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Figure out your plan of attack

by Amy Rose Dobson

Metaphorically Speaking

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Virginia Motor Speedway general manager Clarke Sawyer (left) and raceway owner Bill Sawyer.
The redder the mud on his shoes, the happier Clarke Sawyer is. Add a bit of axle grease to his hands and he is completely in his element. As a veteran car racer and general manager of Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica, he knows a thing or two about how to win a race. Before the cars hit the track for another showdown red-dirt style this Saturday, Sawyer talks about tackling the curves both on and off the racetrack.

There’s a saying in sports that you have “to learn how to lose before you can know how to win.” How does that apply to racing?

Sawyer: There’s nothing any truer than that, especially in racing. You have to constantly watch what the guy in front of you is doing. If you learned what you need to learn, and watched everything he does, that’s when you go in and make your move. If you didn’t pay good enough attention you are going to be right back behind him again.

When did you start “knowing” how to win?

Sawyer: I remember my first good lap. It was in the late 1980s in Richmond, which I consider my backyard. We had two practice runs left and decided to put on our last set of new tires. I just remember my dad saying, “Drive it down in there, drive it down in there.” I drove it down deeper than I had ever done and I made about five laps like that. My adrenaline level was through the roof. After you get that first good lap it really starts to click. You’ve got to get that comfort first, before you can grow. That is the first piece of the puzzle.

The Greek myth of Icarus is about a boy who died because he got carried away with himself and flew too close to the sun. How does a race car driver keep his or her emotions in check?

Sawyer: We call it “hero or zero.” You’re making moves where either it’s going to be a perfect move or you’re going to crash everyone around you. That’s the decision that you have to make and you have a split second to make it. It comes down to being respectful of the other competitors. Over time, if you’re a reckless driver, people will get very tired of that. They are going to treat you like you treat them. If you go out there and bust them up, every chance they get they’re going to try and do the same to you. Then it becomes a situation where you are tearing up other people and expensive equipment. You want to make friends while you’re here.

Friends? Even though the competition is so fierce?

Sawyer: There are definitely some good rivalries. You never race harder against anyone than you do your friends. If you have brothers out there, you don’t race anyone harder than you do your brothers. I always had heard that until I got on the track with my brothers. Then, it was punishment time. But, when the race is over, we will all be working on each other’s cars and borrowing each other’s tools again.

A lot is made about the importance of negotiating the corners of a racetrack. This is usually what makes or breaks a driver’s success. What is your best advice for handling the curves?

Sawyer: You’re either being hunted or you’re the hunter. If you come up really strong out of the corners a lot of times that is where you are going to pass people. But preparation is important too. If you don’t go into to the corner right, you won’t come off right. Also, if you know you won’t be able to make a move to get ahead, it is still better to finish second than last. You need to hold your ground.

A racer is under constant pressure at the best of times. But when things start to go wrong it can become a matter of life or death. How do drivers juggle all the variables?

Sawyer: There’s a lot of folks out there that aren’t even into racing that can relate with this. If they have hectic construction schedules or hectic farm schedules, for example, the sun going down is the checkered flag on their day. In either case you have to basically stop, take a look around, and figure out what your plan of attack is going to be. There are constantly things being thrown at you that you have to negotiate and get through them as quickly as possible. From the time you hit the track to the time you leave, it is a big chess game. Only our chessmen have a lot of horsepower to ‘em.

Is it ever a good idea to lose the battle so that you win the war?

Sawyer: If it is a championship race for points and you are toward the end of the season, you don’t take so many of the big chances that you normally would have earlier in the year. They’re going to cost you. Be really sensible about taking a risk, or it’s going to come back to bite you. However, if we were going for the win, my dad would say all I needed to bring back was the steering wheel. As long as it was a legitimate opportunity and a sensible move, the car is the last thing to worry about. If it was not a sensible move, that would be a whole other issue that Dad would not appreciate.

You’re grinning as wide as can be as you say all this.

Sawyer: It’s so much fun to play the game. You’re ultimately in control of it. Whatever happens is your doing. It’s all on you now. It’s me and my toy against my buddy and his toy. That’s the allure to it. You are constantly trying to make it better, faster. There’s always a little bit more speed you can get out of it. For me, it is the most peaceful time. That’s when I get my time just to do my thing.

About the author:
Amy Rose Dobson is a freelance writer who divides her time between Urbanna and Northern Virginia in search of interesting people with a story to tell. She writes for several national publications and has found the best part of the job is hearing the story behind the one that runs in print. This gave her the idea for a column about how people apply metaphors to their lives, and thus this column was born.

posted 08.17.2009

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