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“Our sweet spot is that you can do this for fun and it can be under control from a budget standpoint.  You can do it three times a year or 20 times a year.”

Hooked on Driving:  Track Day Company

by Ziva Allen

HOD2400xHooked on Driving, founded by David Ray, opened its doors in 2004 as a cutting edge business model for the track day community, as up until companies began offering track day events, the most popular way to get onto the track was to join a club.  Ray and his wife Leigh started out with just one region in the San Francisco Bay area and they now have five additional franchise or region owners spread throughout the country.  Ray feels very strongly that his organization is not a competitor of the clubs.  Rather he views Hooked on Driving as a friend.  “I have a tremendous respect for the clubs,” says Ray. “They are who they are and I think it’s just a very different thing than what we do so I don’t want to disparage them at all but I think that we do have a nice kind of blend of some of the things that they’ve built over the years.  And I think if things are done correctly, I would hope that Hooked on Driving is a leader in what we’re doing and also seen as a friend to the marque clubs that are doing similar programs.  Because I think there’s room.  I think there’s room for a marque club that does a number of events each year but maybe leaves some gaps in the calendar for the more hardcore drivers.”

Audi Performance Driving Partner

Just recently Hooked on Driving has been announced as the official performance driving partner for the Audi Club North America.  Rays says, “We found that we have similar cultures and goals for our programs.”  Audi has small regions that don’t have enough critical mass to do their own events and so by partnering with Hooked on Driving, it benefits their club members in smaller, rural regions.  Now the frustrated Audi member who reads in their club magazine all about the numerous track days that are happening everywhere else in the country, but doesn’t have a large enough member base in their own town, will be directed by Audi to Hooked on Driving.  As Ray says, in partnering with Audi, their members can now “get maximum track time and we can kind of marry each other and share customers to each group’s benefit.” 

Best Kept Secret

As everyone else in this industry has stated to us along our interviewing trails, Ray too believes that track day driving is a growing hobby.  In fact, he says, “It’s still the best kept secret in the motorsports world.  I’ll even expand that.  I think it’s really one of the best kept secrets in the hobby world.”  Ray sees the potential of Hooked on Driving being a brand that, as it gets traction and momentum, will be the boat that floats other boats up.  And this is why he has expanded Hooked on Driving from California into a national program.  “We’ve got a strong market in California and we’re doing really well here,” says Ray.  “And it would have been easy to just stay home.  But I really am trying to blow this thing up a little bit and let folks know about it and to do that you’ve got to get a platform out there to where you’ve got some economy of scale and so Hooked on Driving is a franchise concept.  I have a past and a previous life as a franchisee and so I understood kind of how the franchise concept would work.  There were a couple of people trying to do a national program before I started and I watched what they were doing and I didn’t think it was really a great model.  They would fly into a market.  Three or four of their leaders would fly from California to New York and drive out to Watkins Glen and they would work to get a network of coaches or instructors from mainly the other clubs.  They’d throw an ad hoc team together, do an event and fly home.  And I just felt like that was going to be pretty difficult to sustain.”  Ray recognized early on that as the hobby grows so does the event calendar and flying folks all over the country to keep up with these events simply could not work. 

HOD Regions are Still Available

Hooked on Driving has six regions including Florida, Great Lakes, Northern California, Northeast, Southern States and the Pacific Northwest.  Ray is still growing the company throughout the country and looking to expand into even more markets.  He is currently actively seeking region owners to service a very large essential market in Texas as well as the western/mid-west around Missouri, Kansas and Ohio.  Additionally, he is looking to expand into the mountain states as they have a new territory with High Plains Raceway near Denver in Colorado.  He would consider looping Colorado and Utah together as one territory.  Once he secures region owners for these four or five territories, Ray says Hooked on Driving will be pretty well set.  “There’s real growth underway,” says Ray, “but it is a hard road.  I mean it takes time to build a region.  You don’t just post an event and have 100 people show up.”

HOD Business Model

Ray also is cognizant of the seriousness of this hobby.  As he says, “This is not Disneyland.  This is not jumpy houses.  You’ve got to know what you’re doing.  You’ve got to manage it well.  And you’ve got liability.  You have to have insurance, etc.  So I have a business owner with boots on the ground and accountability legally, financially and operationally in each market.”  Ray is smart to realize the value in developing personal relationships as Hooked on Driving is a people business.  Local owners need to reside in and be present in the local market in order to foster relationships, not only with the customers but with others in the communities, such as their group leaders, coaches, clubs, and car dealerships.  And one of the most important relationships that need to be established is with the track itself.  “You’ve got to earn your way onto the tracks in most cases,” says Ray, who is excited that the tracks are beginning to recognize that Hooked on Driving has a national footprint and are appreciating seeing their tracks mentioned in national ads. 

