Scott Sharp ’90
Tearing up a racetrack at 185 mph requires more than coordination and guts. To climb behind the wheel, drivers must find sponsors, master logistics, and remember that racing isn’t just a sport—it’s a business.
Written By John Crawford
Photography By Brian Tietz
Google the name of race car driver Scott Sharp ’90, and a video pops up of an astonishing wreck. During a 2009 practice run for Petit Le Mans, an endurance race in Braselton, Ga., a Porsche clipped Sharp’s Acura, sending it sliding out of control at 140 mph. For six long seconds, Sharp’s car rolled and tumbled, parts flying into the air. Once it finally, mercifully came to a rest, the car was unrecognizable. “There was debris everywhere,” says Sharp, whose memorable career in auto racing includes numerous wins, multiple championships, and a pole position start at the Indianapolis 500. “It was pretty wild. It was like the best roller coaster you could ever go on.”
Thankfully, Sharp was unhurt, and despite the violent wipeout, he would have hopped in another car right then and there if one were available. Crashing is an inevitable part of his sport. Drivers learn to move on and keep going. “I’ve unfortunately crashed quite a lot,” Sharp says. “It doesn’t shake me up.”
Since the bygone days of Babson’s Sports Car Club when students raced in meets across New England, a number of College alumni have competed in auto racing. Having first fallen in love with cars as boys, some have made the track their professions, while others came to racing after establishing fruitful business careers, finding in the engines and exhaust a buzz similar to that found in the boardroom. One alumnus, the president of one of the biggest auto companies in the world, heads to the track regularly to better understand what makes for great cars.
But racing takes more than coordination, guts, and a willingness to keep going after a crash. To go fast, drivers need money. “At the end of the day,” Sharp says, “this is a business.”
Like Chess on a Treadmill
Bill Sweedler ’88
Racing cars is thrilling, but it’s not easy. Picture yourself running on a treadmill in a sauna, while playing chess at the same time. Then imagine it’s loud like a rock concert. “I am losing my hearing slightly,” admits Bill Sweedler ’88, a Westport, Conn., resident who started racing professionally in 2005.
Temps inside the cars can climb to 125 degrees. Sweating in their helmets and fireproof suits, drivers shift, brake, steer, and work the clutch. “You have all these things happening at the same time,” Sweedler says. “It’s constant movement.” So much so that racers’ heart rates elevate, as if they’re in the middle of an aerobic workout. Sharp hits the gym routinely so he’ll be in sufficient shape when he takes the wheel.
The top speeds that racers reach depends on the track, but on some straightaways, drivers can clock in at 185 mph. To describe the sensation, Sweedler, like Sharp, thinks of roller coasters. “The G-forces are very much like that,” he says. Despite all the distractions and pressure swirling around them, though, drivers must remain focused, thinking of strategy. “There’s nothing more in the moment than being on the racetrack,” Sweedler says. “It’s the one place in the world where I forget everything. There’s only one thing on my mind: the next turn.”
Sweedler took a long route to the track. As a boy, he raced dirt bikes, but his exploits made his parents nervous, especially when he started showing an interest in racing cars. “They weren’t going to pay for those follies,” he says. “As it got more dangerous, they used their parental influence to stop me.” But Sweedler never forgot how going fast made him feel. “I vowed in my college years that, when I could afford to do it, I would pursue it,” he says.
Years go by. Sweedler becomes chairman and CEO of Windsong Brands, a brand development and investment company, and later the co-founder and partner of Tengram Capital Partners, a consumer and retail private equity firm. These accomplishments enable him to make good on his college vow.
Sweedler realizes that some people think he’s a “little crazy” for strapping into a race car, but he relishes the excitement of the track. “It’s similar to the feeling you get in a successful business,” he says, “with the added benefit of huge amounts of adrenaline.”
A Traveling Roadshow
Bob Ziegel ’63
Racing may be an adrenaline-filled sport, but that rush doesn’t come without hard work or significant costs. “You can always find ways to spend money in racing,” Sharp says. A successful driver needs a crew, equipment, and a car, and just physically moving them around to different events requires effort. “It’s a big logistical process,” Sweedler says. “It’s effectively a traveling roadshow.”
Wear and tear on the cars is an ongoing concern, and maintaining them is far more complicated than simply stopping by the neighborhood Jiffy Lube for an oil change. Parts are expensive, and drivers need talented technicians who can tinker with a car and make the needed adjustments—to the suspension, brakes, shocks, or whatever else they can think of— to help the vehicle go faster. “There is an art and a science to setting up a car,” Sweedler says.
