Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Philosophy: "Only One Way to Win A Race"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the run-up to tonight's State of the Union speech by United States President Barack Obama, Tom Schaller wrote a column on exploring the idea that progressives need to win every battle to accomplish anything, whereas conservatives only need to win one battle to kill everything the progressives want to accomplish. Schaller compared the situation to terrorism (society needs to win all the time, the terrorists only need to win once), but what I was reminded of was a statement made by the greatest living driver in unlimited hydroplane racing, Chip Hanauer: "There's only one way to win a race, and a thousand ways to lose it."

I generally admire Hanauer, respecting his intense, hard-working style and having been amazed by some of the things I had seen him accomplish in the cockpit over the years. However, this statement bothered me from the second I heard him utter it. The guy had won about twenty-five races at the time (he went on to win 61 before retiring)--and there was no way each of those wins was in any way the same.

Just take some of his seven straight Gold Cups (1982-1988), a feat which is not likely to ever be approached. Was his 1984 victory in the Tri-Cities, in which he had to kick the steering wheel to get around the corners and only took the lead after his "old" boat, running for a different team, went dead in the water similar in any way to his 1987 victory in San Diego when staying out of the salt from other boats' roostertails was the key, or to his 1988 victory, which came in a boat that he had not even started the day in? It seems to me that Hanauer knows about 61 ways to win races, not one.

Even adding one word to his statement, "There is only one way to win a GIVEN race, and a thousand ways to lose it" might have more credibility, but I still don't buy it. Perhaps there was only one way for him to win the 1989 Seattle race over a clearly superior Budweiser entry by making a better start and boxing his opponent into a tight inside lane, likely the best driving performance I have ever seen. Yet, in the 1986 Tri-Cities race, with the rival Budweiser not even able to start, Hanauer arguably made mistakes at the start and still managed to outrun the second-place Squire Shop handily; he didn't need to drive the perfect race. No human being--even the extraordinarily disciplined and talented Hanauer--is capable of perfection.

As introspective as he is, I bet Hanauer doesn't even agree with his statement anymore (maybe he didn't believe at the time, but knew it made good television). He would probably phrase it something more like, "There are many more ways to lose a race than there are to win it," and I can agree with that. It doesn't take much more imagination than putting oneself in the cockpit instead of Hanauer, and those 61 victories would have turned into 61 losses.

Which brings us back to politics, an endeavor more filled with human imperfection than probably any other. No human being, even Barack Obama, can maneuver perfectly in an arena that is defined as the art of compromise. Asserting that progressive legislation can be stopped by any conservative victory along the way is as absurd as saying there is only one way to win a hydroplane race. There may be many more ways to fail to pass legislation than there are to pass it, but there is more than one way. The President started his new sales job tonight--now it's up to the congressional leadership to figure out how listen to the public and pass meaningful health care legislation. It's not an easy task, but I daresay there may even be more than one way to do it.

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