Country Club Tracks

Basically, Ray just wants to be friends!  He wants to be friends with the tracks.  He wants to be friends with the clubs.  And he also wants to be friends with the new country club race tracks that are springing up.  Ray understands the concept ‘what’s good for you is good for me and what’s good for me is good for you’ and he gets the larger picture.  “We are working pretty well with the country clubs and I think there’s good potential to have a mutual beneficial interest,” says Ray.  “If we are out there in the middle of the Arco Arena parking lot on a Saturday morning advertising Hooked on Driving and we get them to a Hooked on Driving event and then let’s say the event takes place at Autobahn Country Club, well they may never have gone to Joliet to see that track otherwise.  And we bring them on the property and they’re going to see a beautiful clubhouse and one thing could lead to another and that person could become an enthusiast and become a prospective member at the club.  And I’m willing to take that risk that I might lose that customer to becoming a member at the club because I just know that if we create an enthusiast at that level, that guy’s going to be referring friends to us after the fact.  Sixty percent of our customers come from other customers.”

Growing the HPDE Activity

Even so, Ray does not think the hobby will grow by itself.  He says, “It is a hobby that is taking work and recruitment and promotion and creative presentation.”  How this sport is promoted will guide how well it grows.  Ray explains it like this:  “If you take 100 people that have interesting cars that they enjoy and you ask those people how many would like to learn how to race their car or race in general, you might get four to eight people who would say, ‘yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that’ or ‘yeah, I’ve always wanted to put a blower on my car and go fast.’  But if you change the question to, ‘would you like to drive that car in a safe environment, closer to its potential and really learn how to handle the car safely, in a fun and noncompetitive environment?’  Well now you get 30 or 40 hits.  But the problem is the 100 people aren’t being asked that question.  We’re trying to be an entity that’s out there marketing this to bring it the light of day,” says Ray.  We all know that oftentimes people use high performance events as a stepping stone to enter the competitive racing world and Ray respects that.  “They have every right and it makes every bit of sense to do this as an entry point for racing,” says Ray.  “But it is an eliminator to a bunch of people.”  Not everyone is comfortable in that arena and not everyone can afford it. 

HOD Sweet Spot

And so Ray has recognized the need to find a middle ground with the focus on safety first and then fun second.  When you go to a Hooked on Driving event and really any HPDE event, you should make sure you have your priorities straight.  You should be going to have fun and not to prove something to someone else.  As Ray explains, “You have to show us that you’re really there for the right reasons and most people are.  Most people really appreciate what we do.  It’s not a competition.  Sure we have friends who go out and run together and maybe there’s a little bragging rights here and there for some of the advanced guys who have run for a long time.  But our real focus is bringing people from the Safeway parking lot that didn’t even know this existed.  Some people do it once or twice a year.  For some people it’s a bucket list item.  And some people are a little intimidated.  But most people – I’d say 90% or more - love the day and brag about it for the rest of their lives.  And then maybe half of those get hooked.  And then of the hooked group, they scatter.  You know, some of them work their way up dramatically really quickly and start buying the cars.  And some spend too much money right away and burn themselves out and then their family won’t let them go to the track anymore because it’s too expensive and some go racing and then some settle in and simply enjoy this as a hobby.  Which I think that’s where we are.  Our sweet spot is that you can do this for fun and it can be under control from a budget standpoint.  You can do it three times a year or 20 times a year.  You can do it with a street car.  You can keep it under control.  Show some discipline on what you do to your car or if you’re going to do a track car, it doesn’t have to be a super expensive exotic either.”  Ray sees the need to try to appeal to the more casual motorsports or car magazine reader who is paying attention to the news in the automotive world and may be catching little glimpses of the motorsports community.  “We’re out there trying to attract a kind of in between person who is aware of our world but not really involved yet,” Says Ray.

