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Q&A with Jim Russell Racing school boss Chip Pankow

by Mark J. Cipolloni
Friday, September 5, 2008


Emotive President Chip Pankow
The following interview was conducted with Chip Pankow, President of Emotive, the company that owns the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, prior to me taking their three-day Advanced School of Racing class.  Chip drove race cars competitively for a number of years in Europe before taking on his current role with Emotive, so he brings a real-world perspective of what it takes to make a good race car driver.

CIPOLLONI:  I'm here today with Pankow from Jim Russell Racing Driving School. 

Q.  Chip, tell us will why Emotive came to buy a racing school and who is Emotive? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Hi, Mark.  Thanks.  Emotive is an experiential marketing agency with a deep core competency in both the automotive and motorsports sector.  We decided we wanted to have our own racing school for a number of reasons. 

Number one, we wanted a business where we came in closer contact with the customer, saw what the customer wanted.  And quite frankly we saw a real need for an upgrading in the whole racing school experience.  The racing school model is an old business model.  It was developed about 30 years ago by some pioneers in the industry.  I'm talking about in the U.S. 

Jim Russell, the oldest racing school in the world, we're 51 years old this year, and we really wanted to update that model.  Racing schools were originally founded to take drivers that really wanted to become racing drivers, and they didn't need all the creature comforts that are out there. 

So our new customer is a different customer.  It's a customer that is looking to have a really, really good experience all the way through, from the car, to the facility, to the food they eat, to where they stay in the evening.  So we really looked at that. 

It's not to say that we're not a real racing school.  We're completely authentic about creating champions.  But for those drivers out there that maybe aren't going on to a racing career, we have an experience that's kind of the next level experience for them, something really great to do. 

This fits in with Emotive and what we do, being a marketing agency.  We do a lot of programs for manufacturers as well, driving programs.  The things that we learn about customers in the racing school allow us to take that expertise to various manufacturers. 

Q.  Is Emotive a U.S.-based company? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Emotive is a London, England-based company with our primary base in Sonoma, California, at this point.  But part of our business plan is to expand globally, both into Europe and into Asia. 

Q.  With more racing schools? 

CHIP PANKOW:  With more racing schools.

Q.  Why did you pick the Jim Russell Racing School?  Why not some other racing school you could have invested in? 

CHIP PANKOW:  A couple reasons.  Number one, Jim Russell, they invented the industry.  In 1957, Jim Russell opened up a racing school, and it was the first racing school in the world.  It's got tremendous history.  It's created a lot of champions. 

In addition to that, we were really interested in being here at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.  That's where Jim Russell was.  So that had a lot to do with our decision. 

Q.  What separates this school from others like it? 

CHIP PANKOW:  I want to talk a little bit about Infineon Raceway. 

Q.  Sure. 

CHIP PANKOW:  We looked in the U.S. and looked at a lot of different facilities where we could go.  We chose Infineon Raceway for several reasons.  Number one, first and foremost, is the track itself is 2.52 miles, 162 feet of elevation change.  It's one of the most challenging tracks in America.  It's a real driver's track.  It's busy.  There's really not a straightaway here.  And we want a driver's track.  It throws a lot of different types of corners at you.  So it's a real learning tool. 

Second, we have a large paddock out front.  Paddock is about 1.2 million square feet.  That allows us to do a lot of different training, particularly skid control training, car control training.  So that was important to us for both sides of our business. 

Thirdly, the weather.  We operate 12 months out of the year here.  It's a little rainy in the winter, January and February.  That's actually great training for our young racers.  You look at a lot of tracks in the northeast.  You're lucky if you get four or five months out of them, usually five months.  Here we've got great weather just about all year round. 

