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"Drivers need to get fulfillment, that joy out of being able to make a car perform.  It is not only that, but the stress relief, the mental focus, the sheer pleasure of just being out there."

 

Hooked On Driving Southeast Region Co-owner, Tony Franco 

hod 3 360pxEight years ago Tony Franco attended a Hooked on Driving (HOD) track day and “I was hooked.”  At that time HOD, Florida was being run by another event organizer.  Tony said to himself, “I want to be doing what that guy is doing.”  Eight years later Tony pursued a path to accomplish just that.  Tony is the new co-owner of the HOD franchise for the southeastern region of the United States.   Having a passion for cars, track day driving, instructing and marketing, Tony now gets to combine each of those every day.  Not a bad way to make a living. 

“About eight years ago I participated in a track day with Hooked on Driving and I was hooked” says Tony.  “From that point forward I shared my experience with anybody and everybody that would listen, one of them being my brother who, at the time, had a Porsche 911 and would flat out refuse to come out with me to a track day event.  It took me several months of convincing him, but I finally talked him into going to Sebring with me.  During that event it changed him to the point that he sold his 911, bought a pickup truck, bought a race car and started doing track days with his race car.  Eventually he got to the point where he started competing and in 2014 and 2015 my brother was the champion in his category in club racing.”  Tony is proud of his brother’s achievements in motorsports.

Emulating the organizer of his first event, Tony found a niche for himself in the track day business.  “I had the opportunity to take over and initiate the driving academy for the Formula Racing Automobile Association (FARA)” says Tony.  “I was also a member of a Corvette club, Corvettes of Miami, and one of the founders.  My goal was to bring Corvette people to the track along with all other types of auto enthusiasts.  Long story short, I worked that venue for about two and a half years and I built up a very good following and licensed a lot of race car drivers throughout those two and a half years.  After I got to the point where the racing side grew so much that it started taking over the time that I had allocated for the academy, it was time to part ways.  So I went off on my own, got together with my current partner and we started up our own high performance driving experience called thehpde.  In the first year we had 12 events on the calendar.  The second year we went up to 26 events on calendar and this, being our third year, we are going to hit the 60 event range.  In December of last year we had the opportunity to take over Hooked on Driving (HOD) for the Florida region and actually expanded that to the entire southeast region of the U.S.  So we went from thehpde to acquiring the rights for Hooked on Driving for the southeastern U.S. and started on a journey in January of this year to incorporate and migrate our current program into the HOD program.  Our goal by the end of this year is to be transitioned completely and initiate 2018 solely as Hooked on Driving.  So that is it in a nutshell about how we got started.  Ultimately it was a passion for motor sports and actually a passion for driving.”

Tony is not only a track day organizer, but a driver himself.  “I’ve strictly been participating in track day events since I started” explains Tony.  “But,hod 10 360px in 2014 I assisted a Formula F2000 race team to establish themselves and relocate to the U.S.  One of the perks that I had was to be able to run the series as well and get some seat time in the formula cars.  So I raced that year in Formula 2000, but as far as being a dedicated driver to a particular series, my schedule conflicts too much and I don’t have the time to dedicate to one series that way.” 

Tony is a car nut and in his position he has been lucky enough to drive just about everything on the track.  “You name it, I’ve driven it from your Ferraris, McLarens and Lamborghinis.  I train drivers in exotic cars like the Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, 911 turbos.  I have driven just about every car that you can imagine that can be tracked, from a GT style street car to a dedicated track car.  I would love to get into something like a Daytona Prototype but I have not had the opportunity to do that.  Basically, any opportunity I have had to get into a car I have taken advantage of,” says Tony.  “You have to go in baby steps in order to find that vehicle’s limitations safely as well as your limitations in that vehicle in order to produce a consistent fast lap time.  I like to drive them all, I enjoy them all.  I just don’t dedicate myself to any one car in particular.”  Like we said, nice work if you can get it.

