It’s a Long Race: How the Indy 500 Mimics Our Economy

Written By: Jason Coffey

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It’s about being innovative and leading the field.

Motorsports, and especially IndyCar and Sprint Cup racing, have always been of great interest to me. At the age of eight, I was fortunate enough to be invited by my father and grandfather to the Indianapolis 500The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. At the time, all I knew was the cars went fast and the crowd at the track was absolutely eye opening.

After experiencing the thrill and spectacle of the great 500-mile race, I was hooked. Each time I step foot on the grounds, I take in the history and heritage of 100 years of motorsports. I have gone to every Indy 500 since and look forward to Memorial Day weekend each year.

As the years have passed, the crowd seems to have tamed a bit; however, my appreciation grows each year for the mechanics, strategy, and luck behind each car and each race.

As our country and economy climb out of “The Great Recession,” I have noted some similarities between the economic conditions of small businesses and the greatest spectacle in racing. Let me explain if I may.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

During the late ’90s and early two thousands, small businesses were booming just like most starts to the race. The drivers are amped up from the spectacle leading up to the start: the Purdue All-American Marching Band with the Big Bass Drum (the world’s largest bass drum) accompanying Jim Neighbors singing “On the Banks of the Wabash” and Florence Henderson singing, “God Bless America.” Don’t forget the flyover, taps, and the balloon launch, either.

The scene is electrifying and so was entrepreneurship and small business during this period. Then the recession hit. Like a bad wreck in the short shoot between turns 3 and 4. All the news outlets were calling the events just like Chris Denari high atop turn four. The attrition of business after business ended up being more like “the Big One” at Daytona then a collection of cars skidding to a stop in turn four at the north end of the track.

Time for a Pit Stop

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In a recession, strong companies take a step back and make some tweaks before heading back out on the track.

Now we come to the middle of the race when teams begin to pit and take tires and fuel. They make air adjustments to the tires and adjust the down force of the car. Some teams lose a transmission and go behind the wall. But the point is the race continues on, and the cars turn laps.

At times, the cars spread out on the track. At other times, there are yellow flags after a car crashes into the wall, but the core cars roll on. Just as small business did in 2009. Strong companies made adjustments. They tweaked, and looked ahead, setting up for the next phase of the race.

Other businesses crashed into the wall, while some went behind the wall and completely reinvented themselves to come back out onto the track. The important thing is the survivors got better, and they turned laps.

As we survey the landscape setting up for the next phase, we notice that even companies we thought were impenetrable and impervious to a recession blew a motor or got caught by a rookie spinning across the track. Some were left holding bad debt due to a large project gone bad or at the end of the rope on a bankruptcy proceeding. What’s to note here is those who are left are stronger and poised to take the lead. But these companies didn’t do it alone. They drafted down the back stretch with other companies as if to save fuel, tires, and other resources. They made smart decisions on when to pit and how to retool. They ran lean for 100 laps and saved their equipment.

Approaching the White Flag

With 50 laps in front of us, we are coming out of the recession. Every vendor and customer I am fortunate to talk to tells me they’re busy and generating revenue and profit. Being busy isn’t enough anymore. Being busy is just that–being busy. Being profitable and generating revenue is the key. It seems as though we’ve dove down to the white line at 200 mph, and we’re going for it. We trust the car will stick and the drag race is on.

With this drag race, you’ll still need partners to draft with and be efficient. It’s no longer about turning laps. It’s about being innovative and leading the field to the yard of bricks. Stay out of the marbles, watch your line, and keep your company’s goals and missions over the steering wheel and not in the rear view mirror. The ride is not over. The best is yet to come. It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck along the way, and I’d still keep your helmet on and reach up and pull your belts tight one more time.

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2 comments

  1. Brian says:

    Good stuff, I enjoy the comparison.

  2. David Forbes says:

    My key take-away from this analogy is the fact that the competitors that emerge from the pits are better prepared to continue the race.

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