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The 4th Gear – Interview with Tony Parella: CEO of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association

The 4th Gear Episode #7 – Interview with Tony Parella – Presented by Classic Auto Insurance

 

 

The 4th Gear – Presented by Classic Auto Insurance

The 4th Gear is a video podcast that will give you the opportunity to listen to individuals that share your passion and enthusiasm for collectible cars. This platform will allow you to gain a unique insight and understanding of the benefits of being a member of a car club or auction or a DIY restoration.

 

Transcript:

Jeff:

Hello, and welcome to this edition of The Fourth Gear, sponsored by Classic Auto Insurance. And today we have a very special guest.

If you wanted to know anything about vintage racing and that whole world, this is the guy that talks to. Tony Parella. Tony. Hello. Thanks for joining us.

Tony:

Hello Jeff, Thanks for having me on. It’s good to finally catch up with you, my friend.

Jeff:

When we first met I was working for Ford Haycock, who was actually the founder of SVRA back in 1978. And they said that SVRA has this new owner, Tony Perella. And I thought, who is this? Who is this guy? So let’s start by,

you came from the business, very successful business world. And somehow you had a relationship or how did you get tied into or become literally you became the vintage racing go-to guy for the SVRA.

Tony:

You know, it’s been a fun journey, as you said. Most, most of my career was, frankly, nothing to do with racing. It was in telecommunication, I was fortunate enough to work with a couple of different folks, to have two companies public. And did very well. Then I bought a company out of bankruptcy and turned it around and actually sold Terrell Electronics which you see involved with IndyCar and formula one and so on.

So I had a storybook career, I guess, say in telecoms. But to be honest with you, I’d never been passionate about the products I sold. I was passionate about the people that we work with. We had a great business culture, but nobody ever came up to me and said, God, I love my telephone. You know, it was, it was a means to the end.

When I sold my last company and Shared Technologies to Aero, I found myself at a crossroads at 50 years old. What am I going to do for the rest of my life? I still want to work and contribute, but I didn’t really see myself going back to wall street or going back to telecommunications. I wanted to do something that I really cared about.

And in that process, a form of an MBA at Harvard. And I presented two business cases when I went to school. One was to buy SVRA and build a national footprint of vintage racing. And try to elevate vintage racing to mainstream Motorsports America. That was my business plan. It had several elements of having a national championship, COTA. Being the first to crack the code to race at Indianapolis, put a national footprint together.

If you brought enough racers, you would attract race-related brands as well as luxury brands because of the demographics that vintage has. Vintage racing. And kind of up the game in, when I, when I presented it to the, to the professors and the folks at Harvard, they didn’t think it too good of an idea.

They based it on three things. The macroeconomics of the sport, if you want to call it a sport at that time. Nobody was really doing it and profitable. So they looked at that and said, well, that’s a red flag. When they looked at financials, SVRA was only running three events. And frankly, the previous owner propped it up.

You do that out of the goodness of his art. The economics of the business was not good. And, and then the final piece was, was your business plan realistic? Could it be executed? And they didn’t even think that was good because if, if it was that easy, somebody would already have done it. And I had a very different view. You know, I looked, I, I did my homework.

I looked at what, you know, Wally Parks did to the NHRA. And what France did to stock car racing. It’s clear to me that the same opportunity exists. Just looked a little different. Much later in life. So it was that. I submitted the business plan to buy the Harry and Dave fruit basket company out of bankruptcy. So a lot of people buy their products, at Christmas time, on different occasions.

And when it got down to it, they gave me a glowing grade for that thesis because it was over a billion-dollar company. It was a good space, well known, makes it through hard times, and I could use the bankruptcy process and the bankruptcy to shut out all the sins of the past and revitalize the company. And they thought that was great. Well, needless to say, I didn’t sell pears.

I did the other way and bought up SVRA. And you know, it’s really been an amazing journey. I, I, I really. It’s the September will be directly ten years they closed on buying SVRA. And, you know, I don’t know if I truly thought we would become, you know, own Trans-Am, have formula racers, Formula Ford, be the sanctioning professional sanction group, SCCA pronouns, and all the rights to that.

