SportsCar Feature: On The Job Training

This article first appeared in the May, 2018 edition of SportsCar Magazine. SCCA members can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here; To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.

Less than a year into the job, we catch up with SCCA President and CEO Mike Cobb; this time at the track

“There is an analogy from this experience that I think is corollary to the business of the SCCA,” President and CEO of SCCA Mike Cobb explains to me following his Club Racing Driver’s School and wheel-to-wheel racing debut. “I was very strong at the start of the race, and even though I was watching for you in my mirrors, I probably did relax in the middle of the race – that’s when you pounced. But that’s when I got my focus back and I finished strong.” Keeping focus, he explains, is also vital in his job as the head of the SCCA, especially as new programs are brought online. “Don’t relax, don’t let up, don’t back off,” he states. True words about racing, life, and business, indeed – but maybe this conversation would make more sense to you if I offered some context.

It was early on a crisp February Friday morning when I met up with Cobb at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. We were set for a packed and tiring three days as Cobb was about to launch himself into a completely new world. A lifelong motorsports fan and longtime autocrosser, this weekend was to be Cobb’s first time in a wheel-to-wheel road racing situation.

The weekend was Cal Club Region’s Driver’s School, where, if all went well, Cobb would graduate on Saturday evening, obtain his Full Competition License, and then prep for his first Club race on Sunday. I was at the track to support his endeavor, but as any good crew with a sense of humor would do, I brought a spare racecar for myself – you know, to witness his driving skills firsthand come Sunday, hopefully to dog him for an on-track position, too.

This isn’t the first time since June 2017 – the month Cobb took the position of President and CEO of SCCA – that he has tasted what the Club has to offer. Just weeks prior to this Driver’s School, Cobb was standing on Turn 6 at Daytona International Speedway alongside a crew of SCCA workers, flagging the Rolex 24. That experience made him commit to working on his F&C license. His goal, he says, is to experience everything the SCCA has to offer, but if you think he’s just here to have fun, you’ve never met Cobb. Beneath his humble demeanor and well-timed self-deprecating humor, Cobb is an astute businessman – he may be having fun with cars, but he’s also taking notes and knows how to turn those notes into actionable scenarios.

“The bottom line is, your view of life changes viewing an apex versus driving an apex – at least, it does for me,” Cobb tells me of his recent flagging experience. “If you consume motorsports watching TV and you see a corner station pull out a flag, I don’t think you really understand what that means until you throw a flag yourself and communicate with a driver at speed. That’s a pretty big shift in reality.”

Ultimately, he says, flags are a big responsibility for both sides. “When I’m working a corner, I’m trying to communicate to the driver via telling them the status of the track; when I’m driving, I’m looking to a corner worker to provide me that same communication.”

Interestingly, “communication” was the prevalent concept during two of Cobb’s 2017 SCCA National Convention presentations. “How we closed the Convention was around consideration, communication, and collaboration,” he says. “Those are the three concepts we closed with and, in my experience both working a corner and driving my first road-racing car, I learned a little more about consideration, communication, and collaboration by working both sides of the coin.”

Even more on point, Cobb admits, he didn’t come up with these comments for the Convention alone. “Those comments actually came from a Regional Executive who said to me, ‘Michael, if you want to make an impact, and the SCCA wants to do a better job, I would ask you to do these three things. I would ask you to consider us, I would ask you to communicate more effectively with us, and I would ask you to do those things more consistently.’ I said, ‘That’s great, Mr. Region Leader, but I would like to add one thing: Can we collaborate doing those things?’”

Collaboration, Cobb explains, is a one-plus-one-equals-three proposition – the sum is greater than its parts. “That’s how we can harness the power of the knowledge and experience,” he says. “And this is where the Region Development team and Chris Robbins came about.”

Robbins was hired January of this year as the Club’s Region Development Director. Constantly sporting a big grin and a can-do attitude, Robbins is a familiar face to SCCA Convention attendees as he has presented many times over the years; and now, Robbins, along with his newly created department and team at the SCCA National Office, has an interesting charge – one I didn’t completely understand, so I asked Cobb to elaborate.

“Let’s be very clear: Chris Robbins is not a Region cop sent from the National Office to police Regional activities,” Cobb says. “Chris is a very collaborative and effective team and relationship builder, and an outstanding trainer. His primary mission is to represent the portfolio of the Club and to better present those to the Regions so that the Regions are aware of them. He’s not there to mandate performance or adoption of the programs.”

Part of Robbins’ job will be to act as a conduit of success stories. “Through this journey, he will find best practices, and his job will be to share those best practices, not only across the Regions, but also back to the National Office so that we can build those best practices in Nationally, because they’re already proven and in market. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Robbins and his Region Development team will then work with Jeff Luckritz and SCCA’s Leadership Academy to take that knowledge back to the Regions. What is the ultimate goal? To Cobb, it’s not so much a goal as it is forwarding SCCA’s mission. “At the Convention, I didn’t present a theme, I presented a mission: We exist to fuel a safe, fun, and exciting motorsports experience for auto enthusiasts,” he says.

A mission, Cobb explains to me, is what an organization shows up to do every day. “The mission I presented is a declaration of SCCA’s core focus. It’s inexplicably woven in to improve and deliver our core purpose. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Focus is something Cobb is good at. Jumping between the classroom and seat time during Cal Club’s Driver’s School is hard enough, but Cobb managed it while juggling conversations with Region leaders and other racers interested in chatting with our new president, and not once did I see him miss a beat. It’s also important to note that Cobb didn’t register for the school as the president, he registered as a member, facing the same hurdles as everyone else at this Driver’s School.