Of course, costs always have been associated with racing, but the sport has seen extraordinary changes. Bob Ziegel ’63 first started racing in the 1960s, a time when the sport wasn’t as prominent and the business surrounding it wasn’t as big. “We were making it up as we went along,” says the resident of Bristol, N.H., and Bonita Springs, Fla. “I have watched the whole thing evolve over time, especially from a business point of view. Racing has changed so much economically.”
Beginning in 1963, Ziegel raced as part of the Sports Car Club of America, and anywhere from a few thousand to 50,000 people would show up for SCCA races. Ziegel’s race car was his 1962 MGA. It was also his “daily driver,” the car he used in his everyday life. He didn’t have enough money to own a separate race car to use exclusively at the track. As it was, the MGA wasn’t paid off. “That taught me to be very protective of the car,” he says. Ziegel dumped half his take-home pay from his day job into supporting his racing, paying for everything from better tires and rebuilt engines to entrance fees and travel costs.
Amazingly, not many racers had sponsorship back then. Watch a race today, and cars and drivers alike are covered in sponsor ads, which provide a major source of revenue to cover costs. “The business of racing is all about sponsorship,” Sweedler says, and finding sponsors is an ongoing concern for the modern-day driver. Sharp adds: “Your sales hat is never put away.”
Looking for sponsorship in 1968, Ziegel and a partner landed a meeting at Gillette. The two proposed a $1 million plan to the marketing executives in the hope of forming a Gillette-sponsored racing team. “We worked for weeks on that proposal,” Ziegel says. “We didn’t get the money.” Eventually, Ziegel found sponsorship through his employer. When not racing, he was a salesperson for Computerworld, a trade newspaper. The publication’s owner made Ziegel a sponsorship deal contingent on his performance as a salesperson. With the deal, Ziegel realized a profit from racing for the first time, and a three-foot by one-foot Computerworld ad, modest by what’s seen in racing today, was affixed to his car.
James Sofronas ’90 (from left), Bill Sweedler ’88, and Scott Sharp ’90 meet up before a race at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla.
Underwear Soaked in Ice Water
Ziegel’s love of cars goes back to his youth, before he received his driver’s license, when he and his friends would sneak into the back lots of car dealers after the new models arrived. He and his pals peeked under the tarps at the Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Skyliners. “I think most pre-driving age kids are obsessed with cars,” Ziegel says. “Cars represent mobility. You only can go so far on your bicycle.”
At Babson, he joined the Sports Car Club. Members met in deserted places, such as an airport runway or off-season parking lots at beaches and amusement parks, to set up racecourses. Ziegel’s first meet was on a frozen New Hampshire lake, the course laid out on the ice. The club even held a meet on a campus parking lot with the full support of school administration. “It was a different era,” says Ziegel, who was the club’s sports car driver of the year for 1962-1963.
After graduating Babson, Ziegel raced for decades. When he finally retired from the track in 1996, he had competed in about 500 races, winning more than 100 of them. Today, he remains involved with racing as an instructor with the Skip Barber Racing School, and when he looks back on his career, many memories stick out. He recalls, for instance, a race on a hot, breezeless summer day in Virginia. “The only way to get relief was to take your fireproof underwear and soak it in ice water,” he says. And he remembers the camaraderie with fellow drivers, including SCCA champion Bob Sharp, who was Scott Sharp’s father. “I fed Scott Sharp a bottle when he was a baby,” Ziegel says. “Racing is a small world.”
Feeding from a bottle at the track shows just how long Sharp has been around racing. He began racing go-karts at the age of 8, the track only a mile from his house, and he started amateur racing as a high school senior. By his junior year at Babson, heturned professional, though his mom, concerned about his schoolwork, said he could only compete if he kept his grades up. Along the way, he got to know actor Paul Newman, who was part of his father’s racing team for about 10 years. Sharp describes him as a private but generous person. “He was a great guy,” Sharp says.
With the support of his long-time sponsor, The Patrón Spirits Co., Sharp currently owns his own racing team, Extreme Speed Motorsports, based in Stuart, Fla. He credits his Babson education for prepping him for all the off-the-track tasks he encounters: the salesmanship, the marketing, the budgeting, and the managing of a team of some 20 employees. “I needed that finer education to prepare me,” he says.
Autobahn Test Drives
James Sofronas ’90
Nowadays, Sharp competes as part of the American Le Mans Series, a run of endurance races for sports cars. Coincidentally, both Sweedler and James Sofronas ’90 participate in the same series, which means that on any given race weekend, three Babson alumni, who all graduated around the same time as each other, have a minireunion among the hustle and bustle of the motor speedway. Sweedler and Sharp were actually roommates in college, and the two have remained friends and supported each other’s racing through the years. Sofronas also knew Sharp at Babson. He remembers thinking how lucky Sharp was when he left campus to go racing during weekends.
