Scott Speed enriched by family bonds, not profits, in Speed RC track business

Scott Speed, the former F1 and NASCAR driver turned three-time Global Rallycross champion, overflows with honesty. He was either born without the instinct to have filters or long ago decided to discard them.

So it’s no surprise that one question into an interview about Speed RC — the indoor racetrack and hobby shop he co-owns with NASCAR’s T.J. Bell — Speed grins from beneath the brim of a flat-billed hat and lets the truth pour out.

“This has probably been the biggest life lesson I’ve ever had because A) I realized I don’t like customers, and B) customers are terrible,” Speed said.

The customers in question come to the store to buy RC car parts, but they don’t understand that Speed is already selling the parts as cheaply as he can. So when some of them try to haggle over prices, it drives him nuts.

“This one guy came in and he wanted to break my balls over some part,” Speed said. “I pulled out my wallet and was like, ‘Here, do you wanna take my credit card? Do you want anything else? How else can I help you? Please, would you like a drink? Now that I think about it, can you take this? I’m gonna pay you $5 dollars to take this.'”

“I was having a bad day,” he said with a shrug.

Speed laughs at the story, because he knows something I don’t: The successful business I thought I was here to write about actually isn’t successful at all.

“It costs me money,” Speed said. “I’ve almost got it to where I can break even or maybe lose $10,000 or $20,000 a year. It will definitely never make money. The margins aren’t there.”

So wait a minute. Why is Speed keeping the doors open if Speed RC doesn’t make money and never will? As it turns out, there’s a compelling reason.

——

Before we go any further, let’s talk about RC racing. These aren’t the little cars you got for Christmas from Toys R Us and drove around your neighborhood cul de sac until the batteries died.

These are agile vehicles that zip around Speed’s dirt track like mechanical bees, whipping through corners and flying over jumps. They demand an insane amount of skill to master, which is why the likes of Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Justin Allgaier have spent hours at Speed RC in their spare time.

“Most forms of racing come down to 90 percent car, 10 percent driver, right?” Speed said. “Well this is 90 percent driver and 10 percent car. It’s all you! You can’t hide! It’s a big excuse eliminator, and that’s why I love it.”

Lots of people love it aside from just Speed, and many of them will be at the track this weekend. Speed RC will play host to the 350-entry JConcepts Indoor National Series Finals, which brings the best RC racers in the world to compete.

Most of the time, though, the track isn’t hosting elite events. The typical week is closer to the feel of a bowling alley, where amateurs can drop by to play around or those with more experience can go head-to-head in a series of league nights.

Compared to other forms of competitive racing, it’s by far the most affordable. While high-level karting or Late Model racing can cost thousands, a competitive RC car is $500 (an entry level version can be had for as low as $180). And $1,000 will get you the exact car used by the national champion — setup and all.

“It’s down there on the budget list, which I love,” Speed said. “I love the idea that anybody can do it.”

It definitely takes some practice to get good, though. Speed insisted I give it a try, and — holy crap! — my car looked like Milka Duno driving with her eyes closed.

Racers stand atop a wooden platform overlooking the track with a remote in their hands, eyes focused on their cars going around the track. An automated voice calls out the lap times as each car passes the finish line to help drivers track their progress. Though the track layout changes every few months, the good drivers seemed to run about 15-second lap times in the session I was in; meanwhile, my laps were closer to two minutes.

I got in the way of other vehicles, crashed into barriers, flipped over jumps and got stuck against the wall — and that was just the first lap. On the next lap, I was overzealous on one jump and almost took out Bell — who was standing on the course as a marshal.

“I’m glad you can write,” Bell said afterward, laughing.

But while anyone can learn to be fast (one local woman who stands out is a high school math teacher), pro racers seem to pick it up more quickly than others. That’s especially the case for motorcross riders, who grew up going over jumps and handling corners on dirt; somehow, their brains adjust for the different angle.

It all comes down to learning,” Speed said. “I can go around the track a couple dozen times, and based on the lap times I’m hearing and how the car goes around the track, I can figure out what the fastest, most efficient way to go around the track is.

“That’s literally all racing is. You take the car back to the line as fast as you can and you try to analyze: Was that better or worse? It’s really not any different than that. Everybody can develop car control and drive a car super early on in life. Then it becomes learning what the car wants you to do to it to make it go faster.”

Along those lines, it probably won’t surprise you to learn the best NASCAR driver to come through the track recently and quickly get up to speed is none other than William Byron. A regular at Speed RC, Byron has figured out RC racing as fast as he’s figured out stock cars.

