"I've had my share of wrecks. I've broken bones. I've hurt my ego many times."
Entrepreneurs naturally want things to go fast. In this episode of Main Street Hustle we meet an entrepreneur who really knows how to go fast. Elaine Larsen - a two-time Jet Dragster World Champion tells us that in racing and in business the faster you go, the safer and smarter you have to be. For Elaine and her co-owner husband Chris, this means setting strict workplace rules and putting each employee through a rigorous training program. Everyone at Larsen Motor Sports knows everything there is to know about the race car, about safety, and about being a brand ambassador.
Transcriptions are produced by AI as well as humans and may contain errors.
Glen Sanders (GS): It seems like there's a lot easier, safer things that you could be doing to earn a living. And why drag racing?
Elaine Larsen (EL): You know, I've had my share of wrecks. I had a wreck seven and a half years ago where I hit a wall at 280 miles an hour, and ended up getting really hurt. I had a subdural hematoma, where I literally have titanium plates and screws in my head right now. I've broken bones, I have hurt my ego many times. But there is something about the thrill of when you make your pass, and you tow back to your pit area, and you see the people. And it's like they're looking for someone incredible to do something, and there is nothing like it. It is an ego boost, and there is an adrenaline junkie in me. But I love it. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I'm 50, almost 51 years old, and people are saying, "When you going to get out of this?" And I say, "When they pry the steering wheel out of my hands." I love doing it. But there's a beginning, and a middle, and an end to everybody's career, and I know there will be to mine. I just don't see it in the near future. We're building towards that direction, but-
GS: Also you could've chosen to just get behind the wheel and be behind the wheel rather than-
EL: Build an empire.
GS: Build this amazing thing you've got here. I mean that almost takes more bravery to build the empire than it does to get behind the wheel.
EL: Driving the jet cars does not scare me anymore. Making sure I have enough money to pay the paychecks, that scares me a lot more than racing the jet car. The jet car, I feel like I have some control. The paychecks get very scary. And you know, when we need things, I say, "When we make it big, we all eat lobster and steak, but when we're skinny, we all eat peanut butter and jelly." And that's how we are, and it's full disclosure at our shop. And I think that's the most important thing. I don't care if it's from the person who cleans the bathrooms to the person who is the best welder, to the engineer, to whatever, everyone understands what's going on and where we're at Larsen Motorsports. And that's what creates a team environment. I hold nothing back. I'm not out there flying around in ... you know, sailing away in yachts and things like that. If I am, y'all are with me. Because I believe in sharing the wealth.
GS: Yeah, so what is it like to be a driver? And then I guess the follow up to that is what does it take to be a driver?
EL: It is way more fun to be a driver when you're not even in the driver's seat. I know that sounds silly because everyone thinks that five seconds of fun going down the track should be the best part of your job. It really isn't, and it sounds cheesy being able to meet the fans, because NHRA and IHRA are so accommodating, that's what I love about drag racing, is every pass is a pit pass. You can get in, you can meet the drivers, you can find out about the tech and technology that it takes to put these cars down the track. And that's probably the coolest part, to see that aha moment for this little kid who looks at you like you are Superman or Wonder Woman, that's the best part, and know that you're making a difference. Then the cherry on top is pulling up to the starting line and letting her eat.
GS: But you've got to know how to race a jet car. I mean, how do you ... Nobody comes to you with experience or having raced a jet car.
EL: Very rarely. No, very rarely. Usually what they do is they come to us with an idea. And then we put that idea to test. They have to go through a school that talks about the functions of a jet dragster, you know, what's going to happen.
GS: Your own school?
EL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yep. We set up our own curriculum. It's something that we felt that I wanted a driver, or a crew, to know exactly what's going on with the entire car. It makes them better in interviews, it makes them a smarter ambassador towards the car and their sponsors and things. And in all honesty, they're setting their life on the line. If they don't know what is going on with this race car, then they don't understand the risks that are involved with driving it. So they go through a school, and they start going out to the car and firing the car up for the first time. Then we kind of idle it around and let them know what it's going to feel like, and then we take them to the track, and it's time to go down the track. First they just do the engine only, which is only about 160 miles an hour, pretty slow. And then we slowly start adding in the afterburner, which makes it go faster. It'll go zero to 100 in a little over a second, zero to 280 in about five and a half seconds. So the first time you light that afterburner, we use an afterburning ignition system that's on the steering wheel. It takes a lot of guts to push that go fast button.
