Glenn Oyoung sits down with Allen Berg, professional race driver and president of the Allen Berg Racing Schools (ABRS) to discuss the state of racing and racing schools.
Right after completing my exhilarating time at the wheel of a Formula Renault at the ABRS, I was able to sit down with Allen Berg and pick his brain about his school and where he thinks racing is headed.
LAC: How long have you been here at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca?
AB: We first came here in 2015 and we rented the track for a few days and it sold out. I did a survey of my existing customer base and asked what they thought about doing classes here. We’d have to charge a bit more because it’s more expensive to operate here.. 60% of them said yes they would like to, and when I opened it up it sold out.
…Laguna Seca is a world-renowned iconic racetrack so it just made sense for us to be here and focus all of our efforts here.
Following that, we decided this is the place to be. Auto Club Speedway (editors note: ABRS’ former home, located in SoCal) was very helpful. But, Laguna Seca is a world-renowned iconic racetrack so it just made sense for us to be here and focus all of our efforts here. Because a racing school is a very expensive business to operate and not all that transportable.
LAC: I could not believe that I was here today, this is like a Mecca of racetracks. For those of us who grew up playing Gran Turismo and other racing simulators, this experience is surreal. Do you get that response from your students?
AB: Yes. What you do not get in video games are the elevation changes, the banking on the track, the crowning on the road. All of those subtle intricacies with the track changes the handling of the car and makes it that much more challenging.
LAC: What do you think about the state of racing and racing schools?
AB: The racing school business has got to evolve beyond what it currently is. It has to become a method for R&D. Racing is no longer the leader in the development of technology. Racing used to be the leading edge, now it’s become what I’ll call the “trailing edge.” In Formula 1 for example, they have implemented all of these technologies like regenerative braking to make the racing more interesting, but they’ve also tried to implement electric technology and battery power and that sort of thing. But these are already in road cars.
So maybe what they are doing is developing that technology better and it does trail off into the road cars a little bit. But they didn’t start it. It’s not like Jackie Stewart the first one to use a seat belt, the Gurney flap… all of those things started in racing. That’s not happening anymore. At some point in time that has to change.
The racing industry also has to appeal to the younger audience that we are losing. I don’t know the reason behind it, but it could be the accessibility of technology, video games, racing simulators. Driving is less of a priority for them. It’s become less and less of a spectator sport because the fans aren’t engaged.
Racing has become too expensive. It’s an engineering-driven industry, it always has been, but because of all of these technologies and systems now you have to employ all of these specialists. It’s less about the driver and more about the car you are driving. And the costs have increased.
For the drivers, you can’t raise commercial sponsorship to cover the costs anymore so you either have to have family money to pay for it or they need to be very creative to develop business relationships to help pay for racing. That’s a very hard thing to do especially for drivers in their late teens or 20s. It’s not necessary the best drivers that are getting there. The crowds are there to see their heroes driving the racecars like Nikkia Lauda, James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, driving the race cars and it’s less and less prevalent.
LAC: Yes, it seems like besides the leaders in the pack it’s more about brands now…
AB: I was here at the IndyCar race, amazing event and great, great racing drivers. Great race. And they’ve got some pretty big names in the sport and IndyCar racing. I’m a big fan of IndyCar racing once again. They did a good job of televising it and educating people about it, but it’s just not drawing the crowds as it used to. I don’t know what the answer is but I think we have to find a way to engage the younger generation to get enthusiastic about auto sports more than just drifting.
LAC: Back in the day, someone came to a school like this and maybe they got the racing bug and decided they wanted to be a professional race car driver. What is it like today? Is it impossible?
AB: You have to be 100% committed to be able to do it. I get approached every day by drivers who say they want to be Formula 1 drivers, but it’s very apparent they haven’t done the research. It needs someone who has the abilities, the charisma, the looks, and the business acumen to get someone behind them and support them.
It needs someone who has the abilities, the charisma, the looks, and the business acumen to get someone behind them and support them.
