Welcome to the first edition of an occasional series I call Parents in the Pits. In this series I put the focus strictly on racing parents as they juggle family life, parenting, the demands of motorsport and the lessons they have learned along the way. The goal is to be positive yet realistic and hopefully to offer advice and tips to parents whose kids are currently racing. I will talk to parents who have kids racing in karts, cars and motorcycles and hopefully a few whose kids are now racing professionally.
I kick off the series by chatting with Russ Dykstra whose son Rayce Dykstra is currently racing in Formula 4. We discuss the importance of goals, how school fits in to the picture and the importance of making sure your child is involved in every aspect of motorsport.
If you would like to contribute to Parents in the Pits please contact me at email@example.com. Enjoy!
Motorsport Prospects: How did Rayce get interested in racing?
Russ Dykstra: Our family has been involved in racing for a long time (mom grew up working on race engines and worked at SCCA racing, cousins, uncle and aunt, grandparents, etc. were or are in racing) and spent a lot of time being around racing and at tracks growing up. A lot of our family friends are racing friends so it’s just the world he grew up in.
MP: Rayce had a 57% podium placement rate while driving in karting. Smart way to quantify his karting career. Karting is becoming increasingly expensive. What was your approach with Rayce in karting?
RD: The podium percentage is a focus of ours strictly from a partner exposure standpoint. Sponsors want to see their drivers on the podium, holding the trophy and showing the sponsor names on the suit and kart so we feel that it is important to demonstrate our commitment to our partners.
Karting is a very interesting culture. Spending most of our time in cars prior to that, it was a little shocking to see the intensity and money being thrown around in karting. We had two priorities when we went into karting 1) to see if Rayce really enjoyed the racing game; and 2) get the valuable experience racing at that level. On a cost/benefit basis, karting is an efficient way to get a lot of seat time, a lot of race starts and great experience with race craft. Knowing his ultimate goal was to race cars, our budget for pursuing karts was at about the 60-70% level; meaning we spent enough to be competitive and get good results locally but we were not going to spend money like a lot of the national level karters do, buying new chassis every weekend, paying for the big teams, etc. It meant a lot of time racing mid-pack at national level events but in some ways that was okay as it taught a lot of good race craft lessons and at the same time the reality that racing is a budget based world and you have to do the best with what you have. The reality of that is one year at Florida Winter Tour we were running an older chassis mid-pack and had to have it straightened so many times they stopped charging us! We still have that chassis and use it for practice.
All in all, we think karting was a great experience for Rayce. He got experience, wins and some championships at a level to provide credibility for the next step and that’s what we were after. We always kept a budget in mind that we felt was appropriate for a given level and as a parent it was very difficult sometimes not to buy the latest, greatest chassis or this or that upgrade to be more competitive but no regrets in hindsight. We still have a designated budget for each step in racing and look to maximize the racing and results for that budget number and not get too focused on any one step in the process that we lose sight of the overall goal. I believe that has helped a lot to keep things cost-effective and avoid getting too obsessed on winning at all costs.
MP: How did you make sure he was enjoying what can be a cut throat level of racing?
RD: A very difficult question. Good or bad, as a dad I am very competitive, and we all want to see our kids succeed so it is a very difficult balance. The reality is that most of the time the kids handle the competition way better than the parents. They fight on track but afterwards they are a bunch of kids having fun and hanging out with their racing buddies. The parents, us included, usually take it more seriously and I think that has a lot to do with the investment, goals of moving up and the “big picture” career stuff that clouds things when you just saw your kid get run over or pushed off track. Kids just want to have fun, so it was always a challenge to remind ourselves of that.
As Rayce has gotten older (ripe old age of 15!) it has been easier to let go of that and keep perspective that it is his game, his passion and his career, not ours so we have transitioned to him being more in a decision making role to fulfill his dream and working to make that happen. We frequently ask if he is having fun and try to remember that racing careers are short so try to enjoy the moment.
MP: From karts Rayce moved to racing Miatas and the Formula Car Challenge. How important was moving to something like racing spec Miatas?
RD: We debated a lot on what the best first step should be in getting into cars. We went back to his goals and plan of determining if Rayce would enjoy cars and what would provide a safe and solid foundation. We talked to a LOT of people with different backgrounds and decided the Miata was a good platform for him to learn. Much like FF1600, another good entry level option, learning momentum driving with low power and no downforce was important. We decided on the Miata because he could race it locally and have good competition and have people around him on and off track that we trusted. With our friends in local SCCA who knew Rayce growing up it took a lot of stress off that step. So many people from registration to stewards helped guide him and very good drivers took him under their wing to help him learn. Spec Miata is a very good, cost-effective way to get a lot of seat time and we see the benefit of the two years he spent in it. Club racing also has sponsor contingencies that helped offset a lot of running costs as well (thank you Mazda and Hoosier tire!).
MP: Racing is hugely expensive, that is not news. What kind of approach has Rayce used to obtain funding and sponsorship? Or is he strictly self-funded?
RD: I have yet to see any race driver under 18 (absent a scholarship program or family connection) that is not largely self/family funded. That being said, from the beginning we have emphasized to Rayce that our budget only goes so far and if he wants a career in racing, he needs to have partners/sponsors. We do not hide that fact and talk regularly about announcements, etc. from other drivers that have run out of funding at different stages of their careers and can no longer race. That is reality.
