Every once in a while, the answer to a simple question is not only surprising, but it also changes the way you look at your life.
For example, imagine you've won 17 races at the highest level of your sport. Imagine you drive for Hendrick Motorsports, the gold standard of Nascar teams, an organization that has won the most Nascar championships and leads all modern owners in series wins.
You don't have it all (because no one has it all), but you have an awful lot, and you know it. You're Kasey Kahne, driver of the Sprint Cup Series #5 car for HMS. You founded Kasey Kahne Racing, a sprint car race team that has won more than 100 races and one World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series championship. And your foundation supports charities that work with chronically ill children and their families.
And then you decide to start your own race team, knowing that at least in financial terms the best you'll ever do is break even. Why? Sure, you love the sport. You love helping and watching other people succeed. But if those aren't reason enough, there's one more thing that's in it for you: Owning a race team means that every week you have something to be excited about and look forward to.
Sounds too simple, right? But after Kasey and I talked, I kept finding myself considering what I look forward to professionally. I'm good at working hard and staying focused and delaying gratification and grinding--especially at unusual pursuits, like doing juuuust a few too many pushups in one day--but do I actively cultivate a steady stream of things I can't wait to do?
Often the best advice is the simplest, most obvious advice, and applying this approach to how you plan your workweek can make a huge difference. It already has for me.
Aside from having a knack for teaching at least one old dog a new trick, it turns out that Kasey is thoughtful, deliberate, organized, and constantly focused on learning and building a long-term career and business. (And he's as nice a guy as you could hope to meet, a quality I've found is common in the HMS organization. Maybe nice guys can finish first.)
Starting your own team seems counterintuitive, at least in entrepreneurial terms, because almost by definition you aren't going to make money.
That's true. We pour everything back into the cars. Granted, we work as hard as we can with partners and with race winnings and with our budgets to try to break even. But it's not easy to break even in racing if you're trying to win. There's always something you want to do or buy or work on to make your cars better, and it's hard to say no until you're the fastest.
And then, when you are the fastest, you usually aren't for long because other people are doing the same thing.
So, then, what is your goal for owning a team? Why do it?
I get a lot out of it personally. I really enjoy short track, dirt track, grassroots racing. To have a team, to cheer them on every weekend--it feels great.
Plus, I really enjoy giving drivers, mechanics, crew chiefs, etc., the chance to learn to develop themselves. There's definitely opportunity for talented people to move up and do well in other series. Sprint cars can get you to a different level. Dirt drivers make great drivers.
Speaking of drivers, whom you put in your cars makes a huge difference. How do you choose whom to drive for you?
The first thing is that I have to be able to get along with them. That doesn't mean we have to be best friends, but we do need to see things the same way in terms of racing and how they go about it, in terms of motivation and drive, and especially their passion for driving sprint cars.
And then they have to be team players. We have two teams, and the only way it can work is if you work with your teammate. The goal is to beat the rest of the competition, but sometimes guys will focus just on beating their teammate, and that doesn't go over well with me. You try to be better as a whole and as a company--not just as an individual.
That's definitely a Hendrick Motorsports approach.
Teamwork is definitely an HMS thing, and it's even more that way than when I first came here. In 2013, Mr. Hendrick pushed us to work together better. In 2014, he focused even more on our working together, and 2016 is by far the best that our crew chiefs, drivers, engineers, etc,. have worked together.
That all comes from Mr. H constantly pushing the need for us to be a team as an organization, and not just individual race teams.
That's definitely a mindset I've adopted at KKR.
That mindset also makes it easier for everyone in our shop to learn and grow. Ever since I was young, I've tried to be open-minded and learn and listen, especially to people who are older than me and have lived and done more than I have. Ray Evernham, the people at HMS, all the crew chiefs I've worked with along the way, all the sponsors I've worked with.
So many people have helped me learn how to drive, how to run a team, how to work with people. I'm still learning, but I've been really lucky to have been around so many smart people.
Time management is an issue for everyone. How do you divide your time?
