The most difficult thing to attain in motorsport may look to be success. But anyone who has been there will say even more difficult is sustaining a race team season after season. Racing is unique in that success does not always mean survival. Flying Lizard Motorsports, out of Sonoma, Calif., roared out of the gate and made an impression straight away. There were a few setbacks on the learning curve, but it currently may just be the best GT team in this country. This month we feature a roundtable conversation that goes beyond the usual press release patter.
The players are: Seth Neiman, Flying Lizard founder and principal driver for Flying Lizard No. 44; Johannes van Overbeek, co-driver for Flying Lizard No. 44; and Eric Ingraham, team manager and strategist for No. 44.
EC: I'd like to get to the heart of what it took to start the team. It had to be more than Seth winning a race with Johannes and saying, "Hey, let's go racing together." It has to be business first, or a hobby.
SN: The underlying motivation to start the team was really the result of a few things. In 2003 it became clear to me that what I enjoyed about racing-the challenge, and the competition-was going to push me to get involved with professional racing, starting a team. The "rent-a-ride" approach didn't provide the level of performance I wanted to be involved with.
And as we learned more, my experience as a manager and executive seemed valuable in organizing a competitive group. That led to the decision to create Flying Lizard Motorsports, an effort that took more than six months before we were ready to run a race on our own. As for business vs. hobby-pro racing requires all of the disciplines of business, and more. I'd say that building and leading this team both depends on and has added to my business experience.
JvO: It's a hobby in the sense that we're doing something that we love and are passionate about. It's a business in that it was revolves around a professional set of expectations and measures.
ec: It's no longer simply hooking up an open trailer to the pick-up and going off for a weekend. Being successful means being prepared on all fronts. If someone wanted to emulate the Lizards, what kind of figure would you put on a start-up today?
EI: You can look at start-up as a monetary investment, in which case you should expect to spend at least a few million dollars for a shop build, trucks, infrastructure (tools and equipment), parts inventory, etc., even before you've spent any money on the year-to-year costs of going racing. But to achieve any level of success, you really need to approach it from the start as a pursuit of people, of talent, of abilities, of experience. And that's the hard part: finding the right group of people to build a successful team. And once you have those people, determining how to approach the planning and management needed to find success on the racetrack.
JvO: The level of commitment required to be competitive in the ALMS goes beyond money. You can throw money at it and still not win a championship. It's starting a team with a long-term view and having the necessary pieces in place to ensure that you can make the right course corrections, each race, every year. And having the people and the processes to execute 100 percent of the time without making any mistakes.
ec: How did you break down the choice of personnel when forming the team? Did you recruit or have a clear idea of whom you wanted?
SN: Building a great team requires great people. And hiring great people always means choosing a balance between raw talent and deep experience. I have always leaned toward talent-my approach is hiring people with the strongest basic skills, intelligence, and drive, and then to mold them into a strong unit. I was fortunate in having a great balance in the first group that came onboard. Tommy Sadler, Craig Watkins, and Johannes all had great skill and focus, and enough high-level pro racing experience to keep us oriented. But they had very little history in the way of building and managing a strong team. The choice I made was to take the time and effort to teach that, building on their racing past. As we added people, we made very selective choices from people we knew, adding both great skill without experience-Eric for example-and great skill with world-class experience-Thomas Blam, our chief strategist, comes to mind. I couldn't be more proud of the group we have today.
JvO: I had worked with each person in the founding group earlier in my career. Each was an exceptional talent in his respective field, and over the last six years I think we've grown into a very integrated and efficient group.
ec: Are there evaluations at the end of the season as far as job performance?
SN: Yes. All the key managers have annual goals that we evaluate as the season progresses. They each have one-on-one reviews with me throughout the season, and a team and individual level review at the end of the year. Because of the schedule, the mid-season elements are less regular than in a conventional business, but the basic elements are still there.
JvO: It's a continuous process. At the track, we use every session. What did we learn? What can we do better? Away from the track, we meet regularly to make plans, decisions, and so on.
ec: There usually are two scenarios for a new team. Go with the tested car and pay your dues or get something different right out of the box simply for the publicity. You went with the tested car by choosing Porsche. Were other scenarios considered?
SN: Not really. Porsche was our first choice and remains so. If you want to be competitive over a number of years at this level, you need to be involved with a manufacturer that is as committed to winning as you are. Of course we review our options every season, but Porsche is one of a few companies that has demonstrated its commitment and staying power to race at the top. We couldn't be happier with our working relationship with them.
JvO: Before joining Flying Lizard, I had a relationship with Porsche and knew about its commitment to success and to its customers. With all the other variables in starting a team, it didn't make much sense to go with an untested car or deal with a company that didn't have a long track record in sports car racing.
ec: When did you personally feel that the team crossed that mental threshold of no longer being part of the field and was a major player?
SN: We were surprised to win early, at Mid-Ohio, our second race in the ALMS. And we have always been in the championship hunt. But the threshold you describe is not really part of our thinking. We know that staying in the hunt requires both long-term focus and week-by-week performance. So while we expect to be very tough competitors and to get the most out of the team and the technology, we always ask ourselves what must be done better, and are forever mindful of how close the field is, how big a role luck plays, and how every weekend other teams are doing important things better than we are. Risi Competizione, Farnbacher Loles, Pratt and Miller, Rahal Letterman-they are all capable of winning at any time.
JvO: Personally, as a driver, I remember our very first ALMS race at Sebring in 2004. With Craig Watkins' help, we sorted out the 68cm tires better than anyone else, went straight to the front after the first stint and drove away from the rest of the competition. That's when I had the first inkling that we had the raw ingredients to be successful. We didn't win that race and made a lot of mistakes, but I saw that we had the potential.
ec: Was it always a given that the team would enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans as part of the race program?
