By Mike Garrison
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
For this week's Talk It Up Tuesday we sit down with ROAR Region 5 director, Tom Erickson. Tom joins us to discuss everything from being a ROAR Regional director, his series/format plans to enhance racing in his region, his opinions for the future of R/C racing, and everything in between!
LiveRC: Welcome Tom to the LiveRC Talk It Up Tuesday segment! For those who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got started in R/C, etc.
Tom: Thanks for having me on Talk It Up Tuesday. I follow this segment on LiveRC very closely so it’s great to now be a part of it. My day job is an Engineering Supervisor at Ford Motor Company where I have spent 25 years dedicated to the development of World class Powertrain Systems and Software. For fun, I have been involved with my wife and kids in many activities including Scouts but BMX racing at the National level was probably my big thing before switching to RC Racing.
In 2005, I achieved a life goal of making the Main event at the NBL Grand Nationals in the 40-44 year old Cruiser class. It might be surprising that this class was one of the most competitive as many of the participants were once Professionals in their youth like myself. I can remember the day. I really didn’t care how I finished. Entering the race I was sitting 15th overall but just making the main event was enough to move into 10th place. If I finished top 5, I had a chance to finish the season 9th overall. BMX is a sprint that is long enough to require a significant amount of fitness. When the gate dropped, I found myself hitting timing perfectly and pulling hard to try to stay with the most fit racer in our class. You see the overall title was not solidified yet and the top two still in contention were also on the gate to battle for the Championship. I crossed the line in 5th place after a tough battle for 4th place securing 9th overall. I was also able to qualify for the 2007 UCI BMX World Championships where I made it to the Quarter finals. But with my family losing interested in BMX and my body not recovering like it used to, I decided a change was in the works.
(Tom Erickson - #429 at the 1982 Gold Cup race in Richfield, Minnesota)
My first exposure to RC cars was in the late 1970’s while at a full scale off-road race in Wisconsin. My father used to race in the SODA series in Class 3 so I have been around racing my whole life. Some kid had a buggy that he was driving around the pit area. It had a clear body and I have no idea what it was but I had to have one. I had to wait until I was out of high school and on my own to get my first car which was a Tamiya Rough Rider. My first ever race in RC was with a Kyosho Stinger, 10th scale Nitro 4wd Buggy in Okinawa, Japan in 1986 while serving on the United States Marine Corps. I would say I didn’t dive into RC fully until 2008 when the Traxxas Slash distracted me from BMX racing. My local hobby shop had a Spec Slash class on carpet. Since then I have raced in England with a 2wd Buggy on AstroTurf and a little over a year and a half in Sao Paulo, Brazil racing Nitro 8th scale buggy. I have been very fortunate and met so many people around the world that love remotely operated automobile racing.
LiveRC: You are now the ROAR Region 5 director. Being a ROAR Regional director is a not exactly an easy job. When and why did you decide to become the director for your region?
Tom: Once I started to race RC more seriously, I began to look into the National Sanction for RC racing, ROAR. I was very involved with the BMX National Sanctions in previous years and understanding formats and technical rules became more important to me. I’m an engineer so standards and methods are natural to me. In 2014, I got involved with the Michigan State Championship Series which operates 8th Scale Nitro and Electric Off-road programs in the region. My love of motocross translates well to 8th scale Nitro off-road racing so I wanted to improve this segment of racing in my area. It has been going well ever since and provided a lot of experience for me to develop programming. I tested some formats at special events and wanted to bring this to a broader level. I initially reached out to my Regional Director to offer my help to coordinate off-road racing as a sort of assistant but didn’t get any response. I decided to attend some Nationals so that I could see how ROAR delivers their program. At the 2016 ROAR Electric 8th Scale Nationals at Stateline RC, a track that I almost consider a home track, I met Jeff Parker from ROAR. We had a great discussion about RC racing in the USA and he was kind enough to listen to some of my ideas. Jeff was the first to suggest that I run for Regional Director. I talked to a few friends and then asked Kevin Myers of Stateline RC if he thought I would be a good Regional Director. I have been working with Kevin for a few years putting on races for MSCS and we always had a good repor. His response was super positive so I threw my name in the hat. Dakotah and Chloe Phend were also very supportive as Dakotah has a bunch of great ideas for RC racing as I bet many of the Pro drivers do.
LiveRC: As the ROAR Region 5 director, what are some of your major plans to enhance the racing in your region?
