Gil de Ferran's column: On racing heroes and life lessons

Gil de Ferran's column: On racing heroes and life lessons

Insights & Analysis

Gil de Ferran's column: On racing heroes and life lessons


Gil de Ferran, two-time IndyCar champion and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner, serves as Editor-At-Large for RACER magazine, for which he writes a regular column offering his views on a range of motorsports topics. This is what he wrote for our latest magazine – The Heroes III Issue – which takes the form of a letter to his father, explaining how and why his personal heroes have shaped his life and career. -Ed.

Dear Father,

It seems fitting that I’m writing an open letter to you in this Heroes issue. It took me a great deal of soul searching and several drafts, but I feel the content of what you’re about to read is worth sharing with others who, like us, have a passion for life, cars, racing and all things mechanical. You might question why I’d share such private thoughts, and I can only hope the answer becomes clearer as you read on.

You probably know that my memory is really bad – well, I think so anyway, and my wife does, too, so it must be true! At least I have the excuse that I’ve attempted to knock down a few walls with my infamously small head…and the walls won.

Anyway, despite my tremendous lack of recollection, certain things remain as clear as day; I can play back childhood events as if they happened yesterday. Not many, I admit, but possibly the most important ones.
Racing reinforced many of the lessons Gil had learned from his father. (ABOVE)

For instance, I remember like it was yesterday the first time I laid eyes on that old kart you brought home. The orange side tanks, the smell of the exhaust, the magnesium wheels, the pedals, every little detail. Most importantly, I remember the feeling when we were together, pulling it all apart, separating all the nuts and bolts; that smell of gasoline from brushing all the parts clean. I don’t really know how to describe that feeling, but it’s a memorable and strong one. I wonder how many kids feel this way when they’re doing stuff with their fathers? I guess it’s this feeling that bonds generations and opens up a window in the younger ones to learn from the older.

I was fortunate – fortunate that you knew a lot about a lot!

But most of all, you taught me about attitude. Cataloging every kart part we had in stock, job lists, setup sheets, writing everything down – every change, every lap – reading it, reviewing it and thinking about it all taught me to be methodical, organized and reflective; it helped me a whole lot.

But the most memorable lessons were the ones about me and how to get the best out of myself. It was the start of an understanding that I have a tremendous amount of responsibility and control over what happens to me and how I develop. Question everything, try to understand everything. Find the root cause, understand the root cause…be the root cause. Actually, that last bit doesn’t make sense. Sorry, got carried away….

Don’t be afraid to fail – cliché, I know. Every dad probably tells their child that, but somehow you made me feel this wasn’t just an empty platitude. It was – is – really true. The feeling, the belief, that despite numerous disasters, there was always something to be learned; that useful, positive conclusions and directions could come from any negative outcome. In fact, that’s the very basic ingredient of progress.

The second most important lesson was about others. You made me realize a simple truth: the vast majority of people get out of bed really wanting to do a good job and have a successful day. If you actually stop and think about it, that’s obvious. Nobody I know starts their day thinking, “I’m really going to screw this one up, just because I feel like it…”

But bad performances do still happen, and for all sorts of reasons: misalignment of interests and objectives, lack of focus (distractions), lack of interest, aptitude or knowledge, lack of communication, etc., etc. (Note to self: Book material!) To this day, Dad, this principle is a guiding light for how I manage my relationships.

Of course, I did indeed also learn from others. Some closer – family, friends – and some from further afield.

Remember Gigante? He’s like you in many ways – an inquisitive, relentless bastard! He made me understand that the limits aren’t really limits. Working with him, I discovered a whole new level, how my mindset and feelings could change it all, for real.

Ayrton Senna poses for a picture with our columnist at a Formula Ford race in 1985.In fact, watching Ayrton Senna helped reinforce many of those things, too. For me, he was the ultimate, explosive combination of talent, determination, obsession, commitment and intelligence, a brilliant human being. You could almost feel that, at times (many times, in fact), he found a completely different level within himself.

I was left questioning, “How did he do that? Could I do that, too?” The evidence was strong, the feeling was strong, I tried….

Today, I can categorically say that, in the mind, two plus two can equal a lot more than four. Illogical, but I did discover that what you believe is your limit, isn’t. I know this is a bit too esoteric and unempirical for an engineer, but, hey, it is real!

Watching Lauda, Piquet and Prost, I learned the importance of being cunning and strategic.

Sir Jackie Stewart taught de Ferran to control his emotions. 

Sir Jackie Stewart taught me that I could be much more effective and efficient if I had my emotions under control – mind management, he called it – and you know how hard that is for us Brazilians! How right was he, though?

I’m so fortunate that I was either exposed to, or had all these incredible people in my life. I guess they’re all my heroes, but what’s a hero anyway?

It’s the dude with a mask, a cape and a very, very tight-fitting lycra suit, isn’t it?

No, not really. For me, a hero is the one who inspires you, touches you with their magic, and changes your life forever.

So, Dad, when I reflect on my heroes and the contribution they made to who I am today, I can again categorically say that I’m fortunate. Fortunate to be your son.

Muitos beijos.



• Look for more insights from Gil here at throughout the year. You can also follow him on Twitter at @GdeFerran.

• To learn more about The Heroes III Issue, click here.

• Better yet, click here to subscribe now at a special discount rate!