“As I went through the entire school endeavor, I found some friction in our own processes; I found some redundancies in getting multiple membership cards, and I found redundancies in communications,” he admits. “You can assume you know what’s going on, but that’s not what I want to do as a leader – I want to go through the experience and understand it, both the opportunities that come with it and the areas where we can improve. I’ve already used that experience in service of the Driver’s School with the team here at the National Office.”

These learning experiences aren’t limited to road racing, either. In his time on the job, Cobb has been educating himself on all aspects of SCCA competition, from RoadRally to RallyCross and beyond, including some of SCCA’s relatively small-yet-complex specialty creations.

“Starting Line is a very good program, but we’ve learned some things in how to best optimize that program going forward,” Cobb says. “Targa Southland is a very good program, too, but it’s also a very complex program to execute at the local level. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it just means that if you want to take it on, you have to have the game plan, the strategy, the people, the resources, the locations, and the ability to pull it off. Not everybody can do that. So, what we’re trying to do at the National Office is have ideas and conversations from an enterprise point of view and then connect those conversations to the Regional conversations.” Think Chris Robbins and his Region Development team again.

My final questions to Cobb were, perhaps, the most obvious ones – but, as with any question posed to Cobb, his answer revealed more than the question implied. “Was the Driver’s School fun? Will you road race again?” I ask. “I have to admit, I enjoyed it more than I thought,” he replies, beginning a train of thought about street cars that would make great racecars. But as soon as he starts, he stops, admitting that starting a road racing career wasn’t the reason he came to Buttonwillow. “For me, I learn by doing and by example and by experience,” he says. “I’ve got to get out there and experience those things in as many communities as I can to really expand my knowledge and understanding of the Club.”

For the record, Cobb beat me to the line during Sunday’s race, albeit by a scant four seconds. This may have been his first shot at this track and this racecar, but he showed he makes the best of any situation in a very short time.

 

 

Preparation is key

Attending a Driver’s School hosted by one of SCCA’s Regions is stressful enough so don’t add to it unnecessarily. While you may have driven on track before, you’ve probably never raced wheel to wheel, and there’s also a good chance you’ve never piloted a real, bona fide racecar, either. Now you’re going to do both while jumping back and forth between the classroom and on-track sessions. Stress will be high, your time will be limited, and keeping concentration is critical. In this situation, pre-event prep is vital.

“[It] is going to be a very busy two days for all of you,” Ceci Smith, office manager for Cal Club Region, wrote in her introductory e-mail to all students of the Driver’s School that Mike Cobb, SCCA’s President and CEO, took part in. The Region also supplied a number of tips for the students via a letter from Race Chair Mark Smith, including everything from getting to the event location early to bringing a friend (“You will have little time to work on the car,” the letter said). So, as a student, how do you set yourself up for a successful Driver’s School?

The first step is bringing proper driver safety equipment. In Cobb’s case, while a frequent autocrosser, he had no equipment that would pass driver safety gear inspection at a Club race. As such, Cobb showed up to the track with all new equipment in the form of an SA2015-rated Pyrotect helmet, an SFI/FIA-approved Simpson Hybrid head-and-neck restraint, and Momo fire-resistant clothing in the form of an XL One suit paired with Xtreme Pro gloves and GT Pro shoes (all holding FIA 8856-2000 certification, with the suit also having SFI 3.2a/5 approval).

Driver safety equipment isn’t cheap, but chosen wisely and meticulously maintained, the gear will last for years. In fact, barring an incident, the helmet will be the first to be replaced, and that won’t be for another eight years. Meanwhile, the Momo suit might never need replacing.

The next key component is what was hinted at in Cal Club’s letter: you need a crew and a reliable racecar. For Cobb, he was flying to the event and utilizing SportsCar’s editor as crew, so a racecar rental would have been perfect. But to keep things interesting, SportsCar contacted Honda Performance Development for use of the racecar Honda debuted at the 2017 PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The HPD Civic we borrowed for Cobb’s use is actually the same racecar multi-time SCCA Solo National Champion Tom O’Gorman will be racing this year in the World Challenge professional racing series: a new Honda Civic Si. Dubbed a “Spec Civic,” this 1.5L turbo Civic, wearing big brakes and race suspension, has been classed by SCCA’s Club Racing Board in both Touring 2 and Touring 3, with the car also fitting in Super Touring Under. Best of all, the car started with the push of a button every time – fast, reliable, and fun. Perfect for a school.

The next step was tires. The demands of a school weekend are harsh, so we ordered Maxxis Victra RC-1 tires. With a 100 UTQG rating, these Maxxis tires might not be the setup for the fastest ultimate lap, but they do offer both durability and consistency, which are key. Not knowing the car, we started with a square pressure setup, leveling off the pressures around 40psi. The tires never missed a beat and held up well through the school’s 3.5 hours of pounding track time of a tight, twisty course, in addition to the near hour of track time during Sunday’s qualifying session and race.

The moral of the story: only bring equipment to an SCCA Driver’s School that you know will withstand the harsh demands (“I’m exhausted, and I’m not even racing,” SportsCar’s editor was heard saying during the school), because if anything fails during the Driver’s School, well, that would be stressful.

Words and Images by Philip Royle

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