Tom: The simple response is gather data on the status of racing in the region, formalize a program for regional and state series in each segment, and develop tracks that support the plan and promote growth in the region. Since Region 5 is a hotbed of RC racing in all forms, I needed to really understand as much as possible what was happening and why ROAR has nearly no presence. I have raced at many tracks but in no way had I visited all the tracks in the region. I built up a facebook page and began to capture a list of all the active tracks and categorize them by state and type of racing. I also requested the roster of ROAR members in my region to get a measure on how many were current. The ROAR Regional Director’s manual was helpful with suggested actions as well. I feel that I am done with the initial assessment and now can move on to planning programs. I was shocked that Region 5 has more than 100 active tracks when only 5 of them are listed on the ROAR Region 5 page. Support for ROAR is not in a healthy state in the region. We had 240 members in the region at the start of my tenure and most of the names are well known from the Nationals scene. The big question is what is the relevance of ROAR when it is only for Nationals. Clearly everyone uses the ROAR rules as manufactures comply with them for National level racing but why not support the sanction by maintaining an affiliation? I need to provide that reason through a regional program that each track can believe in and support. I am rolling out my plans to tracks so that we can fine tune the ideas and solidify each segment of racing. I have learned that racers want to see the plan as early as possible to figure out what to invest in and what time to commit. Tracks want the same thing so that they can plan their investments wisely. It seems like a huge job to make a difference.
LiveRC: You and I have spoken several times regarding the growth of the hobby. One thing that you have really sat down and analyzed, and “re-designed”, is our current format for racing in terms of providing a state series, regional series, and national series events. Tell us a little about your ideas and how they could benefit racers if put into action.
Tom: We have a lot of large events spread across the country. Many people are stepping in to fill a gap between the ROAR Nationals and everyday club racing. All motor sports championships on the planet are decided based on a series of events with few exceptions. The Indianapolis 500 for example is a special race that is a single event but also is a points race for the Indy series. Other examples are the Monster Energy Cup but Formula 1, Supercross, Nascar, and event smaller scale programs are series programs. In RC just about every event is a single event. I think this needs to change in a big way.
I have always felt that we need to have a structure to our racing. If ROAR Nationals were a series of events then maybe it would stabilize the main participants and also showcase the manufacturers more. Today, the Factory Teams need to plan specific individual events that will best present their products at the track. With each event separately structured it makes it complex for a team manager to have to talk to each organizer to plan pit space and travel arrangements. All of this applies at the state and regional level as well just at a different level of budget.
As a Regional Director, I have governance over our region and not the National program so what I have developed is a State and Regional series proposal for the tracks to deliver supporting the existing levels of racing already defined in the ROAR rule book. Tracks that are capable of delivering a Regional Championship today would be required to offer a Regional Qualifier and be in the pool to host the Championship final.
Consider if three tracks in the region host a qualifier in a specific segment of racing and one track hosts the Regional Championship, you can create a simple points series. Members would be required to race at least one qualifier and then the Championship Final to determine the Regional Standing based on points from the Regional Final and qualifiers. A member could attend ALL qualifiers but only his/her best qualifier AND points from the final would apply toward their championship standing. This same scheme would also apply in any State in the region.
Now, if more tracks join in, there would be more opportunities for members to participate but more qualifiers would be required for the Regional Standing. If six tracks participate, then members would need to attend at least two or maybe three qualifiers. In addition, this model guarantees that each track gets a big race to prepare for that is theirs to control within the bounds of the series. Revenue is at the track and not divided with a series organizer or even ROAR. As the Regional Director, I expect to be at every Regional Championship event but cannot attend all qualifiers or State Championship finals so I have to rely on the tracks to deliver.
The challenge is that I would need to provide a means to gather the results and publish rankings. This can be facilitated if the scoring system is standardized. In addition, sponsors and trophies should be standardized and managed centrally. Promotion needs to be unified even though the work is spread between each participating track.
ROAR rules also require a specific amount of officials for each level of racing. My ideas truly leverage the rules structure already detailed in the rulebook. If State Qualifiers were ROAR Level 1 races then the State Championship Final would be a ROAR Level 2 race. Regional Qualifiers would have to be ROAR level 2 events and the Regional Championship Final would be a ROAR Level 3 event as they are described in the ROAR rulebook. You can see how this can then translate to the National level as ROAR level 4 events could be the qualifiers or I would propose just calling them Nationals and final event could be the Grand Nationals and be ROAR level 5 as it is today. These levels are clearly defined in the ROAR Rule book.