Next, the location.  We're in the middle of an incredible destination location.  So we talked about those lifestyle customers.  And they can come out, they can do a school on Wednesday, Thursday, then take the weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, to go to a great spa, go wine tasting, explore all the things that we have in this area from San Francisco up through Marin County to the wine country, all the way up to Tahoe.  So we have people making mini vacations out of this, 'cause our customers are coming more and more nationally, not just locally.  And when we're creating an experience, we don't want the experience to end when you leave the racetrack.  We want it to keep going.  We want them to go out to a great restaurant, have a great bottle of wine, and stay in a great hotel.  We can do that. 

Once you take all those specifications and you start to add them up, it really brings down the number of places in the country where you can do it.  So that's why we're at Infineon Raceway. 

Q.  What separates this school from others like it? 

CHIP PANKOW:  First of all, it's the total experience.  The total experience being the location, being the facility that we're sitting in.  In other words, great hospitality.  You're in a comfortable building.  You're eating great food. 

But more than anything else, it's what happens out on the track, the car.  We have an FJR 50.  We're going to talk about the car in a little bit.  But it is the most advanced racing school car in the world, bar none.  And you're going to drive one tomorrow and see what we're talking about.  It's full carbon fiber, aero, slicks, sequential gearbox.  It is based on the 2007 German champion winning Formula 3 car.  It's built by Lola.  It's an incredible racing car.  You look around at a lot of other racing schools and you're driving cars that are mild sealed two-frame chassis, outboard suspension.  They're running on street tires.  They don't have any aero.  This simply isn't relevant. 

For young drivers coming up out of karting, we want the right steppingstone for them.  And it really is our feeling that going into spending two years in those cars creates more bad habits than it helps. 

We designed the car so that you can come out of karting, progress in the car, then go on to something else in racing.  We also see when people are lifestyle customers when they come out, when they do a once-in-a-lifetime experience, they don't want to do the second best one, they want to do the best one. 

Then curriculum.  I think we're going to talk about curriculum a little bit.  But curriculum is a key differentiator in what we do.  We have a much different curriculum.

Q.  Do you have any unique approach to how you do your instruction? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Yep.  Up to this point, driving on a racetrack has typically been approached progressively, rev limits, inching your speed up bit by bit.  This is a solid way to teach.  It works.  It takes a lot of time.  It takes a lot of time to go quick.  It also creates a driver that takes a lot of time to acclimate themselves to the track. 

In today's motorsports, as you're coming up in the ladder system in motorsports, if you're racing, say, Formula BMW, for instance, you're on a Formula One weekend, Canadian Grand Prix, Brazilian Grand Prix, or, touch wood, the U.S. Grand Prix when it comes back, you might have 20 minutes of track time before you have to go qualify.  So you have to use each one of those 20 minutes, each second of those 20 minutes, to your advantage.  And we created a system that really allows you to do that.  So you have much more information to self-critique yourself.  Not come in and talk to your coach or look at your data after a session. 

Let's say you have 15 laps in a 20-minute session.  We don't want you to make that mistake 15 times.  We want you to be able to say, hey, I made that mistake, I'm not going to do it on the next lap.  That way you're continually getting better.  You have continuous improvement when you're on the track. 

To do that, we kind of looked at the way things are done.  And the way things have always been done, you go through -- a lot of racing schools are designed to keep you at about 9/10ths.  That's what you strive for.  You strive to be at 9/10ths.  Once you step over 10/10ths, what happens?  The vehicle starts to slide.  If you don't know what to do when the vehicle starts to slide, the chances are it's going to result in an off road or, even worse, a crash.  Some schools, I have drivers that have been racing for a long time, they drive around just under the limit, and they have a couple crashes, then they come up to you and say, you know what, you need to go to a car control clinic.  Students that have been with them three, four years. 

We go the other way around.  We start out with the car control.  We want you to be able to slide a car.  We want you to be able to drive the car confidently.  So that's where we start.  That way we can get you going faster sooner because you have the car control skills that are there.  So it's really taking the old model and turning it upside down, starting with the car control, giving you those skills, so you can go faster sooner. 

