Sun Tzu and the Art of IndyCar

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Watching the Chinese Grand Prix, my thoughts went to Zen and Tao before remembering Sun Tzu!

New Track Record - Faced with an off-week for IndyCar this past weekend, I decided to tune in for the Chinese Grand Prix from Shanghai. I am open-wheel to the bone, and even though the drivers of F1 often make the word “entitled” seem an understatement, they certainly put on a good show. There must be something IndyCar can learn from the Chinese Grand Prix, some Zen or Tao that will offer sudden enlightenment to a series in desperate need of it. Then I had my own vision, my own flash of understanding. IndyCar must have some connection to Sun Tzu and The Art of War. This Chinese general from 2500 years ago is credited with writing a treatise that explained the intricacies of warfare and has been used in military academies, boardrooms and athletic fields to help guide leaders to victory. It is pretty clear that some of Sun Tzu’s philosophies could apply to IndyCar. Allow me to offer my interpretation and commentary on a few of the general’s quotes.

“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Well, this seems simple enough. The leaders at IndyCar over the past few years have worked very hard at becoming their own worst enemies. I’m not sure that is what old Sun Tzu was talking about, though. The list of self-inflicted wounds in IndyCar is a litany of lost opportunity. The IRL was a spec series that hemorrhaged money. Sponsors ran for the hills. A TV contract was signed that relegated IndyCar to the backwoods of cable. The palace intrigue that cost Tony George his leadership role also resulted in a very messy and embarrassing parting of ways with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. Yep, I think IndyCar has practiced this particular stratagem.

Gene Simmons and friends
Gene Simmons and friends

Photo by: Dana Garrett - IRL

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In assessing how IndyCar has marketed itself in recent years, it is clear that Sun Tzu would have had a problem with the series. The vision of Kiss’s Gene Simmons with his “I am Indy” campaign that went nowhere is an example of strategy without tactics. It was a great overall concept that was never implemented as more than a slogan. Randy Bernard, on the other hand, was a master of the moment. He always had a good idea of what to do today, but it never seemed to reach the level of strategy or vision. Let’s see if the new IndyCar masters have the ability to put the two together.

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” Sun Tzu mentions leadership often. This comment seems like it was directed at Penske Racing and Roger Penske. I’m pretty sure Penske’s new driver AJ Allmendinger would follow Roger into the deepest valley. No other owner has more loyal employees or less turnover. When you have that kind of loyalty, you win the battle. I guess following that old Golden Rule bromide has some staying power. Chalk another one up for Sun Tzu.

“Opportunities multiply as they are achieved.“ Which team has made the most of its opportunities this year? Which team is on a roll? The answer is Andretti Autosport. First James Hinchcliffe wins in St. Pete, and then Ryan Hunter-Reay finishes first at Barber. Our Chinese general understood momentum. And Andretti Autosport has it.

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” Wow. It seems like Sun Tzu actually knows Chip Ganassi. How do you beat Chip? The general knows. Make him discount you. Nothing entertains me more than watching an in-race interview with Chip and hearing him complain about some backmarker getting in the way of his world domination. The nerve of those…people. Sooner or later, Ganassi’s arrogance will cost him a race. I just hope it is one of those backmarkers that beats his car to the line. How sweet will that karma be?

"There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” Enough cannot be said about the raciness and safety of the Dallara DW 12. Even though the only thing different about the cars is the livery, they have provided quality competition on all three types of venues. Is a spec series and controlled costs the way to put spectators in the seats and eyeballs on the TV screens? No, good racing will do that, and that is what the IZOD IndyCar Series has right now. The cars are just the paint and brushes; the artists are sitting in the cockpits.

Victory lane: race winner Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Victory lane: race winner Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing Honda

Photo by: Michael C. Johnson

“Great results, can be achieved with small forces.” Even though fans and writers rail against the idea of a spec series, it does create a parity that would not exist if the wealthy owners were able to spend their way to Victory Lane. Whether it was Dan Wheldon winning the Indy 500 for Bryan Herta, Justin Wilson winning at Texas for Dale Coyne, or Ed Carpenter winning at Fontana driving for himself, the DW 12 creates a situation where anyone can win. Let’s hope for some more great results by the little guys. Sun Tzu would get a kick out of it. And it would really irritate Chip.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” This should be the mantra for the IZOD IndyCar Series this year. You have diverse venues, a competitive car, and a cast of fan-friendly characters both in and out of the car. Much of Sun Tzu’s philosophy can be distilled as “strike while the iron’s hot.” It is incumbent on the series to do something with this wealth of talent and entertainment. The leaders of the series need to lead. That seems simplistic, but much of what Sun Tzu says is common sense and simple. He advocates planning and strategy. Seize the day, IndyCar.

If Mark Miles cannot right the IndyCar ship, it may be time to bring in an Eastern philosopher/warrior/priest to instruct him. Maybe it is time for Mr. Miles to watch the old Kung Fu TV series and channel his inner Kwai Chang Kaine and meet Master Po for some instruction. Listen to Master Po, young grasshopper.

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Series INDYCAR
Article type Blog
Tags andretti autosport, blog, chevrolet, dale coyne, dallara, ed carpenter, hinchcliffe, honda, indycar, mark miles, ryan hunter-reay, wison