5 Business Lessons from a Top SuperBike Rider
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Tapping into the race strategy of my New Zealand SuperBike rider, Tarbon Walker to see what businesses can take away from the track.
Tarbon Walker posing at his bike off the back of his best Nationals result so far. In the background left is bike set-up man Nick
We weren’t a racing family, but somehow we are all in now. My son, Tarbon, is a strategic and considered rider competing in the F2, 600cc class. Now into his third year of racing, he’s chasing down the front pack.
Tarbon is the next New Zealand SuperBike Champion — Gary Stirling, Motor TT
The F2 class is notorious for crashes; there are a lot of them. The 600 bikes don’t have the electronics and smarts of the 1000 cc SuperBikes; there is no traction control and, no wheelie control. Even so, the bikes achieve top speeds of 240km p/hr (150 miles p/hr) over a short distance and brake hard and late into corners.
Red Bull pitted an F1 bike, a Fighter Jet, a Formula 1 car and four others against each other on the tarmac of the world’s largest airport, Istanbul, Turkey. Spoiler: the bike won — 5+million views on YouTube.
There are a lot of riders in the F2 class; more than double the F1 numbers. F2 riders are hungry and impatient; they want to ride their way to the front of the pack and out of the class. These riders are mostly young and inexperienced. The lack of onboard controls, inexperience and immaturity of the riders in the F2 category makes for a terrifying mix.
It is always good to finish and put those precious points in the competition bank. Riders live for the chase and, they are only happy when they are at the limit. Winning is everything and crashing is an unfortunate part of the game. Generally, if you crash, it will be for one of the following three reasons:
Some other rider takes you out
Something goes wrong with the bike, or the bike set up is incorrectly
You ride the bike faster than you can handle, known as ‘overriding the bike.’
As a racer, you have, to a greater or lesser degree control over all these things. Strategising and getting control of all these factors is on-going. Even in the off-season, we are working on this.
In this series, I follow Tarbon’s progress over the season and apply each day’s challenges and thinking to business, and look at how managers and teams can tap into the goings-on trackside.
Round 2: NZSBK, Levels Raceway, Timaru, New Zealand
Levels Raceway Timaru (the picture is about as dated as the track)
‘Levels’ is Tarbon’s arch-nemesis. He’s never been able to get his head around this track, and New Zealand’s geography doesn’t do him any favours. New Zealand is a long skinny country comprised of two main islands, creatively called the ‘North Island’ and, the ‘South Island.’ The only way to get a vehicle from one to the other is via the Cook Strait Ferry. The passage takes just under four hours and costs NZD$350. On the crossing, you’ll find yourself in the company of goods and passenger trains, semi-trailers and a million tourist camper vans.
Living on the North Island makes it difficult to get to the track at Timaru. Roughly two-thirds of the pack is from the north; they all try and survive the first two rounds of the NZSBK at the South Island tracks.
NOTE: Racers and crew always use the possessive pronoun ‘we’ or ‘our’ when referring to anything race-related. A person will never say ‘I won,’ but instead ‘we won.’ Or ‘the team brought this one in, so happy for our podium today.” The language in Tarbon’s race reports reflects that used by racers about racing; even they are off the track.
Principle 1: Get control (of the race weekend) early
Bike set-up man, Nick and Tarbon trouble-shooting bike issues
Tarbon’s race report
There was an ‘unofficial test day’ on Wednesday, just 48 hours earlier. We had an incredible time at that track day, and posted a personal best (PB), smashing our earlier record by three seconds. When races are won or lost by one, one-hundredth of a second or less, shaving that much off our PB is nothing short of a miracle. Those three seconds put us in good company with the front group in the pack.
Friday: Official NZSBK Test Day
Moving into the official NZSBK test day on Friday, our goal was to get our heads around tyre conservation and then move onto figuring out who our nearest competition would be.
Frustratingly, an issue with the bike losing power appeared out of nowhere, and we spent most of Friday dealing with this.
Right from the start, we knew something was wrong with the bike. It was losing power everywhere, the corners, the straights. We’d gas it up, and nothing would happen, or we’d be travelling down the straight, and the bike would slow.