And then SVRA going to a national scope, the way it has. You know, I knew we were going to be successful. I didn’t know we’d get to the scale. And what’s interesting is, here we are coming up on our 10-year anniversary. I don’t feel like we even got started yet. What we’re going to become. And so it’s not been easy.

I got a phenomenal team that works their tails off to make the spectators, the car show attendees and the racers feel welcome. They’re hardworking. They care about it and care about the score, but it’s been not, you know, we, we weathered COVID we, you know, when you’re in the event business, COVID and the event business aren’t a great marriage, but we, we got through that.

I’m proud. We didn’t lay a single employee off through no, 2020 or 21 with all the change and uncertainty. We weathered the storm very well. It was not easy. But we, at the end of the day, I’m grateful. And I think my chinos and I hope, you know, the competitors are as well.

Jeff:

No doubt. All eyes were on you. I, I met you, uh, for the first time

in Orlando. I believe it wasn’t, PRI at that point was in Orlando, and we sat down and I heard you. Because of whom I was working for at that time, I was very familiar with all the challenges SVRA had had. And I heard you talk about your vision and what you were going to do. And I got to be quite honest.

We kind of walked away, shaking our heads, thinking, you know, Is this guy a dreamer or is this really possible? And maybe it’s a little of both. Maybe it did have this great vision and you didn’t hinder yourself with all the reasons it could not work. You only looked at all the opportunities to make it work.

And you’ve done that. You grew back in 1978, there were like 25 registered racers. You’re today if my numbers are correct, you’re pushing the envelope of over 2,500 registered racers today. That’s huge. Plus you’re racing in all the major race tracks in America. I mean, Charlotte Laguna, Saika, Atlanta Sebring, Watkins Glen, the Circus of America.

When, when you started to look at your business people started to follow you right away. I don’t know if they started to follow you because they thought you were kind of crazy or that he’s following you because they said, you know what? I liked this guy’s plan. What do you think?

Tony:

Well, I think, I think both actually. I think there were people, as there are today.

You could pull anybody who drives race cars on vintage racing circuits and you will be, you will get two different perspectives on me, and that it goes with the territory when you change. I would say 90 plus percent of the people who race at one of our events are thrilled and have a ball, but there’s, there are some of the older guards who have been at it for a long time and they could go to a very relaxed, confined small event.

No spectators, no sponsors. Just, just enjoy the car for what it is at a club level. I still love to do that. It’s nothing wrong with that. Let you keep racing at all the tracks that you mentioned, live stream, put it on [?]Sports, and all the other entitlements that we bring to a party when we show off. And if you want to do it on just an entry-based model, it’s flat financially, you can’t connect the dots.

It was very early on. I realized if I don’t make some tweaks to this business plan, I’m going to, it’s not going to work. And. How we went about that is it’s been a journey. And I’ve done some things that I look back. I go, what the hell was I thinking? That was a dumb move, but we’ve done some things that were innovative to the sport.

The good news is we’ve done way more right than we’ve done wrong. And I would say 99, probably 99% of people are thrilled with what we’re doing. And there’s 1%. It is what it is. And we even, are killing ourselves to get it going to make them happy. But some folks, you know, everybody has a view of how vintage racing should be, and we don’t always fit that.

It is, our best effort to put on the best events we can. They think it’s a little different. I, I often joke and said, I feel like everybody’s wedding planner in that when I put on a weekend they think it’s their perfect, perfect wedding. And I swear to you, we really do try to make everybody happy, but sometimes and stuff, but by and large, I got the best people racing.

And, and they, we, the reviews we do after each of them, could we do better? And then the team is, is really incredible. It’s been it’s clearly been a labor of love, just not just for me, but for everyone who worked in a Trans-Am or SVRA or any of our groups.

Jeff:

Yeah. Your events are really an experience. I mean, you I remember going to the very early of events where, as you said, it was kinda like a club meeting, you know, the racers showed up, they kind of went on that field.

You might’ve had a few spectators, but now you go to one event, there are a lot of spectators. There are vendors. There’s, there are all kinds of activities. There are things going on. There are things to do. It becomes an experience. You know, if you, if you go to Indianapolis and to the Motor Speedway, or you go to that, it’s, it’s quite a different, um, experience today than what it was.

