|EKN One-on-One: Garry Lobaugh - MRP Motorsport
| Garry Lobaugh|
One of the true businessmen of the karting industry is Garry Lobaugh of MRP Motorsport. Coming from a strong sales background, Lobaugh has guided his karting company for over 20 years and, in contrast to many in the sport, it continues to grow and expand its reach. Although some may be blinded by the business side of Garry's focused personality, the Iowa native has a true passion for the sport.
While MRP Motorsport is primarily associated as the exclusive Birel importer for North America, there are many facets to the companyís identity. Managing a total of three karting facilities, MRP works closely with many other tracks across the country as well. Most recently, the role of Rotax distributer has expanded the MRP growth program and more is expected in the future.
We were able to track down Garry at their Three Oaks, Michigan base, and he was able to give us some insight as to the beginnings of the MRP Motorsport company and just where their arms extend in the karting community.
eKartingNews.com: First, tell us a little about your background, where you grew up and how you were introduced to motorsports?
Garry Lobaugh: I grew up as farm boy out in central Iowa, north of Ames, in a town called Blairsburg. I was there for 22 years of my life. I graduated from Iowa State University in Psychology and History. Out of that I became involved in sales work in the stock and commodities business for some 40 years, being involved in investments or as an investment advisor.
My family began boating in Lake Michigan, fishing for a number of years until that fell out of favor for everyone, so I needed to find an activity that was suitable for the entire family to be involved as a unit. We first looked at motorcycles and then we moved on down the line to karting, as it was something that we felt was safer.
EKN: And that was about what year?
GL: 1985 was when we first got started with the activity of buying go-karts and started racing in Buchanan, Michigan.
EKN: Where were you living at the time?
GL: We were living in Lake Forrest, IL, on the north side of Chicago. We would make the trip once or twice a week - 126 miles one way - every weekend and bring the motorhome and trailer over. We would go out and practice, putting in a lot of laps every weekend.
EKN: So you entered karting like many others, as a family activity before getting into the industry side of things?
GL: Exactly, we started as family unit. Tim and Chris, the two boys most in karting are familiar with, were involved. Molly, my oldest child, and myself raced along with Chris at the beginning and then Tim, who joined in when he become old enough. It became a very busy deal because we went into with full force. By 1990, we started traveling nationally with our first race in Jacksonville, Florida. At that time, we had our own engine builder traveling with us, a mechanic to help us and it became a pretty big affair.
| Tim and Chris Lobaugh|
EKN: Now which came first, the purchasing of the Buchanan, MI track - the first Michiana Raceway Park - or starting MRP Motorsport?
GL: The track at Buchanan came first and that was joint venture with Curt Paluzzi - owner of National Kart News - and John Kozubik of Johnís Kart Shop in Chicago. The goal was to help develop the local club - Michiana Kart Klub - as they needed to find funding to pay for the monthly mortgage on the property of the track of which they purchased from the previous owner, George Kristy. John, Curt and I worked together to help promote karting in the southwest Michigan area and many of the ideas came from Curt (the racing school) and John (the arrive-and-drive program) and then came along my business background to promote it and bring new customers over. By 1987, the name changed to Michiana Raceway Park for what was then known as Kristyís Rolling Green Raceway.
EKN: When was MRP Motorsport created then?
GL: It was official started in 1986 and incorporated in 1987. From then forward, itís been known as Michiana Raceway Park (MRP) and then later we added the 'Motorsport'.
EKN: It was in 2003 that you purchased South Bend Raceway Park, which is now the Michiana Raceway Park of South Bend. What led to that decision?
GL: South Bend Raceway Park was built in 1995 and it came out of a visit of a grandfather with his grandchildren - Mel McCallum - regular customers at the Buchanan facility. One day, one of the grandsons did not get his engine fired and the race director went ahead and started the race without that driver being able to participate. This created a problem with the grandfather, when then sought to build his own track. Over the years, Mel had a number of managers for South Bend who attempted to make the property operate. Itís a beautiful facility with 30 acres of total property. At the time in 1995, it was the state-of-the-art facility in terms of karting in the Midwest region. Yet, Mel could never really get it to be a profitable venture. He came to me in 2002 and started the discussions of us managing or operating the property. Later, he concluded it would be better as an outright sale, which we did at that time.