So you may be wondering how it comes to pass that an individual gets to drive every super car out there.  Well, we know we were.  “Customers have those cars and basically don’t have a clue what the car is capable of or are in some cases even afraid of finding out because they don’t know what to expect when they hit that throttle or hit those brakes or when turning that steering wheel, how that car reacts,” Tony explains.  “I have many participants ask to see how I drive their car.  So the opportunities that I’ve had have been to pretty much show drivers what they can be capable of doing in a very short period of time if they dedicate themselves to it.  Therefore, I have had the opportunity to drive just about any type of car that you can imagine on the track.”

As the co-leader of a track day organization, Tony is called upon to teach customers personally and to oversee his crew of instructors and their training practices.  He shared his approach to track day instructing.  “For one thing you have to understand what that individual’s expectations are.  You need to find out if they have any fears that they are trying to conquer or is it just something that they want to experience.  The bottom line is that you have to understand who that person is first.  Secondly, you have to understand the vehicle that they are in and what they have done to that vehicle.  You don’t want to get into a car that’s been supercharged with over a thousand horsepower with a bottle of nitrous in the back and not be aware of it.  And then you have to put some control parameters in place, letting them know that, yes it is their car, yes it is their experience, but you, as the instructor/coach, are in control of that experience in order to make it safe for them and for yourself.  It is experiencing all types of skill levels and being able to communicate in such a manner that you make the experience fun and memorable.  Drivers need to get fulfillment, that joy out of being able to make a car perform.  It is not only that, but the stress relief, the mental focus, the sheer pleasure of just being out there.  You and the car and the track and a couple of other buddies and you are just having the time of your life and not having to worry about looking behind you and seeing the red and blue lights, because these high horsepower cars, these performance cars you can’t safely do anything on the street with them without causing the potential of an accident or hurting somebody else or yourself.  So the track is definitely the place to do it.” 

theHPDE 9 360pxWhat does Tony look for in an instructor?  “For one thing a very good race car driver does not necessarily represent a good instructor and vice versa,” says Franco.   “A good instructor is somebody who understands that this is something you are experiencing for the first time, that you are looking to become more proficient.  Somebody who is a very good communicator.  Somebody who is not afraid of taking charge.  I have very young people in their early twenties instructing much older, career focused individuals that are highly successful and are the leaders in their own arena, but when they come to the race track, they are not.  These kids have to be able to communicate to these individuals that may or may not have a chip on their shoulder that hey, this is going to be done my way or we’re not going to do this at all, because sometimes you have individuals that are a little bit cocky and think they know it all and you have to prove to them that you are the one that knows it all and they are there to learn from you.  So a good communicator is the most important aspect of it.  A good leader is also an important aspect of it and someone who can understand what to do to get you over your limitations and get you to the point where you are an approved solo driver out on the track.”

Tony has been organizing track days for FARA and for his own company for years.  We wondered how affiliating with Hooked on Driving would help his business.  “Well national recognition is one reason,” he explains.  “HOD has done programs and had relationships with companies like General Motors, Shell and Roush Performance.  Not to mention that prior to taking over HOD, we had a very good relationship with Shelby, so bringing all of that to the table and joining forces with a national name brand such as HOD only make us a stronger organization.  We also bring a lot to HOD.  There are a lot of changes coming through to HOD that we brought to the table in addition to the changes that we are incorporating.  Ultimately the goal is to provide a better experience for our participants and provide them with a higher quality track day event than we were previously doing.” 

