Driver Corey Rueth walked into the paddock and spotted the CEO of Winding Road Racing washing Rueth’s MX-5 Cup car. Rueth tried to shoo Tom Martin away from finishing the job, but Martin wasn’t having it. The car needed to be washed regardless.
“He’s a real humble guy who’s not above anything,” said Rueth, who is a customer, racer and head of driver development for Winding Road Racing’s MX-5 Cup team. “And I think that’s one of the secrets to his (company’s) success.”
The no-job-is-too-small philosophy is one of the reasons the Austin, Texas,-based Winding Road Racing has become a household name in grassroots motorsports. Need a new helmet? They’ve got it. Want to watch some racing videos or ask a setup question on a forum board? They’ve got that covered, too.
Initially Martin didn’t set out to create the Swiss Army knife of motorsports, but the Great Recession made him rethink his publishing company. Today’s racers are better off for it.
Anyone who races in NASA probably has a Winding Road Racing decal on the side of his or her car, using some of those contingency bucks to buy racing products from the company, trackside or online. The company has grown to offer an arrive-and-drive program and a full-service race shop based in its Austin headquarters.
To complement its online store, Winding Road Racing opened a retail operation in Austin and in Fountain Valley, Calif., with another store planned for Sonoma, Calif., this summer. At the company’s core are a monthly digital magazine and a large social media presence, feeding enthusiasts’ demand for news, videos and camaraderie.
Winding Road Racing’s YouTube Channel has more than 272,000 subscribers and the company has another 65,000 combined followers on Facebook and Twitter alone.
“We didn’t do a giant study of the industry and figure out our optimal strategy,” Martin said. “It was because we were getting more and more into racing and just loved it, and thought, ‘Man this is something that people can be passionate about. It’s something we’re passionate about.’
“Why don’t we combine those two things and we’ll get together with customers and try to give them what we think they would really enjoy, because we’ve had the personal experience of going up the learning curve in racing.”
Martin’s philosophy is that Winding Road Racing should appeal to newcomers and professionals alike. It’s also why the company supports all amateur racing organizations, rather than playing favorites.
“Tom’s one of those guys that is good for the sport in every way, shape and form, and wants to see it grow and operate successfully at every level,” said NASA’s Will Faules, Texas Regional Director. “He just wants to see people get out on track and enjoy whatever itch they’re trying to scratch, whether it’s a guy driving his street car in HPDE or some kid who wants to go race Spec Miata, or somebody who has pro aspirations. It seems to me that Tom’s outlook is to help any and all of those people get on track and be successful.”
Anyone who subscribes to a daily newspaper or magazine has noticed publications have gotten thinner over the years. Companies shifted their advertising dollars online, leaving traditional publications fighting for a smaller piece of the advertising pie.
Martin launched a digital automotive magazine in 2005 but found as the online advertising revenues grew so did the competition. Anyone with a computer and website started to cover the industry, which compounded the problems for traditional publishing companies.
When the financial crisis hit in late 2008, Martin knew his company needed to move beyond the traditional publishing model to survive. As a hobbyist racer and publisher, he saw some opportunities to offer services with the publication supporting the new products.
“I would like to say we’re geniuses, brilliant, charming and all that stuff, but the reality is we started looking at our results and going ‘There has got to be a different answer,’” said Martin, whose company has grown to 25 employees.
The magazine pivoted to covering auto racing, and while covering the sport, had heard a common theme — drivers couldn’t find equipment or get it fast enough. So Winding Road launched an online store in 2013 offering safety gear and performance parts to racers.
Even though 75 percent of the company’s sales are online, Winding Road Racing opened two retail stores, which are used to support its trackside programs. The company supported more than 70 events last year with its parts and equipment trailers.
“There are some products (that) just require touch and feel—helmet fitting, measurements for custom race suits,” Martin said. “We sell a ton of seats because people want to sit in them before they put them in their cars.”
Winding Road Racing continued to expand by opening a shop to build racecars in Austin and launched an ambitious arrive-and-drive program.
Racing Made Easy
Ferris Bueller once said, “I highly recommend picking one up, if you have the means.” The same could be said of Winding Road Racing’s arrive-and-drive program. Show up at the track, race the car and have fun. Todd “Therk” Therkildsen oversees Winding Road Racing’s arrive-and-drive program, which includes cars running in MX-5 Cup, Spec Miata, Porsche GT3, Spec E30 and Radical XR3 classes.
The Winding Road Racing team transports the cars to and from the track, and provides onsite mechanical support and services the car between races. They also offer hourly mechanical services to other racers at the track if they are available. Therkildsen believes the program helps keep drivers in the sport that otherwise might not have the time.
“It takes everything off their hands. They can literally show up to the track, arrive and drive,” said Therkildsen, Winding Road Racing’s competition services manager. “They don’t have to worry about fueling, they don’t have to worry about changing tires or rotating tires. They can focus on racing.”
One of those arrive-and-drive customers is NASA’s Faules who rents a Spec Miata from Winding Road Racing. Without the service, Faules doubts he would be racing.
“I’m super busy around a race weekend cause I’m managing the entire thing and there is no way I could offer myself that level of support,” Faules said. “So having them there supporting the car for me affords me the opportunity to actually be there to race and be somewhat competitive.”
Martin believes the program is successful because of the service they provide and because it’s affordable. The company charges about a $1 a mile for car transport, $400 a day for a mechanic plus costs for tires and oil. “If you’re budgeting carefully and you’ve chosen a low-cost class, you can probably do it for $2,000 a weekend if you count all your costs,” Martin said.
Feel Good Story
Racers would be hard-pressed to find detractors of Winding Road Racing, even as the company expands its service offerings to racers. Rueth thinks that’s because Martin and his team support amateur racing by attending the events and listening to customers, and making changes based on their feedback.
Rueth said when he was looking for a team to join in the MX-5 Cup, Winding Road Racing stood out.
“Everybody had drama surrounding them. Winding Road didn’t. I believe that one of the reasons they didn’t have drama surrounding them was because they’re doing it for the right reasons,” said Rueth, who works as a corporate pilot. “They’re cooperative and synergistic instead of competitive. They don’t take the Walmart approach where they buy out all the competitors and try to ruin everybody around them to succeed.”
Martin said when he started racing, the industry generally wasn’t welcoming to newcomers, but that is changing. “There is a little bit of a magic decoder ring somewhere that you don’t have, but you really should have, to figure things out,” he said.
That’s was one the reasons Martin started a contingency sponsorship program that pays whether a racer finishes first or in tenth place in selected classes and sanctioning bodies. Participating racers receive Winding Road Racing store credits.
“My accounting department tells me it’s a terrible program because so many people cash in on it,” Martin said with a laugh. “That makes it a good program in our minds.”
Martin tells the story about racing at Willow Springs International Raceway and the Spec Miata class was grouped with Spec E30 racers. They were heading into the Omega stretch of the track, an uphill and downhill section with a camber change, when one of the Spec E30 racers tried to push his way in.
“I was like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’” Martin recalled. “And all of sudden I look over and there are Winding Road Racing decals on the car and I’m like, ‘Come on through.’”