Speed had no idea who Byron was when the 20-year-old started showing up, but he was impressed right away.

“Nicest freaking kid,” Speed said. “He’s gone from being a little worse than me to now when me and him race, he will beat me three out of five times.”

Byron faithfully comes to race whenever possible and even won a league race the night before flying to Miami for the start of Homestead weekend, where he captured the Xfinity Series championship.

“To me, what better thing to do during the week than go race?” Byron said. “It takes a lot of mental focus to do that for that period of time and win races. … It kind of gets me prepared for the (NASCAR) weekend.”

On the night I was at Speed RC, no one seemed to pay any mind that a future NASCAR star was in their midst. Byron blended in, sitting at his work station like everyone else who prepped their cars; he even served as a course marshal after his runs (which is the standard track etiquette for each driver after they race).

“Nobody treats me any different, and that’s what you want,” he said.

But as good as Byron is, he’s perhaps not quite at the level of a 16-year-old named Rex Mathis — who happens to be Speed’s stepson.

The dirt at Speed RC was brought from Myrtle Beach to ensure consistency in lap times.

———–

The real brains behind the Speed RC operation is a Speed, but it’s not Scott. It’s his wife Amanda, who grew up in a drag racing family and later worked in NASCAR team public relations — where she met Scott.

It’s Amanda who is constantly working on something for the business (“She’s 700 percent more productive than I am,” Scott said) and is essentially the contractor for a new building that will house Speed RC next year.

She juggles running the business between being a mom to Rex and the two young daughters — Juliet and Ava — she has with Scott.

Like any small business, operating Speed RC can be difficult, exhausting, thankless work. But when the place is packed and Amanda sees people happy, she feels like it’s worth it.

“I mean, yeah, I’d like this place to make money,” she said. “But how many kids are 15, 16, 17 years old back there? They’re not hanging out somewhere doing drugs.

“Or my little girls, they can come here and play with other kids. It’s a fun family atmosphere. You have all walks of life here. It’s cool to me to see everyone in one place, hanging out and getting along.

“We need that, especially in today’s world. You get to know people by name. Everybody here has become family and friends.”

Scott said the track has become “effectively a charity at this point,” not the profitable business he envisioned when drawing up the plans a few years ago. But he remembers how much of a role karting had in keeping him out of trouble as a kid, and he hopes RC cars can be the same sort of activity for local youths.

I never went out and partied because I had something to focus on,” he said. “So it’s really important for me to have some place where Rex can do that, as well as kids his age. I see it as a good club, like the YMCA.”

But there’s one more reason Speed RC is important to Scott, and it’s a big one. Maybe the biggest.

Rex has gotten good enough at RC racing to where he’s attracted sponsorship for his skills. And the fact Scott, 34, can stand alongside his 16-year-old stepson on the platform and compete? Well, that’s worth more than having the business make money.

“It’s hard when you have a stepson to make connection, because you miss the blood aspect,” Scott said. “So you’re trying to connect with the stepson that you don’t know how to connect to. It’s difficult.

“But the racing, it really gave us something to connect over. Therefore, Speed RC is still going.”

Speed RC

Address: 118 Cedar Pointe Dr.; Mooresville, NC.

Phone:  (844) 722-2771

Website: http://tracks.speedrc.com/

Aaron Bearden: JR Motorsports inches closer to title shot

By Aaron Bearden

The JR Motorsports playoff trio of William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler didn’t contend for the win at Kansas Speedway.

In fact, they didn’t even lead a lap.

But the group survived to tally top-10s, and based on their position in the standings, that’s all that matters.

“I think for us, survival is key to all of these playoff races,” Allgaier said of JRM. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first playoff race or the last one.”

Byron, Allgaier and Sadler haven’t been the class of the Xfinity Series this year. That honor goes to the three Cup Series teams — Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske — who field teams in the lower series.

JRM’s five combined victories fall short of the 21 wins those other three organizations have combined to capture. However, while JRM hasn’t been the best organization overall this season, they’ve been the best of the tour’s class of series regulars.

Despite the strength of JGR, CGR and Penske, those teams have combined to field just two championship contenders (Brennan Poole and Matt Tifft) this season. Both drivers have enjoyed strong seasons and remain in the playoffs, but neither has managed to match JRM’s top trio.

Allgaier and Byron have combined to take five of the seven victories earned by playoff participants to date. The veteran Sadler has gone winless, but claimed the regular season championship. Michael Annett didn’t have the speed of his teammates, but also crept into the postseason on points before an early elimination.