And you know, that has to do with as you said, your team the promotion, the logistics of each and every one of these events, and you mentioned earlier, you’ve got over 20 events now?

Tony:

Yeah, there’s actually, this year, you look at all of our copies, there’ll be 23 events. Most of them are the Anchor Tenant, [indistinguishable] but there are a couple of exceptions to that.

We will race Trans-AM. We’ll race at the Big Machine, Music City Grand Prix with indy car. A Trans-Am will also race with NASCAR at Rural America. And then, uh, in all likelihood it’s not official yet, but last year we’re working on the project now last year, we have a Formula Ford race with a foreign race weekend at Coda.

So, you know, those three events are outside of what we call it, our speed tour, where you have the whole band together. Where you have SVRA or you’ll have IGT, or you’ll have Trans-Am. Sometimes we’ll have that or formula regional, all on the same weekend or different groups coming in and out. And it really makes for an eight and a six at night festival.

And you know, as an example, Jeff, you, you it’s my first year at Sebring as the owner was 2013. A ton of forward-looking. I’m a big believer in data and detail to track if you’re on, if you’re on the right direction or not, that was the foundation of all my business. And I look back a few weeks ago at the paddock photo, aerial photos

of the paddock in 2013, and we had, total, 119 cars at that. And this coming week from next end of next week, um, we have 72 [?] cars with 50, I think 57 [?] Cars. 175 vintage cars already signed up and they’re the slowpokes getting signed off. And we’ll have, we have already taken entries of over 360 car show cars. Our gate is pre-sale is what?

Bigger than it was the first four years that we even had total. With walk-up. And most of them most of the spectators, for vintage racing at least, don’t pre, pre-buy. They show up at the gate and buy a ticket. So by every measure, This Sebring will set a new, higher, new bar for revenue car count and participation. And if you take that picture and you put it out over our other speed tour events, it tells the same story and they’re all in different phases of their evolution.

This year, we added New Jersey, we added we’ve had last year, and we added Utah. We added Willow Spring, so not. No, it’s not an indy race, it’s not a Sebring race, not a Coda race, but nonetheless, all day, when you look at Mid-Ohio race, you look at, at Road America, those events, [?] Those events are continuing to set new highs and new bars.

And it’s, it’s been a blast. Our data. We have over 2,500 SVRA license numbers, but we have over 20,000 people who in the last 10 years, different people have come in or raced an event or that we, you know, we’ve really built this and it’s, it’s just awesome. Just the growth. But again, as I said,, I feel like we’re just getting started.

Jeff:

And the cars, you know, you know a little bit of everything. So you have different classes of cars. It’s not necessarily a specific year, but you do it by classes and tell us I mean I’ve seen things from F1 formula cars to vintage racing cars. Tell us a little bit about it. What does a particular race look like?

How do you decide on your classes? How do the cars run?

Tony:

Well, first, first and foremost, we’re about trying to be as safe as humanly possible, and we try our level best to be inclusive to anybody who has got a competition license and their cars prepared to our set of rules. We welcome racers. And the challenge with vintage racing is to look at regular racing, and professional racing.

That’s not stacked. It’s very hard to manage tech to be a level playing field. In vintage racing, you’re going back some cases over a hundred years of technology. And you only have 10 or 12 classes at any given race. How do you possibly level the playing field from a competition standpoint into a fair footprint, and make it fun for all the competitors?

So, it’s not an exact science. It’s a constant evolution. We have tried to, um, put a fair bit of rules that focused on tires, placement, breaks, and weight. If you get those four things right, for classic cars, there’s still opportunity for some development, but at the same time, that keeps you. Frankly with an amateur-level skillset that keeps the playing field fairly perfect.

There, there is no perfect when you’re trying to cover a hundred years, but, um, it’s working. And as some guys age out or some start to fall down new groups. I think we were the first to bring in Mazda Miatas to race. And we run them in a separate group. And there was my God the pushbacks, saying he’s lost his mind. What’s he doing with Miatas racing on race weekend.

