Fassnacht likes risk, on the job and on the track

By on December 6, 2017
Matt Fassnacht made a stop at Akron’s Roland Park recently as he trailered his No. 74 Mazda Miata to a track near his home in northern New Jersey. Photo by Dick Wanner

Matt Fassnacht made a stop at Akron’s Roland Park recently as he trailered his No. 74 Mazda Miata to a track near his home in northern New Jersey. Photo by Dick Wanner

When Matt Fassnacht was growing up on Wolf Road in Akron, he and a few of his buddies cobbled together motorless go-karts from sets of wheels attached to scraps of lumber.

They used ropes to steer. Over coffee in his parents’ kitchen recently – Dave and Darlene, his parents, still live in the house on Wolf Road – Fassnacht recalled rolling down his driveway in one of those carts, turning right onto Wolf Road, and gaining speed for the left turn onto Fulton Street, half a block away.

The group also sometimes traipsed up the Fulton Street hill for a more-or-less straight 500-yard run from Fifth Street to Front Street. Fulton Street has a respectable slope, and the kart boys eventually figured out how to add brakes to their rigs.

Those Fulton Street runs may have been the most dangerous part of Fassnacht’s embrace of things that go fast. Now he races real cars, with motors, on tracks all over the U.S. and Canada. And on October 28, he became a sports car racing champion.

Fassnacht, who now lives in northern New Jersey, has been racing seriously since 2008 and professionally for the past two years. Just over a month ago he won the 2017 Pirelli World Challenge in the Touring Car A series. The PWC TCA series is sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America and other racing organizations. In 2016, his first year as a pro, Fassnacht was rookie of the year in the 12-race TCA challenge. His rides to the champion’s trophy have all been Mazda Miatas.

To the uninitiated – this reporter, for example – understanding exactly what Fassnacht did takes a bit of explanation.

First, the car. His Mazda Miata MX-5 Cup car, the one he used to cap his 2017 season, was built as a street-legal sports car in the company’s plant in Hiroshima, Japan. From there it went to Long Road Racing in Statesville, N.C., where it was ripped totally apart. Then it got some 250 race car modifications to brakes, steering, suspension, transmission, tires, shifters and, most importantly, the same kind of remarkable safety cage that saves the lives of NASCAR drivers who, in a wreck, can go airborne, flip, roll and come to the kind of horrific stop that occurs when 2400 pounds (in the Miata’s case) of metal and rubber smash into an immovable object, like an outfield wall.

(A bit of full disclosure – Matt’s parents, Dave and Darlene, are long-time friends of this reporter. We all graduated the same year from Ephrata High School. Matt’s mom and dad sat in on most of the interview, although Darlene tended to leave the room when the conversation turned to crashes.)

Contacted by phone, Glenn Long, who owns Long Road Racing, said he and his crew have sold about 165 MX-5 Cup cars since Mazda unveiled the model two years ago. While they rip the car apart and put it back together with race-worthy parts engineered for dependability and safety, there are two components they don’t change – the engine and the car’s electronic control unit. The engine and the control unit are, in fact, sealed in Statesville, making those components inaccessible to the drivers and teams who buy the cars and their mechanics. They’re the same when they leave Statesville as they were when they left Hiroshima. A car that shows evidence of tampering with the engine or the electronics is disqualified from PWC races.

Long Road Racing is the only company in the world licensed to build the MX-5 Cup car, Long said. By design, and according to LRR’s contract with Mazda, every car that leaves the shop is identical to every other MX-5 Cup car that leaves the shop.

Pirelli World Challenge races are designed to showcase driver skills rather than engineering feats, Long said. When they leave Statesville, the cars have to be trailered or trucked, since they’re no longer street legal.

Miatas are not the only cars eligible for the PWC Touring Car A 12-race annual series. Also cleared for racing are the Honda Civic SI, Ford Focus, Scion FR-S and Kia Forte.

The most crucial part of the car, or course, is the one that fills the driver’s seat. That would be Matt Fassnacht. All of his six-foot-five athletic self actually fits comfortably into the Miata’s cab. The car is a favorite of drivers like Fassnacht, who want to race at a professional level, but who make a living doing something else. Fassnacht is an assistant portfolio manager and analyst with HHR Asset Management in Berkley Heights, N.J., about a 15-minute drive – legal highway speeds, of course – from the home he shares with his wife, Laura, and their three children, Aidan, 15, Christian, 13, and Annabelle, 11. All three of the kids are motorized go kart drivers, but Annabelle seems to be the most cerebral on the track, according to their dad.

(A revelation which may lead to some interesting breakfast conversations between the siblings.)

Fassnacht has been around car talk since before he could talk. His father, David, who recently retired as a CPA, has been working on cars, going to races and watching races since his high school days.

Except for the legendary black ‘49 Ford (or maybe it was a ‘48) he drove in high school, the senior Fassnacht has been a diehard fan of the Volvo marque for half-a-century. Darlene, his wife, became accustomed to seeing her husband under the hood and the crawling beneath chassis in the early days of their marriage. But until Matt began racing seriously, she was not a big fan of racing.

There is this anecdote shared by David. He and Darlene went to the Maple Grove Raceway one time years ago in his ‘67 Volvo, which he had souped up a bit. They had been watching drag racers compete for best times on the quarter-mile track when Dave left the stands for awhile, presumably to get a hot dog, use the bathroom, etc. When he got back to the stands, Darlene told him he just missed a guy in a ‘67 Volvo – which looked just like Dave’s car. It had won the race.

Shortly after Dave disappeared from the stands for the second time, that very same car, which was actually Dave’s ‘67 Volvo with Dave at the wheel, roared down the track, winning its race and the class for the day.

The jig was up, of course, and the Fassnacht wife/mom knew, as she’d always known, that cars would be a factor in her life.