With this kind of problem, it’s either going to be the motor locking up — about to seize and, losing power that way or a fuel-related issue. In either case, successfully diagnosing the issue was not going to be easy. If it was a problem with the bike seizing, we didn’t even want to take it back on track again. Riding it would be dangerous both for our rider and for the others out there.
We started with the fuel pump; rubbish filled the lines and filter. Bingo! We felt sure we’d found our problem. We cleaned it out and put the bike out on track in another session (BTW — we are not allowed to do this at all!) to test it. No change.
We tried a bunch of other things, nothing worked. We gave up any hope of getting the bike back out on track today. We started making plans to swap engines from the ‘B Bike’ to the ‘A Bike’ overnight and we prepped for a long night working on the bikes and little sleep going into Saturday’s racing.
One of our team members works in a bike shop run by one of the most seasoned and respected race mechanics in the country. We cashed in a favour (you only get an unknown finite number of these, so you don’t want to waste any) and called him up. As chance would have it, another mechanic and builder of race engines, was also in the shop. We explained the problem, and they both came in with the same answer.
“They make those bikes with cheap, sh*tty fuel pumps — they’re renown for it. Every one of those bikes that we service, gets a new fuel pump irrespective of whether it is displaying an issue or not. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ the fuel pump will fail, but when.”
Thank $^$& Friday finished with some good lap times and confidence in the bike.
Get all the fundamentals in place first. Then you can move on and attempt the fancy stuff that is going to make a difference. You need to work from a solid base to excel.
In business, the fundamentals haven’t changed much.
At the department or team level
For managers, the main job is to clear away any clutter that will prevent the team from performing.
In his talk on The Role of Leader, Jack Welch says that leaders need to be ‘Chief Meaning Officers.’ He cautions that people will not enrol in the vision laid out by leaders unless leadership clears away all the clutter.
There can’t be so many regulations that people are unable to carry out their jobs. Leaders need to break down silos and rules and provide a frictionless environment for workers. For those working in large organisations, this might seem an impossibility. I have worked with one team where the manager took on dealing with all the broken, impossible processes, red tape and company politics herself. Rather than pushing tiresome jobs down the line, she carried them out personally. As a senior manager in the organisation, she had considerable influence, and she used this to not only clear the way for her team but also to pinpoint, highlight and ultimately affect the much-needed change.
At an organisational level
Putting the basics in place includes the following:
Regulations and Guidelines
Day-to-Day Operations Management
A few years ago top rider, Shane Richardson threw a championship away because of this fuel pump problem. It was the last race of the season; he was so far ahead that all he needed to do was finish the race. His fuel pump failed and, he lost the championship.
Side fact: The bikes that Tarbon rides are Shane Richardson’s old bikes.
Principle 2: Evaluate the competition (and yourself)
Pictured: Toby Summers (second) and Tarbon #21 trailing the pack. Tarbon beat Toby across the line in the final race.
Tarbon’s race report
Going into this season of Nationals we were hoping for a top ten finish overall and, to finish one or two races in the top six. This plan might not seem ambitious, but no other rider in the class has been able to achieve these results in this short time frame.
Despite a challenging first round last weekend, we came into this meeting seventh in the National Rankings. Now we had our sights set on a finish in the top six.
On the Friday test day, mum was at the fence for all of the F2 class practice sessions. While the rest of us worked on trouble-shooting the bike issues, she watched all the riders and timed a different one each lap.
Even though we weren’t out on track with the other riders, we still evaluated their performance. From here, we could establish a list of our closest competitors, figure out where we sat in the pack and understand who we might step over to gain a place closer to the front. There are a lot of factors that come into play when evaluating competitors. Their performance on track is essential, and we will get to that in a minute, but other things come into play as well. These include:
The weather — What is the weather likely to do over the weekend? What is the probability of rain? We are strong in the wet — how is the rest of the pack in these conditions? Who is the most and least strong out there in the rain?
Bike set up — After a series of unfortunate events we are running our B-Bike and our spare bike is one of the team’s stripped-down road bikes. The B Bike is down on power, and if anything happens to that bike, we will be out on a bog-standard road bike. What is the state of the competitor’s bikes? Two of the top riders, for example, have only one bike at the track each. One bike blew up and, the other has a bent frame after a crash last weekend.