As Paul Pfanner said to my son who went to go see him about being a racer, a driver’s got to be able to sell his story. Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, and so many others fought their way up the ladder. They had big personalities that helped them open doors for themselves and not be afraid to do it.
I believe that’s still possible, but it’s really, really hard for a driver to do it now because of the cost. But there are opportunities like the Road to Indy ladder, the Nissan scholarship program, that give people an opportunity. We don’t have that yet, but we want to create more of a channel to get drivers into the sport and give them a direction of where they need to go.
LAC: I want to ask you about your operation. To me, what a testament to you, your instructors, your process that we all went out and had a great time and at the end of the day we’re all safe, the cars are safe, and this is Laguna Seca. I was intimidated even with my previous experience.
AB: Well, you are knowledgeable enough to know what the risks are. Lots of times we have students come here and they want to drive Laguna Seca. They are wearing a helmet, they are in a race car, they are feeling protected. A spin at any racetrack, particularly at tracks like Laguna Seca and Sonoma and the old-school racetracks – the barrier are much closer – so the chances of making contact with something go up. It can get expensive and it can hurt.
So what we do, is we need to find the balance. We are operating a business so it needs to be a profitable entity so we need tobe able to price it to the point and have enough participants to make it operate correctly as a business like an airline flying an aircraft. We know what we need in terms of numbers of drivers to make it work. So from there we need to build the curriculum that engages the people who fly from a long ways with high expectations to be able to do it. A big part of it is not just having them having a great time, but also keeping them safe. A lot of it is protecting the participant from themselves. The last thing we want to have is someone going off and ending their day against a barrier. That’s no way to have a positive introduction to the sport.
So you have to teach it in a way that they learn the technique properly, and you keep them safe – but not just keeping it where they follow instructors all day. So you have to find the balance to be able to get them to speed. I think we’ve done a pretty good job at that.
But we need to temper that with allowing them to drive on their own. They have to have enough seat time in to be able to do it properly. It’s like learning to play golf. You don’t become successful at golf by hitting the club as hard as you can. It’s about the process of swinging the club, every minute goes into that. Driving a race car is the same way. It’s a technique. The thing is everybody who comes here already knows how to drive. They are enthusiasts. They want the adrenaline of driving a race car at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca at speed. But they don’t know the technique. They might have an idea, but you’ve got to teach them the technique. So you have to teach it in a way that they learn the technique properly, and you keep them safe – but not just keeping it where they follow instructors all day. So you have to find the balance to be able to get them to speed. I think we’ve done a pretty good job at that.
LAC: Tell me about your coaching staff.
AB: A big part of what we do is the team I have working with me. These are guys who all care about what they do, and I feel like they are all vested in ABRS. They are proud to be a part of this. This isn’t just a job for them to make a living. They are all passionate about racing and making a difference. Starting in 2012 we were an unknown entity in the United States. Over the years just through persistence of working on things and surrounding myself with these great drivers and coaches who care about what they do we’ve been able (to build) what some say is arguably the best school in North America. A lot of that is the planning, organization, and communication amongst the staff is there so we can work together as a team to make it good.
LAC: You have been out there all day working hard every step of the way, from overseeing instruction to giving feedback to students. What motivates you?
AB: I realized like most other racing drivers, I am unemployable in anything else. I had to do it, I had to start. I started the business in 2007 just when the economy was going south. We went through three or four years of recession, we did not quit. It’s like any other person who is successful. The most important thing is determination and dedication, and doing what you did the day before better. It’s easy when you love when you do. It’s fun. To be able to come here is a holiday. This isn’t a job, this is home. For God’s sakes I’m hanging out at a racetrack all day!
It’s easy when you love when you do. It’s fun. To be able to come here is a holiday. This isn’t a job, this is home. For God’s sakes I’m hanging out at a racetrack all day!
I want to make sure everyone’s having a good time and everything is going well. I like to see things working well. That’s what I’m working on right now. Ways that we can take this business to the next level and engage more people to be involved with racing at the grassroots level to continue to bring more people into the sport as participants and bring in race fans.