Sunday
Nov082009

Solving The Racing Puzzle

An Inside Look at the 2009 Highcroft Racing Season              Photos by Rick Dole
Professional racing is a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Many people pick up the box, admire the photo on the cover and decide they want to do it. How tough can it be?  All of the pieces are all right here, inside the box. So often years later, a half completed puzzle sits on the dining room table, the picture is visible, but so many pieces don’t seem to fit. Sooner or later the puzzle, like so many racing ventures, is tossed aside, too challenging to complete, even though all of the pieces are staring you in the face, at your fingertips waiting to be properly placed.

In 2009, Highcroft Racing completed the puzzle. In fact, I would argue they were the only full-time ALMS team that completed their puzzle; and perhaps one of only a handful of racing teams in the world that did so. Let me explain, piece by piece.

Team owner Duncan Dayton knows business and racing. It is in his DNA. Several years ago he began hiring the very best people to help build his team. The Highcroft crew brings their expertise from Sweden, Switzerland, England, Australia, and the United States. Their experience spans Formula 1 to Indy Car to Historic Racing, resulting in multiple championships and decades of knowledge. They are lead by Robin Hill, whom Duncan refers to his “Field General.”  It is an apt title, not in the sense of Patton; but far closer to General Eisenhower, calm, quiet, commanding. His presence is reflected by the team - able to make strategic calls during the heat of battle (Road America) or having the logistic contingency plans in place well in advance to handle any unforeseen events (Petit Le Mans).

Duncan has complete faith in his team. He does not micro manage. He displays complete faith in his staff, no matter what their role, and cuts them loose to do their jobs. The term “professional” correctly defines every single member of the Highcroft team. It is that simple. A long, drawn out explanation is unnecessary.  But I will say one final word regarding the crew. Most outsiders will never appreciate just how difficult the Nick Wirth designed P1 car was to work on. Easily the most challenging mechanically difficult car in the history of the ALMS. And the radical design of having all four corners running the same size tires presented a unique set of problems to solve. The car was bloody reliable, very fast, and incredibly strong - as witnessed by Sharp’s accident at Petit Le Mans.

Another key piece to the 2009 puzzle is sponsorship. Patron is in many ways a dream sponsor. Ed Brown, the CEO of Patron Spirits loves racing and understands it is an ideal place to entertain guests, promote the brand, and grow his business. In other words, he understands having a logo on the side of a car is not nearly enough. In order to properly invest in a racing program, a company must activate that sponsorship. No company in the history of the ALMS has done this better than Patron. Patron Highcroft Racing set the standard and defined the ALMS demographic. Everything was presented at the highest level, yet obtainable. “Simply. Perfect.”  This is the Tequila Patron motto. And this defines the Patron presence in the ALMS in 2009.

“The Brand Management Team” is the term Duncan has used to describe Jeff and David Borkowski, Paul Ryan, and me. The Borkowski brothers handle the graphics and livery of the cars, the trucks, and other aspects of the team. No one can hold a light to these guys, especially given the number of teams they work for. Each client is given undivided attention and the results speak for themselves.

Paul Ryan is simply the best, complete communications person working in motor sports. Notice I did not say PR. His skills set goes far beyond public relations, and his ability to tie together every aspect of communications and work in unison is amazing..

As for me, I simply push the shutter button. However, I am fortunate enough to have a client that will listen to bold ideas and let me execute them. They don’t always work - 200 green glow sticks along the backstretch at Sebring in the middle of the night for example; but they often do - including having the crew meet Paul and me at the transporter at 4:45 am and be ready to shoot - does. The creative freedom we are all are given is a welcome and rewarding experience.

The results in 2009 were staggering. The Patron Highcroft Racing team exposure ranged from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to Sports Illustrated, to American Idol, to posters in Africa, to ESPN Radio, and this in addition to print publications from around the world. The vast majority of the credit goes to Paul Ryan and Duncan Dayton. Paul’s vision and Duncan’s blessing to pursue it. The associate sponsors benefited from all of this exposure as well. The Highcroft brand is now being sought out by companies never affiliated with sports car racing. Stay tuned, lots of exciting things to come in the years ahead.

The overall benefit to all of this is other teams have stood up and taken notice. Many teams in 2010 will raise their game on the sponsorship and marketing side of the equation, and quite a few of them will be the newer teams to the ALMS series.

Another piece of the puzzle is Bryan MacDonald - the COO of Highcroft. He brings decades of experience on Wall Street and combines it with has fierce competitive nature and his passion for racing. A key component of racing is business-to-business opportunities and Bryan and Duncan understand this better than most. Bryan was the driving force behind the Malaria No More association with the team. He believes that giving back is a fundamental part of doing business. The world is a better place at the end of this year thanks to the association with Highcroft Racing and this great cause.

2009 was also the perfect coming together of the Highcroft drivers. Dario Franchitti drove at Sebring and Petit Le Mans, but his experience helped enormously in sorting out the new car and its development. Scott Sharp combined his business and driving skills to their fullest - and was the adhesive that brought Highcroft and Patron together. David Brabham is the leader of the pack. Blindly fast, eternally calm and infinitely experienced. The results speak for themselves:  Dario Franchitti won the IRL Championship. Scott Sharp won the ALMS LMP1 Championship and is now following his father’s footsteps into team ownership. David Brabham won the ALMS LMP1 Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Have three teammates ever had a better season?

As 2009 comes to a close, the Highcroft Racing team is the only Acura team left standing. One by one, the bigger teams simply couldn’t figure it out. Andretti Green, Lowes Fernandez and de Ferran Motorsports have either directed the efforts in other arenas or are struggling to continue in motorsports.

So there you have it. The puzzle of Highcroft Racing solved. It sounds so simple. Place the 3 key pieces - leadership, vision, and hard work - at the heart of the puzzle.  Fill in the other 25,000 smaller pieces… looks can be deceiving.

The racing puzzle box is the same for everyone. All of the pieces are clearly visible. All fit correctly next to one another. Highcroft completed their puzzle this year - they won races, achieved enormous exposure for their sponsors, and captured a championship. It was hard work and a lot of fun. Winning always is.

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