The fruits of JRM’s efforts arrived as soon as the regular season ended and the sport’s newest championship gimmick — playoff points — took effect. And that’s been a different situation than in the Cup Series and Truck Series, where only a few drivers had sizable margin over the rest.

 

In the Xfinity Series, where Cup drivers and teams typically thrive, the overall lack of playoff points for the field meant JRM entered with a substantial organizational advantage.

Between wins and regular season bonus points, JRM came into the postseason with 72 of the 114 total playoff points. Byron, Allgaier and Sadler each arrived in the first round with 11 or more points on fourth-place Daniel Hemric. And because playoff points carry through each round, the trio held the same advantage going into Saturday’s Round 3 opener at Kansas Speedway.

Secure with their advantage, JRM simply survived in Kansas. JGR’s Erik Jones and Christopher Bell dominated the race up front, and Penske’s Ryan Blaney followed in third.

Behind them? Byron and Allgaier in fourth and fifth. Sadler followed in seventh, meaning JRM had the top three playoff drivers.

A perfect weekend it was not. But it was exactly what JRM needs to place all three of their remaining playoff contenders in the final four at Homestead.

Allgaier, Byron and Sadler hold point advantages of 33, 31, and 22, respectively, over fifth-place Tifft with two races remaining until Homestead. If they can match the Kansas performance two more times, the organization should head into the season finale with 75 percent of the remaining playoff field.

“Today we did our job,” Allgaier said. “We’ve gotta do that for two more races, and we’ll hopefully put ourselves in a great position to go to Homestead.”

News Analysis: Hendrick Motorsports changes numbers

What happened: Chase Elliott will switch from No. 24 to his family’s famed No. 9 next season — along with the current No. 24 team — and the current No. 5 team with William Byron will instead become the No. 24 team. The No. 5 will not be used by Hendrick next season, though team owner Rick Hendrick said in a news release he would not rule out its return at some point in the future.

What it means: Bill Elliott used the No. 9 for a large part of his career and son Chase followed suit as he rose through the ranks, so this is a dream come true for the Elliott family. Meanwhile, Byron now will enter the Cup ranks with higher expectations on his shoulders. Even though it’s just a number switch — and Byron will be with what is now the No. 5 team, which has underperformed — the prospect of Byron in Jeff Gordon’s car number is significant. Longtime Elliott fans may be on board with the move, but newer Elliott fans — many of whom had warmed to the driver because he was Gordon’s successor in the 24 — may be wondering what to do now.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Even though it’s just a number change, it’s a pretty big deal to have a new driver in the famous No. 24 car, see the No. 9 return with an Elliott driving it and watch the cursed No. 5 car disappear — all in one announcement.

Three questions: Will Gordon fans who started backing Elliott because he was in the No. 24 follow the driver to the No. 9, or will they root for Byron and stay with the number? Will the No. 9 team be able to shake whatever bad luck comes with being the “fourth” number at Hendrick (No. 5, No. 25)? What is our obsession with car numbers in NASCAR and why does it seem bigger than jersey numbers in other sports?

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

12 Questions with William Byron

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with William Byron of JR Motorsports. Byron, a rookie, is currently third in the Xfinity Series point standings. I spoke to him at Talladega.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I’d say it’s probably 70 percent natural and 30 percent working at it. I started racing five years ago, so it’s kind of come fast and something that when I started, I just picked it up. I’ve been able to work at running the different racetracks and learning the different cars. So it’s probably 70/30.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

My pitch is probably just the fact that I race for Junior and I think running for JR Motorsports is a good way to support us and kind of branch out into something that he supports as well. Dale and I, we get the chance to go cycling and stuff like that, so we’ve had a chance to bond and hopefully bring over some of those fans in the future. We’ll just have to see what happens. But yeah, I think JR Motorsports is a good way to keep supporting.

That’s a pretty good argument. You’re like, “Hey, Junior fans, look at somebody who actually drives for him!”

Exactly, yeah.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

The hardest part is probably the travel and stuff, just going to different places every week and being away from kind of a normal life. But that part’s all exciting; you get to go to a lot of different racetracks, meet a lot of different people and it’s a lot different than what my 19-year-old friends are doing in college. I get pictures of them going to football games and stuff. It’s different, but it’s what I love to do, so it’s fun.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. That would be a pretty cool experience to be noticed in a restaurant. You know, I had that (recognition) just outside the racetrack at the same weekend of the race, but if it was just a normal weekend, it’d be neat to have a fan come up and want an autograph. So yeah, for sure.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Probably just how much the teams work on the cars. It sounds repetitive, but there’s so much work that goes into this sport, and I think that’s sometimes lost in the fray of what we do. There’s so much practice and effort that goes into each weekend, so it’s just very competitive. That’s a credit to what the teams are doing, what the drivers are doing and all the engineering that’s going on to make that happen. 

