Interview with Bryan Sperber, President of Phoenix International Raceway
Bryan Sperber, President of Phoenix International Raceway (PIR), is an award-winning business executive who has been overseeing the strategic vision and operational management of Arizona’s premier motorsports venue since 2002. PIR hosts events throughout the year, most notably two weekends of NASCAR racing, including the elite Sprint Cup Series.
Mr. Sperber spoke recently with Becca Gladden of CareerThoughts.com to discuss the challenges and rewards of his profession, the career path that brought him to Phoenix, and his advice for young people facing career decisions today.
Q. I want to start off with a basic question: What exactly is a race track president and what does your job entail?
A. We oversee the whole business behind racing at the venue. It’s really everything from dealing with the sanctioning bodies to the local community, marketing, finance, the physical plant itself – anything and everything that goes into running the business and hosting an event.
Q. Are you basically what would be the equivalent of a CEO at a hospital or in another industry?
A. Yes, that’s probably fair. We do run the business. Anything that really impacts the business behind the event is something that usually ends up requiring some direction.
Q. When you were growing up, did you think to yourself, “I want to be a race track president?” Tell me a little bit about what you studied in high school and college and the career path that took you to where you are today.
A. I originally wanted to go into international affairs, so I studied that area all the way up through college to my senior year. My senior year, I kind of got excited about the business of sports and decided to make a change in direction. So, that last year, I did a complete 180 and left the international affairs area of study and moved into communications. Upon graduation, I went out to try to find a job in sports. I knocked on a lot of doors, like every other college graduate, and was fortunate enough that there was an opportunity at International Speedway Corporation (ISC) in Daytona. That was in 1990. I just pestered them until finally they gave up and hired me.
Q. What was your first job with ISC?
A. I was the national sales manager for the publications department. At that time, we produced racing programs and other publications for three tracks – Daytona, Talladega, and Darlington – and I handled all the advertising, race-day distribution, and sales for the race programs for all of those events, including the Daytona 500.
Q. When you moved out to Phoenix, did you come for the job that you have now or did you work your way up at PIR?
A. As I mentioned, I started at ISC in 1990 and I’ve had a number of different jobs within the organization. For a few years, in fact, I oversaw our national sponsorship portfolio. Then, in 1997, I was fortunate enough to be asked to go up to Watkins Glen (NY) and take over the position of president at that great facility. I was there for about five years in that role and in 2002 had the opportunity to come to Phoenix to be president of PIR. It was a great opportunity for us and I jumped at the chance.
Q. Most people think of a race track as hosting big NASCAR races, like PIR does twice a year. But, what goes on at the track the rest of the year, not just in terms of events, but behind the scenes? What do you and your staff do the rest of the year when you’re not hosting an event?
A. People tend to believe that the week of the race, we just throw open the gates and it all comes together. In truth, I’ve found that to be able to properly execute a NASCAR Sprint Cup race is about an 18-month cycle. You really have to be working on these events way out in advance, sometimes even longer than 18 months. Each area of our business – whether it’s sales and marketing or operations – there is just so much planning and preparation that goes into these events. Even in the times of the year that we are in between races, you might think, ‘Well, there’s not much going on,’ but we are oftentimes extremely busy. In fact, there are some cases where we are more busy in between races and during the weeks leading up to the event than we are actually during the event.
Q. What types of skills do you think a person needs to possess to excel as a track president the way you have? Is it mainly the finance and budget knowledge, the communication skills – I’m sure there are a variety of assets that you need. Maybe you can tell me what you think your strongest skills are that have led to you winning some awards here in Arizona for the great job you are doing at PIR.
A. I think anyone in a position like mine comes to it from different points of view and experiences. People with a strong background in finance or management could be successful. We’re at a time right now in our sport where, really, what we do is sports entertainment. The role really is about being the driving force in terms of entertaining our customers. Given the background that I’ve had in marketing and sales, it’s been really helpful to be able to try to provide some strategic direction for the organization and how we move forward to be the best that we possibly can be in terms of entertaining our guests. From my perspective, at this point in time, having a background in marketing, public relations, promotions, and sponsorship sales have been really helpful.
