RGR Sport was a big success in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Q&A: Speed Group flat out behind-the-scenes in racing business

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Sometimes it’s worth taking a look at operations in motorsports that are behind the scenes and making waves, One of those is Speed Group, a business and driver development/management, digital media, marketing & sponsorship and logistics group, which has seemingly been all over the map in recent weeks and particularly, over the last year.

The business team foundation was rooted among longtime friends and motorsports veterans Toni Calderon, James Hinchcliffe and David Martinez, who a decade ago all worked together on Gerry Forsythe’s Formula Atlantic team. Calderon was in the PR side of the game before his career evolved, while Hinchcliffe and Martinez were drivers in Atlantics then.

Hinchcliffe has carried the torch in IndyCar the last few years while Martinez has become a solid, steady driver coach. Hinchcliffe won this weekend in Long Beach.

Some of the other key individuals the company has worked with include Esteban Gutierrez, who made his FIA Formula E Championship debut earlier this month in Mexico City, Ricardo Gonzalez, who was both owner/driver of the RGR Sport team in the FIA World Endurance Championship (Gonzalez was also the 6 Hours of Mexico City race promoter), and Will Owen, a talented up-and-comer from the open-wheel world who made his proper sports car debut last week at Long Beach for PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports (filled in for Jose Gutierrez, finished fifth overall with Tom Kimber-Smith in 35-car field) and whose primary effort this year is with United Autosports in the European Le Mans Series. Force India test driver Alfonso Celis Jr., young sports car driver Theo Bean and the DE Force Racing team in USF2000 are also Speed Group clients.

We caught up with Calderon (pictured above, right) for a look behind-the-scenes at what Speed Group does and how they’ve progressed, with other quick quotes from Hinchcliffe, Martinez, Gonzalez and Owen.


MST: Toni, from your perspective, you’ve advanced your career from more of just PR into the driver development/business development side of the sport. What led to this transition and how have you been able to navigate from that point?

Toni Calderon: “Well it was just a natural transition, I started just as almost everyone in the commercial side of motorsports doing PR because that’s the best way to get your foot in the door, but as we all know this is a small industry so you quickly start making connections and developing relationships and you start figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and what can be done better in the industry. For me and for Speed Group, it’s always been about trying to always keep a very high standard with what we do and who we get involved with, and to try to always keep a very personal relationship with all our clients.”

MST: When Speed Group began, what were some of the original goals and expectations? How has the company/organization grown as quickly/rapidly as it has?

TC: “When Hinch, David and I came up with the idea of starting a company like Speed Group we were young and just getting our careers started and it was really just us thinking about what would be helpful to have at that point of our careers, especially for David and Hinch as drivers. So we always remembered that and many years later when we finally got the company off the ground we wanted to make sure that we had a “one stop shop” where a driver could come into it and have support in every aspect of his/her career, whether it was career management, coaching, or PR & Marketing, basically a company that can let drivers just focus on driving and we take care of everything else.

MEXICO CITY – NOVEMBER 09: David Martinez drives his #7 INDECK Forsythe Championship Racing Panoz DP-01 during practice for the Champ Car World Series Grand Premio Tecate on November 9, 2007 at Autodromo Hermonos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“We’ve had a great three years so far since we first launched Speed Group, our growth has really mostly just come from word of mouth, we don’t spend a lot of time looking for clients to be honest, but it’s been very gratifying to have people coming to us asking for help, and at the same time we’ve been careful about how we grow to make sure we never dilute our services or the personal attention we can give to our clients.”

MST: What have been some of your best successes as an organization so far? What have you learned from the setbacks/challenges?

TC: “There’s a few! Being able to be a part of the day to day careers of young drivers like Will Owen, Jose Gutierrez and Theo Bean has been a very gratifying experience, we’ve been able to be a part of their growth and have helped advanced their careers into sports cars with some very good teams so this is particularly something i’m very proud of, 2017 will be a big year for all of them.

“Another huge accomplishment was helping Ricardo Gonzalez launch RGR Sport last year, it was a very exciting project which we got to be involved with from day 1 and basically we helped him start it from scratch and achieved huge success with it. And of course being able to sign guys like Esteban Gutierrez and Alfonso Celis who are now at the top of the ladder just makes it that more exciting because we are basically covering almost every level of racing now.

DE Force Racing is in USF2000 this year. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“One of the biggest challenges for us has definitely been being able to cover a lot of different series all around the world, this year we will be involved with Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E, WEC, European Le Mans Series, World Series V8, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda Championship, USF2000 Championship, IMSA WeatherTtech Championship, IMSA Prototype Challenge, NACAM Formula 4 and some karting! So you just need to be able to keep it all organized and that definitely gets tricky some times, but every race weekend we learn and we get better at it.”

MST: People always look at James Hinchcliffe as the comedic force of IndyCar but he has to be pretty smart from a business side as well. What would you say is the key to Hinch’s business acumen and how he has this portion/component of the sport as part of his career?

TC: “Well one thing I can tell you is that Hinch is even smarter than he is funny, and even though he’s still young he has been around for a very long time, and knows the ins-and-outs of the sport just as good or better than anyone else in the IndyCar paddock. From day one of his career he had a very clear idea in his mind that he needed to make a name for himself and stand out, and he always stuck with that and it’s obviously paid off hugely, also winning races and being one of the fastest IndyCar drivers helps! He is just hugely dedicated to the sport both in and out of the track, and is definitely a role model and example to follow for all our young drivers.”

