Cetrom CEO in the Washington Business Journal: How I …

This article originially appeared at the Washington Business Journal’s website here. Cloud computing and road racing rarely go together, and yet, they make up the pillars of Christopher Stark’s life. By day, he’s CEO of Cetrom, a cloud computing firm based in Vienna. But in his time off, he can often be found driving 180 to 210 miles per hour on racetracks around the country.

How often do you do race car driving? I’m what is called a “gentleman’s driver.” I have a full-time job and other responsibilities, but I think driving is definitely one of many facets and interests I have. Race car driving seems to be the least risky of some of the things I like to do [laughs]. Probably about four or five times a year. Not local — I actually go to a different location, like Monterey, California, or Austin, Texas. I’ve been down to Daytona and raced on that track, Wisconsin, there are a couple tracks in New York.

Why do you go to those tracks? It’s one of those experiences that, if you’re going to do it, you might as well go to some of the best. For example, Monterey, California, has a racetrack called Laguna Seca. And Laguna Seca is a track that’s been around for many, many years. If you’re in the racing industry, it’s one of the top five tracks that people would want to go — extremely challenging, extremely fast, very technical and really pushes you to your limits on many different levels.

What kind of racing do you do? Road racing, not oval racing. There’s a big difference in technique and style of racing between oval versus road racing. Road racing, you have a lot of rights and lefts. You have a couple straightaways where you really get your speed up, but then there’s a lot of S-curves, a lot of apex strategy where you’re going left to right, setting yourself up for the next turn or even for two to three turns from now. Oval racing — your traditional, we’ll call it NASCAR oval training — you’re at a constant speed going around a big circle, a lot of left-hand turns.

How did you get started with road racing? I accidentally fell into it. The true story is that I was between cars, and I was looking for a new car. So one of my friends recommended it. I had a BMW 7-series before, and I was kind of bored. I didn’t want to go BMW, but I didn’t really know anything else on the market. I’d already gone through the Porsches, etc. A friend of mine said, “Hey, why don’t you look at AMG,” which is a sports division of a Mercedes. When I bought the car, they gave me this coupon with a free training class, and I’m like, “Oh, sure, why not.” I got the bug, immediately. That’s actually a similar story of how Patrick Dempsey actually got into it — I met him at a couple events. A couple of the celebrities are what I’d call gentlemen drivers.

What did you do to stick with it? So, right away, I started booking myself for other classes. There are different levels: You start at a basic, and then you go to advanced level, and then you go through what is called “pro,” professional, classes. Obviously I’ve gone through the basic and advanced. I’ve been through about 15, 20 pro courses over the last three to five years, and we just go to different locations and we meet. We’re not full-time racers, so it doesn’t make sense for us to own this equipment. They provide the cars. They provide the instructors. They provide the pit crew. They provide the analysis of your driving — a lot of computer time, analyzing how you’re entering turns, etc. And it’s just been progressing.

How does it relate to your business life? You meet amazing people who are also passionate about the sport, but then there’s a lot of business that takes place. For example, one of my classes up in Laguna Seca, I was driving with a gentleman, and we just bonded and clicked. He knew my name, I knew his name, but that’s about it. And about five days into it, I said, “Hey, by the way, what do you do for a living, other than doing this?” And he was like, “Yeah, I used to be in television.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK, which news?” He said, “Well, I just retired. I was the CEO of HBO.” I’m like, “Oh, OK, that’s different!” You meet some very interesting people. It’s like any sport or event. It’s built on relationships and passion. I met a couple of other interesting people — Reba McEntire and her son, he’s in racing.

What’s your favorite thing about it? It’s extremely challenging mentally — yes, physically also, but more mental. A lot of concentration, a lot of technique. There really is a science behind the sport. It’s not just getting in a car and pushing it as far as you can. It’s something I’ve never done. It really pushes your personal gut check. When you’re approaching a 90-degree turn at about 190 miles per hour, and the difference between pushing the brake a half a second later than you should is the difference between staying on the track and going off the track, that’s an immense amount of concentration focusing on the sport. But it also challenges you emotionally. It puts you outside your normal comfort zone. You know if you make the wrong mistake, the side effects are not so good. What’s kind of funny is I’m not actually an adrenaline junkie. I have no desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane or do anything like that. It’s just something that’s sort of popped up out of nowhere. I’ve always been fascinated with cars and loved speed and nice cars, but I never thought I’d be on a track doing 180 to 210 miles per hour.

What was your first car? A BMW 325i [laughs]. My first car, when I was 17 years old, was a BMW 325i. My first race car would probably be the Mercedes AMG SLS. Probably you’ve never heard of that car because there are less than 5,000 of them in the world. They’re not even advertised by Mercedes.

What is your dream car? I’m going to have to think about that. I’ve driven and owned some amazing vehicles over the years. So that’s kind of a tough one for me. I really don’t have a dream one right now. The ones that I dreamt about, I went out and acquired and drove them for six months or so and then moved on [laughs]. So far, my favorite car I’ve driven is probably the Mercedes SLS. Immense amount of power, immense amount of handling. It’s designed to be on the track but also can be on the road. It’s comfortable for some passengers. It’s a 628-horsepower, two-seater monster that can get up to 180 really quickly and drive at those speeds very comfortably. It’s what I call a Ferrari-killer, so it kills the Ferraris, even on the track.

What has road racing taught you about cloud computing or about running a business? There are many different sports, not just racing, that I’ve participated in, whether it be football or the military or racing or even golf, that have all contributed to the many different facets of being a CEO of a company. First and foremost, even though you’re the driver on the exact vehicle and you’re out there on the track, what you realize very quickly is it’s a teamwork approach to doing that sport and also to running a business. Without the right team, whether you’re on the track or running a business, you won’t be successful at what you’re doing, period. It’s not the individual in the car, it’s the team that’s supporting you, that’s prepping the car. It’s the training, it’s the walking around the track or the planning, and then of course the execution and follow-through as you’re racing around the track. And that’s very much in line with anything you do in business: It’s the preparation. It’s the planning. It’s the communication. It’s dealing with the obstacles that come up either during a race or during a project or a migration for a client. It’s unbelievably key that you have the right team by your side, working together as one unit, communicating, drumming to the same drumbeat, executing a project for a client. You have to trust your teammates. In racing, you’re putting your life in their hands. In IT and cloud computing, you’re putting our clients data in our engineers’ hands, making sure that we didn’t lose something or something didn’t go incorrectly.

Read the full story at the Washington Business Journal’s website here.

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