The Driven Life: Mike Arning on team-building, public speaking and staying organized

Mike Arning (right) has moderated some major NASCAR press conferences, including the one where Tony Stewart announced he was retiring and that Clint Bowyer would replace him. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Mike Arning, founder and senior vice president of True Speed Communication.

If someone out there is wanting to get started in the PR world and they’re not already down the road in their career, what’s a good first step for people who are in college now?

Probably the biggest thing is — and I don’t care how much media changes — the written word is still incredibly valuable. That might be counter to what some people think, as the print industry continues to consolidate and things like that. But even with digital media, how you frame a social media post, regardless of the platform, how you word it can really be the difference between something that gets a lot of engagement and something that doesn’t.

Even as media continues to become more socially driven and more digital, traditional media still exists. It hasn’t gone away, nor do I think it will ever go away. So something like a concisely written press release that also is a bit creative that helps cut through the clutter — because how many press releases do you get in your inbox on Sunday? It’s a ton. You can’t read them all. But if someone can deliver you quality news that’s accurate, that is concise, that’s not going to waste your time and is actual news — not just a bunch of fluff — you’re far more likely to click on that than anything else.

So the written word is massively valuable. I feel like I can teach anybody a lot of different things, but if they can’t write, that’s a tough one. So if they can work on that, they already have a big step in the right direction. But then they have some tangible stuff to show, whether it’s a newsletter, a press release, social media post, and then I can see what they’ve actually done, and to me, seeing is believing.

So when you started doing this, I think you were just a one-man show at the start, right? And now how many people work for True Speed?

So including me and my wife, we have 11 people now. So it was me, myself and I for a long time. We took a bit of a leap of faith. Kellye, my wife, was the breadwinner of the family. She was the station manager of Radio Disney down in Atlanta, had Disney benefits and everything, but we were like two ships passing in the night. I’m traveling to all these races, and she’s pulling off events for Radio Disney — because you aren’t so much selling AM radio as you are creating events around Radio Disney. So she’d have events 5 to 7 o’clock at night during the week and here I am getting on a plane leaving Thursday and coming home Monday because we lived in Atlanta at the time.

After beating my head against the wall to try to grow the business from handling Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing and Tony Stewart, we finally started scoring some wins. We started representing GlaxoSmithKline and Interstate Batteries with Joe Gibbs Racing and SunTrust and IMSA with Wayne Taylor Racing, and I needed to hire people.

It just became a lot, and Kellye’s really smart — she’s my best friend — and we went all-in on True Speed Communication. It was nerve-wracking, and sometimes it still is, because it’s truly all on us to make it work. But it has worked. I think the fact she’s smart and knows things that quite honestly I don’t and is better at things that I’m just not as good at, but then there are things that I know well, and that’s what allowed us to really grow this thing.

And then I still keep my hands dirty. I try to give all my folks, especially on the NASCAR side, eight weekends off. It doesn’t always end that way, depending on what events we have on a race weekend or things like that. But like this weekend, I’m subbing for one of my reps — so I am a PR rep, I’m representing the No. 14 IT Savvy team with Clint Bowyer.

So I know what goes on during a race week and I know what my reps are dealing with. I know the demands on the drivers’ time, I know the expectations of the media, I know what NASCAR expects with the new post-qualifying and the new post-race procedures in regard to media. And I feel like if I didn’t have my hands in it, I don’t know how understanding I’d be of it. So I think that helps keep me pretty nimble in terms of what’s happening.

As a boss, for people out there in management roles, how important do you think it is for whatever the job they’re overseeing that they occasionally dip into it and do that?

I think it’s really important. There isn’t anything I’m asking of my folks that I haven’t done in the past or are doing right now. This morning, before I left the hotel, I built the post-race template we use to send to all the internal partners at Stewart-Haas Racing, who are one of our clients. So it’s ready to go so as soon as we have results. There’s someone who’s not at the track who can just plug in the stats and everything, turn around and hit send, so that whether (the recipient is) a CEO or the motorsports marketing manager, they know what went on with Stewart-Haas Racing right after the race. I had someone build that, I proofed it and edited it, and that went out this morning.