GS: How many G's is that?
EL: Towards the end of the track we're pulling up to, close to 5 G's, and the fun part is when we transition into the slow down, we shut the throttle and the parachute off, pull the parachute out at the same time, we do a quick 12 G transition to 7 negative G's, and that's the part that you love to feel, even though it knocks you out just a little bit. It can get your head coming down and coming back up pretty quick, but then you know you're slowing down, the ride is coming to a safe and complete stop.
GS: And at what speed is that when you're going down the track?
GS: Top out at 280, then you pull the parachute and you ...
EL: Slow down very quickly.
GS: How does that compare to like a jet fighter? They're experiencing the same effect.
EL: Their G's are different. So we're doing horizontal G's, they're doing vertical G's when they do all the aerobatic stuff, when they do that. So for us, the blood's going to come to our head. For them, they have to wear a G suit and they have to compress the blood because the blood's coming from their head. We would have more of a red out, they would have a black out where they would pass out from that.
GS: Best not to have either one.
EL: No. But ours are unsustained, so let me tell you, they have all these astronauts because we live on the space coast. All of those fighter pilots, hats off to you, man, because I only gotta sustain that for just a couple thousandths of a second. I don't know what I would do if I had to do it for a long time.
GS: Sure, and keep your wits about you at the same time.
EL: Yeah, I'd probably have to get way more fit and be way better than what I am.
GS: But you've got to be pretty fit to get behind the wheel of this [inaudible 00:05:40].
EL: You do. It's more about being mentally sharp than it is physically fit but mentally. But then you also have to be physically fit to be outside. Our job is at the ropes talking to fans, engaging people, and it gets hot. I live outside all day long, and if you're not careful, you don't eat right, you don't work out, you don't keep yourself hydrated, when you get behind the wheel, things get real freaky.
GS: So you've got three female drivers, including yourself?
GS: And is that new? Is that the first time you've-
EL: Nope. Back in the day for a while, the first driver that we hired was a female. She's Marisha Falk. She was this feisty little girl that didn't stand but five foot tall, and she came up to me and said, "I want to drive a jet car." I'm like, okay. She looks like she's got the package, and she did an awesome job in the car for us for several years. Then, we hired a few more girls that came on. We had, at one time, the first ever all female jet racing team. So we had four girls that were racing for us, and we had a female backup.
And that was good until I got a lot of crap from people. Everyone's saying, "Where's the boys? How come the boys can't play?" And that's when I had to reassess our business model. Chris and I, my husband and I, had to go back through and we had to say is it fair if a guy's bringing the same amount of talent, the same amount of sass, the same amount of everything that we need to the table, we have to consider him. So that's what we did, and we brought on Jake Elliot and Dwayne Hill. Those guys have worked so hard to get a shot, to get a chance to get a shot in the car.
GS: You need somebody that's a good brand ambassador, can talk to sponsors, and in the case of the women, look pretty in front of a jet car. But it's got to be a lot more than just looking pretty in front of a jet car.
EL: Absolutely. You have to be able to sell it 24/7. Number one, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. When you're not in your fire suit in racing, you are still a brand ambassador. Everything you say and do is looked at under a microscope, and not even just the drivers. 100% of our crew is looked at. We make them sign packages that say that they are going to be towing the line. There's just things that aren't acceptable. When you come to work at Larsen Motorsports, you really have to tighten your belt straps. It's a tough road.
GS: That's difficult because you're dealing with young people, and you're looking for people that have an insatiable desire to win. And now you've got to train them to be smarter than themselves in a way.
EL: I sit them down and let them watch enough videos where people have taken it just that thousandth of a second too far, and that usually straightens them right up. It usually does. I show them, when they walk in our shop, they see the crash car, they see the pictures of me. They know how hard we've worked for everything, and they know that I only want the best for them. When we're done racing, we have a lot of these young girls and guys. Chris always, at the end of the track, if their parents can't make it to the race, the first [inaudible 00:08:40] he makes is all safe, good run.
