Here's what typically happens with race drivers. They start out focusing on nothing but racing, and if they manage, against incredibly steep odds, to become successful, one day they realize they have become a business... so they find ways to start other businesses. (My conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. serves as a great example.)
But with every rule, there's an exception: In this case, it's Justin Marks, Nascar driver and one of the purest entrepreneur/drivers in the sport.
Justin grew up in an entrepreneurial household. His father's long list of business accomplishments have included being a founding partner of the private equity firm Riverwood Capital, an early investor and current board member of GoPro, an interim CEO of Tesla Motors, and a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors.
Today Justin's company, The DryLake Group, owns the GoPro Motorplex, a world-class go-kart facility in Mooresville, North Carolina, and KartSport North America, an after-market kart product distribution company; it's a part owner of Scott Motorsports with Justin Marks, a championship Nascar K&N Pro Series East team; and is co-owner of Larson Marks Racing, a dirt track racing team he founded with Sprint Cup series star Kyle Larson.
And if that's not enough, he currently drives part-time for Chip Ganassi Racing, has competed in all three of Nascar's national series, and earlier this year won his first Xfinity Series race at Mid-Ohio.
That makes Justin what I like to call an "and": a person who has worked really hard to become highly accomplished at one thing, but also highly accomplished at that, and that, and that. Here's part of a conversation we had:
I saw you after the race at Mid-Ohio and thought, "There's a guy who didn't just want to win. He needed to win."
It meant an awful lot to me. Guys like me, guys with my story, typically we don't win at that level.
Winning at Mid-Ohio was validation as an athlete and at least a partial validation of what I'm working for. I've never been a big name and a big brand with my driving. I always tried to be diverse in how I built my life and my career. That started even when I was balancing college and racing.
I knew I didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket because the chances of success are just so slim.
I always thought my wins in the sport were going to come earlier in my career, so for it to happen at age 35 when my businesses are built and operating... that made it even more special.
You're doing something interesting: the traditional path is for a driver to become a success and then start businesses around that success, but you've always worked to do both simultaneously.
I decided that if I learned what I was passionate about outside the race car, ultimately I could be successful in that pursuit if racing didn't work out.
That's also partly because of the environment I was raised in. I grew up just outside Silicon Valley. My father is a prominent businessman. Unlike a lot of other drivers who grew up in the sport, racing wasn't a big thing in our household.
That gave me a lot of perspective and showed me you have to be smart about the choices you make. Success at a high level isn't easy to achieve in any pursuit or any business. You have to work really hard. That's definitely a product of the household I grew up in.
So why build your go-kart track, the GoPro Motorplex? That seems completely different from your other ventures: different type of investment, different day-to-day operations, different marketing...
Getting into the business of racing is something I was always interested in. I studied sports marketing in college, and I was definitely an observer of the industry as I was racing.
When I felt I had accumulated enough experience and we were looking for opportunities, for something special we could do, we saw the opportunity to build a race track.
And right here near Charlotte was the perfect location. We already had the whole supply chain: aspiring drivers, companies invested in the sport, suppliers and vendors and enthusiasts... but there was nowhere to go race.
It was like if you wanted to be a country singer and you went to Nashville and there were no bars to play. The closest go-kart track was two hours away.
Lots of stuff can go awry between idea and execution, though.
Definitely. So we said, "We need a business plan to build a world-class facility where anybody and everybody can race." And as we worked through finding the right land, getting the zoning, getting help from municipalities... the farther we went down that road the clearer it became that the Motorplex was something the market needed.
That was a period in my racing career when I was racing part-time, so I had the time to dedicate to raising funding, helping to pull all the pieces together... and then we went and did it.
And now it's a great business.
Plus, the track has become the perfect jumping-off point. It's a showpiece for the industry, a showpiece for the sport, and it's brought a number of other opportunities to us.
And somehow you got GoPro heavily involved. That's quite a feat.
We're certainly the only go-kart racing facility that has a naming rights partner. It provides revenue, but the relationship with GoPro means so much more than that, because of the reach they have.
And we help them, too. We create great content for them as they take the sport of karting to a bigger audience. They've done great things with the content we provide.
My marketing background has helped me identify opportunities to team up with great partners. That's definitely the case with GoPro: it brings instant legitimacy, brings their brand of excitement and adventure and spirit of challenging yourself to our facility... it's great.
