News Column

Fast Track Business

September 2002, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

John H. Sullivan

Adrian Fernandez is one businessman who never carries his briefcase in his company car. It won’t fit. Although the vehicle is valued at well above $500,000, once he slides into its single molded seat there’s barely room enough for a business card.

Mr. Fernandez drives in the Championship Auto Racing Team (CART) circuit. A typical day at work involves maneuvering his 800-horsepower car at speeds of up to 230 miles per hour on some of the most difficult racetracks in the world. But that’s only half his story. Mr. Fernandez is the only CART driver who owns his own team. Fernandez Racing’s $20 million annual budget supports 50 mechanics, engineers, and other crewmembers. The team’s other driver is Shinji Nakano of Osaka, Japan.

Although the CART circuit and its two dozen drivers receive less U.S. television exposure than the NASCAR stock car series, it has a significant fan base worldwide. The 20-race CART schedule includes 10 U.S. races as well as others in Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, and England. Races are run on road and street courses in addition to oval tracks.

Last year the circuit generated $70 million in revenue, including $47 million from fees paid to hold races, $12 million from sponsors (paid directly to CART, not received by individual teams), and $5 million for television rights.

CART car electronics and data collection systems are more sophisticated than those on most light airplanes. Their aerodynamic design produces so much downward air pressure that at high speeds, CART cars could theoretically run upside down on an inverted track.

Mr. Fernandez’s prowess with such machines – he can accelerate from 0 to 180 mph and brake to a stop again in 15 seconds – has led him to wins on almost every continent where CART competes.

“I had a big dream when I was a kid,” says Mr. Fernandez, who is 37 and lives near Phoenix.

Born in Mexico City, Mr. Fernandez began motorbike racing at age 8, switching to racecars eight years later. With his father’s backing, he rapidly moved up in car classes, winning “rookie of the year” titles in every one. At 22, Mr. Fernandez gambled and went to England to learn all he could about race driving, cars, and teams. There he worked as a mechanic, taught driving, and raced. Returning to Mexico, he raced for two years in Formula 3 cars, which are less powerful than CART and Formula 1 cars, and won Mexico’s championship.

In 1992 he came to the United States to race in the Firestone Indy Lights series, a stepping-stone to CART racing. He made his mark, winning four races and rookie of the year honors, and setting a rookie record for most laps led.

Mr. Fernandez’s skill and consistency quickly brought him to the CART circuit, where he made his 1993 debut in Long Beach, California, alongside legendary drivers Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi.

Now in his 10th season on the circuit, with 150 race starts, Mr. Fernandez is one of the most experienced drivers in the league. In the 2000 season he led in laps and miles completed and was named “Athlete of the Year” in Mexico. This year, fellow drivers elected him chairman of the Championship Drivers Association, which oversees driver safety.

Partner Tom Anderson explains why Mr. Fernandez got the job: “He’s business-minded and maybe has a bigger perspective than those who are drivers only. He’s well rounded, one of the senior drivers now, and not afraid to speak his mind.”

His success has enabled him to win support from key sponsors. One of Fernandez Racing’s anchor sponsors is Tecate beer, produced by the Latin American beverage and retail giant FEMSA. A newer sponsor is Telmex, Mexico’s largest communications company. In addition to gaining the company’s financial backing, Mr. Fernandez has developed a friendship with its longtime chairman, Carlos Slim.

“Some people think I am lucky to have the sponsors I do. But it’s not luck. It takes a lot of work,” says Mr. Fernandez, who credits his longtime Tecate support to a presentation he made to company executives years ago.

In fact, his team’s distinctive color scheme is the coincidental result of corporate sponsorships.

“Tecate wanted red on my car,” Mr. Fernandez explains. “Later, Quaker State said if we didn’t have green on the car, it wasn’t interested in sponsorship. Telmex joined us later, and their color is white.”

Put them together and you have, as every Fernandez Racing fan knows, the colors of the Mexican flag.

With support from sponsors and a commitment from Honda, whose racecars he prefers, Mr. Fernandez set out to build his team before the start of the 2001 racing season. Mr. Anderson, a well-respected and successful racing team manager, was quick to join as a partner and managing director.

“I’ve known Adrian since he raced in Indy Lights, and he’s always represented himself in a 100 percent professional way,” says Mr. Anderson. “People who have developed as he has have a respect for the entire scope of the business side of racing, and these guys make pretty good partners.”

Mr. Fernandez says running his own team is tougher than he’d imagined.

“You have to find the right people and then let them do their job. Getting the right people is really the key.”

There are two other Mexican drivers on the CART circuit: Team Rahal’s Michel Jourdain Jr., whose sponsors are Office Depot and Gigante, and Mario Dominguez, whose major sponsor is the food company Herdez.

Mr. Fernandez, however, is commonly regarded as the dean of current Mexican drivers. His popularity was undoubtedly a factor in the decision to hold races in Monterrey, Mexico, this year and last – both of which were very well attended – and in Mexico City on November 17.

The Fernandez team is based in Indianapolis, but Mr. Fernandez does much of his business from his Phoenix home office.

Physical conditioning is a major part of his schedule. Few people appreciate the G forces and muscle-pounding that drivers endure during a two-hour race on a track filled with tight corners and curves. Mr. Fernandez lifts weights, works on hand-and-eye coordination exercises, and runs – sometimes up the hills near his home. Cardiovascular training is critical, because a CART driver’s heart rate has been found to hit 90 percent of maximum during stressful parts of a race.

“A lot of people think they work really hard, but they haven’t scratched the surface,” says Mr. Fernandez.

He says a balanced life is necessary to maintaining motivation, which is a key to winning, and credits his purchase of a Lear jet last year with helping him keep things in perspective.

“With sponsorship appearances, testing, and racing I was spending 230 to 260 hours a year in the air. I was getting very tired of flying,” he says.

Though he travels as much as he ever did, he can now skip the delay and fatigue of commercial airport terminals and spend more time at his Southwest-style home. There the racing theme stops at his office door. A television feature on Mr. Fernandez earlier this year noted his impressive collection of Mexican art.

His on-track success continues. He won the pole position in two of the first four races of the 2002 season.

“We’re on schedule with the plan he laid out when he started the team,” says Mr. Anderson.


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