There are a lot of nuts and bolts that go into making for a successful track day and a successful organization.  Myriad details and choices go intohod 9 360px the mix and we wondered about the nitty gritty.  We pushed Tony to give up some details.  “I am a little hesitant on sharing some of the really juicy stuff because then our competitors are going to know.  HOD in the California region has incorporated advanced level training with data acquisition.  That is one of the things that we are looking at launching.  HOD, from a national perspective, has done a strategic alliance with Ross Bentley, who is one of the best known trainers in the industry and, as a result, there is a program that has been launched literally within the last week for instructor certification training.  There are six different levels of instructor certification training that are out there now, so as an organization on a national level we are going to have all of our instructors certified at particular skill levels for whatever it is they are going to do, whether it is going to be in-car, whether it is going to be in a classroom, whether it’s going to be chief instructor, whether it’s going to be data analysis.  Being associated with HOD has allowed us to be part of that initial launch and part of that growth where we take an industry that has very little regulation at this moment and try to bring it to some point of a standard across the board.  Because, at the end of the day, if you have X number of track days, that does not necessarily make you a good instructor.  However, coming up with standards for the industry of the basics and specializations that any instructor should know is extremely exciting to be part of.” 

“One of the ways that we influence HOD is our approach to marketing and getting the word out,” continues Tony.  “We work with the different dealerships where they sell a new car and they use a track day as a closing tool.  Customers are buying high horsepower cars and the dealership is offering them a complementary track day for them to train.  This brings us a new customer because we all know they only need one track day to be hooked.  At the same time, it gives the dealership a little bit more leverage where they are offering something that perhaps a competitor is not.  There are many other examples of how we have been organizing our events and how HOD is standardizing their events.  There is a culmination and a migration of both of these organizations together for the benefit of the customer.”

hod 7 360pxBack when I first started doing track days you were lucky if you could find an event to go to every six to eight weeks.  And that is in a state with four major tracks and an all year driving season.  Today there are so many organizations offering track days that there are probably several events each week, at least in the warmer climate regions.  In South Florida, for example, we have the Porsche Club of America, the BMW Car Club of America, The Porsche and BMW Owners Club, Performance Drivers Group, Chin Track Days and Hooked on Driving as well as others.  What differentiates one form the other?  We asked Tony to weigh in.  “For starters every one of those organizations that you mention I admire, I have worked with and I am not taking away anything from the quality of the service that they provide.  Every one of those organizations is a high quality organization that I would not hesitate to run with and I would not hesitate to refer somebody to.  I would expect and I would hope that they have that same level of respect back towards us.  What differentiates us from our competitors is the calendar dates that we have and that our events have a focus on safe fun and are non-competitive (we are not tied to a racing or time trial program).  This is one reason that our customers say that they actually have fun and don’t stress during an HOD day. We are incorporating the advanced level driver training and we have somebody like Ross Bentley that can come out to our event and do anything from intermediate to advanced skills improvement.  We are incorporating some of the additional car control techniques such as skid pad exercises toward the end of this year.  Also, we will have some of the new lead follow methods with radio communication and having one instructor mentoring two to three students simultaneously.  It is a matter of supporting the industry, sharing the experience, making the industry grow and get to a bigger and better level than it is right now.”

It seems that the track day world is expanding rapidly.  There are new tracks, new track day organizations, new track-capable cars coming out all of the time and an explosion of aftermarket modifications aimed at the HPDE customer.  Not to mention the numerous street/track tires coming from the manufacturers.  “That may all be true, but the masses are still not aware” says Tony.  “I pull people over on the street all the time.  I talk to people the minute I see they have a sports car.  I can’t tell you the number of people I have recruited for track days just at traffic lights or at a parking lot or just because I talked to them about their cars and 99% of all the people I have talked to have no clue that you can do this.  As a matter of fact, one of the things that I would do in the industry is I would make it a requirement for anybody that purchases a performance vehicle to enroll in some level or another of training so that they can learn their car.  It is one of those things that getting the word out and bringing the awareness to the public is done much more efficiently when you have many organizations doing it.” 