Q. You’ve talked a little bit about the challenges of the job and how busy you are year-round and all of the roles you have to fill. What are some of the perks of being a race track president?
A. What we do is a lot of fun and being able to be in the fun business is really great. The staff that I’m privileged to work with makes coming to the office a lot of fun, so that is a huge perk for me. In this position, you get to meet a lot of interesting people – the drivers themselves, the team owners, crew chiefs, and NASCAR officials are some of the best folks on the planet. They are just really warm and friendly and I don’t know that you can say that about every sport, but they are just really a pleasure to work with. We also get quite a few special guests at our events, ranging from celebrities in Hollywood, music and television to elected officials and all sorts in between. Being able to meet a lot of interesting people has been a lot of fun over the years.
Q. Is there someone that you’ve met or maybe an experience that really stands out as one of those ‘wow’ moments?
A. I think when we were able to host Eddie Van Halen and his son for the weekend a number of years ago, that was pretty exciting for me. I grew up playing guitar and idolizing Eddie Van Halen as a guitarist and to have a chance to meet him was a real thrill.
Q. I would not have suspected that you would say Eddie Van Halen, but that’s awesome.
A. Yes, I was in a heavy metal band.
Q. Do you still jam out?
A. A little bit. My musical tastes have evolved, so it’s not quite the heavy metal genre, although I still like the songs from the ’80s. The bands back then were great.
Q. When you were a kid, or even as a college student or young adult, what’s the best career advice you got and who did it come from?
A. I had a professor that was in administration years ago who really reinforced to me that you have to really know your stuff. I think the line that he used was, “Look, with my connections or relationships, it can open a door for you, but you have to stay in the room.” I thought that was really great, because a lot of my peers back then thought it was all about connections and who you knew and all that sort of thing. That can be helpful but, at the end of the day, you really have to have some chops and know your business. If you don’t, that will come to light pretty soon and those connections won’t help you at that point.
Q. If you were giving career advice to someone in your family or a young person who’s trying to make some career choices right now, what would be your best advice?
A. I think it’s to pursue something you love. In any job, there are long hours and some bad days that come along with the good, and if you don’t really enjoy what you are doing, that can be really tough. If you love what you’re doing, it keeps you motivated and keeps you excited about turning the page and seeing what lies ahead. Fortunately, for me, I have had a great career in a sport that I really love and working with people that I enjoy. Every day has been a blessing.
Q. Race weekend at PIR is coming up so quickly. It’s hard to believe that the NASCAR season is about to start. Tell me a little bit about what’s new at PIR this season that fans might not be aware? How excited are you for the new Gen-6 race car and all the things coming up in 2013?
A. The season kicking off is really exciting. When the cars get going in Daytona in any given year, it always kind of gets my blood pumping, but the fact that we have the new race car makes it even more exciting. I am really looking forward to seeing how those cars perform at Daytona and then here the week after. In terms of the new wrinkle that we have, which we are really, really excited about, it’s playing host to the first-ever US appearance of the NASCAR Toyota Mexico Series. It’s something that we’ve been talking to NASCAR about since 2011 and the fact that we are only a few weeks away is really starting to sink in. We are really proud and excited to host what I think is going to be an amazing race and will entertain the fans here locally, those that travel in from around the country, and fans that come from Mexico just to see this event. We’re pretty fired up about it.
Q. That is going to be a really exciting event and hopefully something that will keep coming back to PIR year after year.
A. I hope so. We are really optimistic about it. The Toyota Mexico drivers are pretty fired up about it. I don’t think there is going to be a lot of riding around – these guys really want to win this race badly. There should be some pretty exciting action.