Back in 1996 I was at the Indy Racing League Las Vegas 500k. My dad had had an affiliation with a race team (Byrd-Cunningham Racing to be exact) and was doing some other work so he and I had tickets and hospitality area credentials. The day before the race I was eating breakfast at the Byrd tent and suddenly I look up and there's Bobby Unser sitting down right in front of me!
Bobby Unser, if you don't know, is a member of the famed Unser racing family and Bobby himself won 3 Indianapolis 500's but I personally didn't know him as a racer but rather from his commentating on ABC (he retired from racing in 1981; I was born in 1983.)
I had always been nervous meeting any person who had any celebrity status whatsoever and I kept eating my breakfast and did everything I could not to acknowledge that Bobby Unser was just across this small table from me. He, however, had other ideas.
"Hey you," he said, "do you like racing?" That question may seem like one that has the most obvious answer, but I now realize that, if you want to engage a 13 year old at a race track you should ask about racing. "Well, yes I do" I said sheepishly to which he then asked, "Do you want to race when you grow up?"
Did I want to race? It was the only thing I ever thought of and I responded, "Well, I actually do race now as I race karts." to which he got a huge grin and I was feeling more and more comfortable and he followed up with, "How did you did in your last race?"
My last race was interesting to say the least as I had had a new experience and I was more than willing to tell Bobby, "I was doing great in my last race with two great showings in the heat races and in the main I was running for the lead when my dad had forgotten to tighten the bolts and my right rear wheel came off sending me spinning off."
My words hung in the air for a moment and Bobby's tone sort of changed and he didn't respond at first and he went from looking at his food to sort of looking up over my shoulder and he said, "Son, if you want to make it in racing, or life, you've got to learn this one lesson. Never, and I mean never, criticize those on your crew because at the end of the day they're the ones that will tighten all the bolts and if you don't support them they won't support you. This goes outside racing to and is a lesson you need to learn."
I felt bad then because I was now being lectured by a legend and I didn't realize what I had said was a taboo of sorts because my dad would be the first one to tell you that his mechanic skills on the kart were lackluster at best (we once did an unintentional science experiment on how long an engine can go without oil. The answer? Two laps) so I thought it was okay, but from an outsider's point of view I quickly learned it wasn't right.
A few awkward moments passed and Bobby then said, "Did you check the wheel yourself?" to which I responded that I couldn't because I had been flagging the races before me to which brought up the flag that the chief starter of the Indy 500 gave me and the tone went from a mini-lecture to one which was like two friends who had known each other for years. He then signed my flag as I've only had winners of the 500 and a select few sign it
By the end of the conversation I think 30 minutes had passed and breakfast had long since gotten cold. It took me a long while to really soak in the wisdom he gave me from that day but while flagging a race in Phoenixville, PA yesterday I fully understand what he meant by staying positive even when a mistake happens. All to often I'd be the first to criticize a mistake and to continually do so, but come the next time would that person be willing to help me at all knowing that I'm going to be overly critical of any mistake? I guess you could say I was given a mini-motivational speech 18 years ago, but I often think back to the awesome opportunity I had to have breakfast with Bobby Unser and even with so much time gone by the conversation still has wisdom that I am learning.