Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

Learning to Win

Training for Business and for the Track

Ron Fellows is a unique personality in motorsport, particularly Canadian motorsport. For one, he has made his name in cars with fenders, which is distinctly off the beaten path for a Canuck.

While most high-profile Canadian racers have gravitated toward open wheel competition–Formula One, IndyCar, ChampCar–with the exception of some early forays, Ron Fellows has rarely squeezed his six-foot-two frame behind the wheel of a formula car.

In motorsport, size matters, as they say, and he’s even on the large size for the Corvette C6-R he races in the American Le Mans Series, or the NASCAR Nextel Cup or Busch Series cars he occasionally pilots.

The 46-year-old Windsor, Ont. native’s struggle to become comfortable behind the wheel makes a fitting parallel to his struggle to become comfortable in his role as one of the most successful drivers in North American sports car racing, never mind the Canadian part. He has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race two times; Sebring 12 Hours, also twice; The Daytona 24 Hours once; and the American Le Mans Series three times. And let’s not forget his three Busch Grand National wins and two Craftsman Truck victories.

It has not been an easy road in many respects, but it is a journey that has afforded him the opportunity to learn about what it takes to win, and to take learning seriously.

He applies this approach equally to his sport and to the business of being Ron Fellows. It involves attention to three critical areas: sponsors, personal preparation, and his role within the team. Every one of these has a parallel in business, and he knows it.

In Fellows’ case, he and his wife Lynda personally handle all contracts, sponsor deals, and driving and flying arrangements. He does seek advice from some trusted experts in the legal profession, but for the most part “Ron Fellows Inc.” is a mom-and-pop operation.

Sponsors are his customers. The team is his company. Taking care of his own abilities affects his relationship with both. And no company is successful without all three being in good working order.

“You’re required to be a spokesperson for the companies you represent. In my case, I have been representing GM, and particularly Chevrolet, in various series. That is a big part of racing, and it is an important part.”

Fellows has long looked up to Formula One legend Jackie Stewart as the best example of an individual who has been able to maintain a longstanding relationship with his sponsoring companies. The Scot’s relationship with Ford, for example, goes back to his early days in Formula One, and continues to this day.

“Another is physical and mental preparation. On the mental preparation side, I have used Jacques Dallaire of Human Performance International.”

HPI has become the go-to place for racecar drivers, and is the outgrowth of a program developed two decades ago by Dallaire and the late Dan Marisi at McGill University in Montreal. The project started by benchmarking the physical and mental performance of such F1 drivers as the late Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. Their expertise has helped Fellows understand not only where he was preparing well, but also where he was lacking. Going in, he didn’t know which was which; he didn’t know what he didn’t know. (Business managers, take note.)

Like all good consultants, they began by taking apart Fellows’ process.

“There were things that I was doing in terms of visualizing that I wasn’t really aware I was doing. I was doing it instinctively.”

Many business people have suffered from the same syndrome. They do what they feel is right or what works, but they don’t fully understand why, and this leaves gaps.

Fellows’ experience was similar.

“They were able to help provide a more refined process in terms of race preparation, whether it be the physical side or mental side, that I hadn’t really paid a whole lot of attention to. As I started to get into the long distance races, the racing was certainly a lot more difficult physically and mentally. It became much more applicable to that aspect.

“A lot of what I was doing was hit and miss, and these guys were able to help me and provide some focus.”

Preparation is not a destination; it is an ongoing process, with the requirements changing over time–just like in business. Back when he started to work with HPI, he was considerably younger and the environment in the cars was considerably different. So were the demands physically. What worked a decade ago, doesn’t always work today. (Sound familiar?)

The reliance on data and engineers has evolved significantly. The sport has become highly technical. You simply can’t count on raw desire; a driver needs to rely on all the tools and people around him to succeed. Understanding how to use those tools and communicate with those around him is a critical part of the mental equation. And the physical side has gotten tougher too.

“The physical demands are certainly more difficult. Compared to only a few years ago, with similar or less horsepower, we are nearly 10 seconds a lap faster at Sebring. It’s all from braking and cornering. Nearly three Gs in stopping and cornering is hard on the body.”

Put another way, agility is more important than ever, but it takes its toll, and you have to be prepared for it. You also need to be prepared for the impact that duties tied to your business, but perhaps not directly a part of it, can have on your life.

There is no doubt that the demands that business can have on any professional’s time have increased. This is no less true of a person involved in a professional sport, especially when that sport demands an ever-increasing involvement outside “the office.”

“The most difficult part for me in the last few years has been the increase in demands outside of the car. Appearances take a lot of time, and the travel side of it sucks.

“The reality of sports car racing,” he says, “is you aren’t at an income level of someone in NASCAR or some other forms of racing.” Fellows muses that if he had the same kind of success in another branch of motorsport–NASCAR, or perhaps one of the open-wheel series–there would probably be more zeros at the end of the paycheque, and he would be spared the difficulties of commercial flying, something that we can all empathize with.

Fittingly, the interview for this article was conducted while he waited for a few hours at Washington-Dulles airport, having missed his connecting flight to Kevin Harvick’s Busch team facility prior to the Mexico City event. Still, he made good use of the downtime, which is also a lesson for business.

“As your level of notoriety grows, so do the demands on your time. You try to balance that with a family and your ability to continue to do your job. You have to prioritize, and you have to learn to delegate.

“That is something I am still learning to do.”

This happens in business too. How many times has a customer wanted to deal only with “the boss” or the senior counterperson? When you are successful, everyone wants a piece of you. Every person needs to decide how much to give.

He has enjoyed the ride along the way, though. It has provided him with an opportunity to learn more about the motorsport business than if he were simply an arrive-and-drive type of competitor.

He also understands that, as much as he has invested in GM over the past 11 years, they also have an investment in him. Like a customer and a supplier, the two are linked and each brings value to the equation, as in any successful business relationship.

“I have been fortunate. This is my 11th year with GM Racing. I think there is a ton of value in that–a lot of guys often go to where the next buck is coming from.

“A guy like Jackie Stewart was with a small group of sponsors that he is still involved with today.”

There are other longtime relationships too: AER Manufacturing, which goes back to his Trans-Am days; and Sunoco, which dates even earlier, to the late 1980s and the Player’s GM Series.

“That is the side of it that is different from other levels of professional sport. The commercial side of it is something I have worked hard to learn, and continue to learn, and that I will be able to utilize when I am no longer doing the driving thing.”

For any business owner or manager, there are many lessons to be learned along the way. They aren’t all to be found in one place, but the successful ones know how to draw on experience–theirs and others’–and put it to good use.

And there is one last lesson Fellows doesn’t mind imparting. “As a driver you are looked upon as a leader. I try to go out of my way to get along with the crew guys, to keep them excited and keep them motivated–reward them when they need to be, and get them pumped up when they need to be.

“You lead by example, with what you do on the racetrack and what you do off the racetrack.

“Whether you are representing a race team or are the head of a major corporation, people need to feel they are part of something important and exciting and that their role is critical and important.

“In this case the driver gets more of the public profile, but you can’t do it by yourself.”

And that may be the most important lesson of all.

Print this page


Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *