"A common scenario that enthusiasts have encountered over the years was that if you did attend some of these other track events, the leadership would engage in babysitting and you would get a lot of negative direction; or warning drivers about the consequences of bad behavior or threatening to throw you out of the event if you did something wrong. That early environment was rather like elementary school teachers talking to kids."
Mark Hicks of Chin Motorsports
by Ziva Allen
Car clubs, like The Porsche Club of America (PCA) and the BMW Car Club of America (BMW CCA), put track days on the map back in the 1980s and 1990s. Chin Motorsports was one of the first for-profit track day providers and they have offered a refreshing alternative for getting on the track in non-competition events. Mark Hicks has been managing their efforts since the beginning and we recently had a question and answer session with him.
Q. Why don’t we start with the story behind how Chin Motorsports got started?
A. In 1999 Dr. Chin registered to participate in a track event at Sebring. He showed up in his Acura NSX for that track event and the operator had not paid the track fees. Dr. Chin and a few other sports car owners stood outside the gate and were wondering what’s happening to this track event that we’re supposed to go to that now is not happening. Dr. Chin walked into the office, inquired as to the rental fee and paid it. They opened the gates, all the sports car owners carried on and had a track day. And that actually is the true story of the very first day of Chin Motorsports. That first day included a large group of NSX owners which is a common theme that remains a big part of the brand today. The principals of Chin Motorsports today still are all NSX owners. Once we got past that very first day at Sebring in 1999 someone made a suggestion– well let’s do it again. We pooled our money and went to the track again. It was a really informal arrangement. Everybody would pay their portion of the expenses and we would all just show up and have fun. It became clear that enthusiasts wanted to come and participate and it was obvious that it would be appropriate to put some more structure in place and offer some instruction and coaching for entry level drivers. One event led to another and then there were three and then there were six and it just grew. In 2014 our track events were currently just under 40 track events/80 track days spread across 12 different tracks. By the end of this year over 6,000 driver entries will be received and we are the number one provider of noncompetition sports car track events in the country today.
Q. What are the goals for the future for the organization? Where do you hope to be in five years as an organization?
A. Well it’s certainly no secret that we have taken a pretty vigorous and ambitious expansion strategy. A couple of years ago we were only using eight tracks. Now we’re using 12 tracks. We are in the eastern United States from New York to as far as Road America in Wisconsin and the Circuit of the Americas in Texas. So you see a kind of evolution in geographic expansion.
Assuming that the current expansion strategy gets traction coupled with a favorable economic climate, that force is a key criteria because we rely obviously on discretionary spending by sports car owners, which could contribute to a continuing expansion. In a few years we could reach all the way to the west coast. We could potentially be offering track events nationwide from Florida and New York to California.
Q. There are various business models at play within the various for-profit track day provider organizations. Some make use of franchises and others keep the management in-house. Do you intend to organize all events and manage them yourselves? How are you going to get from where you are to be able to handle an ongoing expansion?
A. Well in fact this year in 2014, we have expanded our staff already and we’ve acquired the second truck and trailer, which is your physical infrastructure that you need to have in place to provide a good environment at the track event. So there are already two trucks and trailers and our management team now includes myself and three other managers. Currently you can find dates on our calendar that actually overlap where we could be at Sebring and Road Atlanta on simultaneous weekends. And that happens at a couple of places on our calendar. As long as the economic conditions remain favorable, in time we may add still more permanent managers and more infrastructure and we could have the potential to do numerous track events in multiple locations simultaneously.
Q. How are you different from other providers of HPDE track days?
A. First of all, in the space that exists for non-competition track day providers, Chin Motorsports was one of the very first commercial enterprise, for profit track event providers. As a business entity, we launched in an environment where the predominant providers of track events were the nonprofit car clubs. At the heart of the hobby you had BMW CCA and PCA. They really launched the concept of the HPDE sports car track day and put it on the map. But those have always been nonprofit events staffed by volunteers. And that was dominant throughout the 80s and 90s. Chin Motorsports was the very first commercial provider to come along and we knew we had an obligation to be better than the nonprofit track event providers. We put a very high emphasis on customer service and on treating drivers like adults.
A common scenario that enthusiasts have encountered over the years was that if you did attend some of these other track events, the leadership would engage in babysitting and you would get a lot of negative direction; or warning drivers about the consequences of bad behavior or threatening to throw you out of the event if you did something wrong. That early environment was rather like elementary school teachers talking to kids. We at Chin Motorsports put an emphasis on treating drivers like adults and giving them responsibility for the quality and success of the event. Drivers really enjoy a higher level of responsibility and being their own bosses with respect to how they’re going to participate in the event. Another thing that sets us apart is that we are well known for offering more track time than pretty much any other club offering track events. We’ve accomplished that by developing a format involving fewer run groups and an open track period at the end of the day. We are able to offer about twice the track time of other providers. Finally, we have a very high emphasis on driver development with special attention given to advancing drivers and giving drivers goals to develop their skills. We have a structure in effect that allows drivers to be taught by drivers with higher levels of experience. An advanced driver coming out of other companies may be at the same level as our intermediate category whereas an advanced driver in Chin Motorsports is a driver that could easily qualify for a competition license. So to sum up how we are different, one is service emphasis, two is more track time, and three is emphasis on driver development. A very high overall skill level is the theme for a Chin Motorsports driver.
Q. When I got started, I was involved with PCA and BMW CCA and then I attended some of your events. My buddies would tell me that Chin had a reputation for being too loosely controlled. How does your safety record compare to that of others?
