Illustration by Brett AffruntiCar and Driver
Several small goats on a trampoline. Delightful. Additional goat-related internet searches bring up goats in trees and goats on people doing yoga. “Football goat,” though, brings up not pygmy-goat gridiron but a broad-shouldered man named Tom Brady who is not just good at football, he’s the Greatest of All Time. Ah, GOAT. I get it.
What does it mean to be the GOAT? It’s more than math. The Toyota Corolla is the bestselling car globally, but it isn’t the greatest. At the track, is it the number of wins or innovations that make you the best? How do we compare someone like Barney Oldfield with Lewis Hamilton? Sure, Hamilton has won more races, but Oldfield did it back when race cars were made out of rattlesnakes and wasp nests.
“I think greatness is the ability to maximize the team around you,” IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden told me. I liked that idea, so I called more people, figuring that if I can’t define greatness on my own, maybe we could figure it out together.
Ed Welburn, retired vice president of GM Global Design, assembled his own team to tackle the question. “Do I have a definition of greatness?” he said. “I do because I formed one last night. Me and Jack Daniel’s.” At GM, Welburn oversaw projects like the Oldsmobile Aerotech concept, the CTS-V wagon, and the C7 Corvette. “Look at the ’59 Stingray Racer. It’s not only a beautiful design, but it influenced the design of every Corvette since then, including C8. That’s greatness. Muhammad Ali was a gifted boxer, but what made him the greatest was that all boxers wanted to box like him. Nonboxers wanted to be like him. They wanted to talk, carry themselves, show confidence like him. That’s greatness.”
“You need to have confidence to be successful,” 2018 NASCAR champion Joey Logano said when I asked him if he thought of himself as great. “So, yes. Yes, I do. It’d be like me asking you if you’re a good reporter. You’d better say you’re great or you don’t belong.” Greatness, Logano said, isn’t a distinct unit of measure or a benchmark you can hit.
“There is no perfect lap,” said Lyn St. James, one of nine women ever to compete in the Indy 500 and the first to win Rookie of the Year honors. “You never have the perfect moment. You’re always on the cusp of greatness.”
Occasionally, greatness sneaks up on you, as it did for Tom Kearns, chief designer for Kia Design Center America. I asked Kearns about the Telluride, the three-row SUV that made C/D‘s 10Best list this year and a lot of others’ lists, too. Had he expected such a reaction? “Nope,” he said so quickly that even the PR chaperone laughed. “I realized we had something special after the Super Bowl commercial aired and people I hadn’t talked to in years were calling to ask me if I had worked on Telluride. I won’t go so far as to declare it great myself. But I won’t mind if you do.”
So greatness is teamwork and confidence and flattery, and it’s measured against other greats. Consider the recent muscle-car wars that have led to 700-plus-hp engines in cars you can buy at a dealership. “Mustang and Camaro had stepped up their game pretty significantly,” said Jim Wilder, FCA development manager on the Hellcat-powered Dodge Challengers and Chargers. “We knew we had to keep pace but not just do something similar. We had to do something extraordinary, something that would knock their socks off.” Of course, as soon as the 707-hp Hellcats hit, Chevy and Ford went right back to work. Greatness also makes you a target.
“There was a time when I knew that nobody else could do what I was doing,” said drag racer Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who won four Funny Car championships between 1975 and 1978. He says it was one of the greatest, and most stressful, periods of his career. “When you’re at the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.” That doesn’t sound so great, although it does inspire a saying that I imagine would sound better in Yiddish. “May your worst moments be behind you and your greatest yet to come.”
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