Test Drive a Corvette on the Track with HOD

Another partnership Ray is proud of is a new relationship with Corvette.  For qualified, higher level drivers, there are test drives available at everyHOD320x194 event in every region this entire year.  Qualified drivers can have the opportunity to drive the Corvette Stingray on the track!  Ray is excited that by Chevrolet promoting their Stingray Corvette via Hooked on Driving events, again it is a win-win for both companies.  However, he is quick to point out that he does not want to look like a Corvette club.  “I mean Corvettes are obviously welcome and they’re great track day cars but we want to expose the car across the brands to our regular customer base which is all over the map.  From Alpha to Zagato and everything in between.  And to be honest, this blows my mind that Chevrolet is saying ‘we want people to test drive the car on the track.  Don’t give thrill rides.  Let them drive the car.  Let them feel the car.  And at no charge!’  We’re kind of jumping up over a lot of dealerships because the car is so popular that people are struggling in that they’re interested in the car but it’s hard to shop for one.  We’ve got a dealer in our area and they had one on the showroom floor but they wouldn’t let anybody sit in the car.  But at Hooked on Driving you can actually drive the car!  I think it’s a very unique and bold way to market the car.  They’re putting their money where their mouth is and they’re putting their car right in the middle of the mix.  I mean it would have been easy to do that at a Corvette club – sell the C7s to the C6 owners - but they chose us to present it to the broader base.  And I was a little worried about that from a cultural standpoint that some real hardcore Mustang and Porsche guy would say, ‘oh so you guys are Corvette guys now?  I see.’  But no, everybody is saying, ‘wow that is really cool that Chevy did that.’” 

Okay – so now that we’ve got the Hooked on Driving model and company philosophy out of the way, let’s talk about what Ray is really passionate about and why he even created Hooked on Driving in the first place.  Driving! 

David Ray and SCCA Racing

Ray started out in the very beginning in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition licensing school before he even knew about track days.  And it was quite accidental.  Ray had attended a big auto show in San Francisco and they had a membership group there.  “I always thought that in order to belong to the SCCA, you had to be rich but it was $55 and well, I had that!  So I joined the club.  I was a bit older for an entry level amateur racer.  I was 30; I had a one year old child and a small business that I was still working hard on.  But they sent me a postcard and they said, ‘we’re a very active club and we want you to volunteer and do something’ and one of the check boxes was to work at a club race.  So I went as a trainee worker to their racing school.  I had gone to Road America back in the mid-west when I was a kid and I was a big fan of sports car racing but didn’t really know that amateur racing existed.  And so I show up at this amateur racing school and the first guy that I’m working with and helping is a 16 year old in a Datsun 510 that’s got primer all over it and I already know more than he does and he’s in the school learning how to race.  And I’m helping him?  I said to myself, ‘okay well this is all wrong.’  I mean god love this kid but if he’s got the money for this Datsun 510, I can swing this too!  And so I decided to autocross that year.  I had a Mitsubishi Starion and I auto-crossed it part of that year just to learn about tire pressure and stuff and see if I could drive.  And I was decent as an auto-crosser.  I was a student at the racing school the next year and then one thing led to another.”  Ray went on to race in many SCCA competitions throughout the years, being fortunate and skilled enough to have won three championships in the San Francisco region.

Twenty-five Hours of Thunderhill

Ray has also run about seven times in the NASA 25 hour endurance race which has been a real personal challenge.  “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done there,” says Ray.  “I’ve been able to be a driver with a gentleman who has a very spectacular car.  We’ve not won overall.  We’ve finished second in class.  We’ve done pretty well over the years and I’ve been able to drive with a couple of professional drivers in that race.”  Ray had the opportunity to be on the same team with the Motorsports Hall of Fame great Elliot Forbes-Robinson and Davy Jones, who has won, among other races, the 24 Hours of Daytona.  Says, Ray, “I mean those guys!  Really? That’s phenomenal!”

So how did this competitive racer find himself in the HPDE community?  Ray says that it happened through his involvement with Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willow, California.  “I kind of came into this a little bit late really.  I’d been racing for years and didn’t really know about HPDE and then I got on the committee at Thunderhill Raceway.  In 1988, we had a gentleman named Tom McCarthy in the San Francisco region of the SCCA who was in charge of the region as a volunteer guy.  Tom’s a shrewd businessman and he was very visionary.  He saw the need for us to have our own track to be able to guide our destiny.  We looked for property for five years and finally found 548 acres in Willows, California and built that track.”