We asked Tony for guidance about track cars, modifications and how to get started with track day driving.  He explained that, “pretty much anyhod 13 360px car that can be considered a ‘quote unquote’ performance vehicle, whether it is your Volkswagen GTI, your Mazda Miata, your Mustang, your Corvette, your Viper, Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc.  Any car that you can drive off the dealer lot that is a performance vehicle should be something that you would train on.  Having one of those cars doesn’t mean that you know how to drive it.  I have seen a driver with a Mustang catching and passing a Ferrari 458 on the track.  It is not how expensive the toy is, it is about the ability of that driver.  A Mazda Miata gets around the corners a lot faster than say a Corvette even.  Just because of the mere fact that it is a light car, a momentum car and with the right driver, it can corner a lot better than a Corvette.  Is it faster on the straight away than the Corvette?  No.  So you always have to take that into consideration.  As far as the type of car, any car is a good track car that is not an SUV or a lifted vehicle that can roll over easily.

“I always have people telling me ‘I’m going to add a supercharger first and then I’m going to go to the track.’  No.  Don’t do anything to your car.  Absolutely nothing.  Bring your car to the track just as it is.  Even if you don’t have the high temperature brake fluid and your brakes are going to boil, if you are expecting it and you know what you are looking for, it is not a bad thing to experience the loss of your brakes in a controlled environment, knowing what to do and having a game plan in your head as to how you are going to react.  With that said, I would recommend no modifications to your car and then once you start doing the events, start doing mods to your car so that you can see the improvement by incorporating that modification.  The first modification that anybody should do to their car is changing your brake fluid to a high temperature brake fluid.  That is the one thing that is going to extend your track day time, because if you don’t boil your brakes, you stay out on the track a whole lot longer.  Before you do any work to a motor, you should focus on the suspension and brakes.  You could have a thousand horsepower but if you don’t have the stopping power it serves you no good.

hod 4 360px“The first thing to do is get yourself registered for an event.  Commit to going and participating.  Once you get past your first track day it is just natural that you are going to be sharing that experience with all of your friends, relatives, letting them know what you did and how much fun it was and that is going to open up opportunities for other people to participate as well.  There are several groups that go out together to the track, friends over the years that have been doing track days together and they even travel to tracks outside of the area and get a road trip out of it and even a camping out of it, because it is kind of like a golf game on steroids.  You get to the point that track days become part of your monthly activities.  Once you get to that point, you are part of the sport itself.  You’ll experience things from improving your skill level to meeting other people who can help you in determining the best tires for your car, or the best brake pads for your car, or what modifications work and which don’t work.  The networking aspect of the event is something that most people don’t even consider, but it is there.”

As for Tony and HOD Southeast, the goal is, “One-hundred track days a year, one-hundred participants per event.  That is the target.  One-hundred, one-hundred.”  Franco wanted to finish up the interview by addressing the industry.  “I would like to see all of the event organizers be respectful of other event organizers and not bad mouth anybody.  Bad mouthing a competitor in the long run is hurting you as well.  One of the things I would like to see is a summit, an annual summit of all of the event organizers sharing some of their best practices across the board, such as instructor certification, for example.  Which is something that all of us in the industry would tend to benefit from.  I would like to see the event organizers supporting each other, as opposed to competing against each other.  Supporting each other and making our sport safer and avoiding regulatory agencies coming in and telling us how to do what we know how to do best.”

HOD Southeast will continue to provide track days at the four major Florida tracks:  Sebring, Daytona, Homestead and PBIR.  They are also branching out to the Georgia area to include Road Atlanta, Roebling Road, Atlanta Motorsports Park and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.  “We will go step by step to build a following in each of those places” says Franco. They are also adding weekday and evening events for people who want to save their weekends for their families. HOD Southeast and HOD national, through its other regions, are coming to a track near you.  Tony is an enthusiastic and lucky guy.  He gets to do what he loves as a career.  Not a bad person and not a bad company to do track days with.  Check them out at https://www.hookedondriving.com/ and https://www.hookedondriving.com/hooked-on-driving-region/Southeast-Region

Here are links to stories we did on David Ray, HOD Founder and Dev Clough, HOD Coaching Coordinator:

http://trackdayzone.com/articles-general/features/trackdaydrivers/289-david-ray-of-hooked-on-driving

http://trackdayzone.com/articles-general/features/trackdaydrivers/614-dev-clough-head-coach-for-hooked-on-driving

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