Q.  This whole campus is beautiful.  Tell us about what you've built here. 

CHIP PANKOW:  Thank you.  We built a 16,000 square feet campus here.  This is our hospitality center.  This is where people come.  This is where they spend time.  This is where they can spend time at the track.  We just had 120 people here over the weekend for a great hospitality.  This is the nerve center of our championship series.  This is where you come and hang out when you do a school. 

It has two sections:  the hospitality and, of course, the technical center.  And the technical center houses several things.  Number one, it's the final preparation area for your school cars before you get into them.  It's run as a professional garage, as professional as an IndyCar team or anything in higher motorsports.  In addition to that, it's also the teaching center for the mechanics training program.  We have one of the oldest and thorough racecar mechanic apprentice training programs.  Right now we have 12 apprentices down there that are being trained by our professional mechanics on how to work on cars.  They're down there.  They clean the cars.  There's hands on.  They see what's happening with the cars.  Very special program. 

This building also houses our administrative offices.  This is where we take all the bookings.  This is where the customer service reps sit.  This is where everyone that touches this program sits so they see what's happening and the quality control is on-site. 

Q.  Best I've ever seen. 

CHIP PANKOW:  We're trackside at turn one, so we have a good view.  It can be a little loud when we have loud test days.  Not convenient for conference calls. 

Q.  You talked a little bit about the new cars.  Anything else to say about those? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Yeah, the FJR 50, we designed it.  We had a very long list of design parameters for the car.  We talked to a lot of different manufacturers.  And we decided on Lola because they came through with the most comprehensive response to our lists, our needs list of what we needed in the school car. 

It's full Formula 3 FIA crash tested.  So it's one of the safest racing school cars out there.  It has a four cylinder turbocharged engine.  So it has great power.  We have two power settings.  We have the school power setting and we have the race power setting because we don't want to start off someone in a school with 300 horsepower.  So the power setting for the school is about 200 horsepower, which works well with the grip level of the car. 

But the idea was, let's take a look at a power-to-weight ratio of a 125 shifter kart, kind of be in that neighborhood, because that's where our young future champions are coming from, is out of shifter carts, then the handling package that is something that they're going to encounter.  If you go on to an Atlantics car, if you go onto an A1 GP car, if you go on to a BMW, if you go on to a Formula One car, this is the type of handling that you're going to experience.  It's relevant handling.  It's a modern car.  It has some downforce.  It makes mechanical grip. 

But one thing that's important about Formula 3 as a formula, and a reason we didn't go with some other formula, is that it doesn't have so much grip to where you just kind of drive the car through the corner until you can't stand it any more.  It's got small tires.  You've got to slide the car.  You've got to move the car around.  This keeps in play with what we're doing. 

You look at the top Formula One drivers, they're sliding the car around.  So we wanted a car that would prepare people for the high levels of racing.  And it's not unrealistic to think that you could prepare yourself for driving an A1 GP car or a Formula One car in our car, particularly prepare yourself for a Formula 3 car.  If you can master this car, the performance parameter for a Formula 3 car is actually a little bit less because we've got more horsepower.  This car is faster than a Formula 3 car, champion winning Formula 3 car. 

Q.  You have different programs that a student can take here.  Tell me a little bit about those different programs. 

CHIP PANKOW:  Right now we have a course menu of core programs of four different programs, starting with the foundations.  Then we have the Grand Prix Masters program.  The Grand Prix Masters program is for that customer that wants to come out for one day and always wanted to drive a racecar.  We have a program for that customer. 

Q.  And that is the open-wheel car? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Open-wheel car.  Everything is done in an open-wheel car. 

Then we have a two-day program, the School of Racing, then an Advanced School of Racing, which is a three-day program.  They all have car control in them.  And the difference between the two-day and the three-day is really more seat time, more track time. 