So it’s little things like that, but it helps grease the wheels, it helps for a quick turnaround. But most importantly for me, I know in my head what the stats are for our driver. For instance, if Kevin Harvick wins today, that will be his 10th win here at ISM Raceway near Phoenix, and he’ll join only six other drivers who have 10 or more wins at a specific track. If I don’t put that together, I don’t know that stat. So if Harvick does win and I’m in victory lane and FOX is there or MRN radio is there, I can help my rep Joe Crowley, who is on the 4, as he’s handling a bunch of other things. Knowledge is power, and I’ve got these kind of stats in the back of my mind that I can help out with in addition to all the logistical support as well.

You mentioned that you have 11 people now, and so you’ve had to build that team.

When I first started, I really looked at hiring (people with) experience. And I still do, but one of the nice things about having the growth that we’ve had, we’ve finally had the infrastructure and the support to start looking at some younger talent so that we can bring them on and not just throw them at the fire, sink or swim. We have the bandwidth to nurture some of those folks as well.

The learning curve is still steep — it doesn’t mean there’s this long runway. Because quite frankly, drivers, sponsors, media, NASCAR, you can’t make mistakes. Nobody really has any patience for you. You can stub your toe a little bit, but honestly, that’s (why people starting out should) work at your local tracks and then move up to a Truck or Xfinity program. Cut your teeth there, make some mistakes where the spotlight is not as bright so that you are ready for big things here in the Cup Series. Because the spotlight is bright. This is akin to Major League Baseball or the NFL; it’s just not a stick and a ball, it happens to be a race car and an engine and four tires. So it’s the same, and the expectations are high.

Your group spends a lot of time together on the road. How do you make sure that you have the right chemistry on your team? You have to manage conflicts if any come up, so you have to make sure that people are getting along. How do you make sure that you’re hiring people who have the right fit?

I think it’s always a moving target. You try to find people who right off the bat are passionate about the sport and what they do. If they don’t want to be here (that’s a problem). You need to be a fan of the sport, but not a fanboy. There is a difference, because I think I left the hotel at 6:30 this morning and we’re going to have a full race day, we’re going to fly back and we’re going to get (home at) maybe 6 a.m. That’s just what it is, and if that’s going to make you unhappy, then this is not the place for you.

And if you’re just sort of “eh” about racing and it’s just not as big of a deal, each day starts early and there is no end time. The end time is when you’re done. So you have to buy into that, and if someone’s not bought into that, then it’s probably not going to work.

So you’re looking for folks who have the same mindset. At the same time, I also make a bit of an investment in it. I give all my folks their own room on the road, so they have a place to work, a place to just chill out, a place where if they want to call home, they don’t have to worry about going out into the hallway or telling their roommate, “Hey…”

It’s just a little bit easier. It’s more expensive, my margins aren’t as strong, but I think long term it helps me keep the people that I have. Because trying to find a work-life balance in this sport is next to impossible, but if we can at least try, I like to think that the effort we collectively make to try and make those things a little bit better — having their own room on the road, having a sub on a race weekend, when the sub is there theoretically, they don’t have to do anything. It’s handled, because we’ve got an experienced person who is empowered to make decisions. Not just any decisions, but they have the background to make the correct decision as well. So if someone wants to go to a wedding or go to their kid’s birthday or just have a weekend and see what their neighbors do on a Saturday, they can.

I’m kind of jumping around here, but I feel like you do a lot of different things well. One of them is public speaking. You’ve hosted some very high-profile press conferences in the past, whether it’s Danica Patrick coming over to Stewart-Haas or when Tony Stewart had his first press conference after the Kevin Ward incident. If somebody might be nervous about giving a presentation in their own office, what are some tips that you could pass along?

Practice and repetition. I’m able to do that stuff now, and I was not good at it back in the day. I just wasn’t. It’s hard. So here are the things that I’ve found, and it goes back to college to where you just stand and deliver and you take opportunities and you do it.

I was editor of the (college) newspaper. And I think people have a variety of opinions about fraternities, but where I went, I felt like it was practice for the real world. I could run for office and then you had responsibility — you had to engage with the chapter, you had to speak in front of the dean or things like that, all those things helped.

And then as I started working my way up, I first started with Kenny Wallace and FILMAR Racing, a Busch team that went to Cup, and they were a single-car Cup team. So I just had more and more opportunities, and the more you did it, the better you got at.

Now, there are couple of other things that I’ll do. I’ll build a detailed run of show to where, if you write it out, you know what it is, so there’s nothing that can surprise you, you’ve kind of already built your schedule.

