You know your mother will tell you it isn't safe and then she'll worry endlessly; your accountant will probably just quit, flat-out refusing to watch you blow all your money each season; your priest will confide that he'll be praying for you in the hushed voice of imminent doom; your kids' eyes will grow wide, like you just told them you're going to the moon in a rocket you made in the garage. Funny thing is that of the four groups, children are the only ones likely to have faith that you'll soon be drinking milk with a wreath around your neck. But, if you're going to go into racing by yourself, you're going to need money, experience, knowledge... and, oh yeah, a lot more money.
These necessities become the milestones on the long road ahead for most burgeoning would-be racers, a road beset with potholes, detours and dead ends, as most don't even make it to the starting line of the Big Show. They crap out in karts, junior drag racing, local club racing or youth solo racing, but every now and again the ghost of Ray Harroun smiles down on some lucky soul and grants him (or her) admission into the Winner's Circle to soon rub shoulders with the short list of circuit giants: Brabham, Fangio, Hill, Nuvolari, Moss, Senna, Caracciola. Fame and fortune will ensue.
Yes, that's for me, you're saying to yourself, clutching the pages of this magazine, desperate for each new word of encouragement. I want to taste gasoline, breathe carbon monoxide, feel coolant gushing through the valves of my heart. I want to squirt motor oil into my retinas with a little eye dropper, all the while plowing through 200-mph traffic in nothing more than a fiberglass-enclosed coffin, chasing after a little checkered flag, so I can say I'm the best at something, even if it is only for a few hours, a day maybe, just long enough to get up on that podium, hold the trophy in my hand and declare that I am number one. Yes, I am that man.
Well, if you are, welcome to the club. Now let's do something about it. Today is your first lesson, but we're not going to tell you to accelerate at the apex of the turn or to turn into a spin; like instincts, those are traits you should have been born with. No, today we're taking on the most important aspect of racing. Without it, you won't have the cars, tires, engines, track time, suits, tools, parts, mechanics, or even the logo'd cap to wear at the end of the race. Yep, you guessed it: The root of all racing is money, sponsorship, or what they call The Ride. Without it, you'd better have deep pockets or a rich dead uncle.
Getting that ride isn't something that happens overnight, and sometimes doesn't happen at all, ever. You can't just open the phone book, cold-call a few companies and say, "Where's my check?" You've got to prove yourself as someone worthy behind the wheel-and that takes time and, ironically, money.
To be a racecar driver in America in the 21st Century, you've got to be an economist, a politician, a diplomat, a marketer, a publicist, in addition to driver, financier and mechanic. That's lots of hats, and we can assume you've prepared yourself to wear them and that you know everything there is to know about the sport. You don't? Read, watch, learn, associate. Start with books and magazines about racing, any racing. Carl Lopez's Going Faster, Carroll Smith's Drive to Win and Think to Win by Don Alexander should be sitting on top of the Bible on your nightstand, and the bathroom floor should be lousy with issues of Autosport, National Speed Sport News and Racer magazines. Contact the sanctioning bodies for the type of racing you're interested in and get a copy of its rule books, the tech rules and any other information they have to offer prospective drivers. Next, talk to as many people about racing that will spend time with you, and that means you've got to visit the tracks, familiarize yourself with the drivers, the crews and even the managers. Bench race with the old guys who know everything and everyone and never turn down help in any form. In fact, go looking for it. Charlie Hayes, author of Get Sponsored, adds: "It takes a big person to surrender to getting coaches, mentors, asking for help. But the expertise of others is invaluable to those who are serious about getting sponsored, because, as you must already know, it isn't easy. You need to get every advantage you can, so pick the brain of anyone you know who's succeeded at the business of racing."
Volunteer your time through local racing clubs (check out SCCA, IMSA, VARA, BMW CCA, Porsche Club, etc.). They always welcome extra help, be it flagging a corner or setting up a course, and at least you'll be around those that do what you want to do.