EKN: In 2004, you were trying to sell off the Buchanan facility. Were there no takers or did you have a change of heart and kept the property?
| Rolling Green Raceway|
GL: The property is always been dear to our hearts, as it was the start of the foundation of the company and our familyís involvement in the sport. It has been in existence since 1962. If there is a buyer, we would sell the property with the idea that it would continue to be a karting operation. In regards to how we look at the property now, we still do our corporate events up there, we host an occasional race, and we do private training there. We allow customers the opportunity to come and go like we first did when we got started in karting. We issue a key to the front gate and the client can come out and practice on their terms. Just this week, we had a person return from South Carolina and he and his son came and got a key to Rolling Green Raceway to turn some laps before they joined us this weekend at Michiana Raceway Park in South Bend.
EKN: For myself growing up in Michigan, I have great memories of that track as a kid. Moving into the realm of karting in the area, we only have about six to seven months of actual racing weather so we try to cram as much racing as possible into that time. As a track owner in the Midwest, would you prefer there to be fewer traveling series or more, and why?
GL: The traveling series have grown out of the WKA efforts largely. I would say the attraction is to promote transfer points for additional opportunities to move up the ladder in the rankings with WKA. That is all changing at the moment. We have enjoyed a very long history with the Great Lakes Sprint Series. We were actually one of their first tracks and we were part of their organization when Harold Diehl was the president of the Michiana Kart Klub. He was one of the founders of the Great Lakes Sprint Series. So we have had a long history, ever since our involvement in karting, with the series visiting our tracks - either Rolling Green Raceway or Michiana Raceway Park.
The regional series do their job, taking the customer from the club level program to the next step, if you will. As an individual track owner, I prefer to keep our customers at the club level and try to create a fuller grid of participants, some of them being nationally known and some of them just getting started, so a customer can enjoy top level driving at any race weekend at our property. Certainly, the regional programs have their function, however, I think they dilute the overall program of trying to grow the local tracks and promote karting in the long term. I think we have a too-crowded venue of regionals at the moment and not all of them will survive.
EKN: Do you think more tracks being built will help grow the sport or do you think we need to promote the tracks we already have?
GL: I think new tracks are vital to the growth of the sport. Invariably, whenever we open or work with a new track owner, there is a influx of new enthusiasts who get started in karting, many who hav never heard about it and often times, thatís how karting tracks get started. You have one person who really wants to do something in motorsports but they donít want to drive a long distance. The goal of the karting community (leadership) should be help train and foster those managers and those owners in order to do a better job of maintaining the property and soliciting new people. So the way we are going to grow the sport is exclusively through the grassroots program of new or existing tracks. The entire emphasis, whether it be WKA, IKF, Rotax management, should be oriented towards empowering those track owners and those promoters to do a better job and teaching them to attract new attendees.
| Michiana Raceway Park of South Bend|
EKN: MRP Motorsport has had a long relationship with Birel. How did the relationship come together and what are some of the factors that have kept that the affiliation strong?
GL: The strange and interesting thing is that I originally needed to buy a set of rain tires. At that time, the Vega rain tires were considered one of the best in the world. I made an appointment to meet with Enzo Chiovitti out of Toronto, Canada. I drove up and met him at the shop of Bill Wolters of Stoney Creek in the Detroit area. Bill welcomed us to his place and by the time the meeting was done, I walked out with a case of Vega rain tires and a car load of Birel karts that helped get us started. Prior to that, we had been the largest dealer for Coyote products, which at the time was one of the largest American manufacturers. What I soon learned was that operating with a European manufacturer gave us technological advantage and innovation. It gave us the opportunity to deal with some sort of exclusivity that allowed us to have some pricing power, which then created the proper business structure, something karting had been lacking at that point.
When we first started, Birel had only sold 24 karts in the United States in 1994. The next year, we sold 150 Birel karts, so we were catapulted onto the stage, if you will. We were a big consumer because of the Arrive-and-Drive program we hosted and we also had a strong selling pattern. We began distributing karts and picked up a location in South Florida, where we opened a kart shop and started selling karts to a number of dealers. We were also reaching prospects who were in remote regions not yet known to Birel at that time.
What has kept the relationship going was that in 1998, MRP was invited to be an importer for Birel. The reason there was that they were looking for someone with stronger management skills and someone who was really interested in promoting new dealers along with teaching dealers what needed to be done. Out of that, we took over as the lead importer in 2002-2003, and to this date we are the exclusive importer for Birel in North America - that being Canada and Mexico. As we grew, we have become one of the largest customers of Birel worldwide.