Whether the drivers know he does that or not, he takes that on because it's important for them and the whole extended family to understand how much we look after these kids. It would crush us if anything ever happened to one of these kids. Even being a crew member can be dangerous if you're not careful, so we work really hard in making sure they know we are giving 110%, and we are on the cusp of anything safety innovation. Simpson Racing Products, they come in here and they help us with anything they have new. We implement it right away. And we learn from every single accident what to do better.
GS: Most of your drivers, what's the average age? Or maybe a range.
EL: Well, I have 20, 23, 29, and 32. They're babies.
GS: So at those early ages, their parents are still very involved in their lives. That must be a hard sell to the parents to say, "Hey, your kid wants to go strap on this big engine to their back."
EL: I think, though, the confidence and the change that they've seen in their kids is what makes the difference.
GS: It's sort of their own fault in a way because they raised-
EL: They raised these little daredevils.
GS: Brave, daredevil children.
EL: But I'm hoping that we leave them better than when they came to us. We teach them about public speaking, soft skills training. We talk about being their own brand and brand ambassador. I'm hoping that they're learning skill sets along the way that is going to last with them for the rest of their lives. I think that the parents see how much their children are growing, and not even just the drivers, but the crew. You see a lot of people who can't engage you and look you in the eye. They look down and they fidget and they do everything. To see the confidence and say, "I built that car, I drove that car, I did this, and I'm part of this team that's amazing," they see that and they're willing to give anything for it.
GS: So how do you make money? You've got a lot of expenses there. What's your revenue streams?
EL: Absolutely. So racing pays for racing. When we go down the track, the money that we earn from the race tracks actually pays for us to get there, pays for any expenses going down the track, that type of thing. But how we live, how we eat and buy milk, bread, and eggs is through sponsorships and partnerships and endorsement deals. So it's a hustle 24/7.
GS: Do you get paid if you don't win?
EL: Some tracks we do, some tracks we don't. We have a performance clause in every one of our contracts. So we have to make it happen, and if we don't, then we don't get paid.
GS: Because you're doing more than just racing. You're showing the car off, you're meeting the [inaudible 00:11:11] crowd, and I was seeing in some of the NHRA promotional stuff about how it sort of fosters a more open access to the crowd than let's say NASCAR or something else.
EL: Absolutely. People see like a three day race. That's normally a six to seven day race for us, because we have to arrive on site a couple days before to do pre-race promotions because we want that media [inaudible 00:11:36]. We want to get on TV, radio, anything we can do to get our faces and our sponsors out in front of everyone. And then once we're there, then we do some displays. So a lot of times sponsors that are sponsoring the event want to have a race car at their facilities, so we have to go around and showcase that sponsor, and then we get to go to the track finally, like the day before the race, and set up. And then when we're done, we put it all back into the trailer and move onto the next show.
GS: How much can a race driver make? Is it a good living?
EL: For what we do? Those NASCAR guys and gals out there make way more than what we do. I mean, they fly their own corporate jets and stuff like that.
GS: You don't have the Larsen jet?
EL: No. We put everything back into the business. Right now, we've accumulated about $8 million worth of inventory, and that's not because we've just got out and bought airplanes and things like that. We work and then we buy, and we work and we buy, and that's how it's happened. All of a sudden we woke up one day and we had all of this. Larsen Motorsports is debt free. We owe not one penny to any bank, any mortgage company, any credit card company.
GS: All that equipment is paid for?
EL: It's all paid for, yep. And if we don't have the money, we don't buy it. We go and we find a job, we find something to hustle, and we get the money. If we don't have the money, then guess what? We don't do it.
GS: So what else can you hustle besides sponsorships?
EL: Sponsorships, endorsements, personal speaking engagements. I don't care, whatever you have to sell. I've got a lot of area on my body where I've got another sponsor placement somewhere.
GS: We can't see it in the podcast, but you're wearing the race shirt with all the sponsors on it.