Recent performance — This covers a lot of things. Have they been riding fast and consistently? Have they been riding fast and crashing the bike a fair bit? How are they looking out there? Do they have ‘flow’ or do they look like they are at their limit and heading for a crash? Have they had a crash lately? Will they bounce back and get straight on the race pace? Or will it slow them down for the weekend?
Personality — Rider personality translates to their style on and off the track. Some riders play it safe (if that’s possible), they take minimal risks, stay upright and ride an exceptionally well-sorted bike. If things are not going their way, this kind of rider baulks and is unlikely to recover. This kind of rider is easy to bluff out of riding their ‘A’ game. Other racers are reckless; we want to stay out of their way and make sure that if/ when we put the move on them, it’s done in a way and place that they won’t be able to stand us up or run us wide.
Support — This is a big one, and it’s far-reaching. Support is the team (including family) around a rider, but it is also how much money they have behind them? As a self-funded team in a sport where a weekend’s worth of tyres cost over $1,000, we can’t afford to carry every tyre option. Where do the others sit with this? Each bike is specially set-up for each track, so a team with useful data on this will be able to get the bike set up straight away. Instead of spending the day dialling the bike in, they’ll be able to focus on rider improvement. Support also comes in the form of a professional team analysing data logs from each session and having specialists make the necessary micro-adjustments.
Some of the above information we already knew. Other information was specific to this track, and this weekend. Mum was out there gathering that intel.
When we finally got out there with the rest of the class, we immediately knew who to tag onto and, who was not a concern.
Two or three of the front riders were out of reach for us. While we could get on their tail and get a very helpful tow for a bit; trying to stay with them for too long would’ve resulted in a crash (ours).
That left six or seven other riders around us, including a couple of wild cards that we were surprised to see in amongst it.
We tailed the main competitors around the track. For this track, we wanted to understand:
The places they were weak
Where they were strong
The areas we were weak
Where we were Strong
So if a competitor demonstrated strength at a part of the track that happened to be our weakness and they were behind us, we’d need to take a defensive position.
While understanding the need for a defensive position is useful, it’s not the most important thing to know. We were looking for the places to put in a pass. To do this, we needed to understand the weakest spot for our competitors as they correlated to our strengths.
That showed us where we could put in a pass.
If you are in front, you can capitalise on your competitors’ weaknesses — but only if you understand them. If you find yourself behind, you need to defend your position to make sure you don’t fall further back.
A recent FinTech client makes software for a specific industry vertical. The company was one of, if not the first in the game in their segment. For a software company, being first is both good and bad. On the upside, they have a great stable of customers and industry contacts and knowledge. They also have a solid reputation as a long-term, genuine player and supporter of the industry. On the downside, their software was built before modern web standards and languages and, has to be installed locally at the client’s premise. Client’s love the power and integration with other industry bodies that my client’s software offers. But they also lament the dated interface and, the requests for something that would work in the field on mobile and tablet are growing exponentially. My client also has no sales or marketing team.
New competitors are entering the market. What these new players lack in depth of offering, they make up for with easy installation using a software as a service (SaaS) model and a modern, intuitive interface. The most aggressive competitor took these key strengths and, set to work targeting my clients’ customers via cold calls, on-site visits and at industry meetings and events.
Here is how my client responded:
They developed a ‘light’ version of their current ‘on-prem’ software for mobile and tablet. They offered the new product as a SaaS with a modern interface design. Many of the great features of the original product are provided, including integration with industry applications and industry-specific processes by business type against all the relevant use cases. As you’d expect, the new product integrates seamlessly with their original on-prem product.
With their position now defended, my client could move onto growing market share and securing new customers. They did this by understanding the weaknesses of their competitors’ offerings. Then they looked for the most significant competitor weakness as it correlated to one of their biggest strengths. An entire industry area was missing from all competitor offerings. With only a limited team, they could now target existing and prospective customers within that industry area. Those customers would then be powerful advocates and, for my client’s new product.
