“Let’s go for a drink”. Thank goodness for Bacchus’ international language. I am escorting @original_stig (yes, the first one, the one wearing the black suit) Perry McCarthy, F1 driver, Le Mans racer – now motivational speaker – to my old school in beautiful Naples, Italy.
A beer and a glass of wine at the airport helps level the differences between the dude on first name terms with the racing legends of my generation and the nostalgic Italian emigrant who runs a software company in Brexitland. It doesn’t matter what you’re passionate about: so long as you’re passionate, you’ll hit it off with other life enthusiasts.
Time flies as we talk and fly, on time for late dinner at the destination. Once I have clarified how and why I am representing a syndicate of old-boys from all over the world sponsoring Perry’s speaking engagement to the 15 to 18 year-old cadets of Nunziatella, he wants to know more of what goes on inside an Italian Military School and even more of what may be going inside the head of these youngsters. Know your audience: between a bite, a sip and a cig he’s recceing the track before the race. You can tell that effortless focus is his thing, for he can switch instantly from gazing at the yachts in the moonlight on the marina to asking the sharp questions that will enable him to tune his pitch tomorrow.
Tomorrow comes and the school conference starts in the Assembly room. The cadets race in and Perry races on. Staying on track at 300+ km/h is a matter of life and death; steering people through a presentation surely involves less risk but similar mental skills: instant tweaks based on the vibe of the room, sharp breaks if a joke falls flat, progressive acceleration to keep momentum. McCarthy, thankfully, doesn’t just steer: he stirs. His less-than-perfect life, superbly laid out in his autobiography Flat Out, Flat broke, is perfectly engaging – all the more important given this specific audience who is young and foreign. In 24 hours Perry has not had time to master the Italian language… but his arm-waving technique and facial expressions would earn him an honorary degree in Neapolitan body language.
“Every one of the pictures you see projected on the screen represents a problem” – says the Stig – “and for each problem there’s a choice: either it’s the perfect excuse to give up or the signal that you’ve got to find a new way to overcome it”. You can feel the fiery temperament as he punches away at the challenges, the setback and failures in telling his stories; you relax as he smiles and reveals his optimistic outlook and award-winning self-irony.
The Italian cadets respond with their own determination, fighting the language barrier to ask probing questions: “Do racing drivers have any fear? How do they manage it?” (“Of course they do – but they block it. Something that is particularly difficult when someone’s trying to overtake you in the rain before a turn and you drive effectively blind for a few instants”); “Can you be enemies on the circuit and friends outside?” (“Competitive drivers know that they think alike and this is the glue that makes friendships possible; however, once in a race, the only thing that matters is winning”); “how different is today’s F1 vs your experience in 1992?” (“Much more technology. I prefer that era, when the pilot could have a greater impact on the final result”).
By the time the Q&A is over, Perry is in pole position and dictates the pose in the final photoshoot. Today Army and Motor-racing, young aspiring officers and old pilot, Italy and Britain are borderless in the lively meet-up of different worlds.
Time for a final pint and then home. 24hr with “le man”, the man behind the helmet, a pleasure and an honour to have met. Thank you Perry.