Q&A: A look at balancing apparel, driver coaching work in racing

Welk (far left) is working on several elements of business of racing. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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If you don’t make it in racing as a driver, there are plenty of other ways to stay involved with the sport. Many drivers who went from karting up the open-wheel ladder but made it short of IndyCar work in coaching and others have business ventures that see them in several layers of the sport.

The “layer” pun here is intentional to introduce Steve Welk, who was a star karter and a promising young driver out of Wisconsin. After moving out of driving, Welk’s carved a successful career in apparel with Styled Aesthetic (outfits and apparel in both the open-wheel and sports car worlds) and as a driver coach (Linear Sport) and spotter, working most notably with fellow Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz.

Telitz won last year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title with Team Pelfrey, and the two have moved up the ladder into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires this year thanks to support from Mazda. Welk also spots annually for Pippa Mann at the Indianapolis 500. This year, Telitz finished second in the Freedom 100, and Mann had her best result in six ‘500s of 17th in the 33-car field, moving forward from 28th in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda for Dale Coyne Racing.

We caught up with Welk – also jokingly known as “Swelk” when the Steve and Welk are combined – for a look into his life in the racing world. Similar behind-the-scenes business of racing stories we’ve chronicled in 2017 are linked here (JJRD on coaching, Speed Group on racing business development).

MotorSportsTalk: Explain the idea and build process behind doing an apparel company. Since you have a racing background, how important is it to ‘look the part’ from a branding and style standpoint?

Steve Welk: “The creation of Styled Aesthetic was about a year long process between myself and my best friend and now business partner Kyle Werra. Kyle had been screen printing in his basement for pub crawls and family events for about 3 years when we started talking about making that into a proper business. This was in 2008 and I had started to see the writing on the wall that my racing career was not going to go the way I had hoped. In August that year I decided to quit driving and that is when our planning really started accelerating. In November of 2008 we started working with our first race team and we officially incorporated in January of 2009 as Styled Aesthetic.

ArmsUp Motorsports’ Devin Wojcik at Barber Motorsports Park in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“My racing background plays a huge roll in how we approached our company. While I was still active as a driver I had managed a kart team and later worked with ArmsUp Motorsports (one of our first clients, see right with driver Devin Wojcik) as their marketing person. Those two roles allowed me to spend a lot of time working on the branding of race teams and trying to make sure they had a proper look and how hard it was to maintain that look.

“With motorsports being a very visual sport, having a coherent brand is massive. As we were planning the company we knew Kyle’s immense art talent and my branding experience would allow us to come up with really good programs for the race teams and other clients we would eventually work with.”

MST: How do you grow a small company through sales/marketing? Is it primarily word of mouth or how do you get the word out a bit more?

SW: “Our sales and marketing approach has always been based on word of mouth and personal sales, especially in the motorsports community. When we first started the company, I sent a blanket email to pretty much every motorsports contact I had in my email list and we rolled from there. The customers that we have developed in motorsports have almost all been from relationships built with people at the track. There are times when I have specific goals in mind of teams to talk to, and other customers have come out of just random conversations I have with people at the track, or now other people recommending us.

Photo: Team USA Scholarship

“We have done some very targeted sponsorships as well to help expand our client base. One of my favorite programs is our position as the official apparel provider for the Team USA Scholarship (see last year’s one of two winners, Oliver Askew, right). It’s a great program to support, as well as helps us make contacts with a lot of the other great companies that support the program. For us, it’s all about being at the track and being involved.

“I also learned pretty early on, that if you provide what the client asks for, when they ask for it, you are going to be welcomed back. Knowing the industry like we do, we know when our teams race, where they race, when the test days are and so forth. When we are discussing orders they appreciate we are speaking their language which allows us to follow through on tight deadlines, for the right series at the right events. Through my race coaching and spotting, I am at the racetrack a lot and I am able to talk with our clients on a regular basis so I am able to keep track of what they are doing and what they may need next.

“So short answer is word of mouth, but it ends up being a lot of communication and paying attention to what our teams our doing so we can be ready when they need apparel.”

MST: What’s your rough number of clients for apparel and your rough number of clients you’ll coach for?

SW: “Throughout the motorsports industry we probably have 25-35 teams and motorsports related companies that we work with.

Wright Motorsports Porsche 991 GT3 Cup cars in IMSA. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“Our clients span most of the IMSA paddock from the Porsche GT3 Cup (see Wright Motorsports, right) to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Over the last two years we have expanded to running at-track retail sale programs for four IMSA teams (Tequila Patron ESM, Michael Shank Racing, Stevenson Motorsports and JDC-Miller Motorsports).

“The retail program is managed by my sister Heidi. She joined Styled to run that program, so it’s been a lot of fun traveling to races with her again like we did when we were kids going to my kart races.

