What a legendary racer taught me about growth and life

By McKeel Hagerty | June 5, 2018

I’m an advocate for the notion that the best way to build your company is to build your people. During a recent “growth mindset” discussion with a group of leaders, I was reminded of one of my lifelong heroes, John Cooper Fitch, a legendary figure from the Golden Age of auto racing.

A year or so before his death in 2012 at the age of 95, Fitch and I were briefly “hotel neighbors” at a classic car event in California. I couldn’t believe my luck, and snatched every moment to have a quick word with him. In a moment, I’ll share two growth mindset lessons I took from our chats, but first let me tell you about this remarkable man.

The incredible Mr. Fitch

Fitch was one of those incredibly accomplished Greatest Generation types whose background commanded everybody’s respect. During WW II, for instance, he flew the famed P-51 Mustang fighter plane on bomber escort missions across the European mainland. On one of these missions he shot down an ME 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, which was faster and better armed than any plane the Allies had at the time. On another he strafed an enemy train (inadvisably his Wikipedia page says) and was himself shot down, spending the last few months of the war in a prison camp.

After the war, like a lot of pilots, Fitch had a need for speed and ultimately ended up becoming a race car driver. He had a gift for coaxing performance out of machines— a skill that served him well as a pilot and made him very fast behind the wheel of a race car.

In 1953, he was named Sports Car Driver of the Year by Speed Age magazine. And in 1955 while racing   for Mercedes-Benz in the historic Mille Miglia – a 1,000-mile race along the twisting public roads of Italy — he finished fifth overall, which was remarkable for two reasons. First and foremost, the winner of the race was none other than the legendary Stirling Moss, who set the course’s all-time record that day for time (10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds) and average speed (98.53 mph/159 km/h). Second, while both men were racing for Mercedes, Fitch was driving a standard road model 300 SL production car while Moss was piloting a racing model 300 SLR. (If you’re not into old racing cars, trust me, there’s a huge difference.)

Lesson No. 1

During one of our chats, Fitch noted the irony of racing for Mercedes, a car company from the very country he counted as an enemy just a few years before. He said he never felt the German people were enemies, only their leader and their government. He actually developed a great fondness for the Germans, their engineering capabilities, and the people at Mercedes. He clearly had no internal barrier preventing him from flourishing behind the wheel of one of their cars. Whatever feelings he might have had during the war, he was able to let go.

That’s Lesson No. 1. Letting go is a real sign of a growth mindset. Letting go opens up space for new growth.

Lesson No. 2

A second lesson is contained in the images above. Take a look and tell me what’s different between the two dashboards.

If you’re a racing fan, you probably knew instantly. The dashboard on the right – which would be similar to Fitch’s production model he raced in 1955 – has a speedometer. Whereas the dashboard on the left – from Stirling Moss’ famed 300 SLR – does not.

Why?

As Fitch explained: “Because (race car drivers) are supposed to drive as fast as we can while maintaining control.” Speed, he said, is just a byproduct of performance, not a goal, and that frame of mind is how you win in the racing world.

It’s also, I think, how you win in the world outside of racing, and here’s why: Most of us, I believe, carry around many barriers and “speedometers” that limit our performance.  We think we’re going too fast or we try to measure progress in the wrong way and then we limit ourselves. The reality is we often hold back, content with our skill-sets, abilities and circumstances, when we could be doing so much more.

Which makes me wonder: What if we didn’t hold back? What if we took our foot off the brake, ignored the speedometer in the back of our head, and just drove like race car drivers, flat out but in control? What if we thought only about maximum performance and not about arbitrary guidelines?

I imagine we’d win an extra race or two.

Do you agree? If so, what “speedometers” do you have that hold you back? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Onward and upward.

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