The Architecture of a Championship (revisited)

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Just ten short months ago, I authored an entry to this very column titled The Architecture of a Championship, in which we focused mainly on the logistical challenges and scheduling strategies of championship sportsman competitors. Less than a year later, I write this with the 2021 NHRA Lucas Oil Series Super Gas national championship trophy sitting beside me. Kind of ironic, (and kinda friggin’ sweet)?!?

What I want to do today, is to look back in an attempt to distinguish the key ingredients in my own championship run (although as you’ll see, I don’t necessarily believe they’re specific or independent to me). While the focus 10 months ago was on logistics and strategy, this retrospective will be more dedicated to the pillars that I believe facilitated success in my own season. Namely: preparation, opportunity, and circumstance. Put in simpler racing terms, what we need is: a great car, solid driving, and good luck!

Preparation (A Great Car):

Obviously, any job is easier to do when you’ve got the appropriate tools. And when it comes to Super Gas competition, I think it would be difficult to find a better tool for the job than my Charlie Stewart Race Cars, C7 bodied Corvette roadster. The combination in my Corvette is the same combination that was in my last American dragster (the car that won me the 2017 Spring Fling Million). When I sold that car, I said that it was the best race car I’ve ever owned, both on the throttle stop and in wide open bracket trim. I literally slid the Huntsville Engine SR20 headed 632, with the BTE trans and converter out of that car and into the ‘Vette. The only change was an increase in gear ratio to compensate for the weight difference.

So the combination was both refined and familiar, which speaks, on some level, to how we were able to hit the ground running in 2021 with what was essentially a new car (I think I made 28 runs with it in 2020). The real advantage that I would point to with my equipment, however, goes beyond the tune up. My combination runs 9.90 at around 170 mph, putting me on the faster end of Super Gas. And yet, in a category that is filled with vehicles that are uncomfortable to drive at lower speeds (ask me how I know…), I’m in a fast car that not only goes down the track everytime, but does so in a manner so comfortable, that I don’t ever have to think about “driving” the race car. It literally goes down the track as easily (perhaps even easier) than a dragster. That couldn’t have been illustrated better than at season’s end: we won a day at the Great American Guaranteed Million bracket race in the Corvette. I was running it wide open, dialed in the 4.8’s (1/8th mile). It was cold: below 40 degrees. Toward the end, my opponents, in dragsters, were having a hard time getting down the race track. My Corvette not only kept running the same number, but it never gave any inclination of getting skittish. In an environment where you wouldn’t expect anything to be easy to drive (much less a 4-second buggy), it was just that!

Opportunity (Solid Driving):

Obviously winning a championship takes more than a good car; we also have to drive it with some degree of competence (at minimum). While I’m uncomfortable taking credit for “great” driving – that descriptor is both subjective and arbitrary, not to mention overrated – I will do my best to break down my own performance.  

While I did not have my best season on the starting line in 2021, I am proud of the way that I acquitted myself at the finish line throughout the season. As you might imagine, there are a lot of layers to that. As mentioned above, I had a really good race car; and it’s easier to do a good job at the finish line as a driver when we’re confident in what we can run! I take a lot of pride in my game planning and strategy for each round, and I do feel like that’s one area where I excel. As for execution, I hate to sound like a broken record, but the comfort level I have driving my Corvette (specifically in a class where I don’t think that level of down-track comfort is common) plays a huge role in my ability to do my job at the finish line. Because I was not inhibited by worrying about how my car was going down the track, I was freed up to focus on how I needed to position myself relative to my opponents, and act on my instincts.

Circumstance (Good Luck):

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell does his best to challenge the way that we typically think about success. While talent and ambition are certainly key ingredients, he argues that a lot of people have those in abundance, and yet don’t experience great success. What the successful have in common, in addition to talent and ambition, are timely breaks: opportunities that they didn’t necessarily control (or until years later, may not have even been aware of). A racing season is not a career or a life, but I think it’s fair to apply Gladwell’s principles of success. As our own Alan Reinhardt would say, “Racing is a right place, right time kind of sport.”

When I look back on my 2021 Super Gas season, the number of “coin flip” races that I was involved in is frankly overwhelming. By my count, I had 8 rounds of competition decided by .001 of a second or less. Even in a class that prides itself on parity, that seems like a huge number! Those races are coin flips. Some would argue that skill trumps luck, regardless of the margin. In my experience, however, when we win close races, we tend to point to skill. When we lose, however, we tend to bemoan our luck! Regardless, you’d likely assume that as I write this holding a championship point total, that nearly every one of those “coin flip” decisions went my way. In fact, they did not.

The majority did: I was 5-3 in those close rounds. The striking part isn’t the record so much as the context. The 3 “coin flip” losses were all in early rounds of competition: races that were “easy” to replace on my points earning ledger. But the 5 “coin flip” wins… 4 of them were in the quarterfinals or deeper (and the one that wasn’t was early in a race that I ultimately went on to win). Two of them were in rounds where the next round’s bye run hung in the balance. One was a final round. If those 5 coin flips don’t fall my way, instead of posting the highest points total in modern Super Gas history (734), I end the season with 615 points (23 short of Austin Williams, landing me in second place). Amazing the difference that a little timely luck…errr… positive circumstances can make!

So that’s it! All it takes to win a championship is a great car, solid driving, and some timely good fortune. Simple enough, right? When you figure out a way to replicate those specific factors with dependable consistency, let me know!

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