March 17, 2011

"I'm a race car driver!"

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Tanis Hammond, a member of one of my networking groups, tell her story of land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Tanis is currently the fastest woman at Bonneville, having just set a new record last August at 323 miles per hour. She was also the first woman to join the "300 club."

Her story struck me on many levels, but the clear message of her talk was "Say yes."

Tanis talked about having the opportunity to drive a race car back in the 80s, as her husband was already involved in the sport. She says, "I don't know what my life would have been if I hadn't said yes."

When she got into the car in 1987 to take her first run, she said to herself, "What am I doing here? I have three little kids!" But the fear quickly dissipated. She pointed out to us that land speed racing is a dangerous sport, but if you focus only on that aspect of it, you hold yourself back from all the great experiences that come with racing.

There were two aspects of Tanis' talk that were particularly interesting to me. One was the idea that we're all afraid and we're all courageous. Tanis may not be afraid to drive a car over 300 mph, but she is afraid of public speaking, which she told us right up front. I loved her final quote:

"I was so afraid to get up here, but I'm going to go through the rest of the day on cloud nine because I did it."

Now, she may not be screaming with joy the way she was when she first broke 300 mph, but she was certainly experiencing some of that good adrenaline we get when we stand on a stage and share our passion with an audience!

Tanis has internalized the concept of "Say yes." She may not love speaking; in fact, it might make her extremely anxious, but she doesn't say no. She challenges herself to get up there and tell her story. She knows she has something to say and she's willing to deal with some discomfort in order to spread her message.

The other aspect of Tanis' talk that resonated with me was the issue of self esteem and the "impostor syndrome."

Tanis has been racing since the 80s and has set many land speed records. She is one of only 11 women and 665 men competing in the sport. Yet, it was only when she set the record at 323 mph that she came out of the car saying, "I'm a race car driver!"

All those years, all those records and awards, and yet Tanis wasn't quite ready to embrace it. She told us, "A sense of self esteem comes from actions and accomplishments," but she had been unable to accept her own accomplishments.

How often do you put yourself down or deny your [public speaking] accomplishments because you're still waiting for the "big thing" to come along? How many of you disregard your [public speaking] skills and talents because they don't measure up to someone else's unattainable achievements?

This is the second message I got from this presentation: "Embrace your success." Look at what you've done in your life and your work and own it -- NOW. Celebrate it -- NOW. Sure, you'll achieve more, but don't forget to take credit for what you're doing NOW.

One technical comment about Tanis' presentation and her use of stories. She's talking about something that none of us in the room have done, and that none of us will likely ever do. How do you talk about racing a car at 300+ mph and ensure your audience feels connected?

Tanis did a great job of telling us all the technical stuff about the car (the small parachute on a spring that pops out and deploys the bigger parachute), the salt flats (reflection so intense you get sunburned under your arms), the mechanics of racing (her hands strapped to the steering wheel), the relationships (the women of racing "have brought a softer side to Bonneville"), how it feels (we saw it for ourselves on video)... and never once did I feel lost or confused. She made her topic easy for anyone to understand, and this is a storyteller's gift.

I particularly loved the analogy she used to describe how fast one is really going at the 3- or 4-mile mark in a race.

She gave us a framework for understanding the distance and speed by referring to a local offramp we all know and a pedestrian footbridge about two miles down the road from that. Then she told us to imagine counting 12 seconds from the first offramp... she'd already be at the footbridge.

I tested this out later; I admit it, I set the countdown timer on my phone for 12 seconds and started the trip meter in my car at the aforementioned Las Positas offramp to see how far I got in 12 seconds. It was really cool to see for myself what she had been describing.

This was an example of how you can be nervous and you can be inexperienced, but if you have a clear message, good stories, good visuals and lots of passion, your audience will never be disappointed.

I want to leave you with this awesome video of Tanis' son Channing going 293 mph on the salt flats. The video is from the perspective of the driver, and I really grasped the concept of high speed while watching this. After all, as Tanis mentioned, there are no other cars or buildings to pass on the flats to judge your speed by, so you don't even necessarily feel it!

293 MPH RUN World Finals from Channing Hammond on Vimeo.

Video description: The strings taped to the car are for a study of the air passing over the body. The car is pushed off the starting line by a push vehicle up to 45-50mph and then the run begins.

At the end of the run behind the camera the parachute is deployed and from the sound you can hear the car decelerate. The car is going about 100mph when I pull off the track and make my way to the return road, where I am met by our "elated" crew with the trailer to tow the car back to the starting line for another run where we qualified for the record with a 318mph 5th mile time with a 323mph terminal exit speed.

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