EL: Absolutely. I took a key from John Force. Whether he's on vacation or not, he always is promoting his sponsors because they're the ones who have put the roof over my head, the food in my refrigerator. They're the ones who have supported us when sometimes I know some of these small companies, it's everything they can do to give us that little bit of money. You know what they did? They gave all they had. And I take that very serious.
GS: Now explain open competition.
EL: That means that the winner gets more money than what the loser does. Now, how jets typically go into a show is I'll know when I leave this shop how much money I'm going to make if I make my passes. Guaranteed money, guaranteed. Guaranteed passes, guaranteed-
GS: So as long as you roll down the track, you know you're getting paid.
EL: I'm going to make this amount of money. If I make one pass, I get 50%. Two passes, I get 75%.
GS: So in open competition, if you lose, you get zero.
EL: You get less money, mm-hmm (affirmative).
GS: Which do you prefer?
EL: I like knowing how much I'm going to get. That's always awesome, because from a business side of things, ask me from a business side. The [inaudible 00:14:12] the present of Larsen Motorsports, I like the exhibition side. The racer, I like the open competition.
GS: Well that's tough. You have the two little devils on your shoulder.
EL: Yeah I know, it's like, go faster. But the IHRA did something that no one else had done.
GS: Let me ask you this, what's best for the audience? What's the difference in the experience?
EL: I don't think there's a better or best or anything. I think it's more engaging. I think people can relate to a champion more than they can just a winner. There's a difference.
GS: So in open racing, you have champions.
EL: You have champions, you do points through the entire season, whereas at the end, it's just you're a winner, nobody counts points, nobody gets a trophy, you just get a check. Which, trust me, you can't eat a trophy. You can't take a trophy to the bank.
GS: You can use it to spread that peanut butter and jelly.
EL: Yeah I know, that's about it. I got lots of trophies out there. What has that got me? Maybe a couple more sponsors or got people to look at me, and that's why it was so important with the IHRA what we did for those two years, to prove the concept. And we're trying to take that one step further, saying that we've done the proof of concept. It worked. Fans loved it. It worked for us because sponsors loved it. So now, how can we take exhibition and competition and kind of make it what works, and make our perfect marriage between the two?
GS: How much more money can you make in an open competition?
EL: Not a whole lot more, but the opportunity for sponsorship was way larger, and media coverage. The ROI-
GS: Because the sponsor wanted the ...
EL: The sponsor wanted the open competition, and the media coverage. Media, it's hard to cover someone who just races down the track every weekend. "Okay, so did you win?" "Yeah." "So where are you in points?" You know what I mean? That's the first thing because that's what we're trained to ask.
GS: There's a little bit of a lack of drama.
EL: Yeah. And so there is nothing for that. I think the public, the fans, would engage and eat up the open competition a little bit more, but the business side of me says man, that's scary, because if you don't win, you have the chance of not coming home with as much. So you could do that with a guaranteed purse no matter what to let people know, because how are you going to get people to do that? There's a lot of people who aren't in the same financial situation as what Chris and I are, where we can take going to a couple races and not win.
GS: So you live and die by the sponsors, really.
GS: That's almost harder than winning the race.
EL: Yeah, winning the race is the easy part. Just not messing up. Going out and having that hustle. You say motorsports, so you should go out and you should look at tire companies, and you should look at oil companies and all that kind of stuff. They have been so oversaturated with motorsport sponsorships that they don't want to hear you walk in the door anymore. They don't even want to see you. They don't want to talk to you, they don't want to do anything. You'll find someone new.
GS: And aren't you in a way competing against NASCAR and everyone else? I mean, they also want to sponsor those cars.
EL: Yeah, because they're going to sponsor they get so much marketing money that they're going to put into certain initiatives. But what we have done is our performance on the track is one thing, but our performance in the shop and our performance when we go out and we do these educational events, we have what's called the Jet Technology Center, and that's brought to you by a lot of different companies that are really interested in getting that next aerospace engineer, that next welder, that next painter, that next auto body repair. So they look at that, what we do off the track, as important as what we do as on the track. In fact, even more important because there's more time off the track than there is even on the track.
GS: How do you sell it to sponsors that are outside of the automotive or engineering space? Do you have any of those?