EKN: Aside from the Birel portion of MRP Motorsport, there are a number of different divisions of the company. Could you give a brief description of them?
| Garry Lobaugh with Ronni Sala of Birel S.p.A at the 2004 Kart Expo International|
GL: Certainly the one that we have great favor on is teaching with our KartingBiz.com group - teaching other property owners or a new start-up company on how to be successful in karting and motorsports. We have six projects on the table at the moment and we are continuing to follow up on the ones that we have assisted already. Itís a very rewarding experience in terms of the broad diversification that we have across the country. We have different geographic regions that might be performing well, while others are not performing as well as we would expect. Thatís a very major part of our project.
A second portion of our project is just managing the local tracks that we have. That is a whole challenge onto itself. Creating the demand for the corporate parties, the racing schools and the entertainment packages that keep the properties busy is what makes the money for us. A third aspect of the company is, of course, the race weekend promotions. During the month of April, we were able to host the Great Lakes Sprint Series and the Midwest Sprint Series and, of course, the WKA Manufacturerís Cup Series attends our South Bend facility as well. We had 950 entries in about a month's time period with several thousand people coming to the property. That was certainly the highlight of the year thus far, with the intensity and effort we had to put forth.
The final piece of the puzzle came just in time for our company in the depths of the recession in 2008. We were invited by Rotax in Austria to come on-board as a distributor for Rotax engine packages. That literally saved our company, as we were able to avoid the depths of the recession and we were able to add 40 new dealers in six weeks. With the introduction of 40 new dealers, the Rotax program was catapulted onto the national stage, not that it had not been doing well previously, but there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the previous management of the program. We opened up the doors to many who had the doors closed to them as dealers in the past and were able to bring there clients into the Rotax program.
EKN: Getting back to the trackside aspect of the business again, you are working with other facilities such as the Palm Beach International Raceway karting course. Tell us a little about that situation.
GL: We have attended PRI Trade Show for three years now and the highlight of our PRI experience came this past December when the new president of PBIR - Jason Rittenberry - sat down with us late Sunday afternoon and expressed an interest to change the management team that he had at the karting center. Within three weeks, Jason and I struck a deal where we took over the PBIR karting property on January 15. We are now established there with a company called Momentum Racing - a full service karting property. Within the second week there, it turned a profit quickly - even with our startup costs - and has continued to turn in a profit each month.
Our great honor at that point was to take over the contract with the Florida Winter Tour and host two weekends of the series. At the conclusion of the event, the promoter Bill Wright had stated that it was one of the most successful karting events he had ever hosted. We were very proud to be part of that with the infrastructure and the staff we bring to the table. We feel we have a solid product in terms of experience for any regional or national race that wants to bring their program to our property. Palm Beach has proven that it is not just a fluke in South Bend that we can execute and do the kinds of things that make for a very successful event. Now we will continue to operate with Palm Beach for the next three years, where we manage the property and are responsible for the execution of the very same things that go on at our South Bend track.
EKN: MRP has had success at many other tracks around the country, including the Iron Rock Raceway in Texas. What other tracks have you worked with across the country that many are not aware of?
| MRP Motorsports operates the karting facility at Palm Beach International Raceway|
GL: Certainly, Iron Rock was a grassroots foundation. We started right at the get-go with them in order to help them develop the right program and the same business model we use at each of the tracks. The owners then decided to buy out our section of the project, which we were happy to pass on to them. Unfortunately, the city of Austin, Texas decided to take the property back one year prior to the conclusion of that contract. It was growing at a very successful rate and Iím sure at some point in the future they will resurface with a new facility.
A couple more recent success stories are working with Dan Andersenís group at Andersen Raceway in the Tampa Bay area. They have taken on the corporate/entertainment philosophy, the racing school, the race team for profit programs, as well as the Birel and Rotax product lines. They have been very successful with their launch, which came about a year and half ago, and itís been a very good run for them. A more recent one is the Carolina Motorsports Park with two very successful guys down there. They started in September of 2009 and they now have the Birel project, their corporate entertainment program, a Rotax Service Center and racing series, and they too are doing extremely well. Prior to them, we were associated with Miller Motorsports Park and helped them to do some of the kind of things they had envisioned in their very powerful property. They follow a lot of the same things that we do and it has been a great learning experience for both parties, sharing ideas and visiting the property while trying to fine-tune the sport of karting. Miller was one of the great success stories in 2009 as they had not been offered the opportunity to be a Rotax Service Center and dealer, yet they were our number one dealer for Rotax that year. It all ties in together as a nice package.