Next is seat time. Like free money, never turn down a chance to be in a racecar, no matter what the circumstances are. Indy Car driver Taylor Fletcher explains: "Whether it's a go-kart, a street car on the race track, or a made-for-racing racecar, do everything you can to get as much seat time as possible." The key here is experience. They won't let you be a brain surgeon unless you've cracked open a few skulls in your day, and the same holds true for racing.
Though this takes time, sometimes years, the end result is that you will be equipped with two of the three necessities to becoming a racecar driver: knowledge and experience. You know how to race, you know other people that race and you've gained your Ph.D. with time behind the wheel of the family sedan at the local road course. Technically you're a driver, but not the one that dreams are made of, as the crowds that watch local club racing are mostly family and friends. There's very little TV coverage and your name won't appear in many publications of prominence. You need to take it to the next level, and to do that you need money, sometimes piles of it. Pistons and pushrods don't grow on trees and Porsches don't come from pumpkin patches. You break one or the other, your insurance company will drop you faster than a fistful of scorpions and you'll be taking the bus to work.But the last few paragraphs have just been talk, chatter about the should-haves and could-haves of a successful racing career. Let's put all of that up on the shelf for a moment and follow the life of a true racecar driver, one that races on Sunday and still goes to work on Monday so he can pay the bills like a normal person. We caught up with James Sofronas on his way back from a medical sales convention in San Diego and he shared with us his version of the long road to success in racing. Remember: results not typical, yours may vary.
If his name sounds familiar to you, that's because it should be. Currently, he is not only co-owner of Global Motorsports Group (GMG)-a full time racing, tuning and service shop for high-end European cars-with partner Fabryce Kutyba, but he campaigns an Anchor Racing BMW E46 M3 in the Grand Am Cup and a GMG Racing-backed Porsche 996 Cup Car in SCCA Speed World Challenge GT. But you couldn't always describe him as being successful. He had to start from somewhere, and that somewhere was on a lark in 1989. Along with his brother Brad, Sofronas was convinced by a friend to time trial his street car, a 16-valve VW GTI, at Pocono Raceway when he was just there to watch. He went on later that day to win his class, and a new world opened up for him.
It was a tough struggle in the years that followed. Immediately the brothers put their financial lives on hold, and when most people were considering houses and IRAs, the two put together a couple of cars and took on SCCA Pro Racing and World Challenge. "At that point everything was funded out of my own pocket, and it was quite a motivation to work hard in my personal life to gain the financial success to pay for my racing habit," Sofronas recalls. "My boss knew that I had more bills coming in from racing and that I would work harder to make more money. I traded my street Nissan in for a race Nissan that was still street legal, but it was all stickered up and had a roll cage and I drove that to work every day. It was a good conversation starter." But it wasn't much good at shuttling clients around or much fun climbing in and out through the roll cage in a business suit. But there was a method to the devotion. In fact, racing got Sofronas into his current job."One of the perks of working in the medical sales field was that most companies offered a company car. That meant I could buy a real racecar," he says. Soon thereafter he earned his pro racing license in a World Challenge Oldsmobile in 1994. The Sofronas brothers formed Sofronas Racing, and the lettering on James' car told the whole story of a struggling racer. On one door, it said "Driver: James Sofronas" and on the other it said "Crew: See Brother.""This was on both of our cars since we were there to help one another and had no other support. It was just the two of us," James continues. But it never dampened their motivation, or their prospects. "We were doing quite well for a small under-funded non-factory team." Soon they started to pick up sponsors, like Hoosier Tires (when World Challenge was open tire), and that proved not only encouraging but easy. He explains: "[Hoosier Tires] was at the track and Brad and I are salesmen by trade, so if we knew there was an opportunity, we would take it. We approached them and said, 'Hey, check us out. We're doing pretty good with inferior equipment, so imagine how we'd do running your tires.'" It was one of their first experiences in asking for support. "We had a story to tell them, but we really had to sell ourselves," James says. "You can't just go up to them with your hand out and say, 'where's my money?' You've got to give them something in return. Why are you different? Why are you unique? Why should they support you? It took a lot of time to build those relationships in the beginning."
