working with Warren Johnson’s Pro Stock team. How’s WJ for an exercise in perception? Although I’ve never met the man, what child of the ‘90’s remembers WJ as a happy-go-lucky guy that we loved to root for? Anyone? Anyone…
C’mon, WJ was a curmudgeon! His callouts of legendary talents like Dave Connolly (he “taught that punk a lesson”) and Scott Geoffrion (who, after winning multiple events as WJ’s TEAMMATE for crying out loud, Warren described as “trainable”) were the epitome of the old man in black socks and flip flops yelling at the neighbor kids to “Get off my lawn!”
But the behind-the-scenes talk from Gary (in addition to Kelly Wade’s recently released book on the Professor) paints a different picture. Seen through a different lens, WJ seems like a guy that I could go to bat for! In fact, some of these stories actually portray him as… dare I say it… COOL!?!?
What’s my point? I guess it’s that we shouldn’t rush to judgement, that we don’t really know anyone until we take the time to, you know, KNOW them (and admittedly, even then there’s room for flaws in perception). But that feels way too heavy.
While Larry Bird, now in his mid-60’s, resides only 100 miles from the mecca of drag racing, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, I find it hard to imagine his greatness extending into our sport. I can’t envision him being .00 and 8.90, much less winning 4 national championships. And I can’t imagine the “Hick from French Lick” rowing gears in a 6-second Pro-Stock car. Although, after reading, I can imagine him calling out a “punk” in the other lane (or perhaps, just letting his fists do the talking)! But there I go again, jumping to assumptions based on my limited perception…