Recently, I was honored to hear NASCAR Hall of Famers, 1960 Grand National champion Rex White and 1988 Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott, speak in the media center before the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. After the tumultuous events at the end of the race that resulted in behavioral penalties for Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart, I couldn’t help but remember some timely words of advice from these two legends.
“Any driver is going to lose more races than he wins, White said. “You got to learn how to be a good loser and it will make you a better winner.”
While today’s corporate sponsored NASCAR often bears little resemblance to its blue collar beginnings, the essence of racing remains unchanged. There is only one goal; to win. It’s that competitive passion that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the checkered flag waves. But therein lies the rub; there can be only one winner each race.
Bill Elliott put it another way, saying, “Some days you just got to take your licks and go on to the next race.”
But what does being a good loser mean?
It’s a concept that most athletes and particularly racers, simply don’t understand. They are taught that winning is everything and in their minds, losing equals failure. Accepting a loss gracefully means acknowledging defeat. Or does it?
Dale Earnhardt is famously quoted as saying that “second place is just the first loser.”
The seven-time NASCAR champion, however, was no stranger to losing. Over the course of his Cup career he competed in 676 races, winning 76 times but losing 600. It took 20 attempts before he finally won the coveted Daytona 500 in 1998.
Earnhardt earned the title of The Intimidator on the track and was arguably one of the most aggressive drivers in the history of the sport. No one hated losing more than him but he learned to accept the losses as a necessary evil and move forward once the checkered flag flew. A perfect example is his 19th heartbreaking loss of the Daytona 500.
In 1997, Earnhardt was running second in the final laps of the Daytona 500 when he wrecked. Jeff Gordon, in third place, was trying to pass and Earnhardt made contact with the wall, got sideways and flipped his car in the chain reaction that ensued. After repairs, including taping the back deck onto the No. 3, Earnhardt was back in the car.
“I got in the ambulance and I looked back at the car,” Earnhardt said, “and I said ‘man, the wheels are still on that thing.’ I got out of the ambulance and asked the guy inside the car that was hooking it up and said, ‘see if it will crank’ and he cranked it up and I said, ‘get out, give me the car back.’ So I drove it back around here and we taped it up.”
“I don’t know that we could have won the Daytona 500,” Earnhardt continued, “but we was sitting there, ready for a shot. I think Gordon was a little impatient at that point but still he went on and won the race, he was running his race. That’s the way it goes.”
The most passionate and successful champions in any sport refuse to be defined by their losses. Instead of placing blame on others they look inward, dig deeper and refuse to give up. No one expects these fierce competitors to accept losing gracefully but when a bad finish causes a driver to lose control of his emotions and engage in potentially dangerous behavior, it only compounds the significance of the loss.
Michael Jordon, six-time NBA champion once said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, who has been eliminated from this year’s championship battle, echoed those sentiments, saying “I truly believe that those moments make you stronger.”
“It’s great medicine for the 48,” he elaborated. “I don’t want to be in this position. But it’s great medicine to sit and watch this championship unfold. It’s going to motivate me, Chad (Knaus, crew chief) and the team, all of us on the 48 team. We’ll come back next year and be ready to roll.”
Perhaps it’s all about perception. Loss is inevitable but it is also transitory. It can be viewed as failure or as an impetus to future success and that mindset is what truly separates the winners from the losers.