Well, You know, there’s some of our most, best racing in today’s world. These are familiar with it, but they may not know what an MG is or a Triumph. Back in my day in high school, those were cool cars, right?  So as, as the sport evolved, we tried to evolve with it. When I came to jazz VRA, the only thing that we would allow is up to 1972.

Well, what’s wrong with a 1990s car, or a 2000s car as long as its class rates? As we, as we have we’ll sometimes consolidate groups that would have separate podiums. It just depends on the car count. But to show you the range at, uh, this year [?]. We have two feature marks. We have Bugattis, and we have Mazda. Well, when the Bugatti is there in the early nineties, Mustang is the sixties, seventies era.

those are our two feature marks. If you go to my Indianapolis Speedway event this year, we’ll have a whole section on history. That’ll be a class, but we’ll also be doing pre-1920 pre-war. One of the cars ran in the original, uh, Indianapolis 500. So, you know, like modern-day, uh, just, just off, you know, just now newer cars come out professional race car.

So we’ll, you know, stock cars, whatever. We, we are, but we try to lump it together. So for the fan, they got something in the sense that they look at on the track for the driver it’s safe and B, they got something to go, somebody to go race against and have a good time. And that to me is our version of racing. People that don’t think that’s the right race but on a national scale, we, we think it is.

Jeff:

You know, what are some of your looking back a little bit.

Um, what are some of your best memories of vintage racing? And, uh, again, you know, when I, when we first met, you had a huge challenge ahead of you. And today you have a laundry list of partners and sponsors and you know, it’s looking at this today from where you started is, it’s a completely different playbook.

What are some of your, what are some of your best memories of this journey?

Tony:

There’s, there’s, there’s been several that I’ll start with, and then I’ll finish that with a positive. The downside of what we’ve created is I don’t personally get to race anymore. We’ve gotten so big. That to do justice to the weekend and my customers, pictures, and spectators.

And car companies. It doesn’t afford me the opportunity to go racing and, and our scales, just to that point where I need to focus on the business and not my personal enjoyment of a racer. Having said that the journey of running the company has been one thing in the success we’ve enjoyed and all that as a racer far and away, the best, best experience of my life in a racecar.

I’ve been racing since I was 15 years old. My dad had to sign for me and drive me to the racetrack because I didn’t have a New York state license. But then once I got to the track, it was legal because he signed off for me to go racing. That’s how that was a long time ago. But all those years of racing in a race car,

and whether I want to race or whatever. Without question, one experience I had in a race car, that’s my favorite memory favorite event, and I came in 11th. And I raced in VROC race. Vintage races the champions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And my co-driver was Al Unser Sr. Who, who just recently passed away.

I still have to pinch myself that we’ve built such a friendship over the years. I’ve built a great relationship with the Unser family. Uncle Bobby, Johnny, of course, Al sr. And I had started the [?] one I held what we call the Unser Family Union, where I brought each of the Unsers, all five of them.

To Indianapolis, put them on a track in a car that they pulled in their career. And just made it about them. And the fans loved it, they loved it, getting them all together that had never been done. And other than uncle Bobby thinking that he was qualifying for the 500, and Al telling him he didn’t think he needed a helmet in the race car, it went relatively smooth.

But the friendship that I formed with all of them over from that point on there, I really care for these folks. They’re not, they’re not just some race hero they’re but the thing that blew me away. Al Sr., I was at, he had done the Unser Family Reunion, the following night was at that the 500 in the pagoda, and we bumped into each other and we talk and we were watching the race.

And he said something to me. I still think now he’s in his mid-seventies. He goes, I still think I can be competitive in a race car. And I said, well, would you like to race again? I go, I got a race in three weeks here on the course. I can fix you up. You could be in our vintage racing champion charity race. And mostly, you can raise the game and show them how the real winners do it.

And one thing led to another. He agreed, but he threw me a curve ball. And he said, you know Tony, I think I really want a race. He goes, who would my co-driver be? I go, I’m pretty sure anybody you want. Your royalty around here. Four-time winner and all you’ve accomplished. I know my vintage racers would be, any one of them would be honored to race with you.