A. Well it’s very interesting. I’ve heard that from others that we are a bunch of out of control cowboys, but most of the time that is coming from people who never attended a Chin Motorsports event. They’re repeating something that they heard from somebody else. Suddenly there was a new player that was doing something different, not very traditional, and so they became defensive naturally. I’m certainly well aware of that and I would substantiate that our safety record is as good as or perhaps better than others and there’s a couple of reasons for that. First and foremost is that we have simplified the format and expanded the amount of time available for drivers on the track. In traditional event formats you have maybe four sessions a day of about 20 minutes or so duration. There is a high sense of urgency about getting to the event, getting out when the session begins, getting all your laps in before the session ends and all that actually puts drivers under pressure. So instead, we modified the format, expanded the schedule and offer enough track time where now drivers are no longer under pressure to get out in the session and take their laps before the session ends because the sessions are long enough that the drivers cans start and stop, get off whenever they want and so that has the effect of taking the burden of deadline from them. All the drivers can relax and a relaxed driver is a better driver.
And also we deliberately target lower enrollment so there are fewer drivers participating in a sold out Chin Motorsports event than there are say for a sold out PCA event. On a popular PCA weekend in Sebring you might see 175 to 180 cars. A sold out Chin Motorsports event at Sebring has 135 cars, so there’s two things going on there with regard to safety. One is our expanded schedule which gives drivers the opportunity to relax and not be under deadlines. And two, the enrollment is lower so there’s fewer total cars participating which reduces track density and obviously there’s safety there. Many other track day providers pay higher insurance liability premiums because the underwriters consider them to potentially have greater risk. Over the years we have been able to establish a very reliable and consistent safety record. There are three or four nationwide specialty insurance handlers that provide the kind of coverage that a track day organizer must have. All of those insurance providers talk to each other of course and typically they use Chin Motorsports as the benchmark for other track day providers in terms of low participant risk.
Q. We’ve been talking about PCA and BMW CCA and I think that you could put NASA in the same category with them, but what about the other private companies, the for-profit companies that are providing track days? What differentiates Chin Motorsports from let’s say Hooked on Driving (HOD) for example?
A. PCA, BMW CCA and NASA all run HPDE programs alongside their club racing schedules so they cater well to the driver who has competition aspirations. But if you talk about some of the for-profits like HOD, what I would point to is that they’re franchise operators. Each of those use the same website, but each of them is operated by individual leadership that all have a little bit different program. So if you go to a Chin Motorsports event at Sebring and go to a Chin Motorsports event at Watkins Glen and, with the exception of it being a different track, you’ll find the exact same program and very likely the same staff leading the event. Whereas if you go to an event with HOD or even NASA, which has different chapters with separate leadership, there could be national guidelines but they all have a little different standards and a little bit different schedule. We were well established already by the time Hooked On Driving first came along and it’s fair to say that HOD has done a pretty good job with their national branding and that’s attributable to the guy that leads HOD in California. He was the one who came up with the idea of franchising and creating regions and he’s got a licensing arrangement where you could come along and pay B to get B brand and you would pay a royalty back to the national office and you could get their national professional support and website, that kind of thing. So you can see some benefit out of the business model, but yet, if you look at the number of HOD events occurring nationwide and look at their total overall annual attendance, I think you’d find just about the equivalent of what Chin Motorsports is already doing. So they’re doing with five or six different regions what we are doing under one region. They’re growing and certainly we consider them to be a viable competitor to keep an eye on, but it’s fair to say that they are catching the bus and we’re trying to save the village. It’s a free market. Fundamentally, you’ve got to provide the product that is better than the competitor to get the guys to come back.
Q. One of the reasons why we started the magazine is because we feel like the track day world is expanding. How do you feel about the marketplace? Do you think it’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow?
A. There’s no question that we have doubled down on the expanding overall marketplace. It’s fair to say that there are more opportunities today for divers to get on the track, there are more drivers that have a history of getting on the track and there are more operators out there offering options. If you go back a few years, track days were few and far between. The internet was still in its infancy and today you can find multiple track day options with almost no effort. Five minutes online and you can find five track events to attend within a three hour drive. That perhaps is true for everybody around the U.S. It’s a very large marketplace out there.
Q. The last question I have is do you have a scoop for us? Is there something that’s brewing that’s about to happen that nobody knows about that you would like to announce?
A. It’s fair to say that I am working on some things right now that would be of high interest to enthusiasts. It could be related to some new tracks, and it could be related to some interesting partnerships. We need to stay at the front of the marketplace. It is common knowledge that Chin has the first track day of 2015 at COTA. That is an example of the kind of positioning that we are striving for. Our position gives us the opportunity to offer something a little more desirable than an average track day. Many other providers approached COTA but it was Chin that they chose to fill that position on their calendar.
We appreciate Mark taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. There is a lot of good news for the track day enthusiast here. The marketplace is expanding and the opportunities are expanding with it. Chin has been around for a long time and they are aggressively expanding. They offer a nice experience limited to tack day drivers. You will not find your 20 minute session being cut short due to a racer having an incident and causing a session shut down and delaying the schedule. Guess what? It will be the HPDE groups and not the higher paying racers at PCA, NASA, BMW CCA and PBOC who will find their sessions being cut. Also, Chin has a nice open track session at the end of a track day that allows just what Mark pointed out: a more relaxed opportunity to get as much lapping time in as you want. And he is not kidding when he talks about the advanced group. Those guys have been loyal to Chin for years and they are fast.