FORT WORTH, TX – AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda speaks during a media conference before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

MST: Mexico has long been a hotbed for motorsport but in recent years has had a resurgence. You guys have worked with a number of Mexican drivers and key stakeholders. What can you identify as the reason(s) why it took off how it has?

TC: Well it’s a combination of timing, the economy, and cycles of interest among the decision makers and sponsors in Mexico. But more importantly it’s about having local heroes, obviously CART and Champ Car were very popular the last decade in Mexico when at some point we had up to five Mexican drivers, but then that slowed down once we didn’t have any more local drivers in there.

“It’s the same with F1 and WEC; as soon as we started having Mexican drivers there the interest immediately picked up and now we have both races in Mexico. And lastly now you can see it with Formula E. I had the chance to be with Esteban Gutierrez at the Mexico City ePrix which was his debut in the series, having him be part of it was a huge deal he helped make the event the best attended Formula E race ever, so that just goes to show you how important it is to have someone that the local crowd can cheer for.”

The podium at Mexico City, promoted and won by RGR Sport. Photo: RGR Sport

MST: The RGR Sport story was one of the more remarkable ones last year as a new team built from the ground up. Can you provide a bit of the backstory into how it came together and the logistics/prep work it took to make it happen?

TC: “It all started with Ricardo and I having the crazy idea of bringing a WEC race to Mexico City, and eventually Ricardo becoming the promoter of the 6 Hours of Mexico. After that deal was done we knew that having a Mexican team would be a huge help to the promotion of the event, but just like the race, if we didn’t do it ourselves then nobody was going to do it, so we just made the decision to go for it and start our own team.

“We’ve had a very good relationship with Onroak and OAK Racing for many years so the first big piece of the puzzle was to partner with them so they could help us with our operations and engineering, after that we made sure that we were able to sign Bruno Senna who had always been in our minds from the minute we started with this project.

“Once we knew we would have a very strong crew and Bruno as a teammate, we took our time to figure out who should be our third driver and we did a lot of research and I talked to a lot of drivers to make sure we could find someone that not only would be good on track obviously, but that would fit in with the concept of our team. Eventually after meeting Filipe (Albuquerque) at the Roar at Daytona I knew that he was the right guy and we went ahead and signed him.

Albuquerque, Gonzalez, Senna won on debut in Silverstone. Photo: RGR Sport

“Partnering with OAK Racing, Bruno, and Filipe, were the best three decisions we could’ve made. Another big concept that we wanted to make sure we applied with RGR was to be as open, carefree, and fan friendly as possible and this is where Speed Group really came in. We definitely achieved that because we went from being an unknown team to one of the most popular in the WEC almost overnight, and had a lot of fun doing it.

“Ricardo and I had a list of things we’ve always wanted in a race team, and basically we were able to do all of them with RGR. The rest is history, we had an almost perfect year and hopefully soon we’ll be able to come back and do it all again.”

MST: You’ve had a relationship with Juncos Racing for a bit of time. How inspirational has the Juncos story been as Ricardo’s grown and developed the team to where now he’ll be in IndyCar?

TC: “Working with Ricky and his team has been a great experience, he was one of our first clients and we’ve developed a very close relationship and have been super proud to see how much they’ve grown. It’s almost like a family, it’s a very cool feeling when a client has so much success and you can support them in every step of the way, no doubt being in IndyCar will be a big challenge but we’ve already been able to help him out a bit and we are very excited to where that relationship will lead for us.”

And from those others involved with Speed Group:

James Hinchcliffe: “What I think we are all most proud about is that Speed Group has become exactly what we envisioned it to be 10 years ago sitting in an Applebee’s in Texas! In fact, it’s even better than we imagined. What the company has done is such a short time is pretty amazing and a testament to how dedicated everyone in the company is. As we’ve grown, we’ve regrouped and restructured a few times to keep on top of what we need to provide for our clients. I think that the ability to recognize when those changes were needed, and the agility to respond quickly, have been a huge part of Speed Group’s success. This is the same mentality that we continue to implement to make sure we are staying on top of this constantly evolving environment.”

David Martinez: “Speed group is something very special for me. Apart from being a great one-stop shop for aspiring race car drivers, we’re a big family we’re new everyone works as a group to improve the quality of our team, including our clients. There is a sad point in a driver’s life when you get to hang the gloves and stop racing professionally which has been my case. Being part of Speed Group has given me the opportunity to relive all the excitement through our young drivers. It’s unreal but when they have success, it really feels like we’re in the car with them. I know for sure that if I had support from a company like Speed Group when I started, perhaps I would still be racing.”

Ricardo Gonzalez: “When i’m not at the track I’m usually completely focused on my business so it’s important to have a good group of people behind me looking out for my motorsports career, its a good feeling to know that they have your back and you can just show up a the track and drive basically.  Working with Toni and his team at Speed Group for many years now has been a very beneficial experience, we’ve basically grown together from racing GTC cars in the US, to winning Le Mans and the world championship in WEC, and eventually starting our own LMP2 team and promoting a race, it’s been quite an adventure!”

Owen, now of United Autosports, has transitioned to sports cars. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Will Owen: “We’d be absolutely lost without Speed Group, and the combination of Toni, David and James. Everyone there helps with management, media and bringing it all together, because you need all of that to be the complete package. It’s not just that. Teaching me about the sport, how to do the media stuff correctly. They’re there to help me and guide me with what they want to do. It’s super important for the busy weeks like that.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”