Workspace: Former restaurant manager now enjoys selling the racing experience

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  • | 12:00 p.m. July 16, 2014
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Safety first: Autobahn requires all racers to wear protective headgear and has plenty of colors and sizes to borrow.
Safety first: Autobahn requires all racers to wear protective headgear and has plenty of colors and sizes to borrow.
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Go-karts have been a fast business for Autobahn Indoor Speedway, but not just on the tracks.

Tucked away in a business park off Philips Highway near Butler Boulevard, the facility isn’t readily visible — but its eager racers have hurried to try out the indoor racing facility.

“There hasn’t been a slow day,” said Donald Wagner, the Jacksonville facility’s general manager. “We were expecting to be busy … but we weren’t expecting this.”

The business opened in June and held a grand opening July 3. In the first month, Wagner said business is almost double what officials had hoped. Saturdays, the busiest days, can attract up to 600 customers — this past weekend saw 1,300 racers.

Customers tend to average two races per visit, choosing either the speed-friendly Le Mans or technical-savvy Monaco tracks.

Wagner’s been in the driver’s seat since he joined the parent company in December. The day after Christmas, he headed to Jessup, Md., outside of Baltimore to learn the business at the company’s first location.

Now he’s handling the general manager role, human resources, marketing and other aspects of the Jacksonville location that has 40 full-time employees.

“I haven’t had a bad day since I started,” he said.

It’s quite a change from the restaurant industry where he spent the past several years. The managing directors of Autobahn have hotel backgrounds and were looking for someone with Wagner’s background to help launch and manage Jacksonville.

Wagner said the dining and driving businesses both have something in common.

“It’s all hospitality. It’s providing a service … instead of selling food or selling a hotel room, it’s selling a racing experience,” he said.

Summer months tend to draw heavier traffic, so Wagner said a goal is to attract more corporate business, such as team-building excursions.

Breaking up into teams for racing is easy enough, but another idea being mulled takes more coordination — and trust. In that idea, the driver would be blindfolded and led via headset by someone outside the track.

In addition, Wagner said the plan is to have leagues, one an invitation-only league of competitive drivers, the other an “average Joe” format.

The biggest challenge, he said, is finding the right balance each day. Each race allows 10 racers, with some being competitive, some not.

“When you mesh those two worlds … they both have to have an awesome experience, but it doesn’t always work,” he said.

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