Hand in hand with that has been the philosophy that he needs to provide value for sponsors. Hard for an 8-year-old to comprehend or to fulfill but social media (raycedykstra.com) is a wonderful tool to provide at least some exposure and good-will for partners. We will never forget him signing his first sponsor agreement with K1 Race Gear at 9 years old. He didn’t even have a “signature” at that point, but it was invaluable to go through that agreement with him and talk about what his obligations were and that it was a serious commitment.
The marketing, branding and partnership research aspect of our program takes over 75% of the time we spend on racing. Rayce has and is working with a “marketing coach” to enhance his presentation, speaking and media skills. Our philosophy is that we focus on partners that are excited to grow with Rayce throughout his career, that we can provide real value to and who enjoy being part of the excitement of racing.
Now, going into F4 with more national exposure there is a real opportunity to provide tangible benefit to partners through their advertising campaigns, media exposure and working business to business opportunities but the underlying basis has to be sponsors who believe in Rayce and his goals and want to be part of that process. Rayce has some very good relationships with his current sponsors who have believed in him from the start and we are very grateful for that. Even in small amounts it all adds up to pay tire bills, entry fees, travel, etc. We also realize that for financial reasons his racing career may be brief and that he is very blessed to have the opportunity, so he has his “Raycing for Good” charitable campaign where he provides exposure and donations to a non-profit every year. The side benefit is that it provides him exposure and experience representing large organizations. Not easy for a teenage kid, but a necessary skill that will be an asset no matter where life takes him.
MP: Racing takes up a lot of time. How does Rayce maintain a semblance of a “normal” life compared to other non-racing kids his age?
RD: It is very tough to do. Up to this point he has been able to play high school basketball and baseball, but racing is now so demanding that he won’t be able to do that anymore. Thankfully he has a lot of good friends and social media keeps him in touch, but we try very hard to keep his life as “normal” as possible and he is involved in school and church even though he travels a lot!
MP: How does he handle the challenge of school work in addition to his racing?
RD: Our position from the start has been “no Aces, no races” when it comes to school. Thankfully we have not had to enforce that rule too much. School is a priority not only because racing is a career that demands intelligence and a well-rounded person but also it is fleeting and you don’t want to be at the end of a racing career at 20 years old and not have options. We also believe it is very important to experience the social life of high school.
MP: I notice that Rayce is involved in a number of sports in addition to racing. Do you consider this helpful to his racing or a hindrance?
RD: It is helpful in our opinion. It has provided a time away from racing to have fun and be in a team atmosphere. Racing is so individualized and driver-focused that as a parent and former coach it is good to see him be part of a team and learn those lessons as well. It also has been a great way for him to stay in shape in the off-season but we are now working with PitFit training out of Indy so that is a much more focused program on driver performance going forward. Rayce has made the decision himself that he has reached the point that he just doesn’t have time to fulfill commitments to racing and to high school sports and be successful at both.
MP: As a family, how do you all juggle family, work and racing?
RD: Very carefully! Racing can be all-consuming and we have to be careful to still have a life. Jamie has had to put her foot down at times to force us to take a vacation and time away to get some perspective. In the last two years we have averaged about 120 days at race tracks in addition to all of the off-season organization, training and partner work. We made a decision last fall to re-focus and back down on the volume of races in exchange for more directed and focused effort this year in order to maximize results and budget. Fortunately, our careers allow us some flexibility to work remotely which we often do from race tracks around the country.
MP: What are Rayce’s plans for 2019?
RD: Rayce was offered a second year under the World Speed/VMB scholarship program and is driving the VMB F4 car in the Formula Pro USA F4 Western Championship. We chose this program because VMB/Chegg/World Speed have been excellent working with Rayce and the scholarship has been a huge help. The west coast series is also much more affordable because there is limited travel and the quality of drivers is very good based on how well they compared against the US F4 drivers at COTA last year. We are also working on testing plans and partnerships for 2020 as that will be a big step both financially and career-wise. If finances allow, he can hopefully stay on track with his plans.
MP: What are his long-term goals.
RD: We are in year 2 of a five-year plan with the goal of reaching Indy Car or another professional series at the end of year 5. With all racing, it is budget dependent and we expect there to be bumps and detours but Rayce is working as hard as he can to put the foundation in place for a racing career and following his dream. That is where the pressure mounts on the parents/family to try and find the financial resources and right partners to take the next step.
MP: What is the most important thing that parents should take into consideration when their child is interested in pursuing a racing career in your opinion?
RD: Keep it realistic and in perspective both from an enjoyment standpoint and a financial standpoint. Decide the level you want and can afford to be at and maximize the “bang for the buck” that will help you take the next step in your plan. It doesn’t have to be race wins or championships but does need to be skill and experience focused. If that is local kart racing, dirt track racing, local club car racing, national or pro, don’t get ahead of yourself and always be aware that racing at every level is a business and like all business there are people who will tell you how great a driver your kid is and for the right amount of money they will make them a pro, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask honest people around you if your kid has the ability and is ready to go to the next level and be open to accepting the answer either way. Talk to as many people as you can and get information before jumping into a program and remember, you are trusting these people with the well-being and safety of your child. Above all, our #1 rule has been to never go into debt to pay for racing!
A big thank you for Russ taking the time to speak to me. Look for another Parents in the Pits soon!