EKN: An interesting part of your resume is the aspect of being an author. You write regular columns for National Kart News and have turned them into a book ďPassion or Profit - The Business of KartingĒ. Give us a quick synopsis of the publication.
GL: In brief, itís sort of a testimonial to all the mistakes I have made over the last 25 years in karting (laughing). So if I were to do it all over again, here are the things I would recommend to a new track owner or an owner looking rehabilitate his facility. Itís all with the idea of - first, you have to serve the customer - and in order to serve the customer you are going to have to make a change. A change in the physical plant, to show the appearance of change, a change in the personal that are operating the property for you, and then a change in the infrastructure as far as the facility, all the things that people need and want. Invariably, how great of a job you might do on any given property, there is always something left undone.
So when you get the big things - like clean bathrooms, a great safety record at your property, pleasant surroundings and building a fun-filled atmosphere - when you get those major projects completed and you look back thinking youíve done a great job, thereís always a humbling moment. It happened to me just this last weekend, a lady came to me on Memorial Day weekend and she said we forgot to play the national anthem. There is always something that leaves you with a challenge.
The whole idea of the monthly columns and the book was the help others interested into getting into the sport, being a business person, how you get started and some of the things to do. Here is a textbook of the kinds of things that customers are looking for and the types of things as managers are looking to do in order to do a better job. One of the things you alluded to was how we grow the sport. I have a very strong commitment and conviction to that. I spend our advertising budget with local television or local media in order to help grow at the grassroots. Ultimately, some of those kids are going to be the next Sage Karam or the next IndyCar driver who will be highlighted as having their experience in karting. For us, our whole motivation is to spread the base and reach the public about karting, along with being an avenue for parents to bond with their youngsters. There is not a week that goes by that someone doesn't stop by the track to say what a great time and what great memories they have at the track during those years. That is one of the things we can do as managers is try and spread that message, getting it at the grassroots level and have it grow from the bottom up as opposed to try and dictate it from the top down.
| Members of MRP Motorsport celebrate the 2003 Shifter Kart Illustrated Team of the Year award|
EKN: Do you use the experiences you encountered with your children on and off the track and apply them to help your past and current customers?
GL: Without a doubt. I made all the mistakes as a Junior dad in terms of ranting and raving along the sidelines with some embarrassing moments in my life. Thatís another part of what I write about in the book. The things we see parents doing to this day and how the frustration factor is of a parent is a common occurrence. We try to develop an atmosphere at our property that defuses that, trying to bring the parent full-circle and try to teach them on how to handle situations better.
EKN: Looking back over the years, what would you consider to be the top-three achievements or goals that you have reached in karting thus far?
GL: Certainly, one of the highest goals of what we achieved was Team of the Year (Shifter Kart Illustrated - 2003). Chris and Tim worked extremely hard, the team worked extremely hard together to accomplish that. Everything came together like the perfect storm that year. Getting the opportunity to become the Rotax distributor is certainly very high on our list. The success with the many new dealers and new participants who we have been able to bring into the Rotax family over the last 18 months has been a great honor, and certainly financially rewarding as well. Finally, having been able to take over the Palm Beach project. It gives us the ideal scenario as a family to spend the summer in Michigan and the winter in Florida. It gives us the total year-round experience we want to offer our clients and many would like to go South with their kids during the off-season.
EKN: What are three things you would like to accomplish in the future?
GL: Those are sort of secret projects (laughing). I do have my dream list, and let me say weíre not done. The thing that we are looking to do is try and help the karting market, before we retire, find some leadership similar to what goes on in Europe. As difficult as the American market is and as broad of a base it is, to find an acceptable person that can be the leader and help manage the karting projects throughout the country. Avoiding the duplicity of racing dates and complicating the schedules so it makes it less difficult for the customers to pick and chose, or that we overload the schedule so much that we then start making karting look smaller than it really is.
A classic case in point is that you had a racing going on in Phoenix a couple weeks ago and then you had a race going on in California at the same time. Both are trying to attract the traveling racer - the high budget racer - and both wound up with pretty dismal results. We need more careful planning and we need to work together, as the sanctioning bodies and the organizers can help ensure that our local tracks are going to do well. If our local tracks do well, then our big national events will be success because we have been able to grow the farm team.
EKN: Please be sure to keep us update on the future projects and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
GL: It was a pleasure and itís great to have your support. We enjoy seeing you come down to our facilities and watching your family grow while supporting the things we do.