What qualities does a driver need in order to make the next step in racing
The judges at the Mazda Road to 24 shootout have a tough job trying to figure out which of the invited drivers has everything they’re looking for – the complete package that will represent Mazda and the partners well as they take the next step up the racing ladder. Sometimes, though, the drivers make the judges decisions easier by clearly not possessing some key qualities or training, making them stand out in the wrong way. And while these drivers are trying to earn a big-money scholarship to step to the next rung of the ladder, the qualities they need are the same ones any driver needs to get new opportunities with teams or sponsors.
“On the driving side, they earned the right to be here,” says Andrew Carbonell, who has served as a judge for several shootouts. “It’s off the track where I see more unpreparedness. It’s not necessarily in their business plan or the videos they send – they’re great. But a lot of times the videos were scripted, or the business plans were written by a professional. Then when you speak to the participants face-to-face, you’re not speaking to the same person you saw in the videos or read about in the business plan. That’s where I see the most weakness, not being true to themselves about what their capabilities are outside the car.”
Another long-time judge, Tom Long, echoes those comments. What a driver does in the car is only part of the equation, he says.
“I think the biggest thing that’s hard for drivers to grasp is it’s more than just being flawless on the racetrack,” Long explains. “That certainly gets you qualified for the conversation. But there are a lot of fast race car drivers out there, and there are a lot of aspects to that – taking care of the equipment, keeping your nose clean, getting the most out of the car, giving good feedback – those are all important. But when you get out of the car, really understand the business model of what the value proposition is for partners whether it’s the team, partners you’re bringing to the team, or the team’s partners.”
Understanding what you bring to the table is critical, says Oliver Askew. Askew has served as a judge for two years; but before that, he was on the other side of the table as a participant in the first Road to Indy scholarship shootout. He won, and went on to dominate in the USF2000 Championship and move up the ranks to IndyCar. He has learned some things about getting and keeping sponsors and partners.
“A classic mistake is presenting yourself before you know the company,” Askew says. “You should always go into a meeting and learn more about the company or person. Do your homework and present them before your own racing program. They’re typically looking for a return, and you need to find out what their business model is.”
That bit of research can lead down paths that might not have been expected, either by the person doing the asking or the person or company being asked. Heading down some unexplored avenues might lead to the pot of gold a young racing driver is seeking.
“It’s thinking not about what the company or partners can do for you, but more about what you can do for them,” says Long. “It requires some thinking outside the box. Some of it is obvious, such as mentioning them when speaking publicly, and representing them well personally and on social media. Those are important, but that’s only part of the puzzle. The rest of it is how you can give the partner the value that maybe they weren’t even expecting, or a different angle that they didn’t think about pursuing such as a business-to-business opportunity within the partners that are already involved. Those are the keys that can help you differentiate yourself.”
Finally, Askew notes that it’s all about relationships; it’s not necessarily what you know, but who you know, that delivers opportunities.
“Not that long ago, I drove an LMP3 car, and that opportunity came into play by me being at the track and showing my face for a year. My track record speaks for itself – you need to have experience and you need to have a résumé. But showing your face at the track goes hand-in-hand with keeping in touch, and whether it’s once a month or every couple of months, keep reaching out,” he says.
All three of these professionals make it clear: a driver’s performance on track may get the conversation started. But it’s going to take a lot more than just being fast to close the deal.