Most race teams barely break even, let alone make money. The constant search for greater speed means pouring every available dollar into making the car better; it's hard to stop until you're the fastest.
And when you are the fastest, you still can't stop -- since everyone else is doing the same thing, it's incredibly hard to stay near, let alone at, the top.
Unless you're Don Schumacher, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame founder and owner of Don Schumacher Racing, the most successful team in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) history. Going into this weekend's Gatornationals (update: the event has just been postponed due to coronavirus concerns), DSR has racked up 347 event wins and 17 NHRA championships, more than any other NHRA team -- and making DSR one of the most successful teams ever in any form of racing.
Drag racing fans know about DSR's on-track success. But what they, and what fans of successful entrepreneurs, may not know is the story behind the story, one that starts with Don's father, a professional bookmaker who used gambling winnings to co-found the transformer manufacturer Woodward-Schumacher Electric in 1947.
Don, though, had no interest in joining the family business. Instead he became a professional drag racer, over the next ten years becoming an extremely successful match racer and winner of five NHRA national event titles as a multi-hyphenate driver-crew chief-owner.
But then, with two kids and a third on the way, he decided to join the family business.
Woodward-Schumacher Electric was still primarily a custom transformer manufacturer, but Don had convinced his father to purchase a bankrupt battery charger manufacturer.
"Making transformers involved more engineering than I liked at the time," Don says, laughing. "Since I loved cars I wanted to do something automotive-related, so I focused on building the battery charger business."
Even though the business quickly grew, his career transition wasn't easy.
"It was a difficult personal transition to step away from racing," he says, "until I got the competitive juices flowing to really drive me in business."
While a number of companies sold automotive battery chargers, Don didn't focus on beating them. He focused on the process.
"I never said, 'I'm going to beat this one, or that one,'" Don says. "I had the same philosophy I have in racing today: Let's not even think about winning the race. First, let's worry about getting to Gainesville (where the Gatornationals are held), and qualifying. Then we'll worry about the next round."
In the charger business, that approach translated to getting in front of a buyer, then showing them his company offered the best products, then determining what he could do to help that buyer be successful.
"I had an advantage because I was more than willing to call on all of our customers," he says. "Instead of a salesperson who had to call the factory to see if it was okay to make spec changes, or timeline changes... I could make those decision on the spot. So every time I sat in front of a buyer, I had the opportunity to rise to the occasion... which filled a void in me that was missing when I stepped away from racing."
In time, Woodward-Schumacher Electric transitioned to Schumacher Electric, and as President, Don built a 2,500-employee global business selling chargers, testers, starters, and mobile electronics.
And then, after 24 years away from the sport, he went back to racing. Following in his dad's footsteps, his son Tony had moved up the drag racing ranks... until the team he raced for was going out of business.
"Tony said, 'Come on, dad, let's find our own sponsor and go out and do this,'" Don says. So they did -- and in their first full year of competition, Tony won the Top Fuel championship.
That began what Don calls sees as a process.
"Process leads to results," he says. "You can't control what happened yesterday, but you can always try to control what happens tomorrow."
That approach has taken Schumacher Electric from a $10 million to a $200 million-plus business -- and taken DSR from a single-car operation to a 145,000 square foot facility that houses eight race teams, track hospitality operations, extensive CNC capabilities (DSR manufacturers many of its own parts), a conference center... and too many trophies to count.
And to understanding how to build successful teams.
"You need people who are self-motivated... but also able to work in a team environment. The two don't always go hand in hand," he says, laughing.
"You need to be able to love the people you work with," he says. "The people around me are what makes us successful. My job is just to give them the tools they need to be successful."
And to Don's personal definition of success.
"I'm extremely competitive," Don says, "but when we win, I'm happiest for the people on the team. To see them work so hard, whether they're at the track or the in the shop and don't go on the road... seeing them win is the real joy.
"My name might be on the building," he says, "but it's their success."