In 2003, at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, the newest up-and-coming NASCAR drivers (the rookies) were scrambling for the attention of the racing giants. Joe Gibbs’ racing team was looking for talent. Curtis “Bubba” Markham watched as the young drivers showed their training and knowledge out on the track.
No one knew they were in the presence of greatness.
HIDDEN TALENT: DENNY HAMLIN
A young man stood off to the side, waiting. Denny Hamlin wasn’t there to drive; he was there to do business: to sell a stock car to the Gibbs’ team. They wanted to see how it handled before buying it, and sent him onto the track to drive his car.
Hamlin launched onto the Speedway. He wanted them to see how the car could handle, to make the sale, and he drove his best. The team slowly stood as they watched him. Impressed not by the car, but by the “inexperienced” driver in total control behind the wheel.
The year prior, while all the potential rookies — now staring as Hamlin lapped their times — were finishing their driving practices they had all grown up doing, Hamlin was with his father in the stands. Now he was the center of everyone’s attention.
ROOKIE ON THE RISE
The Gibbs’ team purchased the car. They also told Hamlin they wanted HIM. By 2006,Hamlin was a starting rookie for the Gibbs’ racing team. He proudly had his yellow stripe across his bumper warning other drivers he was a rookie and not to draft his car. But he didn’t need it.
Hamlin went on to win Rookie of the Year and was the first driver to EVER make it into the Chase for the Nextel Cup as a rookie. His career has been in the race at the front of the lines since his first day.
But this isn’t why I remember Denny Hamlin. I remember him for a lesson that has forever stayed in my mind. One only a rookie could teach me.
THE WRECK THAT TOOK THEM ALL OUT
In 2006, I watched eagerly as my favorite driver (Kasey Kahne) was in a fight for a lap with Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. Suddenly, the air filled with smoke. A car at the front of the mass of drivers slammed into the wall. Metal and tires crashed into each other in the smoke. Remnants of vehicles propelled from the thick air and bounced off walls or other cars.
It wasn’t possible for the pack of drivers to all stop in time, and they headed into the dark smoke on the track.
SPOTTERS, THE EYES OF THE DRIVERS
Each driver has an earpiece connecting them to their teams of spotters situated at the highest points around the stadium. The spotters can see what the drivers cannot. With the drivers at potential speeds of two hundred miles an hour, the communication has to be fast and accurate. “Go high” means head toward the outer wall. “Go low” means head toward the center of the course.
The veterans heading into this mass of steel, fire, smoke, and explosions knew and trusted their spotters. They had been driving with them for decades. And still. They chose not to listen. Earnhardt Jr crashed into a car his spotter had warned him about because he was looking at another he was trying to avoid. Tony Stewart disappeared into the smoke and slammed into another vehicle, sliding into the grass. One by one the leaders were falling. Harvick. Kenseth. Gordon. Kahne. Martin. Busch. Edwards. Biffle.
Then we all saw the rookie. I remember feeling my face go into a grimace as I couldn’t imagine the destruction a rookie was about to experience. I remember the sounds of engines, brakes, and metal, the sights of the smoke, flying debris, and fire. I remember watching in awe as the car with the yellow stripe dodged and danced around every obstacle.
Like a warrior riding into victory, the FedEx number 11 car came flying out the other side of the smoke. Unharmed. Undamaged. He wasn’t sliding and rolling. He wasn’t skidding or jolting. He was still driving.
My friends and I joined the fans on TV as we stood and screamed, waving our fists in the victory that seemed impossible. A rookie had survived while the veterans were destroyed.
INTERVIEW WITH THE ROOKIE
After the race, the reporters ran past the weary veterans as they cared for their sore muscles and wounded pride. They surrounded the rookie with microphones and notebooks. One question reverberated around the stadium: “How did you — a rookie — do it?”
Hamlin’s response was five glorious words: “I listened to my spotters.”
The reporters waved his response off and again said, “YES, but how did you DO it? Everyone else crashed. But you made it!”
Hamlin paused before again saying, “I listened to my spotters.” He saw the waves of frustration roll across the waiting reporters who wanted to lead with a hitherto-undiscovered superpower of the next generation of drivers.
He leaned into them and said, “I don’t think I’m understanding your question. I didn’t do anything on my own. I couldn’t see anything but smoke, fire, and metal. I did what they told me to do. They could see what I couldn’t. I trusted them. Why wouldn’t I listen to them?”
I remember standing in my friend’s living room and staring at the screen, nearly as dumbfounded as the group of reporters. He listened to his spotters. He trusted those who could see things he couldn’t. He didn’t lean into his own knowledge of driving or accidents. He didn’t aggrandize his ego and look at all he had accomplished as a rookie — so he should be able to handle this alone.
No. He knew he had a team for a reason. And he listened to his spotters. One of those spotters was Markham, the very man who had seen Hamlin’s talent when he brought the stock car to sell at Hickory Motor Speedway in 2003.
Hamlin knew that even though he was in the driver’s seat, he was NOT the only member of his team. He needed his team to survive the tasks before him.
Today, Hamlin is one of the best-ranked drivers in NASCAR. And I am willing to bet he still listens to his spotters.
WE ALL HAVE SPOTTERS
In our lives, often we are surrounded by smoke and tragedy as we try to keep moving forward. We can be tempted to look at the flying metal instead of listening to the wise people perched above our chaos — the ones who are far enough above the stadium of destruction to see a way through.
You are not alone. This smoke and roaring mass of confusion and mayhem is only a portion of your racetrack. Know your spotters, those people you can trust to lead you through the smoke.
They see your potential. They see the way before you. And you are able to do this.
Let’s be Hamlin. Let’s listen to our spotters.