Aspiring drivers have taken advantage of that relationship, too.
Our track helps give a platform to young drivers trying to make a name for themselves. They can create great content and have the name associated with it. It means something to win races here.
People pay attention. It's a track where people can have fun, but it's also a track where up-and-coming racers can show off their talent.
The Motorplex is a traditional kind of business. A race team is very different. So why own race teams?
You're right. It is different. For one thing, it's hard to make money, because you're constantly reinvesting in your business. It takes money to win, so if you make money, you turn around and pour it right back into your cars. So we haven't lost money, but we don't make money.
The dream of owning a race team is not motivated by a desire to make money or sell at a multiple. It's a unique business model.
So for me, there are multiple elements. Owning teams further diversifies my brand in the community. And I've put cars on the race track that have helped young drivers be successful. We've built respected operations that help my brand and my reputation. Plus, it's another way to learn about another aspect of the racing industry.
And don't forget that at the level of racing where we compete, our team is often the first time where young drivers get an opportunity to race in front of the big teams on the big tracks. For them to sit in our cars and win championships and move on to bigger things... that's incredibly rewarding.
You co-own a dirt track team with Kyle Larson. How did that come about?
Kyle and I actually met at the Motorplex. That's another opportunity the go-kart track has provided. (Laughs.)
Kyle was just getting going here in North Carolina. I was interested in trying to get into team ownership. He's passionate about sprint dirt racing but he couldn't drive those cars much since he was focused on his Nascar career.
I said, "Why don't we start a race team? You can stay involved in dirt, you can learn about the business side, you can help me make competition decisions... and we can try to grow it as your brand grows."
We definitely have an unfair advantage over other teams in attracting corporate partners because we have the Kyle Larson brand. If you start a team without an asset like Kyle, it's hard to attract financial support.
But that's just an extra bonus. He's a great partner.
In both cases you're putting young, unproven drivers in your cars. How do you pick the people who will drive for you?
A lot of it comes from my experience. There are so many young people racing that have created fancy proposals, who are trying to brand themselves, who are trying to get themselves noticed... it's not always easy.
Ultimately, I don't care what kind of car you've driven or at what level. The most important thing is what you've won. I want to know you're a winner.
Some people will say, "Well, I almost won here, we led a few laps there, I qualified on the pole there..." I'd rather take a kid who wins every single weekend at his local track than someone who always runs 15th in a higher series.
That's why we look for people who know how to win. It's harder to teach a kid to win than to drive a particular type of car.
Early on I wanted to drive high horsepower, fast cars, but those types of cars just weren't racing in competitive series where I lived. So I drove a 1969 Datsun 510, but I drove it in the most competitive division in our region.
I learned a lot more there than I could have from racing fast cars in an uncompetitive division.
As I think about it, I was wrong. The Motorplex actually does make sense within your portfolio of businesses because it deepens your vertical integration.
That's one of the thing that's great about the GoPro Motorplex. It's accessible and affordable... but it's also an outdoor track where nationally significant series kart hold their events.
So whether you're an aspiring driver or you're introducing your kids to the sport, you can come here and drive the karts every day and see the next steps: get my kids out there, enter a league, buy my own kart... the whole path and experience is already laid out.
That's one of the things we try to do. We want to bring the sport to everyone -- aspiring racers, sure, but also fans, enthusiasts, people who just like to go fast, corporate events...
Some people will never see it as more than something really fun to do. That's great.
Some will decide they want to take the next step, and because we're in Charlotte... we have the entire industry here in Charlotte.
Most successful people have a goal beyond building a business and making money. Where the racing industry is concerned, what is yours?
The biggest contributor to our industry's success is making the sport affordable to people that want to get involved at the beginning levels. Go-kart racing has become more expensive. The barriers of entry in all forms of racing are really high.
Our import and distribution business is trying to break down some of those barriers to entry. If we can be successful doing that, and build a great company that's profitable and has a lot of value... if we can get to the point where a father and son or daughter can get involved in racing just as something fun to do together, if we can make that easy for as many people as possible... that will only help industry as a whole.
Making the sport more affordable will attract more people to the industry, will expand its reach... and that's what I'm really excited about. We've been able to capture enough market share and influence that we're in a position of power where we can really influence that first step people take.
There's no limit to how big our company can get -- and as we keep growing, that will let us bring a lot more people to the sport.