The serious business of racing
Growing up not far from the famous Daytona International Speedway, Bob Johnson always had a taste for racing. By the time he was named Daytona Beach Managing Partner, he was “seriously hooked” on the sport, after serving a number of motorsport clients. Today, as owner of Action Ex-press Racing, the serious business of racing runs in his blood.
Johnson learned the business side of racing serving clients such as NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway during his EY days. He also completed several special projects for those same clients, including consulting with racing teams that needed financial assistance. What he saw surprised him.
“Racing teams do many things extraordinarily well. Budgeting, however, is not always one of them,” he says with a grin. After retiring from the firm in 1994, Johnson went into private practice, where his reputation grew as a “go-to guy” for racing teams seeking financial advice.
Along the way, Johnson became heavily involved in managing the finances of Brumos Racing, one of the best-known teams running what’s known as Daytona Prototype cars in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series. It was a job Johnson found both exhilarating and exasperating.
“Racers have a common goal. They want the latest, best and most expensive things they think will help them go faster. That’s not always the case. I had to say no a lot. I wasn’t extremely popular then, and I’m still not today,” he laughs.
At the end of the 2009 racing season, Brumos Racing made the strategic decision to stop operating one of its two Daytona Prototype-series cars. For Johnson, it created an opening to step up and buy the car and its team.
“We were about to lose a Daytona Prototype team with which I had been very involved. It really wasn’t that difficult a decision for me to assume ownership,” he notes. In 2010, Johnson re-launched the team under the Action Express Racing banner.
Immediately, the Action Express team began preparing for the grueling Rolex 24 at Daytona race, the first, biggest and most difficult event of the season. Johnson first had to quickly assemble a team of drivers. Then, using a leased chassis and a brand-new engine design, “we went out and actually won the race, much to everyone’s surprise, including mine,” he beams.
Johnson is quick to acknowledge that much of the credit for the win is due to the foundation built by the Brumos team (which happened to win the race in 2009). Nevertheless, other teams have been trying (unsuccessfully) for decades to win this particular race.
On your mark, get set … budget!
Similar to accounting, running a racing team takes discipline, precision and consistency, according to Johnson. “I’m not saying my background is the thing that makes us successful on the track,” he remarks. “The one thing that I do take credit for is getting us to the track and making sure we have the sponsors and the budget to get to the next race and the one after that.”
Unfortunately, Johnson says, there are some teams that start the year but do not finish because they run out of money. “You have to be able to make payroll, pay the bills and do all the things that any business has to do.”
A strong finish
In addition to Action Express Racing, Johnson has recently launched another motoring venture, Coyote Production Management. He and racing legend Gary Nelson have joined forces to build their own line of Daytona Prototypes under their Coyote Cars brand. Johnson claims that while his cars are “top performance,” they are significantly less expensive than the competition.
“We mainly wanted to bring costs down to make it more affordable for more people to get involved in the sport,” he says.
Johnson notes that racing truly is a team sport, and he takes great pride in every member of his team (which includes his sons Keith and Kris). Johnson also takes great pride in being an EY alumnus, something he calls a “badge of honor.”
“Being an EY alum means having relationships with people over the years and around the world that you can reach out to,” says Johnson. “It’s another great, winning team.”
In the 1970s, Bob Johnson hired a recent University of Florida grad by the name of Chuck Eldridge. While Johnson continued on to become Office Managing Partner of the Daytona Beach office and eventually formed Action Express Racing, Eldridge would be named the US firm’s first National Director of Recruiting. In 1996 he left EY and is now Senior Client Partner with Korn Ferry International. The two alumni have stayed in touch for nearly 40 years and through that relationship, Korn Ferry became a major sponsor for Action Express Racing for the GRAND-AM Grand Prix of Atlanta at Road Atlanta this past April.