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Driven Raceway: Tracking Business
By Richard Bammer
Matt Stearn (left) and Rod Towery co-own
Driven Raceway, a new indoor electric go-kart
track that opened Saturday in Fairfield.
Rohnert Park-based Driven Raceway opens Fairfield store
Who would guess that a Northern California electric gokart company would expand and grow during a fragile, jobless recovery, not too far removed from the wake of the deepest recession since the Great Depression?
But, apparently, enough consumer entertainment dollars are being spent at Driven Raceway in Rohnert Park — which features an indoor track and sporty, red Italianmade karts capable of reaching 45 mph — that the two coowners decided to open a second facility in Fairfield.
Matt Stearn and Rod Towery on Saturday celebrated the grand opening of their newest business just off Interstate 80, at 1560 Gateway Blvd., in a 34,000-square-foot space that used to be a Circuit City store.
They financed both locations — the Rohnert Park store opened a year ago — with loans from Sonoma Countybased Redwood Credit Union and backing by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The limit on such loans was $2 million until President Barack Obama on Sept. 27 signed the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010. With the stroke of a pen, he raised the limit to $5 million, enough to make Driven Raceway and similarly sized businesses nationwide eligible for future loans. The federal government guarantees up to 90 percent of such loan amounts.
"We have pretty good relationships with lending institutions," said Stearn, company CEO whose background includes marketing and sales for several high-tech firms. "The increase from $2 to $5 million affects our long-term expansion plan, for third and fourth facilities."
Italian Race Karts lined up
and ready to race!
But dreams of additional expansion, as intoxicating as they may be, are on hold for now, he said, adding that opening a third track would depend on finding "the right location at the right price." The company is growing in a weak economic recovery, in part, by landing good deals on vacant commercial retail space and locking in good, recession-era rates through leases.
He and Towery, the chief operations officer and responsible for the company’s day-today business, chose Fairfield after doing their "due diligence" homework, noting the city’s size, median income level and proximity to Rohnert Park, about a 45- minute drive away.
"Solano County was a prime target for us," said Stearn, a former Air Force Special Forces noncommissioned officer who earned a master’s degree in business. "We wanted to break into a footprint of expansion that’s relatively close, opening up a remote site and still have active management. Additionally, Fairfield looked attractive for several other reasons, including its demographics of young families, lots of schools, the lack of another indoor kart raceway in the vicinity and Travis Air Force Base," he said.
Having two locations will not necessarily overburden the business partners, Stearn said, because staff and managers can coordinate sales and activities, such as birthdays, private parties and corporate, team-building events for both facilities.
The company’s mission, he noted, is to provide "a positive and unbelievable experience" at the facility, roughly the size of four tennis courts, of which the track — looped and configured with movable red-and-black plastic safety barriers on freshly smoothed concrete floors — takes up well more than half of the space. A customer registration counter, meeting and briefing rooms, a black light minigolf course, two mini bowling alleys, a video game arcade and snack bar take up the rest.
Towery noted that, besides its entertainment offerings, the business is somewhat "green" in nature. The surface- hugging karts — also sporting black, white and yellow markings — are electric, not gas-powered, emissionfree and environmentally friendly, electronically controlled to slow down or even stop the karts, individually or en masse, at any time for safety reasons. Still, the track’s charging stations do, indeed, pull a sizable amount of electricity from the grid during business hours, Towery conceded. If it were possible, profitable and agreeable to the building’s owner, the company would rely on solar energy to power the businesses, he added.
"Not only do we bring something fun to the city, something that is exciting and clean, it also adds value to the city by creating (35) jobs," Stearn said. "That’s not enormous, but it makes us feel good. We feel like we’re contributing back to the economy. We obviously have to make money to have a sustainable business. It’s tough out there." But he declined to divulge annual revenues — or anticipated revenues — saying the company was privately held and that he and Towery are independent business owners.
Saturday’s grand opening was a culmination of nearly a year’s work, including nearly four months of remodeling, said Towery, standing inside the new store and sporting a Driven Raceway T-shirt over black shorts on a hot day early last week.
He noted that navigating the small-business loan market is sometimes frustrating and persistence is required. "The catch is, you can’t get funding unless you get a location and you can’t get a location unless you can get funding," he said.
Stearn, clad in the company’s signature red-and-black colors, nodded in agreement, adding, "It’s not just the capital investment the banks are making — they’re also investing in your intellect and knowledge of the business."