Updated 12/29/2011 6:15 pm – This is a fantastic article by Dave Gran & Jake Gulick!! I’ve only posted the first segment to get you interested… please follow the link to get to the whole story.
A Look Into Highcroft Racing
By Dave Gran & Jake Gulick
If you are not familiar with Highcroft Racing, they are a top notch racing organization lead by owner Duncan Dayton. In both 2009 and 2010, Highcroft Racing was crowned American Le Mans Series (ALMS) champions. Additional information can be found at HighcroftRacing.com .
As one arrives at their 48,000 sq ft facility in Danbury, CT, it’s impossible not to be impressed, which is exactly the response Duncan intended. Duncan is a rarity in today’s world, a true Renaissance man. With training in architecture, (he designed the headquarters himself) a very successful background in the real estate business, (enough to launch Highcroft) and professional level driving talent, he’s still a car guy at heart, and welcomed us personally at the front door. While it may not seem like a big deal to some, that simple fact exemplifies what a class act the team is. We felt like kids in a candy store as we eagerly looked around at the beauty and racing history before us. A vintage Ferrari Dino restored to Concourse standards was Duncan’s first hands on restoration, but you’d never know that it wasn’t done by a shop that has won awards at the Pebble Beach Concourse. His vintage Formula Ford 2000, the Lotus 79 that Mario Andretti drove to the 1978 world championship, and of course the 2010 AMLS LMP2 championship winning racecar….still wearing the scars of it’s last race, combine to form an eclectic bunch. We could have easily spent hours enjoying the showroom itself.
It wasn’t until the age of 31 that Duncan first sat in a racecar. He quickly fell in love with the sport and excelled as a driver. After winning several prestigious international historic races, Duncan wanted to take it to the next level, so he and his friend Michael Fitzgerald teamed up to race Formula Ford 2000 in professional competition. In 1996 two of Duncan’s friends, including Fitzgerald, broke their backs in open wheel racecar crashes. Thinking about the potential risks associated with open wheel racing caused him to shift his focus to sports car racing. Duncan went on to participate in GrandAM, IMSA and of course, ALMS, where he continued to excel. But it wasn’t enough. In 2006 Duncan opened the doors to Highcroft Racing (named after the neighborhood he grew up in Minneapolis) with a state-of-the-art facility. When asked why he choose to base the shop in CT, Duncan stated this is where he lives and proceeded to talk about some of the local racing heritage. Step one was to purchase a second-hand Lola, and with that, the team participated in ALMS races during the 2006 season with Duncan co-driving. Even with this older car, they proved themselves to be a serious threat giving them the creditability needed to convince Honda to accept a formal bid for manufacturer support. Duncan and friend Danny Sullivan (best known for his 1985 Indy 500 spin and win) spent two long days working on the proposal, which in the end totaled in excess of 40 pages. Duncan recalled how he looked once more at it, and shook his head thinking they’d think it was a bunch of BS. Gut check time: It seemed crazy, but instead they sent a large, nicely framed photo of the Highcroft head quarters building along with a note, “Thanks for the opportunity to submit an RFP, but I’m at a loss for words because I’ve never dealt with a manufacturer before. So to use an old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you like what you see, give us a call.” Honda did just that and shortly thereafter they came and met with Duncan where he sold them on the team’s attention to detail, passion, and commitment.
While we sat in the boardroom listening to this story, Duncan pointed over to the radiator covers. He recounted how he did the same thing during the meeting with Honda and told them that “we couldn’t find anything that looked good enough so we made them ourselves. If you want someone to execute your program at that level of attention to detail, we’re your guys.” (He’s right, the covers were noticed long before he mentioned them, and they, like many other building details, are unique and a cut above.)
A few days later the deal was signed and they were onboard with new Acura ALMS racecars and HPD manufacturer support. Although with Duncan behind the wheel they were turning very competitive lap times, his involvement as team owner and driver was a concern for Honda. In order to truly excel as a team, it was not realistic to both drive and run the organization. Duncan was asked by Honda to be the best he could be as a team owner. That had to have been a bittersweet meeting.
We asked Duncan how difficult it was to make the transition away from driving. Initially while at the track it was a little tough he quickly embraced the challenges and satisfaction of being a team owner. Somewhat ironically, later that summer he broke his neck in a freak pool accident which we imagine in some weird way made being a team owner a bit easier from then on. Duncan did state that he still races vintage cars and actually thinks they are more fun to drive than modern cars. “Newer racecars do more work for you. Traction control, no lift shifting, and telemetry constantly looking at what is happening to the car. The driver doesn’t need to focus on as much. But these (vintage) cars are so much on the edge.”