The above approach also bought my client the time they needed to redevelop their full product. The new version will have a modern interface and design and will be available on-prem and as a SaaS.
Principle 3: Work with what you have — apply your brain within those limitations
Tarbon in front of our tyres at Ruapuna the previous weekend.
Tarbon’s race report
At this track, the bike leans to the left for roughly 70 per cent of every lap. As such, the left side of the tyre was tearing up badly.
The rules allow for only one rear tyre for the first day, so that tyre needed to get us through tyre scrub, qualifying and a ten-lap race. At the rate it was looking, the tyre wouldn’t make it. If the tyre went off and we lost grip, we’d lose pace, and that would be the end of it. We’d have no choice but to circulate and put a few measly points on the board.
It was the same for everyone, all over the paddock, in every class, the left-hand side of the tyre was rubbish.
The main difference between us and the competition is that they had tyre choice and we did not. Other teams had brought multiple brands of tyres, all in numerous compounds. We had one brand, two compound options and with our issues from yesterday, whatever we put on the bike we’d have to ride that the whole day.
Our competitors had track time yesterday to test their tyre options and, they had a big pool of tyres from which to find the ideal tyre for these conditions. Here is what we did:
We went with the same tyre we did good times on at the Wednesday (unofficial) test day
We decided that we wouldn’t do the full 20-minute qualifying session. Instead, we’d get out there fire in some initial fast times straight up.
Then we’d come back to pits, get the warmers on the bike and wait and watch everyone else’s time.
If we felt like our position on the grid wasn’t good enough, we’d get out there for the last few laps and see if we could gain a place or two.
The team (remember, it’s mum and dad, Tarbon’s best friend and one person who knows how to set up a bike) did a fantastic job of getting the bike on track, firing in a fast time and waiting in pits, tyre warmers on, to see what the next move would be. We were sitting in sixth position, which had us in a respectable place on the second row of the starting grid.
With three minutes to go, one rider stepped up and we decided to get back out and see if we could improve our result. We had to get out, do almost a full warm-up lap to register the start of the fast lap across the start-finish line and then bring in a low 1:06.
We made it across the line before the white flag signalled the final lap; now we could chase that 1:06. We got caught up in lap traffic but managed to clear it before crossing the start-finish line. With a clear track ahead we were looking good for that sweet time. We recorded the time we needed, but the chequered flag went up, and we were unsure if it would count. We’d have to wait for the official race sheet to be taped to the race control window to know.
It turns out the person in front of us got pipped as well, and we ended up beside him on the grid, three rows back.
The competition we were trying to get ahead of started 7th on the grid, and we were 8th. 0:00.005 of a second separated us.
It’s better to spend your energy working within the limitations than it is to spend all your time trying to change the conditions, and quite likely achieve nothing.
One team I worked with faced a roll-out of a new digital platform to tens of thousands of staff with a $40k budget and little formal support.
The team needed to make that budget count. Here is what they did:
Captured the deliverables and, the necessary skills to realise these
Created a map of both the capability AND the interest area of each team member
Focussed attention and funding on the area that the team had the least ability AND the least interest in delivering
I’ve come to embrace limitations.
In my youth, I’d spend my efforts figuring out how to extend the field markers and the rules. Now I find there is more to gain more by applying creative thinking and, playing the hand dealt — whatever that might be.
You can still focus on the ‘long-game’ as a separate stream running alongside. Teams that get some success within the current environment and, then go on and challenge the status quo are more likely to effect change.
Principle 4: When you see the opportunity give it everything you have
Tarbon ahead of last year’s series winner, Avalon Biddle.
Tarbon’s race report
In the final race, we were 5.6 seconds behind last year’s series runner-up Toby Summers. That seemed like an impossible gap to close, but he started to fall away. With every lap, we were making gains.
We’d had a problem calculating fuel at this track. The bike was already underpowered compared to our competitors; so we needed to lighten the bike any way we could. Fuel was the only variable. We put as little fuel in as practicable — we allowed for the race, a restart, an extra five laps to cover in and out laps and, a little bit extra for good luck. Over the weekend our fuel usage fluctuated by as much as one-third from one race to the next. It was the same bike, same fuel, same conditions.