Q.  You also have Audis here.  What are they used for? 

CHIP PANKOW:  The Audis we have here, we kind of look at our business in two different areas:  racing school and a driving school.  Driving school is when you're driving a road car.  Racing school is when you're driving a racing car.  When we set out to do this, we decided, okay, our design is going to be to have the best racing school in the world and the best driving school in the world.  The two are complementary.  Track time is so expensive.  We always want to be utilizing the track as much as possible.  That's one of the ways we're able to keep our costs down in the Jim Russell side of the business is because we have the Audi side of the business so they both can share the overhead on any given day. 

If you look at our cars, you look at the infrastructure that we've built here, we should cost two or three times as much as our competitors.  We don't.  We're anywhere between zero to about 30% more expensive than our competitors.  That's the way we do it. 

Q.  What type of clientele are you looking for?  Where are your students coming from? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Right.  Talk about racing drivers first.  We're looking for young, hungry racers.  We're looking for champions coming out of karting.  We're looking for people who want to improve their skills that aren't champions yet.  We can help them get there.  We have data acquisition in every car.  We have one of the most extensive data acquisitions in two of our cars.  We have a data masters program where you can go one-on-one with a top-level instructor, where he drives a car, you drive the car.  We reference your lap.  We can look at you on video.  We can do the overlay, we can find out exactly what's happening. 

The one thing we have with the formula car, it's a mono-post car, in other words, only one seat, is that we're not in the cockpit with you, when it comes right down to it.  When we're looking for the last hundredth of a second, it could be the littlest thing you're doing in the cockpit.  Some of that comes out of the data.  Some of it doesn't.  Sometimes we can isolate that by watching what you're doing and doing an overlay between the instructor's hands and your hands, where you're shifting, where you're braking.  So that really helps our teaching. 

Q.  How does the student know which class is best for them?  I think maybe you touched on it a little bit. 

CHIP PANKOW:  That's what we have our customer service reps for.  The best thing I can always recommend to a student is call our 800 number and talk to our customer service reps.  They're experienced.  They've been through the programs.  They know what the programs are.  We do a good amount of training with them.  And they're kind of a driving counselor.  They'll make sure you get into the right program.  We'll figure out what you want to achieve, what experience you have, where you think -- what you think you need to work on, and then decide what program is right for you. 

And we don't necessarily want to put you in the biggest program first.  We find that when people come through our program, they come back.  So we want to start you out at the right level so you get the most out of this. 

Q.  You talk a lot about the school, classes, so forth.  You also have an actual racing program here, competition.  Tell me a little bit about that and why a student might pick that over a Formula BMW or some other series. 

CHIP PANKOW:  We have something called the Jim Russell Championship Series, using the same cars as we use in our school series.  We feel that's very, very important.  You should race what you learn in.  It's the only way you can really, really, really develop your skills.  The Jim Russell Championship Series is a 16-race championship, run over eight weekends, so two races a weekend.  We just announced our 2009 championship. 

And what it does is it's an arrive and drive championship.  We own all the cars.  We prepare all the cars.  They're prepared equally.  We go to great lengths to equalize the cars two days prior to the program.  In other words, all cars are driven.  We look at lap time.  We look at power levels.  We look at handling package.  Those things all need to be equal, and within a very, very tight performance window before that car is approved for racing on the race weekend. 

When you're racing, it's great if you can be getting constant feedback.  You get constant feedback.  We have coaches on hand for the race weekends.  The data's there.  One of the things that makes our program a little bit different from other programs is that in each session prior to the race, so in every practice session, and every qualifying session, one of our senior instructors goes out and sets a fast lap.  Sometimes they have to work pretty hard because we've got some really fast drivers in our series.  But we then take the instructor's fast lap, and that's open to all of our competitors.  We can take that fast lap and do an overlay. 

