Business Lessons Learned From 25 Years of Racing Motorcycles

06/29/2018 3:31pm

Written by: Mark Podeyn, Action RV

When I was in my teens and working in the family trailer repair business, I was intrigued by the movie On Any Sunday.  It showed guys like Malcolm Smith and Steve McQueen, speeding across the desert on a dirt bike.  I wanted to do that! What I learned from years of competing in Desert and Enduro Races gave me the foundations that I would, eventually, apply to running my own business.  As someone once said, “Experience is the cruelest teacher of them all.  First, she gives you the test and then she gives you the lesson.”

Every day, I find myself reflecting on those racing lessons to help me solve the day-to-day challenges that come with running a business.  The following is a list of some of my most memorable lessons that I regularly summon to help me in business.  Hopefully, you find that some of these will help you, too.

1.    Do It Because You Love It

Desert racing is not about putting on a show in front of others.  There’s no grand stands with cheering fans.  It’s an endurance test of will and resources.  Early on in my career as a business owner, I learned that I was motivated by something much grander than possibly impressing others with my skills.  I was doing what I was doing because of why I was doing it.  I love helping customers and teammates and that not only makes me feel good, but it gives me the will to keep doing it.

2.    Always Be Omni-Aware

Take the blinders off.  While staying focused on a target is important, having good situational awareness will keep you alive.  In racing, the competition is in one of only two places: behind you or in front of you.  Being omni-aware allows you to identify threats while focusing on your target.

3.    Things Will Go Bad

Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  I have never had a race go just like I planned.  Something unexpected always popped up and forced me to adapt to the situation.  Flexibility and improvisation is what allows a business owner to continue to arrive at the desired destination.

4.    Look Way Ahead of Where You Are

When racing, it’s important to not live in the moment.  If you do, you will crash.  In desert racing, especially, the terrain is constantly in a state of change.  Look beyond what is immediately in front of you.  Businesses, now more than ever, are faced with a landscape that is quickly evolving.  Be ready for what you will soon encounter.

5.    You Need a Great Team

I’ve never won a race by myself.  I always surrounded myself with a diverse group of people that had four key attributes: excellent skills, unwavering ambition, uncompromising integrity and a perfect cultural fit.  In business, you can fix everything with money, except one thing: the people.  To win in business, you must surround yourself with a great team.

6.    Have Honest Self-Awareness

When I was racing motorcycles, I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were.  Because of honest self-awareness, I knew what situations would be difficult for me and what part of the track I could make up ground.  When you have honest self-awareness, you know what you need to spend more time on improving and where you should be applying your strengths.

7.    Know When to Charge Ahead and When to Take It Slow

When I raced Enduros, I learned that, unlike desert races (a go-as-fast-as-you-can race), Enduros required me to not only know when to roll on the throttle, but also when to slow down for the technical parts of the course.  In business, we’re faced with the same situations.  It’s important to know when it makes sense to take a moment and slow down the tempo for situations that require more finesse.  This ties in with being omni-aware.

8.    Have People That Support You

In 1983, I crashed hard.  I broke my right femur in five places, broke off the femoral neck on my left hip and broke my left collar bone.  Had it not been for my closest friends and family supporting me while on the mend, I don’t know that I would’ve ever climbed back on another motorcycle.  I did, eventually, with excitement.  In business, failure is always a possibility, but it’s never fatal if you have a great support team to help you get going again.

9.    Commitment is Essential

Desert racing is a tough, long, exhausting marathon.  The races can be anywhere from a short, 100-mile race to the intimidating Baja 1000.  To be successful and finish – finishing the Baja 1000 is considered a victory in itself – the race, you and everyone on your team must be committed to the entire process.

10.    Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

I didn’t choose desert racing because I thought it would be easy.  In fact, it was quite the contrary.  I wanted the challenge.  Business is wrought with days of despair and agony.  Business owners learn to get used to being uncomfortable and know that, in the long run, it’s worth it.  I have a saying above my desk that reads: “Comfort is the enemy of progress.”  Every difficult day that I have, I read it and it gives me a bit of solace so that I can muster up the willpower to press on.

11.    Celebrate the Small Things

I won a very small amount of the races that I entered.  Two of my proudest moments came from races that I barely finished.  It was those races that inspired me to keep racing more.  In business, as in life, it’s all an infinite game of averages.  If you have more good days than bad, you’re winning.  Make sure to keep things in perspective and always celebrate the small things.  It’s those celebrations that keep everyone in the game.

12.    Be Prepared

“Success is when preparation meets opportunity.”  Entering the race gave me “opportunity” to win.  Being prepared improved my odds considerably.  In business, we must always review our processes, systems and people to improve the likelihood of having more winning days than losing.  Always think, if someone wanted to put me out of business, what would they have to do to be successful?  Ask your people what you, as a team, need to be better prepared and improve your odds of winning.

13.    Know What Plateau You Want to Compete On

In racing, there are three classes; there’s beginner, novice and expert.  When deciding to enter a race, it’s the rider’s job to assess their skills and risk-tolerance to know in which level to compete.  A beginner should compete against other beginners to build confidence and learn what skills are needed to move up the ranks.  Running a business is no different.  All businesses find themselves plateauing at some point.  It is very important to decide whether to stay at the current plateau or move on to the next advanced class.  Business leaders know that to move up and compete with the big dogs, it’ll involve additional resources.  The leader must summon the moxie to get way outside of their comfort zone, because that’s how the big dogs play.

14.    Humility Helps You Win

When I raced a 100-mile or longer race, I was alone most of the time.  The only time I had help from someone was during my pit stop.  Sometimes, a fellow racer would, maybe, render aid to me if I broke down or crashed.  No one was there to high-five me for avoiding what appeared to be eminent disaster or pat me on the back for performing a mid-air pass.  As a business leader, you are tasked with moving the team forward.  To move a team forward requires knowledge, experience, skill and a fair amount of risk-tolerance.  Business leaders, eventually, learn to get comfortable with the notion that rarely will a subordinate or coworker ever notice what you just went through to move the needle, much less give you a pat on the back.  If you ever find yourself feeling under appreciated by others, go back and read the first paragraph in this article.  That quiet confidence that drives you to be okay with the spotlight shining on someone other than yourself is called humility.  “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis

15.    Unfavorable Conditions Can Help You

I used to ride my motorcycle every day after work, so I could fine-tune my skills.  In New Mexico, that meant riding in 108-degree summer days, pouring down rain in monsoon season or in a foot of winter snow.  Often, these conditions were ridden in the dark, too.  While riding in those less-than-ideal conditions made it difficult and less enjoyable at the time, it did prepare me to race in those same conditions with confidence.  I knew that on race day, when those bad conditions were present, I had already beaten 75% of my competitors.  They weren’t as mentally or skillfully prepared as I was.  When facing challenging external conditions in business, only the prepared will emerge victoriously.  The prepared know that those challenging conditions exist in business and they’ll be ready for them.  Great business leaders treat every day as a test and hone their skill, even when it makes them uncomfortable for the moment.

There is one observation that I’ve made while visiting with hundreds of successful business leaders; they all have had hobbies that influenced their businesses and vice versa.  It has always interested me as to what motivates someone to do what they do.  Just like hobbies, business requires passion and discipline to be successful.  Whether it’s skydiving, running marathons or show-jumping horses, the pursuit of personal gratification and accomplishment transcends your entire life.  So, what you do in your free time has profound effects on your work life.  Make it count.  Never forget the lessons learned.  What lessons have you learned from your hobby or sport that can apply to your business?