Racing has proved profitable for Sofronas. He’s owner and co-founder of Global Motorsports Group, a Santa Ana, Calif.- based business with two main focuses. First, GMG runs a racing team, of which Sofronas is a participant, and maintains the cars of independent drivers who ride without team support. Second, it sells aftermarket performance parts, which have been tested on the track by GMG’s racers. This firsthand expertise provides GMG a big marketing boost. “It gives you credibility,” Sofronas says.
GMG began in 2001 as a 1,200-squarefoot shop and since has grown to a 30,000- square-foot facility that can accommodate 40 cars at a time. Walk inside the busy building, and you’ll see cars up on various lifts and 15 employees working on a slew of Porsches and Audis, the two brands that make up most of GMG’s business.
Creating a booming career in cars took a while for Sofronas, whose passion for racing stems from his late father, George Sofronas ’51. “My dad was a car enthusiast,” Sofronas says. When James was a boy, the Sofronas family lived in Vienna, and his dad enjoyed taking new cars on the Autobahn. James would tag along. “He’d get a new car and want to break it in,” Sofronas says. “It was a little bonding time between me and my dad.”
Sofronas started racing professionally in 1994, but like Ziegel in the 1960s, he couldn’t afford both a car for the track and one for his everyday life. So Sofronas bought a race car and drove it everywhere. During that time, he worked as a salesperson (first for Pitney Bowes, then in medical sales), and his race car, covered in sponsor ads, made for an interesting sight on sales calls. Dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase, Sofronas had to climb in and out of the car over its protective roll cage. Potential customers didn’t know what to make of him. “I’m a race car driver on the weekend,” Sofronas would tell them. “It would be a great talking point.”
Eventually, Sofronas was able to quit his sales work and focus on GMG full time. He says entrepreneurs and race car drivers have much in common. For starters, both rely on a team, though ultimate responsibility for success or failure relies on them alone. Then there’s the matter of their wiring. “If you’re running your own business, you’re something like a type A, very driven person,” Sofronas says. “You push yourself to the limit.” The same goes with drivers hurtling along a racecourse.
Everything on the Line
Akio Toyoda, MBA’82
Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
Akio Toyoda, MBA’82, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp., also has thought about the similarities between business and racing, subjects he knows a lot about from personal experience. “Issues and problems spring forth one after another during a race, and we draw on peak concentration and insight to solve them,” says Toyoda. “That sort of real-time response is equally necessary and valuable in tackling business issues.”
Toyoda may run one of the biggest brands in the world, but he’s not a rigid executive bound to the office. A certified test driver, he frequently visits racecourses to evaluate vehicles, and he has participated multiple times in the 24-hour endurance race at Germany’s Nürburgring racetrack.“As the CEO of an automaker, I feel strongly that I ought to be the final arbiter of our products,” says Toyoda. He finds Nürburgring, in which teams of four drive a car continuously for 24 hours, a valuable opportunity to test a car’s performance. “Nürburgring is the world’s most trying course for machines and for drivers,” he says. “The race is punishing, but it forges better machines. Nürburgring is where I learned that ‘the road makes the car.’”
Meeting master test driver Hiromu Naruse, who worked at Toyota for decades before passing away in a 2010 accident,first inspired Toyoda to start training seriously for racing. Naruse had strong words for Toyoda. “Test drivers,” he told him, “put everything on the line in the name of creating better cars. To talk about this and that without knowing anything just causes trouble.” After that meeting, Toyoda began training under Naruse’s supervision. “His first words to me made a powerful and lasting impression,” says Toyoda of his racing mentor. “I realized then that I wanted to become a person who could grasp the essence of cars.”
By taking the wheel, Toyoda hopes to help his company maximize what he calls “flavor.” “We experience flavor as foretaste, as actual taste, and as aftertaste,” he says. “To see a car that looks interesting and makes you want to take it for a spin is to experience a foretaste. To take the wheel and enjoy a fun and satisfying ride is to experience the actual taste. And to come away with the feeling that you’d like to drive the car again is the aftertaste.”
Since taking over Toyota’s presidency in 2009, Toyoda has faced a number of daunting challenges: the recession, recalls, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Thailand floods that disrupted parts supplies, and the persistent highs of the yen that have hurt Toyota’s bottom line. But looking forward, Toyoda continues focusing on his company’s most important asset: its product. “Adversity has taught us a lot at Toyota,” he says. “In addressing and overcoming the challenges that we have faced, a powerful determination to make great cars has taken hold in our organization.”
So goes the life of race car drivers. They face many obstacles, from expenses to sponsorship to mechanical malfunctions, but they concentrate on the track ahead. They’re not thinking of crashing. They’re striving for the finish line. “If you start thinking about crashing,” Sweedler says, “that’s when you hang up your helmet.”