If you're new and green to racing, you have to prove yourself and your ability. The best way to go about it is to approach the companies in person that have products that will work for your car and your type of racing. Hayes suggests: "Don't send out unsolicited, unexpected presentations or proposals to a company without having prepared the groundwork first. If it isn't expected, it will go in the round file." Many companies are too busy to read all of the proposals they get in the mail. The direct opportunity for sponsorship may be on a smaller level with a smaller risk from the company or shop. For example, the owner of the shop might conclude that it makes sense to invest in you because you're racing on his parts and winning.
In 1997, Sofronas started getting regular rides from a variety of sources, and that gave him experience and exposure, which started turning the heads of potential sponsors. "I did a couple of races in Speed GT in a BMW M5 for Ed Arnold, but I was constantly searching for the right opportunities," he says. "I realized that if I wanted to make it in pro racing I needed to drive for an owner and have him support me completely as far as the infrastructure is concerned, the truck, the trailer and the racecar. That would allow me to focus on driving."
The following season, when the Arnold team disbanded, he moved to California, which offered a whole host of new problems. "All of my contacts were in Boston and back east," he says. "It was like starting over." Undaunted, Sofronas started visiting local BMW shops-if anything, just to make contacts, the basis for all sponsorship relationships.There's a lot of people at the tracks around the country who are doing the same thing you are, scratching for exposure, sponsorships and recognition, so you've got to stand out. You should first start working relationships in their area. Try local dealerships or shops in your hometown. The least you'll accomplish, if anything, is to start a relationship that may end in friendship or simple advice, but might go all the way to dollar signs. Remember that people aren't going to support you just because you knock on their door.As it just so happens, Sofronas met Fabryce Kutyba in his BMW performance shop and they hit it off almost immediately, forming not only a friendship but a business partnership as well. In the meantime, Kutyba turned him on to one of his clients who needed some instruction in road racing. Sofronas traded his experience and teaching time for the use of the car, a BMW M3 CSL, which proved to be a successful combination. "We used the BMW as a marketing tool, as we did a couple of club races where we dominated the field over a period of four years, taking 21 straight victories," he says.
It was at one of the local BMW club races that James met Hans Kopecky, owner and operator (not to mention a fellow racer) of SSF Imported Auto Parts in San Francisco, who began sponsoring Sofronas in a series of one-off races that season. With Kopecky's much appreciated help, Sofronas was able to attract other smaller sponsors and soon his car's panels began to fill up with stickers. Most times, support came in the form of free parts, which worked out just as well. "I would have had to buy those parts anyway," James acknowledges.
After showing his skills as a driver for the 2000 season, Sofronas flew up to San Francisco, and together with Kopecky put together a full-ride sponsorship-The Ride-for the following year, campaigning an M3 owned by T.C. Kline in World Challenge GT as well as running a GMG-prepared 328i in the USTCC, where Sofronas won the Championship, dominating the series with five wins. His success started to pay off, as print media began to take notice, gaining him press exposure in Sports Car, Car and Driver and Sport Compact Car magazines, as well as this one. The icing on the cake was when one of his races was televised on the Internet at www.bmw.com.
This is a good lesson illustrating that you have to really use all of the media outlets. They're usually starved for good content and you've got a story to tell. Start by sending press releases to the magazines and Internet sites, but especially to the companies that sponsor you. You have to hustle yourself to get the exposure from wherever you can. Don't forget to include all of the people and companies that have helped you along the way, as the worse thing you could do is inadvertently turn your back on someone. You've got to include everybody and you have to always keep them up to date on the happenings on your race team. "For my sponsors over the years," Sofronas adds, "I have always taken photos, sent them results, sent thank you letters. You have to constantly justify their investments."
