The First-Person Project

Tristan Herbert ’01

Ashburn, VA

Manager, Motorsport and Customer Racing, Audi of America, Herndon, VA

Major: Graphic Design

I was always athletic; I played a lot of sports growing up in Virginia. After high school, I enrolled at Lynchburg College in Virginia. It made sense because it was local and affordable, but I was drawn to winter sports and I really wanted to go to a school in an area where I could go snowboarding and enjoy winter sports. I’ve always loved the snow. I took a year off and I worked at Mt. Snow. Then I found out that Keene State had a really good liberal arts program for graphic design, which was something I wanted to pursue. I’ve always had an interest in creativity. So I transferred.

I was working for Budweiser at the time, doing a snowboarding tour, so I would take the spring semesters off for the tour and then come back for summer school and the fall semesters. One of my fondest memories was of a summer class in Native American history. My family has some Cherokee background, and it turned out to be among my favorite classes.

The graphic design field was on the verge of dramatic changes back then. We focused on print stuff, but the Internet, web design, and computer graphics were just starting to kick off. When I got out of school, I refocused my direction and taught myself web design, but still used basic principles from what I learned in graphic design classes at Keene State.

My girlfriend at the time – now my wife – was in school in South Carolina when I was in Keene. Stephanie and I grew up together and we both came back to Virginia after we graduated. We got married two or three years later and have been married for 13 years now.

Up until 2012 I worked in the field of graphic design. Meanwhile, cars and racing were my hobby. I grew up working on Porsches with my dad. We would go to the local racetrack all the time and watch the races. I would tell my dad that was something I wanted to do one day. My wife actually used to go with her dad, and she had an interest in it as well. In 2008 I started club racing, and I bought my first racecar. It was a real junker, an ’84 Rapid GTI. I tinkered with it, fixed it up, and got my race license from a local club group, the Sports Car Club of America. I ran the first year and won the championship. The second year I went to a newer car and I won the championship again. And then I went to Nationals, and won that championship. I’d been driving Volkswagen products, and in 2010, the Volkswagen Group approached me with an opportunity to drive in a Florida race called Streets of St. Petersburg. When I won that race, it just launched my whole driving career. I did more races, and the successes continued.

It got to the point where I was having a hard time balancing my work life and my racing life. My employer was really nice about it, but eventually he suggested that I may want to consider working in the racing field. In 2013, I was offered a job managing Lamborghini’s Race Program, which they launched that year.

It was funny because it was a total 180. At the time I was doing government contract work as a web designer. When I heard about the job opening, I went home and I talked to my wife. I said that I was interested in interviewing for this job in motor sports. It’s my passion, it’s my hobby: What do you think? And she said, Go for it. So I interviewed here in Virginia at the North American headquarters for Lamborghini. Then I flew over to Italy the next day and did a nine-hour interview there. They hired me, and I ran the race program for a year, and then was promoted to take over the Audi Motorsports program, which is a much larger-scale program. Audi and Lamborghini are both owned by the Volkswagen Group, along with Bugatti and Bentley. We’re actually all in the same building, on different floors.

For me, the appeal of racing is the precision of it, and also the comradery. The driver has the responsibility of keeping the car in one piece, and of racing. But it’s also up to the crew to manage the car and it’s up to the team manager to manage the logistics. There are a lot of pieces involved. It’s not just focused on one guy. So I always enjoyed that team effort.

These days I’m too busy working at the races to race myself. The management piece is really time-consuming. I am responsible for the whole business piece, so I’m the budget custodian, I manage the profit and loss, I do all of the sales for the cars, I talk to the teams. A lot of technical issues come up, too. Within each series you have to have a representative who’s kind of a political lobbyist, who lobbies to make changes to the car to ensure the car stays competitive. So say you have 10 brands all fighting in a race series, all marketing different products. There has to be a person who sits there and says, This guy’s a little bit faster than us. For Audi, that person is me. I’ll present ideas and changes to the car to make it as quick as the other brand. That’s always the case in motorsports. You’ll find it in any series that you go to. There’s always that fight to keep the car competitive. And that’s very time consuming. And on top of that we are always looking at progressions in the program through the coming three years. What products are coming related to motor sports that, at the end of the day, promote the street cars that we sell? – because that’s what drives our motorsports program. We obviously have to have a connection to what we sell on the street.

I used to be this guy, when I was a graphic designer, with a skillset that put me in front of a computer for ten hours a day. You interact with the screen and you put on headphones and you get in the zone. Now, I’m in a suit and tie presenting to board members on strategy. It’s definitely been a learning curve. I’ve never been a public speaker per se, but I will tell you one thing that did help me was that I took a public speaking class at Keene State. It was terrifying. But I still use some of the things I learned from that class, even today.

I wouldn’t change what I do for anything. The travel piece gets a little tiring sometimes. You know, 30 weekend out of 52 I am away from home, I’m away from my wife. That can be frustrating because motorsports doesn’t care or have time for weddings, funerals, birthdays, all that stuff. It’s definitely a tough balance, but Stephanie understands and she’s supportive about it, so we just plan to make up for it in other ways. We plan really nice vacations, when the time is available.

I go to Germany about six or seven times a year. And because we are partnered with some of the other brands like Lamborghini, we have a factory in Barcelona, Spain, and an office in Valencia, Spain, and so I go there often. I’m frequently in Italy. So I kind of go back and forth among those countries. One great perk of the job is the opportunity to go to some really neat places and enjoy learning about other cultures while we are there for meetings.

At this point in my career, I’ve reached the top of the motorsports side. I’m at the highest level that you can get to with sports car racing. I think my knowledge of balancing a purchase-and-loss statement and of high-level business will probably translate to the road car side and street car side at some point. So my hope is that I can at some point move into an upper-level management position related to either parts or accessories, because that’s a big part of my business now. The revenue that I create from selling spare parts to some of these teams is what offsets the running cost.

I’m really busy during the racing weekends. I’m managing the teams, the drivers, and the parts program. I meet with vendors and I also cater our sponsorship programs – we have a lot of sponsors who show up at the race. I also sit in the pit box and make sure the customers are happy. We always have multiple cars running, so there are various strategies for individual races and race series, and I have to keep on top of that. I’m there to answer questions for customers. I’m there to sell cars. So there are a lot of new relationships that are created with trying to win over customers who may be running another brand of car at the moment. A lot goes on.

In the free time I do have, my wife and I do some traveling. Stephanie is the director of a national medical concierge practice, so she’s busy too, but sometimes she’ll fly out to a race with me and we’ll take a couple days off to spend together afterwards. I still snowboard, but I don’t have too many hobbies now that I’ve made my hobby my career. I hope to one day get back to driving race cars myself. I truly miss it, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been considering moving into another side of the business that doesn’t require as much travel.

Still, the job I have now is really exciting. It’s one of those things where if you’re new to it, it’s amazing. It’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever done. I do often try to step back and realize how lucky I am to have an opportunity like this. If I hadn’t made the decision to leap into something new, I probably would just be sitting in traffic every day doing the same thing – Groundhog Day – over and over again. I’m very thankful for that.