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 owner of Leadfinger Racing, Chris Schaefer, to discuss LFR's 10-year anniversary, new products, the industry, and more!
LiveRC: Welcome Chris to this week’s edition of Talk It Up Tuesday! It has been quite some time since we last sat down for a chat, and a lot has changed since then! Let’s start off by talking about Leadfinger Racing. This year celebrates LFR’s 10-year anniversary. When, where, how, and why did you start Leadfinger Racing?
Chris: Hi guys! Thanks for having me! Yes, this marks 10 years for Leadfinger and to be honest, it kind of creeped up on me. Hang on tight, cuz it’s a pretty good story.
In 2008 the economy was struggling. I was out of work and needed something to take my mind off things. I had a Losi XXXT nitro stadium truck and started racing at a track I heard of in Palm City, Florida. It was a small group of about 15 guys at the time. The track owner and his brother built two tracks, one was clay for racing 1/18 scale and other was a massive dirt track for 1/8. I’d never seen anything like it. The big track was mostly sugar sand and chewed up bearings, but it was awesome. Rooster tails EVERYWHERE. Work was slow, but I managed to I scrape some extra cash together and soon upgraded to my first Team Associated RC8Be 1/8 scale electric buggy.
After getting into 1/8, I spent more time at the track becoming good friends with the owner Adam. He also owned a nice sized screen-printing company on the same property and was printing these cool shirts with this funny looking dude on them. (This is where the whoop character came from) Just so happened he was the artist and this was his own cartoon rendering. He gave a shirt to me and showed me some bodies he was making for the smaller 1:18 scale buggies. Now I started to get the whole Leadfinger thing. I thought to myself what a cool idea and thought how creative that was.
(Fast forward to 2010) Then the rain came, and it wouldn’t stop, leaving every weekend a disappointing wash out. Soon after Adam couldn’t keep up with the track and eventually closed it. On the last day, while we stood under the drivers stand and watched the track quickly wash away, Adam say’s to me, “Chris I think we need to talk” We went back to his office to dry off. Tossing the towel down on the chair he said. “That was a pretty good run Chris, thanks for the help and being such a good friend. My screen-printing business is picking up and I don’t have the time and energy Leadfinger needs to keep it going. What would you think about making it yours?” I was shocked and told Adam “I’m not sure I could do it.” Adam reassured me I was the one for the job. “Trust me Chris, I see it in you.” So, with nothing to lose my wife I decided to buy the Leadifnger name from Adam. Now, keep in mind the economy was still in bad shape, I was scared and I didn’t even know the first thing about making bodies.
As time went on, I got back to work as a full-time carpenter doing custom high-end work. But, all day at work all I could think about was Leadfinger. So, each night after dinner I spent learning how to make molds. Most of the time I was up until 2-3 am and still needed to get sleep for work that day. But I continued, each day I learned more from my mistakes. Eventually building a custom vacuum forming machine and getting better with design and fitment. Everything started from scratch. Friends started giving me their cars to work from. None of them came with bodies so I needed to start from the ground up. My first real body was for my own car, the TLR 3.0 buggy. I made a lot of mistakes on it and the mold didn’t last long, but I was rocking my first body. A few years later I decided to quit my job and do Leadfinger full time.
LiveRC: Over the past decade LFR has become increasingly popular with a full lineup bodies, wings, and accessories used by drivers around the globe. Has the growth of LFR up to this point been less than expected, above and beyond expectations, or right on track to where you were hoping?
Chris: That’s kind of a tricky one. In the beginning I had a vision of making something big. That’s how it all starts right? This is going to be great! I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that! When in fact there were so many bumps in the road. So, I wouldn’t say less than expected because it’s a lot of work and if I’m working hard, I must be moving forward. Above or beyond? That one you have to be careful of because you can become too comfortable, which can slow your progress down. I think I’m closer to right on track for the time and energy put in for sure.
LiveRC: In the past 10 years, what has been the most popular LFR product, and why do you feel this is?
Chris: Well, it’s hard to nail one particular product over the life span of Leadfinger. In body making it all depends on what chassis is hot that year. One year it’s Mugen, then Tekno, then Serpent for example. I just try and keep up. Now, when I think of wings, I would say the 1/8 smoke hammer wing. That thing is durable, fits just about any car or truck and is just plain sick looking. Lexan wings for 1/8 were unheard of at the time. Giving credit where credit is due, Pro-Line was the first, so I knew I needed to move quickly and get one on the table for LFR fans. Just so happened we were able to get a line on some thicker smoke material and boom, Leadfinger was the second manufacture to join in the race for the lexan wing madness.
LiveRC: What is your personal favorite LFR product, and why?