This is just the beginning and the key to this is that each track gets specific required events they can present with the support of the Regional Director to plan and work the details between tracks. Scheduling would be centralized and planned so that no two qualifiers are within a specified distance from each other. To help this, I am proposing a track level model that would help ROAR National and Regional committees to define which track can host State, Regional and National level events. Some tracks never plan to host a National, but they should be required to host at least one State Qualifier. Other tracks were developed to host Nationals so they should be required to at least host a Regional Qualifier and rotate the hosting of the Regional Championship final. This track level idea would draw smaller tracks to participate which in the end is a key aspect of a membership organization.
(Tom with a second place finish at the 2012 NeoSport Race in Brazil)
LiveRC: There are several ROAR regions that lack the support of racers and tracks. Some have yet to announce a single regional event for the year, let alone a series and/or state series to go with it. How can we change that?
Tom: As a Regional Director that has just started to develop plans, I can say that it is not easy. I have just agreed on an 8th Scale Regional Championship Final thanks to Stateline RC. Now I need to pull in at least three more 8th scale tracks to make it a series.
Many people don’t know that all of the ROAR directors are volunteers who do this out of the passion we have for the sport. This means it is part-time work and takes a back seat to jobs, families, and our own racing dreams. Many of these people already organize programs or are track operators themselves that have stepped up to the role of ROAR Regional Director. Every track operator, racer, and manufacturing representative that I have talked to recognizes the need for a National Sanction but also understand that it is based on a volunteer corp which limits the potential for action. I have ideas to change this but they are difficult and require a coordinated effort and the will to change.
I like organizing programs almost as much as racing myself and really want to make a difference for people to progress in the sport but I really could use more help. This is why I initially reached out to my predecessor before running for the position in the first place. I could only guess what effort he was putting into racing and he was focused more on the on-road segments. I am already soliciting for support assistants and plan to campaign hard for this. There are already provisions in the ROAR Regional Directors manual but each Regional Director needs to organize everything for his/her region on his own. I also consider each track that affiliates with ROAR in my region as part of the organizing committee. I would love to organize a conference for track operators so we can all get to know each other better.
My experience with the BMX National Sanctions back in 2007 showed that distributing the regional or state operations diluted the support and even the revenue. The successful organization that now is the only sanction in the USA and Canada, centralized the Regional support so that Track Operators were in communication directly to the home office. The tracks know their local and even their state and regional activities best and it is the sanctions responsibility to provide the rules and programming. In BMX, they even provide the scoring system, marketing materials, linkage to the manufacturers for sponsorships and travel planning for participants.
The Rules are already there for most of this but a reorganization would be needed to standardize the regional programs. We may even have an imbalance between the regions. Some regions like Region 2, Region 4, Region 5, and Region 12 have strong racing activity regardless of ROAR. The other regions are challenged and may only have a few tracks to build a program. I am lazer focused on Region 5 today so considering these topics are outside of my responsibilities right now. Maybe centralizing Regional operations is an option for ROAR but it would be a full time job for sure. Twelve Regional directors working separately part time could be replaced with a few dedicated full time people. Regions could be consolidated to match participation. Regions 1 and 2 could be merged as could Regions 3 and 4 creating the Northeast and Southeast Regions. I would love to leverage Regions 7 and 8 as they have some great tracks that would add a lot to the North Central United States. Region 6 and Region 9 could merge creating a South Central Region. Finally Region 10 could be split and segments merged with Region 11 and Region 12 creating a Northwest and Southwest Regions. If this is possible then you would only need six dedicated full time Regional Directors working with every active track in their region to deliver the proposed State and Regional Series ideas. Again, there are three keys to a successful National Sanction. They are a structured program that addresses all levels, Strong track interactions, and as large a membership base as possible. This takes full time focus and passion.
LiveRC: One major problem I see is the number of overlapping races and the increasing number of “big races” held almost every weekend. What are your ideas towards cleaning up race schedules?
Tom: I covered some of this in my model for series racing but we still have fantastic large scale events that people truly love. Organizers could shift focus to the ROAR programs which could add more weight to their races. I have attended a few big, multi-day races with three hundred plus entries. Why not work with these organizers to create a National Series? The Midwest Winter Championships at Ohio RC Factory is like the kick-off National of the year. I spoke with a few of the top pros that attended this event and they were very clear about it. It was the best start of the year and gives them a starting point for the next big events throughout the year. The top pros are already treating that event as a National! But that is not the question. These events are already successful.
With centralizing State and Regional series programs you ensure that they are no longer scheduled on top of each other within a short distance. I have more than 50 tracks potentially capable of hosting a regional qualifier so why not schedule a Regional Qualifier at Trackside hobbies AND at RC Clubhouse on the same weekend for 10th scale off-road? These tracks are about six hours drive between them. Another weekend could see Leisure Hours and Ohio RC Factory hosting Regional Qualifiers for 10th scale off-road. Again these tracks are more than five hours apart. Structure and track participation are the key.
