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Executive Diversions
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 3 weeks ago

Hit the gas: Businessman chases high-speed thrills

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Entrepreneur by day, race car driver by night. That’s Chris Ruppel.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

EXECUTIVE: Chris Ruppel, an entrepreneur who founded Rapid Financial Services before selling it in 2011 to Wex Inc. At present, he serves as general manager of wage and corporate disbursements for Green Dot Corp., in addition to being a member of St. Petersburg-based Freedom Bank’s board of directors and a founder of the Press Hotel, a boutique property in Portland, Maine.

DIVERSION: Ruppel, 47, got into semi-pro auto racing about four years ago. At first he raced a street-legal Porsche. Now he hits the track in a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup Car, a factory-built race car that carries a price tag of $300,000 brand new and can reach speeds of up to 150 mph. Ruppel uses the car, a 2010 model that cost him and his fellow Press Hotel investors about $100,000, to promote the hotel. He competes at events in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. “It’s been a great diversion for me, and a nice selling point for the hotel,” he says.

“People commonly think racing is all about adrenaline, but the reality is you have to stay very calm and engaged; adrenaline makes you stiff.” Chris Ruppel, Green Dot Corp. general manager and semi-pro race car driver

DRIVER’S ED: Ruppel says it takes a substantial amount of training to safely control a high-performance race car, let alone be competitive in a race. In 2012, he enrolled in a high-performance driving school sponsored by Porsche. In 2016, he got more serious about his hobby and hired a driving instructor to train him so he could acquire his racing license.

One of the most important lessons? Stay calm. “People commonly think racing is all about adrenaline,” Ruppel says, “but the reality is you have to stay very calm and engaged. Adrenaline makes you stiff; it makes you not move in a fluid way. When you tense up and get excited, you will make a mistake, and making a mistake in a race car means you’ve spun off the track.”

NO STRANGER TO RISK: Ruppel also has a pilot’s license and used to fly a private plane for business travel. That experience gave him skills that translated well to racing. “There are parallels in terms of the precision required to fly an airplane," he says. "It’s about being very precise in your actions and maneuvers.” Flying also made Ruppel — and his family — more tolerant of the risks involved in racing. “My wife was much more nervous about flying,” he says. “From a family perspective, I haven’t heard as much concern over safety.”

DIFFERENT BUT SAME: Ruppel has also noticed many similarities between racing and business. Racing, he says, “is the most intense, fun hobby I’ve had in my adult lifetime, but I think it has parallels to business. Patience, timing and focus are all needed, and of course you need to take the time to hone your skills. You have to be prepared and patient — nobody wins the race on the first lap, but you can certainly put yourself out of the race early on.”

And much like business, where competitors are trying to take away your customers and market share, “if you don’t stay focused and drive to your greatest ability, you’re giving away time that your competitor takes.”

CRASH TEST: Ruppel has never sustained a serious injury — “other than injuring my ego,” he says — while racing, but he did damage his car during a road race in Atlanta. It happened when wet pavement caused him to hit a curb, spinning the car backward and into a protective barrier wall.

PHYSICAL PREPARATION: Driving a race car is “more physically demanding than you might think,” Ruppel says. “There’s no power steering, power brakes or traction control. You have to be in shape. Most people in the sport do a reasonable amount of cardio conditioning and some form of weight training.”

BATTLE OF WITS: In Ruppel’s experience, a winning race car driver doesn’t necessarily have the faster car. Instead, success comes from preparation, situational awareness and expertly timed execution of strategy. “You have to learn to study the traits of your competitor so you can figure out where to execute a pass, or where they are likely to pass you, so you can play defense,” he says. “And you have to do all of that in a very high-stress, focused environment. It’s amazingly fun, but you can never be complacent, just like in business. Every turn, every lap, you have to be on your mark."

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