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October 2002
Behind the Wheel
By Susanne Deitzel

     Anyone with preconceptions about NASCAR would be surprised to meet the man behind the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE). While the office is festooned with life-size replicas of the lanky legend in the cowboy hat, the business is machined by a gentlemanly Australian named Barry Graham.

     Founder and owner of RPDE, Graham was an Australian racer who sought to gain some competitive equilibrium in the down-under racing scene. He created “Driver-Search,” wherein novice and amateur drivers raced for the right to become professional drivers on the Australian circuit. While Australia has long held competitions in road and dirt races, the competition in long-course was lacking.

     Graham explains, “Drivers like Kyle Petty and Neil Bonnet were coming down to our races and leaving us in the dust. We needed to get some fresh talent to even the playing field and make things more interesting.”

     Graham’s “Driver Search” and its successor, NASTRACK, in the U.S., were unique learning experiences for the company. “We found after listening to the customer, that people didn’t necessarily want to become professional drivers, they simply wanted to experience driving in real stock cars, on professional tracks, at impressive speeds.”

     After discussing the project with his long time friend Richard Petty, and making adjustments in the business plan, the “Richard Petty Driving Experience” was conceived in 1992. “Richard Petty is not just a name that we use or that we license from him, he is a partner in the business, and of course that is invaluable. Nobody in NASCAR knew who I was, but of course the Petty name is synonymous with racing in the U.S.”

 

The Need for Speed

     The Richard Petty Driving Experience involves a variety of racing packages ranging from an $89 Ride-Along Program to the $3000 Advanced Racing Program. In the Ride-Along, a customer rides with a professional racing instructor, while several other packages including the Advanced Program put the customer at the wheel of a stock car for varying numbers of laps and time periods.

     The cars are all built by highly trained RPDE mechanics and average a cost of $85,000 each. Currently the Experience inventories about 100 cars. They are true stock cars with engines of 600 to 650 horsepower, only slightly lower than those used on the racing circuit. The cars of many of the major racers are represented including Kyle Petty, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and have the same paint schemes as the race teams themselves.

     When asked about any problems encountered by using team identities competitive with Petty Enterprises, Graham says there are few. “It is a complicated process; however, we have wonderful relationships with the teams and everybody benefits by showcasing the brands on the cars. The sponsors get more visibility by their target market, they get information about what the market is spending its money on, and we get to provide a variety of cars for the client to choose from. It is interesting,” Graham adds, “that people constantly ask why we are moving cars from competing teams on the same trailer. NASCAR fans are savvy to licensing and very loyal to their teams.”

      RPDE travels among 25 different tracks across the country to provide the Experience to the public. Graham explains that when a customer books a session he can choose from Lowe’s Motor Speedway to Phoenix International, depending on his time frame. “The bookings for a session can be 3 or 4 months away depending on the track time we have scheduled and the client’s personal schedule and location. Generally, people expect this.”

     RPDE has an in-house call center of 15 employees to man calls on the 1-800-BE-PETTY booking line. However, this service started and remains not so much a sales center as an information line. Graham says, “Most people call very interested in the racing experience but know relatively little about how it works. Our staff is expertly trained to ask the customer a series of questions that will lead him or her to the most reasonable and highest quality experience he or she can have.” Some of the questions asked by the call center staff concern location, budget, and for whom the experience is being purchased.

      Generally, the demo of the average Experience customer is the 35 to 50-year-old male. However, there is a lot of diversity and a few surprises in customer profiles. Graham remarks, “Actual thrill seekers are a minority for the Experience. Our main client is one who wants to enjoy something out of the ordinary, from setting foot in the pit to getting behind the wheel.”

     Graham also attributes RPDE’s appeal in the U.S. to the American love for the automobile. “It transcends what they choose to drive daily and the luxury vehicles they see on TV. They really want to experience what a high-performance vehicle is all about.”

 

Hitting the Brakes – 9/11/01

     The Richard Petty Driving Experience began their mission with four employees and rapidly grew 20 to 30 percent yearly until their ranks numbered over 500 full and part-time employees. Then, after the events of September 11, 2001, the business came to a screeching halt. “The phones completely stopped ringing. We were suffering tremendously and had to react quickly. We had to eliminate 18 percent of our workforce and streamline the operation.”

     The cutbacks, despite being painful, taught Graham an important lesson about growth and profitability. “Prior to September 11th, we were growing so rapidly that we tended to hire a new person every time we needed to increase performance in an area. The layoffs showed us our mistake; the additional staff’s productivity was actually very hard to measure; when the tasks were reassigned, we experienced no difficulties at all.”