Let's say you're struggling that weekend.  And we've all been there.  It happens.  And you've qualified sixth.  You don't know where you're losing time.  You know, you seem faster most of the corners.  There's something you're screwing up and you just don't know what it is.  What we can do is an overlay with the instructor's fast lap.  We can look and say, oh, Mark, you're too slow in turn four and you're not picking up the power soon enough.  We can even look at the GPS of the car and say, oh, the reason you're having to do that is because you're turning a little bit too early. 

So, once again, it's all about learning as much as possible as fast as possible.  So we look at that, compared to a team environment.  The team environment is very, very important.  We want our drivers to go on to a team environment.  But we figure before getting thrown into a team environment, be as prepared as possible.  That's what our series is for.  When you go into a team environment, like Formula BMW, you have a whole team focused on your performance.  A lot of times there isn't as much driver training there.  In our program, we work on the driver training, we work on the coaching, you work on you being as fast as you can be.  Second thing we do is we work on the relationship between the engineer and driver so that when you get out in a team environment, you're giving really great feedback, you know how to work with an engineer, you know how to get the most out of an engineer.  This is where a lot of young drivers go wrong.  They're really fast on the track.  They don't know how to talk to the engineer.  You can be as fast in the cockpit as possible, but if the cockpit -- it's not a fast car, you haven't achieved something. 

And then finally it comes down to cost.  When you have a whole team focused around you and you're traveling around the country, you're burning a lot of money.  And the saddest thing of all is when you see a really talented young driver and they don't have the budget.  Racing's expensive by any measure.  But having a series at about $80,000 for a season, 16 races, in a Formula 3 car, is pretty competitive package. 

Formula 3, if you're in a team environment, is over a million dollars a season.  So there's a big difference there.  A lot of drivers are never going to be able to get there.  But if we can have a series that is in Formula 3 cars, you're going to have to come up about $80,000, probably a little bit more if you want full testing, you're traveling a little bit, not from the area, something that team owners can take notice of.  We have a deep field.  They'll take notice of the winners and they'll start talking to them and giving them tests. 

Q.  As you advance on in your career, communication with engineers, understanding what the car is doing and what changes to suspension and tire pressures and so forth does to the handling of the car so you can make that car faster.  At this level, is there any of that that's going on where the student is actually understanding they can change this spring rate or this wing setting or this tire pressure, that the car will do this instead of that? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Every weekend we have a session in our evolution program.  It looks at all aspects of racing.  It looks at the business aspect, how to write a sponsorship proposal, how to respond to questions from the press, how to understand what's happening in your team and if you're getting a good deal from your team.  Looks at all these different aspects. 

In addition to that, we bring some of the top people from the individual fields in to talk to our young drivers, talk about nutrition and fitness, talk about mental awareness and the psychology of racing, talk about the engineering of the vehicle, talk about vehicle setup.  We spend a lot of time talking to them about vehicle setup.  We spend a lot of time talking to them about aero and understanding aero, the theory behind aero, the care and feeling of their tires.  In other words, how to conserve your tire, how to get the most out of your tire.  We'll have a representative from Yokohama come in and do that.  We'll have a representative come in and talk to them from Lola about how to do that.  These things are all very important. 

On the race weekend, there's an ongoing education that goes with that.  The drivers, it is not open to them to make large changes in the cars.  That's one of the differences between a team and a school atmosphere.  The thing that we do know is we have more experience than anyone else on this track.  We run here just about every day so we know what it takes.  We've worked very hard on the baseline for the car.  So what we're teaching the students is, this is what a well setup car should feel like, this is what you're trying to get to.  We do give them the information, though, okay, if we make a change in the front roll bar stiffness or rear roll bar stiffness, this is what is going to happen.  Here is how you want to trim out the car from an aero standpoint.  One of the things we see, people in our championship series, aero is one of the toughest things for them to really grasp, particularly braking.  If we have one area that needs more work, it's braking.  Aero is geometric.  In other words, the faster you go, the amount of aero pressure increasing geometrically while your speed increases parabolically.  So we worked very hard on aggressive braking.  In other words, if we're going down into turn seven here and you're going 138 miles an hour, which if you come out of turn six really well is about how fast you should be going, and you get on the brakes, you have so much aero at 138 miles an hour, you should be able to stand on the brake pedal because you have so much pressure forcing those tires into the ground.  As the car decelerates, and it decelerates quite rapidly, you have to start releasing brake pedal pressure because you're losing downforce as the speed comes down.  And we work with drivers on that, about digressive braking. 