Then throw in the State qualifiers. On the same weekend as Trackside/RC Clubhouse another track, like Time Warp in Illinois, could be hosting a State qualifier. Top racers will naturally seek out the Regional programs as their sponsors will want to see their Regional standing. They are also committing more funds to their development. Mid level racers would naturally seek out a good standing at the State level first. It should also not cost as much to travel within the state. In the end each track would host only one State qualifier and most likely one Regional Qualifier. Then the top tracks would be working to host a National and rotate the Regional Championship Final while others would desire to host the State Championship final. Again, levels and structure helps to provide the cascade of events that match the participants skills. This idea is not new. It is similar to school sports with District, State, and Regional levels of competition.
(Tom's AARC race ride in Sao Paulo, Brazil)
LiveRC: I think it is safe to say that club racing in many areas has been suffering over the past year. Do you have any ideas or suggestions towards breathing new life back into club racing?
Tom: Club racing, the key to many tracks livelihood. This could be called District racing. In my model, on any weekend there could be a National race, a Regional race or a State race. Those weekends are a perfect time for Tracks to host club races for their local customers. It is possible to create a beginners program to promote learning for new racers. Most tracks survive based on these local frequent racers and should be the true main focus. Club racing is often a time for relaxed and fun races. It is not about the seriousness of a Championship or ranking. So what can promote Club racing and ROAR membership?
I have not shared much about my ideas related to District points but I like what USABMX does. If the National, Region, and State standings are tallied through a dedicated series structure of a few races per member, then a District points program could be a sum of all races. Each club race could capture points in a defined district that encapsulates a few tracks. Then, if a member attends a State Championship final his points could be included in his/her district total. In BMX they multiply the points by the level of the event as finishes at higher levels should have more weight. So a State race result may be the same as two club races. It gets really complex when you have so many classes involved in RC racing and the need to standardize the scoring systems and process to gather the results. A National system is required that connects directly to each track. Each District standing thou would be a measure of how much racing a member is doing. This is also valuable to sponsors as they want racers to race often which is what tracks and ROAR want as well. More races, more racers, more reasons to race.
I have to throw in the sponsorship topic. Today it has to be super complex for the various manufacturers to deal with this. Sure some sponsorships are more related to capturing a market but if a State, Regional, and National Ranking program was implemented it would make this so much better for them to offer sponsorship programs based on results. Each sponsor could connect with their drivers at specific levels expecting certain participation. Drivers would also understand that they have to achieve results to grow in their sponsorships.
(Tom at Stotfold RC in the UK - 2013)
LiveRC: Currently what do you feel is one negative part of R/C that we need to change for a more positive tomorrow, and how?
Tom: I feel that the lack of structure today causes most of the issues. It seems that everyone is frustrated with one thing or another. Track operators are trying to survive and often have to put on bigger races to draw participants having to ignore overlapping other tracks. Race Promoters are filling voids with great programs but draw some of the revenue away. Racers either have too many options or not enough. With 8 segments of racing with multiple vehicle types it is overwhelming to comprehend what classes makes sense. Do I race Stock or Mod, 10th scale or 8th scale, on-road or off-road. Some of the more experienced track operators dedicate their focus on programming that their area supports. They then can target market but most still need to diversify. This is why I, personally, am spending my time and thoughts on a structure or process for a total racing program. Most of the track operators I have talked to understand this. They see the opportunity to spread the wealth and even support each other. Without this structure, track operators, race promoters, and even racers have to ignore the effort to coordinate together. Wish me luck! For those in Region 5, visit the ROAR Region 5 page, https://www.facebook.com/ROARRegion5/, and participate. I need all the help I can get.
LiveRC: Tom, it is always a pleasure chatting with you, and I definitely feel as though you have some great ideas. Thank you so much for joining us today! Is there anything you would like to add before we go?
Tom: It has been great having the opportunity to chat with you as well. I have always found that LiveRC has also filled a void that is needed in the RC Racing world. Getting the word out is a big part of progressing the sport and growing the exposure to people that may never have known that RC racing was a thing. I have heard the “Best kept secret” statement too many times. As an Engineer, I do see a big connection to the skill building for technical education. I have seen some young racers who learn how to repair and tune a car and then start to look at what careers they can pursue and ultimately achieve a degree in engineering. Somehow we need to connect to schools and technology areas to draw RC participants. I guess my message is that we have not even scratched the surface on possibilities. We need to try a few things along the way to continuously improve the organization of Remotely Operated Automobile Racing.