SN: Not a given, but yes, it was always our hope that we would achieve enough to be accepted at Le Mans.
JvO: We definitely wanted to participate in that race but quickly found out how complex and how large a commitment it is, both financially and logistically. We had a lot of luck our first year, and since then have had some highs and some real lows. Each time, though, we've come away with a deeper understanding of the team, of our strengths and weaknesses, and how much it takes to just finish that race.
ec: Many American teams can't justify a season's budget just to run one race in France. How do you balance the needs from what really is running in two series? What would a U.S. sponsor gain from Le Mans?
EI: You're right that running at Le Mans or any other single European race is effectively running in a separate series. The first task is understanding your objectives in each series and how they interact with one another. Is your priority to win races, and/or the championship, in America? Or to win the race in Europe? How do you resolve your conflicting objectives that compete for the same resources? Once you understand your objectives, the division of resources, be it time, energy, manpower, focus, or money, becomes more straightforward. In the end, if your primary objective is to win a championship, that must be the first goal, and anything that doesn't assist you in reaching that goal must be secondary in terms of how you allocate resources. For us, our first priority is the ALMS championship. We approach Le Mans very seriously, however, and our goal is to win every year, but we don't let that interfere with our work in the ALMS. Hopefully, though, the two goals can benefit one another.
For sponsors, Le Mans involvement can have a significant return. There's a large North American following of the race through SpeedTV and Radio Le Mans-it's a lot of targeted exposure. With a limited number of American teams participating, that can add up to a lot of coverage in ten hours on SpeedTV. Of course, if the U.S. sponsor has European business interests or hopes of developing any, that is of obvious benefit.
JvO: As Eric said, we have been able to compete in both the ALMS and Le Mans without diverging from our primary objective, the ALMS GT2 championship. However, to do that has taken a huge amount of planning and preparation.
For our ALMS sponsors-ShoreTel, eSilicon, and Redlinecoffee.com-the association with the team should give them some additional exposure both in Europe and to the American audience.
ec: Some of your competition in the ALMS also runs in Grand Am with the modified GT3 Cup car. Did you also consider this or did it come down to doing the most professional job, meaning full concentration on the ALMS?
EI: Since 2004 we've run twice in Grand-Am, both times at Daytona for the 24. In 2005, we made the decision to commit fully to the ALMS-it's challenging and can be distracting to run concurrently in different series as there are different personnel, different rules, etc. There is a crossover in the fan base, though; for Porsche fans there's a lot to follow in Grand-Am. From a team perspective, it would be interesting to see the two series collaborate. But with the conflicts of disparate logistics and race weekend overlaps, we don't believe we can give our best to either championship unless we focus only on one.
ec: GT has provided some of the best on-track battles within the ALMS, and television coverage has been limited at best on capturing the intensity. The last lap of Sebring between the Lizards and the Risi Ferrari notwithstanding. What could the series do to get GT more coverage? Has anyone ever asked for your input?
SN: This is like asking a married couple if they ever argue about money. Of course we want more coverage, but the Series has to balance a lot of things in making those on-air choices, and we respect the challenge they face. Overall, our input has been focused on how to make the TV package better in ways that are good for everyone involved. The ALMS is probably the best racing you can see, and we need to find a way to get it out there for the fans.
JvO: Every car in every class wants more TV coverage. TV will follow the action. In the past, there has been a huge amount of action in the prototype classes. This year, action is in GT2 and we are seeing a lot of coverage because of that.
ec: A one-car team can usually fix a budget. Two cars is a doubling up. Last season you ran three RSRs, which has to be a lot more difficult than it would first appear.
EI: For each additional car, the amount you need to add to the budget and crew decreases each time. That said, the workload went in all directions when we went to three cars. Adding the crew for a third car was relatively painless in terms of logistics, but in terms of the important pieces-team-wide communication, working between the cars in the paddock and on track-there was a huge amount of learning and additional work required. So while the number of cars increased by half, the budget increased by less than that, while management requirements within the team increased by what felt like 100 percent.
JvO: We knew that running a third car would be a challenge. We discussed it, planned it and prepared for it, and in some ways, it was a seamless transition from two to three cars. Again, that points back to Seth's management approach of planning and thinking through details and having strong and measurable objectives. I think we underestimated the importance of sharing information; communicating among three effectively separate mini-teams was tough.
ec: How about a breakdown of the entire Lizard operation, shop size, equipment, so on. This isn't to scare off future generations but more a blueprint of what it takes to be a championship-winning team.
EI: We have a 6,000 square-foot shop in Sonoma with four lifts. We have three transporters. We have about 20 full time staff, including management, mechanics, and marketing. Each race requires about 32 people, including drivers. Each car has its own separate crew and management staff-engineers, strategists, and data engineers. There is obviously some overlap though-only one team manager, one crew chief... But this is just the way we've done it. You could certainly do it as well, or better, with more or fewer people. There's no blueprint, but this is what has worked for us.
ec: Your website has broken new ground for fan involvement. How did it come about and what do you have in mind for the future?
SN: We have emphasized our fans from the beginning, and in lots of different ways: gear and apparel, tours, having fun on the grid walks. And thanks for the compliment on our web innovations. Virtually all of that is due to the hard work of our marketing director, Jennifer Hart. She starts every season with a series of goals to keep us on the forefront of all types of fan contact. And she has always delivered. What she'll come up with next, only she knows!
JvO: Our website offers timely, usable information and is interactive in that that you can buy things, see photos from yesterday's practice session, read the race blog, and so on. It gives you a taste of what Flying Lizard stands for, and hopefully some insight into who we are and why we are all so dedicated to going racing.