Chris: That’s an easy one. It’s always the latest design. I spend so much time with them that when I’m done with a new prototype, I bring it home and just look at. Seriously. That’s what we do as racer’s right? Put it on the bench and just look at it.
LiveRC: Without giving away your secrets, can you explain the process and timeline in creating a new LFR body?
Chris: It is a bit of a secret, but I will say I don’t use bondo for the final molds and everything is created by hand from the ground up. When I get a new car to work on I don’t use a stock body. It’s a fair approach and hope to gain the car manufactures respect with this process. As far as time line. Fast as I can. I save all my prototypes for future use. Sometimes I get lucky with fitment and only small tweaks are needed, others can take days to get right.
LiveRC: So, the designs, molds, and testing are all done by you. Do you have a team of people that help to assist with all of that?
Chris: Yes, and it’s all about the LFR team, they are awesome. Every time a new car comes out they're anxious to be part of the project and help by sending their personal cars. Most of the time I can meet with a team driver for track testing. If not, I will roll with it. This industry moves fast and I’ve had to learn to trust my best judgment on a few designs. After time I started to learn what drivers are looking for and how to better combine form with function. You really need to keep your ear to the pavement and consult with your team to be successful.
LiveRC: Obviously LFR’s primary focus is the off-road racing side of R/C. Has there been any consideration or plans to expand into other genres such as on-road, dirt oval, drag racing, monster trucks, etc.?
Chris: Absolutely. We have our first on-road car on the work bench now and it’s only a matter of time for the others. I love design so I will be expanding in the near future for sure.
LiveRC: Let’s talk a little about the R/C industry. What changes, both good and bad, have you seen as a business owner since starting out in 2010?
Chris: Good news is, it’s still growing. I see it every day. There are more local tracks now helping to attract the new racer. Families are becoming more involved. Track owners are working hard to provide a great place to race. (Cheers to those guys) The big events are doing a great job keeping the excitement and social media coverage by guys like you continuie to improve and promote RC on a broader spectrum. Manufactures are always trying something new to keep up with the seasoned racer too. I really don’t see much bad to be honest.
LiveRC: What are your personal opinions and views towards sponsorships in the R/C industry?
Chris: Ahh, the sponsorship question. Well, there are a lot of opinions out there in this one. I really don’t like to hear people use the phrase “discounted customer” because that is not what we are doing here. It goes both ways. Also, if your seeking sponsorship do it because you really like the product, not because brand X gives a better discount then brand Y. It’s easy to spot and manufactures who look out for it. As far as sponsoring sportsman drivers, I’m glad to see it taper off compared to previous years. I think it’s ok to have a few on the team but these positions need to be limited to the racer that has been putting in their time and dedication on the track. It’s only fair and promotes healthy growth in the hobby.
LiveRC: What is the best AND worst part of being a business owner in the R/C industry?
Chris: Friendship is the best and it’s my nature to have a good time. My favorite thing to do is walk around and talk to the racers and see how everyone is doing. I mean what better way to spend the day right? On the other hand, sometimes it’s hard to go to the track as LFR and not be able to pull a smile from someone because I’m their competitor. That’s the part of the business I don’t like.
LiveRC: As someone who has reached success in this industry, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs that are wanting to start their own business in the R/C industry?
Chris: If you have a new idea or want to make something better that’s great. The RC industry depends on new ideas for healthy growth. Keep in mind you will make mistakes and you will have failure, but you can learn from them. You will have people doubt you but that’s ok, it’s very important to never doubt yourself. Stay on track with your goals. Longevity is key in this industry.
LiveRC: With the current COVID-19 Coronavirus situation taking place around the globe, we’ve seen many events cancelled, businesses closing, and so on. How can we as racers do our part to keep supporting local hobby shops, tracks, and industry brands like LFR during a time of social distancing and no racing?
Chris: Good question. The RC industry and its hobbyist are some of the most resilient people I know. Look at social media right now. Racers are having small rebuild parties, posting positive pictures and still sneaking off to the track and hitting the back yard. You just can’t stop the racer. Now is a great time to get tools and parts organized and maybe fix up that old basher. If local shops are open stop in and see how their doing. Maybe pick up some paint for that body you’ve been wanting to learn how to spray. There are a lot of ways to stay busy, especially with RC.
LiveRC: Thank you so much for joining us today Chris! Congratulations on a very impressive 10 years, and we are anxious to see what the next 10 and many more hold for you and Leadfinger Racing! Is there anything you would like to add before we go?
Chris: Thanks for having me. I appreciate what you do Mike and wish everyone at LRC the best. Trust in God for protection and stay vigilant my friends!