If that tidbit piques your interest, then you’ll definitely enjoy our interview with Orange County RC Raceway’s outspoken owner, Robert Black. What does he think about modern tracks, today’s pro’s, and the competition RC scene? Read on to find out.
Robert “RB” Black is an entrepreneur, a track owner, a visionary and voice for the common racer. RB is known for his bold, opinionated views and mind-set, which has a great deal to do with his success. He continues to challenge the standards in the industry and is constantly looking for ways to improve his customers’ experience even if it goes against traditional practices. There are a lot of rumors, speculation, and secondhand stories surrounding this charismatic person, but are they true? We are going to peel back the onion and get to know this controversial personality who is changing the racing community and find out what his likes, dislikes, and opinions on everything from ROAR to the pros, to the novice racers walking through his front door of his famous OCRC Raceway in Huntington Beach, CA.
RC Car Action: Tell us about your background, with your personal life and business.
Robert Black: I have an office, still do. It’s about a mile from the old SoCal (Raceway). I drove by one day and saw a checkered flag and didn’t know what it was. I saw that it was RC and decided to just take a look. It was the first time in my life that I had seen this. It was about 15 years ago. So I went in and took a look at it and I thought that it was just something cool. The very next day I went in there and bought a truck and started driving it around the track and breaking it every three or four laps. It was very frustrating, definitely not as easy as it looked. I got a little better after a few weeks then got my son Nick in to it. I think he was 11 or 12 at the time. Bought him a truck and we started racing on Friday nights there. Then I went from just Fridays, to Wednesdays and Fridays, then added Sundays. Then Nick kind of fell out of it after about a year or so when he got in to high school. I lost my race buddy. Ever so often he’d come and race with me, but I stuck with it. There was just something about it. The people at the track were really cool. It was just something really fun to do.
So it was just a hobby at that point?
Purely a hobby at that point. Then one time on a Thursday, I went over to SoCal to practice and there was paper all over the front windows. I looked in and it was empty with no one in there and it should have been open. There wasn’t a sign on the door that said, “Closed,” nothing.
Why did you have such a big desire to open up a place?
Because it was like losing a part of me for three nights a week for three years. The only other track at the time was Pegasus Hobbies and that was 40 miles from me. There was nothing else. There was Revelation Raceway and that made two outdoor tracks that weren’t ever taken care of very well.
So the time had come to make it happen?
When I first opened up, I was the only indoor track in Southern California. There was only one other indoor track in California and it was in Chico at A-Main. Since then there has been about 40 that have opened, and 30 that have closed. So the purpose was not only to hang out with my friends and play with my cars, but SoCal Raceway was the only thing I knew on how to run this sort of business. I knew and I had a company … business is business whether you’re selling ice cream or nuclear bombs. You have customers and you have to take care of your customers. The things that they did, I honestly modeled my business to be the exact opposite of what they did. The customer is paying for a track to be good all the time. Not good for an hour and then [expletive] because you are too lazy to take care of the track. Your hobby shop needs to be stocked with all different kinds of parts and enough to keep your customers racing. They don’t want to come, break an A-arm and be done for the night. So you have to invest money to fill your store. The lighting needs to be good, and the ambiance needs to be good. If you remember, SoCal had a big block wall that separated the areas and you had little cliques. Like the pro guys and us normal Joes on the other side and in the middle guys who talked to different people. It was a cliquey kind of thing. Even I had my eight guys who were my “boys” and we all sat in a row. “You don’t sit in my pit spot on a Wednesday night because that’s my pit spot.” Know what I mean? So I didn’t want that, but I made sure our pitting area is all together. The pit area is right next to the track so that everything is visible, just a good feel.
What do you think that magic formula is, at least for you? Base your business on club racing with an occasional big event?
Club racing is 90% of my business. Practice and club racing guys are 90% and the other 10% is big races. I never wanted to have more than two races a year, but we now have three a year: the Reedy Race, Surf City Classic and JConcepts Stock Nationals, and that’s it. We allow the traveling circuses to come in here — the JBR L (Jimmy Babcock Racing League), and the TNS (Top Notch Series)- but even those I limit because when I have one of those come in it screws up my Saturday guys. It’s strange, but I know who is going to be here. I’ve got Monday regulars, Tuesday regulars, Wednesday club racing guys and so forth. So when we see the non-regulars come in we try and treat them with respect and help them. We glue tires for them, we do soldering, just try to keep them on the track. I want them to be one of my Monday or Tuesday guys. Big races don’t make any money. They’re not big profit makers. They’re a giant headache. Ten days prior is absolute stress, everything is done the right way with painting and making sure you have the right stuff, and then you get your race entries and you have to pay your extra employees an extra four days making sure the track is done right. It’s expensive to have a big race. So we have three big events and one JBR L and TNS race as part of their series and I feel guilty about those. I’m disrupting my Saturday people. Just like some people go to church on Sundays, there are people who come here every Saturday with their families. There is a family that comes every Saturday. There’s six of them, they bring a crock pot, cook lunch on the pits every Saturday. That’s what they do and it’s part of their life.
So you’ve made a conscious decision to cater to the average racer at the expense of the pros?
