Life in the Fast Lane
Monday, 20 June 2011 15:42
Written by David Schmeichel
Racer david richert is making his mark on the world stage.
Your typical race car narrative tends to follow a course of familiar twists and turns: A young gearhead spends his adolescence obsessed with engine parts, pit crews and speed, and within years is busy tearing up the track, hoping to land the one big break that’ll lead to top-tier success.
But the path to the pros isn’t always an easy straightaway, which explains why Manitoba-born David Richert has taken a slightly different tack while pursuing his ultimate goal of Formula One glory.
Though he’s racked up his share of victories on the track — including a recent series of strong showings in Austria and Italy earlier this year — Richert’s real focus is on winning the battle off the track, by using his business savvy and marketing acumen to position himself as the highest-profile racer in Canada.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do, because I really want to win on the race track,” says Richert, a 29-year-old Niverville native who believes race car driving is as much a business as it is a sport.
“But I want to win on the race track at the highest level, and the only way I can see myself (doing that) is to come up with the funding that will allow me to learn and progress through those initial levels.”
By industry standards, Richert was a bit of a late bloomer. Thoroughly uninterested in cars as a kid — “I didn’t know the difference between a two-stroke and a four-stroke engine; I couldn’t care less about that kind of stuff,” he admits — Richert didn’t catch the racing bug until the age of 17, when he saw the Australian Grand Prix on television.
“What drew me was the fact the cars were so fast — the fact that a human being had to try and control that vehicle at those speeds,” says Richert, who also admits that — as a kid, anyway — he’d sometimes check out the Molson Indy on TV, but only to see the crashes.
He spent the next few years scouring the internet for information related to Formula One racing (when he wasn’t hard at work cleaning pig pens or gathering chicken eggs at his parents’ farm, that is). Eventually, the newfound passion led him and a friend to their first real world race, watching the infield road course at the Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
The experience shook him to his very core — quite literally, in fact — and instilled in him a fierce respect for the skill and prowess required to control a Formula One car.
“I’ve always said that you could hate cars, but if you got to see a race in person, you’d be blown away by how fast these things can go,” says Richert.
“When you stand next to the race track and see a car coming at you at 330, 340 kilometres an hour, and just 50 metres before the corner, it hits the brake and goes down through six gears, you can literally hear the thumping of the downshifting in your chest when it goes by,” he continues.
“At Indianapolis, where there’s a concrete grandstand on one side and the big pit lane grandstands on the other, to hear a Formula One car come screaming through there doing 20,000 RPM’s, you can really only last one or two laps with the sound bouncing off before you have to put in ear plugs — or your brain will explode.”
When he returned home, Richert decided his best bet was to gain some experience racing go-karts — not the amusement park-style models, mind you, but those built specifically for racing. He aligned himself with the Manitoba Karting Association, whose members raced at the speedway in Gimli, and bought his first go-kart and trailer.
“My learning curve was very fast — it had to be, because starting at the age of 20 set me way behind what other drivers were doing,” he recalls. “Most of them started when they were six, seven, eight years old … I knew if I ever wanted a shot at racing Formula One, I was going to have to advance through the initial stages extremely fast.”
True to his word, Richert quickly graduated from his first set of wheels, a 5.5 Honda-powered kart, for a beefier two-stroke, 125 cc Rotax. He took Rookie of the Year honours two seasons in a row, and in the fall headed to a racing school outside Montreal, where he learned to drive an open-wheel, single-seater F1 car under the same team of mentors who’d trained Jacques and Gilles Villaneuve.
After that, he headed to a test session with a professional racing team in Savannah, Georgia, where — despite having less experience than his peers — he was deemed the racer with the most natural ability.
“In the span of a year and a half, I went from not ever racing anything to sitting in a high-performance Formula Renault race car, which is what I’m driving now,” says Richert.
“But I also realized it didn’t matter how fast you were on the track — it mattered more how much money you had, and whether you could afford to pay for your own racing. At that level, we’re not just talking $10,000 or $20,000, we’re talking about needing a quarter of a million to race the entire season in that kind of car.”
Luckily, Richert had an ace up his sleeve: a degree in marketing from the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. Armed with a distinct advantage in the realm of networking, he began beating the bushes in search of sponsorships and representation, and by 2008 had landed an invitation to the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, the only clean diesel-powered race series.
It was there that his philosophy began to pay off. Though Richert describes his on-track performance as “mediocre” (noting he intentionally hung back to avoid damages to his car, since racers are required to foot repair bills themselves), he did manage to win the Jetta TDI Cup Media Contest by drumming up more publicity — for both himself and the Volkswagen brand — than any other driver.
Richert’s reward was an all-expense-paid trip to Germany, where he was free to race without worrying about crash-damage collateral. He repeated the trip in 2009, this time to help launch the 2010 Golf and TDI Golf, after winning the Jetta event’s public relations contest for the second year in a row.
These days, Richert has plans to raise his profile even further, by expanding the breadth and scope of his brand through calculated corporate partnerships. Already, he’s one of only a few Canadian racers to make a name for himself on the international stage, and with a slate of appearances at prestigious events this spring and summer —including such world-famous tracks as Imola and Monza, where he’s racing for Team Torino Motorsport — he’s confident his skills in the boardroom and behind the wheel will empower him to a cross the finish line a winner.
“To me, that’s the biggest part of racing,” says Richert, whose tenacity recently led to a lucrative sponsorship agreement with local denim manufacturer Silver Jeans.
“It’s proof that if you can win off the track, you’ll get the chance to win on the track, as well.”