Honest appreciation is the name of the game here."Hans Kopecky was the first one to believe in me, and he wrote a big sponsorship check that paid for the whole year," Sofronas says. "The car wasn't that competitive, but what it did was give SSF more exposure in the auto racing world. So that was a big leap of faith, because they had never sponsored anyone at that level before." James ended up 15th in points out of 60 drivers. It was an investment that paid both ways, as GMG orders approximately $20,000 worth of parts from SSF a month. "I have never forgotten the support that Hans gave me several years ago, and, in fact, I still thank him every time I get the opportunity to do so, as I did when I was interviewed on Speed last year after a podium finish in the BMW at Sebring," Sofronas says. " You can't forget the people that helped you get where you are today."But dreams, being what they are, weren't enough for Sofronas, Kutyba and the crew at GMG. They wanted their own car, and with SSF's backing they plunked down the money for a couple of BMWs to compete again in World Challenge. Their motives were no less lofty than before. "We wanted to control our own destiny," Sofronas says. "We wanted to maintain our own car through the GMG Racing side of the business and show our sponsors that we could definitely do this on our own." Independence is respectable; nobody is willing to help the helpless.
Then came some good news, something James Sofronas had been waiting for his whole career. "I had helped Walter Swick get TecMark, a BMW race shop, up and running in Ohio and in turn he helped us transport our cars around the country," he recalls. After some good finishes in 2003, Swick was building a car for Nic Johnson and offered a second BMW to Sofronas, saying, "Why don't you guys sell your car and I'll prepare you a BMW for the 2004 season?" In the world of sponsored racing that was a big break, because they now had a car that was guaranteed competitive. "I ran with Nic Johnson in World Challenge, and we finished fourth and second respectively in the Championship, but did help BMW win the Manufacturer's Championship that year," James says.At the end of last year, GMG expanded to focus on Porsches and that's when they got the idea to campaign a Porsche Cup Car in Speed World Challenge GT. "We decided we wanted to buy a car so we could showcase our capabilities as they relate to high-performance Porsches," says Sofronas. "It was good for us to show people that we could still compete even though we were a small team. It legitimized our efforts at GMG and our street tuning program." This proved successful right from the get-go as Sofronas and the GMG Porsche finished on the podium at Lime Rock this year, in front of the Porsche factory teams. After some ups and downs, the future looks bright for GMG, Sofronas and his team, and it was because he didn't take no for an answer and always looked to improve his position, never settling for what was given to him and always striving for the maybes, the what ifs and the could haves.
The key to being a successful professional racer is to be a professional first. You have to be a professional when you're on the track and off the track. You're a spokesperson, a representative, of the companies that sponsor you. When someone doesn't act professionally or they're immature or they just don't handle themselves in a proper manner in public, it doesn't represent the company well-or themselves.
Sponsorship is a business, and as a responsible cog in that gear, you can make or break your career, your season and your team. There are billions of dollars poured into countless racing venues around the world each year, from the karts to F1 and everything in between. There's something out there for the right person, one that can sell himself as a good investment, not to mention one hell of a good driver.Though finding support and sponsorship isn't easy, it isn't impossible. Now, get to work.
From Charlie Hayes' book Get Sponsored, here are his top ten tips to help you get sponsored and keep the sponsors happy
1.Don't send proposals blindly to companies. They will more than likely end up in the trash.
2.After meeting a prospective sponsor in person, follow up with a presentation that explains everything about your team, career, car and future plans, including market, venue, and audience opportunities for the sponsor.
3.Know your numbers. Make sure you understand every cost that your team will incur and who will pay for them, up front.
4.Learn how to create a commitment from your sponsors. Know how to make things happen by being unwilling to settle for "no."
5.Persistence pays. Never give up no matter how far-fetched the situation seems.
6.Automate by using computer programs to keep in constant contact with your sponsors. Check out Symantec's Act! for Windows or another contact management software.
7.Never stop learning, but know what is good advice and what is fluff.
8.Listen to others and find out what they really want orneed from your team.
9.Give your word and keep it.
10.Accountability. Be responsible for your actions. If you make a mistake, be the first one to admit it and quickly resolve the issue.