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Dale. We were going riding last week Wednesday, and the peer pressure set in of going to ride with him. I didn’t really want to at first, but yeah. Dale and all of our group chat have just been talking about fitness stuff, that’s been the hot topic lately. So (I’ve) just been doing that during the week.

What’s your cycling experience? Did you just get into it recently with all these other people at the same time?

Yeah, I actually just got a bike. I wasn’t so sure about all the spandex and everything, but it’s fun and it’s actually pretty fast. As race car drivers, you know we love that. Going downhill is fun when we’re all in a pack drafting.

The thing that’s ironic and weird about cycling is when you lose the draft, you’re done. It’s like being at Talladega. So you gotta make sure you get tucked into the draft, stuff like that. But yeah, I’ve been doing it for the last month or so.

7. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’ve never used the middle finger. Five years ago, racing Legend cars, my second race, I was racing hard and I had no idea what I was doing. I got into somebody, whatever happened — and I got the bird. I got the middle finger.

I was kind of like, “Man, this is kind of a harsh way to start.” So I guess that’s just something that I’ve never chose to use after that; it kind of rubbed me the wrong way and it was kind of a tough thing to learn right out of the box that somebody would do that. So I just kind of never use it. 

8. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, I think definitely so. When I watched as a kid, what was entertaining for me watching NASCAR was maybe not the same as I think now as a driver. When the cars are hard to drive and things aren’t going well, that’s frustrating as a driver but it’s entertaining as a fan. You gotta balance that.

I think you gotta really express your feelings about the race and not just hold back and always do what you think is best for you and your team. Sometimes you’ve got to make it exciting a little bit and that’s what makes it fun to watch.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think you kind of build (it) up. When you’re in the race car, you remember the number on the car, you remember the way the car looks, the way the person drives. You don’t always remember their name, ironically — you just kind of remember, “Hey, this person raced me this way last week,” or “This person keeps running me over every week,” or whatever, stuff like that. You just kind of take a mental note of that and either apply it or keep it and just make sure you have that in the back of your pocket if you need to use it.

But I think if somebody races you really clean, you tend to develop a friendship or develop a respect in the garage and talk to them before the race and stuff like that. So people like Daniel Hemric or Elliott Sadler are people I race against that race me really clean. I just keep racing them clean and ask them for advice, too.

That’s interesting. So in some cases, it could be like, “That red No. 90 car got in my way again! Oh my gosh!” And you don’t even necessarily know who it is exactly?

I mean, I know who it is, but the car and the number kind of take a personality of its own — and I think of that differently than when I see the guy in the garage. I think we all change when we’re in the helmet. We definitely do, because it’s never the same as you expect that person to be, so that’s probably the biggest difference.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’d say in racing, just probably Mr. H (Rick Hendrick). That’s probably, for me growing up, the most famous person that I could picture and Mr. H and really just Jimmie or something like that would be the most famous person.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Sometimes I don’t always say what’s on my mind, so I think sometimes I kind of hold it inside. I think that’s sometimes a good quality to have, but sometimes to get things done, you have to say what’s on your mind. So that would be the one thing I would change if I could.

12. The last interview I did was with Daniel Hemric. He wanted me to ask a driver who started out with some financial backing how you overcame the stigma of being a money guy to being someone known for his talent.

I think that I had the sponsors like Liberty (University) with me early on, so that was my way of kind of connecting myself with somebody, kind of showing that I had a sponsor. But that sponsor wasn’t really interested with what I was doing on the racetrack, so it was more off the racetrack, and I think that did affect me because people were like, “What is Liberty doing on his car every week? His dad must know them,” or something like that. That always bothered me a little bit because it was a real sponsor and they were helping me.

I overcame it just with my on-track performance. Just kind of knowing how I started, how much I wanted to race as a kid — just like every kid wanted to — and the fact that I did get that chance was kind of rare. So I just took that opportunity and ran with it to try and win races and show that I can do things that other people couldn’t. That’s how I got to this point, and now I’ve kind of overcome that and I’m able to just be with JRM and Hendrick with everybody that can support me now.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but do you have a general question so I can ask the next driver?

What sport do they watch outside of racing and what things do our sport need to take and apply from other sports?

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!