He goes, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. He goes, you have a Corvette, right? He goes, you’re my co-driver. So, he recruited me to race with him. So I brought him into Indianapolis a day early. Hadn’t been in a car competitively in over 25 years at that point. And first I had little Al in the back seat, big Al in the passenger seat, riding shotgun. And I drove them around the road course to show them the line, the marks, and the [?] running car.

And then I switched seats with Al, and that started our weekend. His biggest concern He was worried he would somehow hinder my chance of winning the race. That was all he cared about, and who cares?

I win or lose. I just wanted the sheer joy in watching, watching little Al, his father around the race course, being with the, with Al the whole time.. [?] Uh, because he was a little bit shorter than me, and propping the seat up. So he could see over that Corvette.

And it was an experience of a lifetime. Now we ended up, I think it was 11th out of 33 cars that year. you Know, Big Al, nobody’s going to write a story about our finished position, but for me, the friendship that we forged that weekend, especially me and Big Al carried over ’til he passed away and I’ll close with one that point.

You know, growing up, that’s the Unsers, and Johnny Lightning car. And that was when the hook was set for me as a race fan for Indy as my father’s cheering on. I’m an Unser fan, right? In that watching the 500. The excitement and camaraderie add every May, we would watch it on TV. We didn’t go, we’d watch on TV. To know that I was driving with Big Al who was my hero.

Well, years later after we drove together, he would be Grand Marshall. He was Grand Marshall at Portland. He was Grand Marshall for meat Coda. We would, we would go out a great dinner, but what’s amazing is after we were at Coda. Three years. His last time being at the track me, he was the Grand Marshall, and says, I need to have a talk with you.

I notice you’re really struggling with your hearing. What, what, what are you doing? I said, well I had a tumor removed several years ago on this side. I lost my hearing in my right side. Honestly Al, I’m coming to an end. I can’t communicate normally anymore. My hearing’s that bad. You said Monday, Minneapolis, and you’re going to meet a friend of mine, Bill Austin, who owns Starkey hearing Aids. Susan and I will set up a meeting. You’re going Monday.

Monday I flew to Minneapolis. I met with the CEO of Starkey Hearing Aids. Amazing man with like these clinics in countries all over the world. Kids who have never heard, hear for the first time. He spent the morning building a custom hearing aid. They put me through the most expensive hearing test I ever had in my life and I’ve had plenty.

They customize the hearing aid, and it was life-changing. Honestly, I was at a point where I thought I had to give up my role in the business because I couldn’t function. I couldn’t hear anymore. After that experience, I wrote out a letter right up until two weeks before he passed away, he would check in with me every couple of weeks.

Hey TP. Co-driver how’s your hearing? There are onset issues. Terminal with cancer. This had been going on. He’d been [?] Never would know it, but yet he took the time to call to check on my hearing, and went through all that. And here’s something as simple as racing together. The friendship that was forged and to the rest of my life, he was like, almost like a second dad and that figure in my life.

And so I miss him terribly. But when I think back to our experience, I can’t help, but smile because we had such a blast. And if the friendship that we forged across generations and the guys who raced in the VROC series, they, you know, are vintage racing champions. But, is still going strong today. I wa you know, I, these guys interact with each other, they go to a race, or they go to each other’s, uh, house. It’s just,

Jeff:

All the different racing. When I talk to the people that are there, talk to the racers, talk to as they’re getting ready to go out and compete and do things they’re extremely approachable. You really built an incredible family. And it, what is the best advice you could give someone who is interested in vintage racing?

Are there different levels? Is there a starting point? What would you tell our viewers today? Okay. This sounds really fun. How do I start?

Tony:

The barrier to entry, I think never been easier to race, if you want to race. And you don’t have it. Racing is expensive of any form. I don’t care. If you came up the hard way, you can’t look at racing as an inexpensive sport.

I can tell you. However, there are options that are, are reasonable and obtainable from a financial standpoint. To start with, I would go to a driving school and get your picture stark at the fundamentals of racing. I would read, make sure you understand those flagging. So you’re safe out there and understand, and I would go see how you feel in the car.

At speed, at one of the race schools. And there’s, it’s not hard to find. We, have Skip Barber. We have guys, and then we have Radford all associated [?] Motorsport properties at some level are great. There are schools out there, Mid-Ohio school, and Allen Berg School. They’re great. It’s a great space to go.