     The giant drop in business after the disaster lasted about three months on the personal, non-corporate side of RPDE. However Graham says the corporate side of the Experience is still suffering. Historically, many companies have chosen to use the RPDE as sales incentives, promotional partnering, team building and gifts. Currently, Chris McKee, marketing manager of RPDE has plans in place to revitalize the corporate sector. “We are working with major incentive and travel marketing companies to support sales incentives programs and have launched a new Team Building Ultimate Race Experience for groups of 36 or more.”

    On plans for future growth Graham says, “Until we know what the economy is doing, and where the world is going, we are focusing on tightening up the organization and the schedule we currently have without trying to expand any further. Ideally, growth means more track time, more days for our clients. However, we are being cautious.”

     This doesn’t mean that the RPDE is sitting idle. They are still grossing revenues of $30 to $40 million annually. Plus, this year they will have 1,100 track dates and log over 2.5 million miles at tracks all over the country.

 

Into the Pit – ‘The Experience’ Team

     The modest Graham assumes very little credit for the success of RPDE. “The success is directly attributable to an amazing organization of people. I came into this business as a driver and a mechanic. Other crucial items, like marketing and management, I left to a very talented group of people who really are the Richard Petty Driving Experience.”

     Graham also recognizes that a balance of individual talents and personalities make a stable organization. “We have very effective people. Some come in at 8 and leave promptly at 5. They enjoy life apart from the RPDE, enjoy the position they have and do a very fine job for us. Then there are those who are ambitious and who live and breathe RPDE. You need both types to be effective. Everybody can’t be going for the gauntlet, you need some strength at the roots too.”

      The team at the Experience’s office is diverse, and Graham obviously has an appreciation for potential. The president of the company, Rick Fedrizzi, had beginnings as a bus mechanic before joining RPDE and is highly valued by Graham. “He has always been more than a talented mechanic. Rick has a great head on his shoulders and has had powerful ideas over the years.” Plus, the company has some of the finest instructors around, according to Graham. “There is such a huge pool of talented drivers in this area that don’t have rides, we can’t help but to benefit from their expertise.”

     The RPDE team is a group of skilled mechanics, driving instructors, and the operations group, as well as call center specialists, marketing and administrative personnel. RPDE Operations is an intensely trained group organizing the transport and set-up of each Experience and is a very powerful link in the RPDE chain. At a typical Experience one can expect roughly 18 to 20 employees on the track, apart from safety units generally provided by the hosting track.

      Says Graham, “Building the cars is the easy part. The operation - having all the right people in place to provide the best and safest experience for each client - is the ultimate challenge.”

       At the beginning of an Experience, the RPDE staff goes over safety issues, track details and gets everyone into a race unifrom. In 12 years of operation the business has never had an injury, major health problem or any blemish on the RPDE safety record. Instruction and attention to detail is the main reason.

      A RPDE van drives participants around the track to school them in every consideration before anyone climbs through the 15”x 30” window into their bucket seat. Communication with the student once in the car is handled only by flags, although a trained instructor is on the course at all times with the client. At one time headsets were used, however, these proved more distracting than useful. Therefore, instruction before getting into the vehicle is crucial.

      Graham still makes it to the track to watch various track days, although he has been able to confidently hand the operations over to his staff. “I like to step back from the work side of things and watch the people have the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Many people enjoy the mobile classroom instruction so much that they think that is all there is – before they have even stepped into a car. When I was part of operations I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, now I can hear and see what people are experiencing.”

 

A Well-Oiled Machine

      Graham has successfully pulled back from the RPDE operation, so confident in his staff that he leaves six months every year to spend time in his native Australia. “Over the years I became aware of the kind of people it took to make a successful operation. I knew I couldn’t do everything, and there were things that other people could do much better than me.”

       When asked the secret of building his successful team, Graham has a simple answer. “I wasn’t stuck back in an office getting reports. I was part of the team keeping my eyes and ears open, seeing who worked within the team and who didn’t.”

      As Graham walks through the hallways of his office, his presence commands the respect of his employees, but there is also something more. There is familial warmth in the office that Graham says he misses when he is abroad. “It is nice to go to the fax machine and to check my messages and know everything is being competently handled. But I like making my phone calls to the office, not to check up on things but to catch up with the people and see how things are going.” And the track is all-clear for RPDE.

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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