Your club and practice people are so much more important than the pros and their opinions, or the team managers, manufacturers — I honestly haven’t made a lot of friends with those people. They are acquaintances and they know me and I think we have a mutual business respect. However, I don’t listen and I don’t cater to those folks because they are such a small part of my business. It’s not that they are less important as a customer. It’s just that they aren’t in the big picture financially and that’s what I look at since I want to be here tomorrow. So you have to look at the financial picture. If I listened to them and did what they wanted to do and they are the 1%… There are a lot of track owners who think they can just have the pros at their track — wrong. Without naming names, I can think of tracks that to the pros instead of someone who runs a business and they are completely separate things. There’s playtime on the track, and there’s work in the office. There’s a time to cut checks, pay bills — stacks of them — you have to separate them. S o, if I were to say one thing to a person thinking about opening up a track, is that you don’t cater to those guys. If there is a big race and you want direction for building a track, sure, talk to them. But, when they give you suggestions, really think about those decisions before you implement them. Just because a pro driver says he would like barstools instead of metal chairs, and you’re thinking $5,000 in chairs is going to bring in more racers, think again.
OCRC looks like it’s ready to hold a Nationals on any given night. Is that important to you, to always have a professional looking track, no matter who’s there?
I think we are very distinct. We are blowing the track off every 20 minutes, making sure the pipes are down, the lines painted and not just when we need to. Again, it’s about consistency, consistency. I think subliminally if you come to a track that isn’t consistent, you’ll be over it very fast. If it’s consistent, you’ve got something to shoot for. If you did a 22.5 second lap yesterday and now you’ve gotten it down to a 22.3, you can see you are getting better. It’s because you are getting better, not that the track has more grip on Wednesday versus Tuesday or you came at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, instead of 8 o’clock at night. Our track is pretty much the same every time you go out. I think subliminally people like that and appreciate that. I have really good customers that will pick up the blowers themselves and blow it because they know and they take care of it. That’s how everything is around here.
What do you think IFMAR and ROAR are doing wrong? What are they are doing right?
I’m not a fan of ROAR. However, I don’t think they are doing anything wrong per se. I do believe ROAR makes decisions too close to large events they are having. “This isn’t going to fly now. This isn’t going to apply to this race.” Way too close to the race time. For example: The EVO [1/8 style] wheel system that AKA has and JConcepts is developing and Pro-Line has [for 1/10 cars]. Boom, six weeks before the race, it turns out that EVO-style wheels can’t be used because they are illegal right now with ROAR. Now with that said, it’s good to have a governing body setting a standard. But I’m not a ROAR track and not affiliated with them, on purpose.
You use their rules as a guideline?
We use it as a guideline, which is not a bad thing.
You cherry pick what you need?
We use what we feel will work for our racers. ROAR represents a larger body. They cover the United States and Canada, so they have to have more rules. I do respect that. I’m only concerned about my customers. IFMAR has a lot of rules that wouldn’t really affect the racing. I think both governing bodies should look at their rulebooks and start crossing some stuff out. I’m pretty sure IFMAR has more guidelines to their racing than NASCAR, and I think that’s a problem. If you look at the ROAR rulebook, there are some rules that are so old and antiquated that they don’t even relate to now. Somebody needs to go in there and clean that stuff up. Make it a little easier for people to understand. With my guys, we check weight, because that will give you an advantage. Is your battery super charged? Yeah, you’re running a 17.5T motor, but I have to trust. I’m not taking apart motors and tech’ing them. I have to trust and believe. If you don’t, everybody is cheating. If you have a 17.5T SchuurSpeed, Orion or Trinity, it’s a 17.5T motor. You have to have an honor system among racers.
That’s never been an issue for you?
It’s never been an issue. No one has ever come off the drivers’ stand complaining about how someone is running some fast motor. Again, I’m talking about 99% of my customers. 1% might have an issue that I’m not doing a ROAR thing, but that 1% is not keeping my lights on and not my concern. Unfortunately, that 1% is the vocal minority. I’m good at saying, “Have a nice day.” Guess what, our lights are still on seven years later. Not a lot of tracks make it seven years and I just signed another five year lease. We’re fine. So I’m obviously not doing anything wrong telling my 1% to have a nice day and it doesn’t bother me if Ryan Cavalieri isn’t here every race night.
It’s obvious that you intentionally keep your track at a level that discourages the use of slick tires. Why?
One percent of RC drivers can actually drive with slicks. This sounds like a great idea, but nobody can drive them. Ryan Cavalieri, Steven Hartson, yes. But why make a track where slicks work at? Slicks are the hardest things to drive. Traction is often overrated. It can make your car slower too. There is definitely a middle ground. There are track owners that just turn the lights on, open up the hobby shop, then collect your $10 to go practice, and then at midnight they’re watering the track. The only time they look at the track is when they are watering it after everyone leaves. We spend a lot of time throughout the day making sure everything is just right for our customers.
To assume that RB is just another track owner would be a huge misjudgment. His track and style of racing is pushing the boundaries and getting a lot of attention from abroad. He isn’t making a lot of friends in the established racing hierarchy, but the respect he commands is there and it’s obvious that he challenges their authority. So many argue for change, but when it happens it often means a new way of thinking. Robert isn’t part of ROAR or IFMAR and doesn’t make any products, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t affect racers and the hobby. The hobby needs more people like RB, and his success is hard to argue.