“In open-wheel we cover the entire Mazda Road to Indy where we supply teams in all three levels. ArmsUp motorsports has been with us since day one, Gregg Borland is a good friend and was a big supporter of idea when Kyle and I first began planning the company, along with Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing, Exclusive Autosport amongst others.

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

“We had our first IndyCar presence with a team in the Indy 500 this year. Our sports car relationship with Mike Shank allowed us to produce some of his MSR-500 crew apparel. As open wheel has always been my passion, having an Indy 500 team wearing apparel we produced is a pretty cool thing.

“On the coaching side, I currently have about 5-6 clients that I work with throughout the year. I like to keep the number of clients concise to keep me from losing my mind a bit.

“My lead client is Aaron Telitz in the Indy Lights series. Aaron and I started working together at his first car race ever in Skip Barber over 5 years ago. As he has climbed the MRTI or relationship as evolved, so I now act as his manager as well as coach.

Pippa Mann. Photo: IndyCar

“This year I began working with Team Pelfrey as their Pro Mazda team coach. I was involved with them last year when Aaron won the Pro Mazda Championship and when they moved some people around in their organization and the spot opened up I jumped at the chance to continue to work with the great group of people they have.

“On the sports-car side I work with Wright Motorsports’ GT3-Cup team as a consultant on their 5-car program and with the Stevenson Motorsports team as their spotter for the NAEC and any other rounds I can attend.

“And last but not least I came back to the Indy 500 spotting for Pippa Mann for the fourth straight year (right), which I am always excited about.”

MST: How do you balance working in so many different series? What are the positives from a business standpoint of open-wheel and sports car worlds?

Telitz flashes the peace sign. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

SW: “Running back and forth between all the series is mostly about managing expectations and time. On MRTI weekends when Lights and Pro Mazda are running together, it’s all about keeping track of time and prioritizing schedules and which fires need the most attention. On those weekends, it’s pretty manic keeping up with it all, but I really like the challenge of working on multiple programs and still doing quality work.

“The teams I work with know that I have different schedules and as long as we are on the same page that way it works out really well.

“Keeping my schedule straight at Styled is probably the most challenging thing. I am on the road for a solid 20-25 weekends, so Kyle takes on a lot of work at the shop to keep up with the demand. As we have grown as a company, that has been our biggest challenge is keeping up with the work load. It seems to be our constant battle, but we have continued to make improvements and we always look how to be better as a company.

“Being involved in both the open wheel and sports car worlds just provide more potential for clients. For Styled, if we keep producing solid work that the teams like, it just allows us to grow our brand through the two different worlds.”

MST: After your driving career ended, what piqued your interest in then coaching and apparel afterwards?

SW: “Like most race drivers, I started working as a coach at Skip Barber to pay some bills while I wasn’t getting paid to drive race cars. That experience at Skip lead to coaching gigs in karting then back to cars. I look back at it now, had I not tried to coach so much maybe I would have been more cut throat in making it as a driver. At the end of the day I really enjoyed coaching and showed some proficiency at it. When I decided to quit driving and change my focus to coaching it was a seamless transition for me as I had that plan in mind for a few years.

“My interest in apparel grew out of my love of the visuals of racing. Since I was a kid, I always loved looking at the new liveries on the cars when they were released so now working on helping teams finish their branding is pretty rewarding for me.

“The other reason I went this route was my understanding of how fickle working in the racing industry can be. It is a tough sport to make a living at, and having some varied source of income is key to surviving in it. The final reason I wanted to go into this business was the opportunity to have a business partner who was my best friend involved. The joke about Kyle and I is that our skills combined almost make one person and without his artistic ability and our shared drive to make this a success, there is no Styled Aesthetic.”

MST: What have been some of your best business successes so far via Styled Aesthetic and Linear Sport?

Styled Aesthetic logo on Aaron Telitz’s Indy LIghts car. Photo: Tony DiZinno

SW: “The short answer to that is the same in both businesses, we have earned the respect of the industry for what we do. As a driver I was never able to realize my full potential for many reasons, but these two businesses have given me that second chance to earn the respect I wasn’t able to as a driver.

“Styled for me is just the number of teams we now work with and how we continue to grow as a company. We have now been in business for seven years and every year we have grown in sales and people. Kyle and I started this company in a 200 square foot area in his basement printing 1 shirt at a time. We now have a 2800 square foot shop with seven employees. It’s all still a bit surreal to me.

“On the coaching side, my greatest success has been working with Aaron Telitz on his run up the motorsports ladder. He and I share a similar vision about life and motorsports and have grown into really good friends over our time working together.

“Winning the Pro Mazda Championship was obviously the tip of the iceberg, so far, especially in the way he won. After the oval race where he finished sixth I think and we were way down to Pato (O’Ward) in the standings, that season could have melted down. But Aaron, the team and myself all really jelled and worked forward. It was one of those seasons that don’t come around too often, so you really have to cherish them when they do.”

Telitz won last year’s Pro Mazda title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

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It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.