It was a hot and steamy south Miami afternoon in 2004, and I was working as a driving instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience. It was tough. We worked 12-hour days, turning countless laps at a fast but “safe” speed (i.e. boring to a race car driver – we’re talking 150 mph instead of 180) giving rides to patrons and being chased by customers who thought they were the next Dale Earnhardt Jr. or who drove faster on the highway to get to the race track than they did once they settled behind the wheel of the race car.
At the end of each day every employee, including the drivers, thoroughly cleaned each race car top, bottom, inside and out, including getting on your hands and knees scrubbing bugs off the grill of the car you drove that day. It was not overly glamorous. On a rare break, I had my ear phones in my ears and I was sitting alone on the seafoam green wall that borders the Homestead-Miami Speedway when had this overwhelming feeling that something big was about to happen.
Two hours later, something did: My phone rang and a rather loud, belligerent-sounding man was on the other end of the line telling me about how he was going to change my life. He had a Fortune 500 sponsor that required a female driver, and I was the lucky girl he had chosen to pilot the sponsor’s debut race at none other than the Homestead-Miami track for the 2004 season finale. It would be my debut race in NASCAR’s big leagues.
I Was Literally Off to the Races
I immediately flew to Kentucky to meet my team, arranged for flights for my family, and, next thing you, know I had a driver services agreement, a photo shoot scheduled in New York City, and had been approved to run my first NASCAR race.
As I frequently did at that time, I started to look for the pattern, the “magic formula” that would tell me the recipe for making dreams come true. 13 years I told myself, that is the magic formula. It took 13 years for my dream to come true. I very soon learned that those magic formulas do not exist. I should have known it already, and I’ll tell you why: Not seven months earlier, I was telling a co-worker that I thought it was time for me to quit. I told him I thought I was done and asked for advice on how to get over hanging up the helmet. I had told myself years ago that if I hadn’t made it into the big leagues of NASCAR by the time I was 35 that I needed to find another career.
At 33, I felt like my time was running out. That “BigLeagues-By-35” formula was making me want to quit a full two years before my self-imposed deadline! I sought the advice of a counselor. What in the world was I going to do with my life when I had spent countless years chasing this dream? The counselor was slightly but effectively condescending with his words – “So you have given yourself until you are 35 and you are now 33, correct?” I realized that I was taking for granted that I had a job driving race cars, traveling the country, and meeting great people, and I was going to give that dream job up early over a made-up date and arbitrary number on the calendar. That was pretty silly. So that should have been my first clue.
Back to the race, though: When this call came you can imagine my excitement and I’m not going to lie, my nervousness! The first hurdle I had to overcome was to qualify for the race. Forty-three cars would race and for some reason, one of the largest fields in history showed up to qualify. Twelve drivers would be sent home with no income for their team and no spot in the history books. I had to lay down a lap and get in this race to prove myself. Practice was rough. I had a very new team and we struggled a bit.
When it came time to qualify it was pretty much go hard or go home. Sometimes they refer to this as “wreckers or checkers.” Also, I had done something that, well, let’s just say it was pretty true to form for me, while we were all getting our cars unloaded. When the transporters that haul our race cars arrived at the track, I excitedly skipped out to watch them park.
The NASCAR official in charge of placing the haulers was directing the truck drivers on where to park and I overheard him tell the driver of my hauler to park on the outside of all of the others because “there is no way she is going to qualify for this race so I want you to be able to easily exit the facility.” A rush of anger and some false confidence washed over me and I marched up to that official and introduced myself and assured him that I most certainly would be qualifying for this race. I turned around and walked off with my head down murmuring to myself, “What did you just do? How in the world do you think you are going to drive one of these things for the first time ever and beat enough cars to get in the race?” So, you know, I had that on my mind while I was on the qualifying grid sitting in my car, seat belts tight, ear plugs in – I could hear my heart pounding like a solo drummer in a rock band.
The official who releases each driver for his or her qualifying lap gave me the signal to fire up the car. It was time. With a wink to God and some good rock music in my head, my adrenaline was up. As I shot off pit road and ripped through the gears the car felt good. I took the green flag and sailed off into turn one and here came “the wiggle.” That horrible feeling you get in the race car right before it loses control because you have pushed it beyond its limit and what comes next is an ugly chain of events ending with you in the wall, an ambulance ride to the infield care center and a crunched-up race car. If I let that wiggle win, I would go from hero to zero. There was no way I could let that happen. My confidence kicked in, and this time it was not false. I corrected the trajectory of the car and leaned deeper into the throttle and by the grace of God I pulled through the turn unscathed and without losing any speed. I qualified 28th out of 55 cars. I was not around to see the official trying to maneuver a bunch of haulers out around me, but I could imagine. And it felt good.
After the Qualifier
I wish I could tell you I had a banner race after I qualified, but I ended up wrecking on lap three. At the end of the day, though, just qualifying for that race was the biggest feat I had accomplished in my career to that point and I knew that I was nowhere near giving up on this dream. I also knew that I had to stop looking for formulas when what I needed was willpower. Good thing, too. I didn’t enter NASCAR’s full-time big leagues until four years later, when I was 37. What if I had quit at 35 just because it seemed like a good number?
As we age, it’s human nature to place arbitrary limitations on ourselves. We say we waited too long to chase dreams, or that we’re too old to start over. This is a particularly scary when we allow that attitude to invade our financial, retirement, and legacy planning which, if you’re reading this magazine, you already know is probably best founded in real estate. Do you put silly limitations on yourself? Do you unnecessarily factor your age into your dream? We all wish we could have started younger or accomplished more sooner but guess what?
Create Your Story
Your life is your story – you control the pen and you should write the outcome that fulfills your destiny. Whether you are 18 or 80, don’t let the idea that you don’t fit the “magic formula” for real estate stop you from getting involved. You have the time. You have the ability. You have the resources (right here). Use them!
My friend, NASCAR driver Morgan Shepherd, is probably the driver I reference most in my speeches and writing. He is the driver I look up to the most. Like me, his team struggles due to finances and a lack of horsepower (money buys horsepower, tires and the best crew members) but at 74-years old he is as spry as he could be and still tearing up the tracks at most races in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Before our race last year at the Kansas Speedway, Morgan grabbed my hands and forced me into a swing dance right there on the driver intro stage. I wish I had half his confidence and joy even today!
The kid with the most money winning the race is not the driver I admire. It’s the driver who has paid his dues, maybe been dealt a bad hand over lack of sponsorship, yet still drives himself to each race and has fun – that’s where I want to be at 74. That’s why I’ve decided that I will never, ever give up.
This article was originally published in December 2017 issue of Think Realty Magazine.
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