A few years later, Matt had his driver’s license and he went to Maple Grove in his own ‘71 Volvo with the engine bored and balanced and equipped with a racing cam. He smoked his tires going into the starting gate, prompting the announcer to mockingly say he didn’t know that a Volvo could even spin its tires. The Maple Grove crowd in those days didn’t much cotton to foreign cars.

There was no joking about Fassnacht’s 14-second run down the track, beating most of the other cars in his class by a six-second margin and capturing the trophy for his class. He still wasn’t the most popular guy at Maple Grove, but he had a trophy. And the beginning of something.

Driving had to take a back seat to the business of business, getting married, starting a family, being responsible, settling down, etc., etc. But still, there was that feeling Fassnacht got behind the wheel.

Fassnacht graduated from Penn State in 1991 with a degree in marketing. He spent five years working in the packaging industry, before going on to Wharton for an MBA in finance and accounting, which led to a job as a vice president with a long job description at J.P. Morgan. The hours were long, 100 hours a week at first, which he eventually whittled down to 70 or 80. He hated the job. By the time J.P. Morgan merged with Chase, he’d had enough. He took some time out to think, thought about driving and enrolled in the Skip Barber Racing School in Lime Rock, Conn., with no real intention of racing seriously. He just wanted to learn how to be a better driver.

Fast forward to 2008, when his brother-in-law and his wife gave him a gift certificate to a second Skip Barber racing school. He called the school, told them he wanted to go to another school, get a racing license and actually compete in some of their races.

He was 40 years old and it was time to get serious about competition. He had seen his older brother, David R. – their father is David C. – compete as an outstanding baseball, basketball and football player at Ephrata High School and later as a kicker on the University of Pennsylvania football team. Matt was a skier and golfer in high school, and was on Penn State’s ski team, but stayed away from team sports.

Matt had also watched his brother’s rise in the world of high finance to a senior management position with Wellington Management, one of the world’s largest money managers.

David’s success in sports and business, Matt said, helped him see what he could do with his own life and career.

“The fact that we ended up in the same career may have had something to do with sibling rivalry,” Matt said, “but more importantly my brother has been a great example for me. He showed me what can be done, and I’m grateful for that.”

Although HHR is a fraction of the size of Wellington Management, both brothers are involved in investing chunks of money for firms on behalf of institutions, pension funds, nonprofits, corporations and wealthy individuals.

Matt’s firm invests in growth stocks. There are rewards for making good decisions. But there are risks, too. Wrong decisions can cost the firm and its clients tons and tons of money. He likes risk. He likes it in his job and in his sport. We didn’t ask him how well he does in his job, because that would be nosy, but he’s a champion in his sport, a professional driver. Draw your own conclusions.

“Professional” refers to the level of competition. Although some of the world’s highest paid athletes are race car drivers, most drivers spend more than they earn.

“There’s a saying in the sport,” Fassnacht said. “The saying is that if you want to be a million-dollar race car driver, you have to start with 10 million.”

We didn’t ask Fassnacht about any of the arrangements he might have with sponsors who may or may not be paying for his No. 74 Miata, race entry fees, his fire proof suit, or the costs of hauling the car from Lime Rock, Pa., to Toronto, to Monterey, Calif., and points in between. It’s clearly expensive, but the car manufacturers, tire companies and other automotive enterprises benefit from the exposure that racing provides, and from the data they glean from the way the cars and their components perform in the heat of competition. Without their financial support, sports car racing would most certainly be a whisper of what it is.

Fassnacht bought his car from Long Road Racing and turned it over to Flatout Motorsports, which has a facility at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, N.J. Flatout does everything for the car but drive it. Owners like Fassnacht, who lead the kind of busy and successful lives that let them buy into the sport, need “arrive and drive” businesses like Flatout to take care of maintenance, transportation and repairs.

When No. 74 is due at a racing venue, Flatout gets it there, Fassnacht arrives with his helmet, gets into the car and about 70 percent of the time, ends up on the podium in number one, two or three spot. The spreadsheet he’s maintained for his professional starts shows him winning 25 percent of his races.

“But it’s not just about what I want to do,” Fassnacht said. “I’m part of a team of maybe 20 people. There’s a team principal and a crew chief telling me what to do. I have to obey them. It’s in my contract.”

Fassnacht is a professional driver for the S.A.C. Racing team in Stratford, Conn. S.A.C. fielded a five-car team of Mazda MX-5 Cup cars for the 2017 PWC TCA series. With his individual series championship, Fassnacht helped his S.A.C. teammates capture their second PWC TCA championship in a row, and they helped Mazda win the manufacturer’s trophy as well.

Fassnacht has thought a lot about the fact that racing takes him away from home and family 12 weekends out of the year. But, he said, family goes with him and the kids love race days. His boss at HHR is also a race driver, and when either one of them is gone from Wednesday through Saturday of any given race week, they are able to connect with the office through their laptops and phones while they’re on the road.

On the 40 weekends he is at home, Fassnacht said he thinks he’s a better person for the racing experience. He needs an outlet and it needs to be exciting. Which racing certainly is.

“I don’t race because I want to do it for a living,” he said. “I’m doing it because I want to test myself at the highest level, with the help of the best people, competing against the best people and with the best equipment.”

NOTE: To experience 17 minutes behind the wheel of a Mazda MX-5 Cup car, go to YouTube and search for Matt Farah MX-5 Cup Racer. Watch it on the biggest screen you have. Farah is a professional racer and journalist.

To check out how Long Road Racing turns a factory car into a track monster, check out their YouTube video at Long Road Racing MX-5. A lot of techie talk in this 16-minute video, but it’s interesting, and you get the feeling that the LRR crew is a really nice group of people.

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