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Our Illinois 4-H Story

Life lessons are everywhere, even at the race track

brandt race car with 4-H logo and FFA logo

BRANDT believes so much in the future of agriculture, the Illinois ag company put the icons of the two greatest youth development organizations, 4-H and FFA, on the hood of its race car. Early September was the unveiling of the 4-H clover-adorned racecar, and Illinois 4-H was at Chicagoland Speedway, courtesy of BRANDT and company founder Evelyn Brandt Thomas, to see it all happen.

I soaked it all in, the sounds (OMG), the excitement, the hype, and the reality of life and death in the millisecond of a moment. My plan for the day was to make my three-minute speech, thank our kind sponsors, and drive home. But, the lure of the track drew me in. I'm glad it did, because I would have missed the greater lessons to come that day, and they had nothing, yet everything, to do with racing.

Imagine being in a fire-resistant suit, harnessed in a car where the temperatures can easily reach 120 degrees, traveling, on average, 150 mph for nearly two hours going round and round circling over the same 1.5 mile stretch of road. The only, only, only human contact you have is one voice in your ear.

That Voice. Imagine your bff, your biggest cheerleader, your trusted mentor, and the smartest person on the planet all rolled up into one person, and his voice is the only thing you hear and the only thing keeping you alive. That is The Voice in Justin's ear.

BRANDT provided their guests with headphones which not only blocked out the deafening sound of the engines, but also allowed you to listen to the driver's communication with his pit crew. The Voice was the driver's spotter, positioned way up on top of the racetrack, helping the driver make those millisecond decisions. What I heard that day from The Voice reminded me of life's important lessons.

Life Lessons

Surround yourself with people you trust

I had no idea that drivers can't see to the side in those racecars. When our driver, Illinois native Justin Allgaier, passed someone, he relied on The Voice to tell him when it was clear to move over. "Bumper, door, clear" are the verbal cues Justin hears to know when it's safe to move back over. To be able to give the best advice, The Voice not only knew Justin's ability and patterns, he knew what to expect from the other drivers. It's important to know not only your talent, but understand the habits of your colleagues traveling the same path. Sometimes others have a better view of the road ahead.

Choose your mentors carefully.

Not everyone is going your speed

Although the cars all started at the same spot, it didn't take long for the pack to spread out, and soon the lead cars were lapping slower competitors. That happens every day in life. Not everyone will work as fast as you, or be as driven as you. Not everyone is going your speed, but you can't just plow over them.

You must respect their place on the track and wait for your moment to pass.

Be Patient

At Lap 35, The Voice said "Don't overdo it." It was good advice. The race was just starting, more of the race was ahead of us than behind. When you're in the middle of a pack of cars going 150 mph, there's nothing you can do but wait for an opening. Wait. You must have patience in the middle.

Work your plan.

Trust others to do their job

After a slower-than-desired pit stop, Justin challenged his team to work faster, adding it was easier to pass people in the pit than on the racetrack. He was right, and his team heard him. The Voice reassured him, "we've got your back, buddy." It was unspoken reassurance; your job is to drive the car, and ours is to keep the car ready for you to do that.

Challenge your colleagues to always do their best, and trust that they will.

Sometimes life isn't fair

After a caution flag, all the drivers regroup to restart the race in the order they were when the caution flag came out. Regardless the distance a driver may have gained earlier in the race, on a restart, the drivers are once again bumper to bumper. In essence, the slower cars gain an advantage they didn't earn. Sometimes life isn't fair. You can complain about it, or you can deal with it and get back to work. You passed them once; go pass them again.

Consistently doing the right thing over and over wins the day.

Re-evaluate and adjust

It doesn't take many laps for drivers to find their "sweet spot" of the track. With each lap, though, conditions changed. In the pre-race reception, one of the speakers said, "The moment the engines start, the conditions have changed." The rubber on the tires. The condition of the track. The amount of fuel in the car. What may have worked at the beginning of the race may no longer be the fastest route later. Take stock of where you are in any situation, constantly re-evaluate during the journey, find your new sweet spot and accelerate.

Don't be afraid to change tactics and go a new direction toward your dream.

Take risks at the right time

With 18 laps left in the race, Justin took the lead on a restart and never gave it up. Three-wide, he bolted for the bottom of the track and whipped from third to first place on a gutsy move. He did it because he knew he could; because he had practiced it before. Bold moves look terrifying to everyone, but you've practiced for that very moment. There is no such thing as luck at 150 mph … luck is merely a plan you hide from everyone else until it's time to act on it.

When you've practiced enough, it isn't a risk as much as a calculated move forward.

Stay Focused

"We're racing the car in front of us, not behind," The Voice said. With each lap, The Voice called out the number of the car Justin was chasing. That one goal was the only thing that mattered; not two cars ahead and not the cars behind. Systematically, it was one car, then one car, then one car, until there were no cars left to chase.

Fight the urge to let distraction keep you from the next step toward your goal.

Choose how you lead

I wish I had the Voice in my ear. He was calming and supportive throughout the race. "Good job, buddy. Perfect. Just like that. Way to stay in this race to the end." This guy was my hero by the end of the race.

It's all good advice, for race car drivers and for life's drivers. And it works, because perhaps the coolest thing about the day was winning the race and seeing the 4-H clover in Victory Lane!

Judy Mae Bingman, University of Illinois Extension Marketing and Communications Manager

Judy uses powerful words and photography to tell the Extension story. She is a skilled communication strategist and storyteller with demonstrated success in building teams and creating strong organizational brand identities that deepen Extension’s impact among key audiences, build brand loyalty, strengthen employee talent, and expand public engagement. She is a frequent conference presenter at the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents Conference and helps Extension staff across the nation tell compelling stories.