So a lot of drivers will go in, they'll go to a hard pedal, they'll keep it right there until they turn in.  If you do that, if you brake to your maximum at the very beginning of the brake zone, you should start to get lockup pretty soon because you're losing downforce and you're losing it quickly. 

Q.  So what's the next step for the school?  If the advance students take the advance racing, the driving school, data acquisition program, what is the next step for a student? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Well, if they come through, they're serious, they want to go racing, we hope they consider our championship series.  But, you know, at that point they're prepared to do a lot of different things.  We like to see drivers not spend too much time in our championship series.  We don't want someone there for four seasons.  We want them to come through for one or two seasons, get the experience they need, then jump to a higher level of motorsport.  We're preparing them for that.  There are a lot of different series out there.  The U.S. is particularly good about offering a lot of different options.  There are fewer now than they were.  But we want to see our drivers then go into a team environment.  We prepare them to go into a team environment.  Formula BMW is a great championship.  They're taking a big step down in horsepower.  But the car and the handling model of the car is very similar to our car.  If they master our car, they're fast in our car, they're going to be really fast in a Formula BMW. 

We also prepare drivers for cars with more horsepower, whether it be Atlantics.  We have a very advanced chassis.  So they're well-prepared for Atlantics.  They're absolutely prepared to the challenges of A1 GP or even GP2.  They're definitely prepared for the challenges of Formula 3.  Formula 3 is one of the strongest championships anywhere.  So hopping out of our car, this is a great, great training ground to go into a Formula 3 car. 

Q.  I guess to back up here, any future expansion plans for this school, for the facility? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Yeah, from a racing school standpoint and from the driving school standpoint, I think we've got some adjustments to do.  But here, this is really a proven concept for us for what we do internationally.  So we won't be making really much expansion here.  We've maxed out our track time.  What we will start to turn our attention to is what happens at the top of the hill at the Jim Russell International Karting Center.  We will be doing some work out there.  We have the ladder system starting with young karters at eight years old so we can bring them up all the way through.  We want that program up there to have the same flavor as the program down here.  We first came in, we bought Jim Russell Racing School, we renamed it Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, as it was when Jim Russell first opened it up in England 51 years ago, and worked really hard on the concept here.  We'll now take that same approach and apply the philosophy that applies here to what's happening up at the karting center, and that will be our expansion here.  There is a possibility for some other programs to come in.  We're looking at paving a few areas around here.  But that's still in the talking phase. 

Q.  You might take this concept and this school and maybe do other schools elsewhere in the world? 

CHIP PANKOW:  Yes.  You know, we'd like to do some things in the East Coast of the U.S. because the U.S. is a big country.  We feel it's important to be in Europe.  A lot of good young drivers there.  Also a lot of people looking for a really great motorsport experience.  And in Asia.  Motorsports is growing leaps and bounds in Asia.  And we really want to be there.  We want to be in on the ground floor because there's a lot of talent there. 

Q.  Wish you the best with this.  You bought it about a year ago?

CHIP PANKOW:  December 2006.  We bought it in December 2006.  It was a port-a-cabin over at the entrance.  Racecars that were 14 and 18 years old respectively.  All those things are gone now and it's all new.  It's been a lot of work. 

Q.  Thank you very much for your time.  It's been most enlightening.  Looking forward to taking the three-day class. 

CHIP PANKOW:  Can't wait to hear what you think of it. 

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