And then the second thing that I’ll do is wherever we are, I will go in — ideally when no one’s around — and just see, “Alright, what’s the podium like? Is the microphone voice-activated? Do I have to touch a button? Is there a podium? Do I need to hold the microphone?”

All those little things matter to where if you show up and you haven’t done that prep work and you think there’s a podium, you can put your hands on it, and sort of steady yourself, especially if there is a stressful time — but all of a sudden there’s no podium, you’re just holding a microphone and you’re nervous and it can throw you off your game.

And I know that because I’ve had events where I’m like, “I did a good job on that,” and other events where I literally walk out and hang my head and I’m like, “That was just not my best effort.” But the more you do it, the better you get at it. The more prep work you put into it, in terms of building out a schedule, it just gets you mentally right to do it.

Mike Arning (right) moderates the Stewart-Haas Racing press conference on the 2014 NASCAR Media Tour. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Building out a schedule, managing a team of people, the logistics — you have the F1 stuff that you do for Haas F1 Team as well, so you have people literally all over the world working for you. So how do you stay organized? How do you stay on top of it and not let stuff slide?

In this sport, you can’t just think two or three steps ahead, you’ve got to think 10 or 12. As much as we travel — I’ve got a great wife, I’ve got two awesome kids — when I’m home, I want to be home. So if I’m on an airplane, my head is buried in the laptop. If I’m here in the media center, if I’m not actually facilitating something or executing something, I’m working on what needs to happen with our NASCAR clients in Fontana or what needs to happen with Haas F1 Team in Australia and even Bahrain. I’m just trying to get ahead so when I do get home, I can be somewhat 9 to 5.

It doesn’t always work that way because things always pop up, but if you know you’ve got these deadlines and you can at least get ahead of them, you’re far more ready to deal with the things that will inevitably pop up.

I have an iPhone, I still have an iCalendar, I still do all that digital stuff. But I’m a little old school and I still have a monthly planner where I am writing stuff down. I feel like just writing it down, it’s embedded in my head. Like I know that I’ve already built out Tony Stewart’s schedule for Fontana, but I also know I need to pay attention to practice and qualifying for the race in the Australian Grand Prix, and I know immediately after that we need to turn around and there’s a Bahrain GP advance that needs to get done. But I also know Martinsville is coming up, and I also know there’s the 12 Hours of Sebring with Wayne Taylor Racing. So what do we need to do to get all that stuff together?

Thankfully I have been doing it a long time so I kind of know what needs to happen. But I’m also aware of these series, where they’re racing and the stuff that needs to be done to prepare ourselves and to deliver what we said we were going to do for our clients.

You guys have Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch — and you’re trying to make them look good PR-wise. You have to have some difficult days and challenges with that. So is there anything you could pass along to people as far as what happens on a difficult day — how do you get through it, how do you not lose your cool and how do you just keep moving on without getting your feelings hurt?

I think you always just put forth your best effort. If you get yelled at or if the day just becomes a disaster…if you at least put your best effort forward to where you did everything you knew how to do and tried to do, you were as prepared as possible, even if it all just fell apart you can walk out of the track or lay your head on the pillow and say, “You know what, I honestly put forth my best effort. I did the best that I could.” You take all those learnings and if you’re in the same position on down the road, you’re like, “Alright, if this happens again, I am not going to do that, but I am going to do this.” That’s probably the best thing you can do.

I haven’t batted 1.000, I haven’t even batted .500. There are many things, even when people say, “Hey, that was really good,” if I could have done that over again, I would have done it this way. I am constantly trying to figure out a way to do better, be more efficient, figure it out.

People in this sport get most testy when someone isn’t putting forth the effort because quite honestly, crew chiefs are putting forth the effort, the drivers are, the mechanics, the truck drivers, the media, everybody else is. So if someone’s half-assing it, that’s the thing that will just draw someone’s ire.

And so just don’t half-ass it. I mean, it sounds simple, but we were the first ones to walk into the media center this morning and turn on the lights in the PR room, and we’re prepared for today. I have the time now to talk because we are prepared. We’re good. So put forth your best effort.

Mike Arning was Tony Stewart’s public relations representative for most of the driver’s career.

One Reply to “The Driven Life: Mike Arning on team-building, public speaking and staying organized”

  1. From the looks of Mike he seems like he wouldn’t have any trouble handling Tony, if need be. And he must be one very smart man if he can manage all he does and still have time for his family. Wow!

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