That somebody can go. Learn how to go racing to start with. And then I would rent, literally rent a Miata and race in a couple of Miata class races. The racing’s competitive, and the cars are manageable. Even if, you think you’re ready for more horsepower, I would start with a Miata to get you, just get, get all those down.

Get your hat right where you’re smooth in the car. You’re fast, when you’re fast in a Miata, you can be fast in a car with horsepower. I’ll tell you that. And so I think that’s, I encourage people to start on a smaller scale. Don’t start with something that’s already a handful because there’s so much you’ve taken in of learning a new track, learning racing, and being aware of what’s going on around you.

Things happen at a little slower rate in the Miata than they would in a group six muscle car or an open-wheel, uh, you know, our group nine, which are former Indy cars. So up to that. So I think, I think, um, I would start small, get your confidence good. Get a reputation where you’re fast but safe, and don’t put other people at risk. And then move up.

That’s how I would say, but virtually anywhere in the country, and there are several local vintage racing clubs that, you know, regionally typically, um, that are inexpensive duration. They run good, good events and track 10 track, 10 track time. Get you, get you ready to where you can step out. And try one of the big ones.

Jeff:

So if someone wants to join vintage racing, the SVRA, what are the costs to join?

Are there any requirements to join? And how do they reach out to you? How do they Join?

Tony:

Well, there’s coverage as a member or a fan. There’s a package they can buy as a membership, go to all of our races, and get our tour magazine shipped to their house quarterly. And it’s really high-end publication so they can follow SVRA or Trans-Am or [?] Original all the groups that raced.

That’s easy. Go up and get a starting membership for $150. Then you can go to all the races. So there are people that we have now, it’s kind of cool that are doing they’ll camp around the United States and literally follow us or follow Trans-Am and our, where we do joint events. So that’s kinda neat. As a racer, you can get an SVRA membership to have a competition license and the benefit of that is it’s 250 bucks for a license, and that gives you the magazine, but it also gives you a discount off of the amount that you enter as an SVRA member. So you save a few bucks. More than just one race and it pays for itself. And so we did do it that way because we want to build the scale of our data. That’s good for our sponsors and good for our racer that we keep the prices and cost down as much as we can.

With, when you look at the venues, we said that it’s a big commitment on our part to renting those tracks, and put on those events. So we want to make sure we provide.

Jeff:

You know, And your website Is just filled with a lot of awesome information about what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what’s coming up. It’s that, that’s, that’s another great way of getting acquainted with SVRA. You mentioned your magazine. I’m familiar with that. Very well done. Glossy color, beautiful publication. Well, Tony.

Thank you. Thank you for all your information today. They thank you for spending time on our program. And gosh, it’s just, I, I can’t wait to get more in tune with what you’re doing and, and kind of catch up, like everybody coming out of the COVID era. You know, you’re kind of just got a little lost and you obviously did not.

You kept, you kept right on going, God bless you.

Tony:

We did. It was scary.

But you know, going through COVID, my number one thing was I wanted to keep the team working. And there was so much uncertainty that you had to think about. And then when we did go back to racing in between. How did we do it where we’re not a super spreader event, the competitors save.

So, I feel like we are regulating it as well as it could be. We were lucky. We did a lot right. We were also lucky because nobody on the team got sick. I don’t know of a racer who got sick at one of our rounds. But we were as, you know, thoughtful and careful as we could be. With mass vaccinations, distance, and all the hand sanitizer.

All the stuff that you would assume. We did as best we could. It’s the same for you. We were fortunate, but Jeff, thanks for having me on. I hope I hope this is a first, you know, hope this is well received and follow-up stuff. Anytime. just reach out and we’ll get it scheduled.

Jeff:

That’s awesome. And we’ll keep you in the loop of everything that we’re doing.

And I know your time’s valuable with everything you have going on. And again, thank you very much for your time.

Great information. And I encourage everyone who is looking at this broadcast to go to the website, and check it out. Look at the sponsors, look at the partners that what, what Tony has built here is absolutely amazing.

Thank you, Tony.

Tony:

Thanks so much, Jeff. I appreciate you having me on the show. Bye-bye.

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