Balancing my time is actually pretty straightforward. The Cup side (driving the #5 car in the Sprint Cup Series) always comes first. Without that, I don't have the opportunity to do anything else I get to do. I know that comes first.
Then I parcel the rest of my time out. Some days of the week are all HMS, especially Mondays and Tuesdays. On other days, or parts of other days, I can spend some time with my sprint car teams.
Making it all work is all about people. If you have a good group, it's a lot easier. In any business, people are everything, and in racing it's no different. When you have the right group of people, working on the cars or in the office, all working for the same goals, that makes it easy.
But my first priority is always HMS and our partners there. My first priority is running the best we can, working to keep improving, and taking care of our partners in the sport. Like I said: Nothing else happens if I don't do that.
You say partners, I think "sponsors." Either way, sponsors are an important part of the sport at all levels. How have you managed to build some of your long-term sponsor relationships?
I've been fortunate over the years, because with some of our sponsors we've really hit it off and maintained those partnerships for a long time.
When you think racing, you naturally think fast cars, but a lot of our success has come from the relationship side of the sport.
One example is Great Clips. My first year with Great Clips was 2003, and they're still with us. I've watched them grow from about 800 salons to more than 3,200. That's been an unreal ride. I started with them when they were just starting to really grow their business, and it's been fun--and inspiring--to see them be so successful.
I'm proud to think we've played a part in that, and I appreciate that they're involved with our sprint car team. Our employees and our drivers really try to take care of them, and it's neat how much they've gotten into supporting and rooting for our drivers.
I'm always surprised by how some sponsor relationships turn into more than just marketing opportunities.
The relationship with Great Clips has grown on the racetrack for years, but the giving side has also grown. We've worked closely with Great Clips at their annual golf tournament in Minneapolis to help children in need at the Minneapolis Children's Hospital. Great Clips has become a huge supporter of that hospital in many ways, and so have I. From the golf days, to dinners and auctions, the money raised has been unbelievable for those kids in need.
I personally go and visit the hospital every year to spend time with the kids. Over the years, we've also taken drivers from KKR, like Daryn Pittman, Brad Sweet, Cody Darrah, and Jason Leffler, to do the same and give back.
Great Clips has also supported a lot of our Kasey Kahne Foundation events over the years. They support my annual Five Kahne 5K, and some of our other events, and we love their being part of our foundation.
The vast majority of people involved in racing are 1) highly competitive and 2) therefore highly ambitious. In a way, you're developing people who will move up in the sport, which means you periodically need to find talented people to bring in.
That's true for all aspects of our operation. On the sponsor side, we're always looking. We try to meet the right people so we can spend time with them and show them this is a neat place to be, and how we can help them achieve some of their goals.
On the people side, like mechanics, crew chiefs, drivers, etc., I'm always watching. I've been in this sport a long time and I'm always watching.
That comes naturally. I have a passion for racing. I love it. So I love watching to see who is up and coming and who is making noise. Because of that, I feel like I have a good idea of who someone is when I first talk to them, and if I don't, I know plenty of smart people who will give me references and advice. If you're paying attention, you have a pretty good idea of what people are like.
Before I ever talk to someone, I try to know as much as I can about them. Then I can focus on seeing if they're a good fit for our team.
Is owning a team intended to set you up for the years after you retire from driving?
I'm really happy with where KKR is right now. I would love to keep building it, but I'm very happy with our team and how we perform.
What I love is that I always have something to look forward to. Sprint Cup qualifying is tomorrow and we race on Sunday; I can't wait for that. Our dirt teams are racing tonight, and I can't wait to see how they do.
Every single week, I have something to look forward to. To think that I'm 36 years old and still have the same enthusiasm and passion for the sport, and enjoy it so much. It's crazy how once you get racing in your blood ...
I think the time when I'll be finished driving is a long way away, so it's tough to say what I'll do. But I do still love driving sprint cars, and I like sprint car racing in general so much that I will probably stay involved.
It doesn't feel like work when you're having fun and looking forward to seeing what happens.