There were five laps to go and, the fuel light went on. We knew we had top fitness, and we kept pushing. We didn’t know if the fuel would last, but we were going to chase Toby down no matter what.
Sometimes, you have to go easy, conserve resources and bring it home. But every so often there is an opportunity to step up and do something exceptional. When that opportunity presents itself, believe you can do it and give it everything you have. Don’t give up.
The mind will always give up before the body.
Principle 4: Look ahead and line up your move early
Tarbon’s race report
If you want to make a move in a particular place, you have to line it up a few corners beforehand to get the drive. On the final lap, right before the finish line, we made my move at the ‘Bus Stop.’ But that pass started way earlier.
Toby is the oldest rider in the class. He’s in his 40s and has been racing all his life. He’s an animal on-track, and he is 100% out there to win. Last season Toby consistently ran firsts and seconds.
Toby would not have expected us to go past him at that place. Making a move at the Bus Stop is high-risk. You go right-left-right in about that much time. If you get anything wrong, you’re straight into the wall with high curbs and no run-off.
Overtaking Toby on the final lap in this place gave us the element of surprise; it also left Toby no opportunity to recover as we passed him with only 250 meters between us and the finish line.
When we got back to pits and, opened the fuel tank, we were down to fumes. If there’d been a restart, we wouldn’t have finished. In addition to losing points, and getting a DNF (Did Not Finish), we’d have been slapped with a $400 fine for running out of fuel on track and, looked silly.
You’ve seen the movies. The ones that plan, and wait and then execute are the ones that win. For businesses, this includes the following steps:
Have a clear vision of the job ahead
Create a solid plan to achieving that vision
Ensure you have the adequate ‘fitness’ and information to carry out the plan successfully
Flawless execution — because you are fit, smart, informed and choose the perfect timing
Continue momentum out the other side to ensure you keep that advantage
Principle 5: Celebrate wins, but don’t get complacent
Tarbon fizzing on new gear FTW!
Tarbon’s race report
Whether Toby underestimated us or took the gap he had for granted, it doesn’t matter. In this race, our fitness and his complacency won us the advantage and allowed us to pass him. But Toby is a seasoned rider, and we don’t expect him to underestimate us, or make this kind of mistake again.
We’ve increased our training program. We are looking at every aspect of bike set up. We know Toby will be doing the same. We expect nothing less.
Jack Welch finishes his address to leaders by telling them that their job is to make work fun and to celebrate every success. Celebrate every little win. If you add up all the small victories, you get a huge win. We found a reason to bring a cake in on everything! — Jack Welch
Celebrating success is important, but it is also important not to rest on your laurels. The businesses that have a culture of improvement are the ones that win.
Netflix is the poster child for reinvention right now; with roots in the physical DVD business, Netflix is now using data to collate the best viewing selection for users.
Netflix started by renting DVDs through the mail, April 1998. At that time, only 2% of the US market had a DVD player; the founders knew that if the market reached 20%, they would have a viable business. Eventually, the market grew to 95%.
In 1999 Netflix moved to a subscription model and, gained 239,000 subscribers in its first year. It went on to build a customer base of 1 million subscribers by 2003.
“As of today, Netflix is by far the number one online player of series and movies, with 11.7 billion revenues in 2017 and 125 million customers who all pay a monthly fee. Furthermore, Netflix’s business model has evolved into a service-based, nonlinear model.” Source: BMI — Netflix: How a DVD rental company changed the way we spend our free time
About the New Zealand SuperBike Series 2020
The New Zealand SuperBike Series runs over the New Zealand summer January to April with five rounds, the first two occur over consecutive weekends in the South Island and, the final three are in the North Island.
Ruapuna Raceway, Christchurch, 11/12 January
Levels Raceway, Timaru. The ‘lessons’ are from the Timaru race, 18/19 January
‘Motor Fest’ — Hamptons Down Raceway, Hampton Downs, 7/8 March
Chris Amon Circuit, Manfeild, 28/29 March
Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park, Taupo, 4/5 April.
Follow Tarbon https://www.facebook.com/tarbonwalker21