Bringing Folks to the Track

The guys who were running Thunderhill were putting on five or six track schools a year to fill in dates in their calendar between pro events.  “They would have to drop everything and run a track day.  And it was just a real tough task for them,” says Ray.  “They were doing fine but I saw a potential for improvement and potential for a group to focus on that school element.”  Ray feels adamant that tracks need to encourage businesses like the PCA, BMW, Chin and Hooked on Driving to put on track events and leave maintaining the tracks to the track staff.  Ray says, “Let us exist and we’ll be their marketing people to bring in the folks that rent the track on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.  Sure, they’re going to get the SCCA and NASA races and maybe a couple of pro races but what about those 300 other days?  If they try to compete with organizations like ours, they’re just going to defeat the purpose of what we could do.  For instance, I think we’re like the third largest user of Thunderhill now and that’s because they worked cooperatively with us and didn’t compete with us.  So I struggle when I see a track trying to do their own program.  I really do believe that they are preventing rentals by doing that and therefore preventing networking.  Companies can provide tremendous promotion for the sport.”  Ray’s vision was of a group that solely focused on track day events.  He says, “the whole thing could be really polished up and you’d write the operations manual and you’d start training your coaches and you’d have the coaches all teaching the same way, using the same terminology, teaching the same line on the track.”  Through his involvement with Thunderhill, Ray was fortunate to have met Dev Clough who was running the school program.  “Dev has been instrumental in really building our content and our philosophy and our approach.  He is ahead of me in terms of helping others learn and develop performance driving programs.  And Dev really is the keeper of our content and culture.  And he’s a really good guy,” says Ray.

HOD3400xWe asked Ray where he sees the high performance driving hobby in five years and where he sees Hooked on Driving’s foothold.  “The optimistic view is that I think we’re headed toward a weekend car and a transportation device for during the week.  I will say a substantial determining factor in this is our willingness to work with the more progressive green influences in our society and our political system rather than fight them.  And this is where I lose some friends.  I think it’s okay to have mufflers on our cars.  We don’t have to be loud nuisances.  Ninety decibels can still sound cool and exciting.  It’s a different thing to have a pro spectator event where everybody comes and expects loud noise.  We don’t have to be loud all the time.  I love that our industry is pushing the envelope on efficiencies, on safety, on engineering, and the fact that the autonomous car is definitely coming.  I think that we’re still going to love to carve the canyons on a Saturday morning, but we’re not going to carve the canyons in an autonomous car.  And so I think why Chevrolet just built the Chevrolet Z51 Corvette and why Audi has all the RS cars and even for instance Subaru comes out with the a BRZ and the FRS Scion and Mazda is coming out with a new MX5 - those are $25,000 cars.  Those are cars that could be capable as weekend play cars, track day cars at an entry level point.  I think the car manufacturers and our society together will drive our industry.  I see huge potential for what we do and I think it’s very important that we stay true to our noncompetitive roots because the liability is that poorly managed track days will have too many incidents.  That would be the fear that I have.  We’re not perfect.  We do have an occasional incident because guys are driving quickly out there.  But we’ve got a really good safety record and we get discounts for track day insurance for our customers based on our monitoring and adding reasonable rules.  Holding drivers accountable and not winking and nodding at people.”  So with a focus on safety and non-competitiveness, Ray sees opportunity for growth even in the face of green initiatives.  There will always be a market for high performance driving.

One Horse or 435?

For marketing purposes, the Hooked on Driving founder envisions a triangle.  Says Ray, “The triangle is a descriptor for the market that we’re pursuing and I’d say the triangle is the car enthusiast with the tip of the triangle being all of the racers and the time trialers.  And the base of the triangle are the entry level folks maybe just getting going in their lives financially etc.  The center of the triangle is what we’re trying to find and trying to bring into our hobby and what it’s all about.”  Ray shared one last story with us that hit the nail on the head!  “We have a prominent attorney from San Francisco come with his Porsche.  After a couple of times he’s getting pretty quick, pretty fast and he decides, ‘okay I’m up in the B group now and I want my wife to drive in the A group.  But she’s a total horse person.  They have horses in their backyard and she is involved in competitive horse events.  But he gets his wife to drive the Porsche for the day and afterwards I get an email from him that says, ‘You know what my wife Maureen said to me last night?  She said, why would you want one horse if you could have 435?”

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