EL: We do. I had a sunglass company that sponsored me because they wanted me to look cute in their sunglasses, and I did that for a while, and it was good. I had some other sponsors that have come and gone through the years, endorsement deals and things like that, clothing lines and all that. But you have to be able to find the hook. First you have to bait the hook. You have to get someone to bite on it, and then you have to set the hook. How hard you set it is what it is. So showing return on investment. So just say you said, "I'm going to give you $50,000, Elaine." I have to show you that you made 150 from that 50 investment. What a deal would that be? If I told you today if you gave me $50,000, I'm going to promise you that you're going to get $150,000 on return, why wouldn't you do it?
GS: A lot of that is contingent upon the Race Association in delivering a television contract or a television exposure and those kinds of things as well, isn't it? And getting people to the races.
EL: Sometimes it is, but what we've done is there's things that we can control and there's things that we can't control. The TV element and the media element and the weather. Mother nature, man, she can be a bugger, man. I mean no matter what, you can only control certain things. So what we've done is we write into our sponsor contracts things that we can control. I can control how many school visits I do. I can control the activity that we have in the shop. Those are the things we guarantee. The things that are out of our hands, nobody can control them.
GS: You're not really selling them television exposure or anything else.
EL: Nope. And if we get it, guess what? Aren't we the heroes.
GS: Right, because you're going to count that towards the ROI.
GS: So to go find a sponsor, are you sort of whiteboarding? Here's a list, constantly reading the newspaper, seeing what's going on out there to say, "Hey, let's target these people," and then you cold call them, or?
EL: That was the easy way, but now you have to have a contact in the industry. You have to have someone who's going to make that first introduction.
GS: And that's you and your husband doing that?
EL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so you have to get out and you have to do different things. We do anything from we've done the Oshkosh Airventure show, we've been to [SEMA 00:20:00], we've been to PRI, we've been to so many different shows where you're getting your brand out there and you'll catch the eye of someone. And that's what you do. They just walk up and give you a card, and that's how it starts. But if you're afraid to take a chance to go to some of those events, I do crazy stuff, like fashion stuff, and people are like, "Why would you be there?" And I said, "Well, I look pretty good in my fire suit." So it's about getting-
GS: You make that one contact, that could be the next sponsor.
EL: And that's all it is.
GS: But you do stuff that doesn't necessarily pay well or at all.
EL: All the time.
GS: Just because of the exposure, and you might need a sponsor.
EL: That is a cost of business. If you meet the same people, you're going to get the same thing at the end. You're always going to get the same people, you're always in front of that. I think that's what people do. They don't diversify as much as what they should. So we go out and we rarely say no to very few things. We go out and we do everything. As crazy and as silly as what it sounds, we're out there. We hustle 24/7.
GS: What are the ranges of sponsorship prices, so to speak?
EL: It just depends on what we can do for your company and what your company can do for us. It can start out from $5,000. It can be as little as that. It can go up to $20,000, and then it can go up to half a million dollars. That would be a high-end sponsorship for us. That would be the ...
GS: That would be per team, but it wouldn't because you're saying you can take those and share them across.
EL: Yeah, per team. Because we put them on, so they get another one on there. Yeah, the angels would say.
GS: So that's a real benefit to a sponsor because with five teams that you're [inaudible 00:21:27], they've got the potential to be seen.
EL: In many different areas. So what I do, Dwayne is a marine. He goes out there and he can do something that I can't do. He can go into military bases and he can talk the talk that I can't. So my sponsors know that no matter where a Larsen person is, [Kat's 00:21:49] in school every day. She goes to college, so she walks around no matter what. Someone's going to see her, and they know we are team Larsen. So really, the sponsors don't necessarily a team, they sponsor Larsen motorsports, and then we divvy that up through the teams.
GS: Final question. Well, maybe the final question. Do you see yourself more as a drag racer jet car driver, or an entrepreneur? EL: Entrepreneur without a shadow of a doubt that just happens to have her business as racing. I love finding that next great deal. I love coming up with that next greatest idea. I started my own comic book, her name is Blaze. It's Adventures of Blaze. To be able to go out there and do that, I love the little spinoffs that we can do. Drag racing is one part of our life. There's so many other parts.