Over the Wall – Lessons in Leadership and Teamwork

I work in Redwood City, CA. It’s a few miles north of Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University. Lucky for us, Stanford and Redwood City have partnered for an educational series and this post is about one of those events in the series.

On Thursday evening, I got the chance to hear about how an ex-Stanford football player with an unpronounceable name (Andy Papathanassiou) changed how things are done at NASCAR car races. He focused on the Pit Crews. He applied team management and discipline from football (coaches, practices, physical therapists, contracts, etc.) to Pitstops! Over the Wall refers to the rule that only 6 people can jump over the wall to perform during a pitstop. The efficiency and speed of that crew can make or break a race where winners and losers are separated by mere hundredths of a second. Continue reading to learn more…

Andy kicks off the talk with stories of how a football player got into NASCAR

What the Heck Does a Football Player Know about NASCAR?

The meeting started with Andy’s account of how he got into NASCAR, something he knew nothing about! He wanted to be in professional sports, but a ruptured disc made that impossible – he thought. During his recovery, he started watching TV and NASCAR. He was fascinated and decided to go to a race when it came to the Sonoma County Raceway. The way he got into his first event by dawning a red jacket and acting as a crew member was clever, hilarious and slightly illegal!

After working in the garage as a cleanup person he got a chance to propose a new idea to the CEO of Hendricks Motorsports. Incidentally, they are the owners of team Jeff Gordon, one of the most successful NASCAR franchises in history. He thought that athletes would be the best pit crew. After all, it was all about speed, strength, and discipline; all traits of a great football lineup. Up until then, the mechanics for the team got to be the pit crew on the “big day” as a reward. So basically they were sending amateurs in to do a make or break job. This seems ridiculous today, but in the past, it was the norm.

So a quick break here. Unlike other sports, a NASCAR race has up to 40 teams competing at the same time. Unlike football and baseball, there’s not a guarantee of a measured amount of time to compete. Even if you are performing terribly in football, you still get 4 quarters to up your game. A race can be over in minutes if your equipment fails and there are dozens of other teams to pick up the slack. So the name of the game becomes consistency and reliability. Once you have that down you have to focus on three (3) things.

  1. Identify bottlenecks – what is slowing you down. Get rid of it.
  2. Shore up weaknesses – the timing of a pitstop is gated by the weakest link. It doesn’t matter if 5 of the six people complete their task in record time if the sixth person goes slower than the entire pitstop is slow.
  3. Eliminate mistakes – you have to practice what you are going to do until muscle memory sets in. You can’t send amateur mechanics out there and expect peak performance every pitstop.

Every Sport Needs a Team

You should be getting the idea now, that this is about finding the best people for the job and then making sure they operate as a team. To that end, Andy started to recruit college athletes. After all, these people were going to be jumping over a wall carrying a spare tire and then slamming it onto the car as fast as possible while handling high power tools. Wouldn’t you want the strongest, fastest more coordinated people you could find? Again, the analogy to a football team is clear.

Initially, the team didn’t like it. The mechanics thought it sucked that they no longer got to go out into the pits on the big race day. One of the reasons this succeeded at all was that Andy’s boss, Mr. Henrick, had his back and made sure that he got to see his idea to conclusion. Fast forward and everyone’s attitude changed when they started winning races! Celebrating the win was even better than being in the pits during the race.

What’s the Point?

Crazy ideas are game-changing. You know that you have them in your head every day. You might be hesitant to tell people because they seem impossible, but you’ll never know if they’ll work unless you do something about it.

Four (4) Principles 

Athletes know that to succeed they have to adhere to 4 principles.

  1. Iteration – practice and repetition make things second nature. A football team would never try a new play unless they had rehearsed and practiced it hundreds of times. A tennis player improves their serve by thousands of practice sessions. Whatever you do, do it before you take it to market!
  2. Coaching – you need someone to provide constructive feedback, drive you beyond boundaries and tie the team together.  Coaches and players feed off of each other and you should seek a coach for all the activities you need to improve upon.
  3. Eliminate Distraction – focus on the thing that they can do next.  Athletes get booed all the time. Basketball players get heckled when they are attempting free throws. Fans yell at the opposing team. Your opponent may try to play mind tricks on you. Focus and block out these distractions. In business, someone will always doubt what you are doing. Focus.
  4. Attempt the impossible – push yourself. Incrementally improve over time it’ll add up to a lot. If you don’t at least try, you’ll never make it.

I left the event with a newly discovered curiosity for NASCAR (OK, I am fascinated with all things automotive), but also a renewed sense of wonder for how someone’s life can take an unexpected turn and work out so perfectly.

Also, I noticed that Andy had brought along a full on NASCAR car and placed it in front of the theater! It’s not often that you see a NASCAR car on the streets of Redwood City.

The Hendrick Motorsport NASCAR car in front of the Fox theater.

It was a great evening and a nice surprise to see applications of leadership and team principles from a new perspective. I’ll take some of these tips back to my teams at Equilar. I’ll also look forward to the next speaker series event from Standford! Take a look at the link below for details on this great program.

Stanford and Redwood City Programs


About song

Tech guy in the silicon valley. If you need anything else, look on the blog. It's all there.
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