From corner office to turning corners: Lancaster exec moonlights as race-car driver
Robert Ecklin Jr. always loved cars.
But, he said, he never did anything about the feeling in his gut urging him to pursue his passion of race-car driving.
Then he turned 40.
“I told my wife Ruth that it’s now or never. I’ve got to do this,” Ecklin said.
Up until then, he had pursued another passion: entrepreneurialism.
Growing up, Ecklin didn’t play any team sports or join after-school activities because he was too busy running a lawn-care business. Even as a teenager he set big goals. Ecklin wanted to buy a Corvette by the time he turned 16. He did, and he still has it today.
Now in his late 50s, Ecklin is the president and owner of Stoner Inc. based in East Drumore Township. He bought the company from his late grandfather, Paul Stoner, shortly before his grandfather died in 1986. The company manufactures cleaning products for automobiles.
Building the business, Ecklin said, has been the time of his life, and he still enjoys it.
But he has also found adventure and excitement outside of his business, which is something all business leaders should do, according to Kirk Dando, founder and CEO of Dando Advisors, a management consulting firm based in Colorado.
Engaging in hobbies like racing forces executives to disconnect from their day-to-day stresses and still compete at a high level – either against others or themselves, Dando explained.
“Study after study shows if you can disconnect from your problems, your brain will be better at problem-predicting and creative thinking,” Dando said.
And Dando said it’s not unusual for top executives to enjoy racing cars.
“I work with several CEOs that love cars – one makes electric cars, another loves fast American cars,” Dando said.
He emphasized that outside hobbies allow executives to be better-rounded, and it also allows them to compete in a “safe” place – a place where their whole company isn’t on the line – a sentiment that rings true to Ecklin.
Ecklin said three days at a racetrack is like a one-week vacation.
“Once you’re out there, you’re literally focused. It’s all about you and the car and the track, and it’s very refreshing,” Ecklin said.
Racing is both a mental and physical workout, and the linear focus on working his way around other cars on the track, he said, relaxes his mind.
But racing is more than just a form of relaxation.
The sport also exercises skills he applies regularly to his day job.
Learning the nuances of the track – how to go a little faster here and there – is similar to learning the nuances of business.
“You need to be patient on the track, as fast as you’re going, but you need to be able to make certain assertive moves. It teaches you strategy because when you’re out there racing, you’ve got to set a strategy,” Ecklin said.
Racing is also about data, Ecklin said.
“You’ve got this target lap time, and you’re at an actual lap time. And you’re trying to close those gaps. You’re talking to people that know more than you on how to close those gaps,” Ecklin said.
The key to driving faster, Ecklin said, is to slow things down – mentally.
“Keep your eyes up. Look forward. Well, that’s a great attribute for a business,” Ecklin said. “Look forward not backwards. Don’t drive in your rearview mirror. Drive through your windshield.”
Ecklin’s approach to racing is similar to how he approaches Stoner, said John Goldbach, the national sales manager at Stoner.
“He never makes decisions just strictly on his own. He wants to hear information. He likes to hire smart people. He trusts that they’re going to make the right decision,” said Goldbach, who has worked for Ecklin for 21 years.
While Ecklin is analytical, he is also somewhat of a risk-taker, Goldbach pointed out.
“From the outside you probably don’t see that. He takes calculated risks, in business and probably on the track,” Goldbach said.
Goldbach added that there is a connection between the boardroom and the cockpit of a racecar going over 170 miles per hour.
“You know where you need to be and try to find the solution if you’re not there. I know he brings a lot of those same practices back to the office,” Goldbach said.
A lifelong passion
Ecklin’s love for cars dates back to his childhood, when he collected Matchbox cars and subscribed to Autotrader Magazine, which covered car racing.
Ruth, his late wife who died in March from cancer, was always supportive of Ecklin’s lifelong passion.
“She knew that one day I was going to get in a racecar, she didn’t know when or how,” Ecklin said.
He began racing in April 2003 in the amateur Skip Barber open-wheeled road-course racing series. Road course racing involves a track that includes multiple turns and elevation changes instead of a simple oval.
It snowed during his first race at the Lime Rock race track in Connecticut, he recalled.
Because Ecklin was driving an open-cockpit car, he was exposed to the snow.
“I was soaked, my hands were so cold, I was so wet, but I wasn’t miserable because I was on this racetrack and just having a blast,” Ecklin said, noting that he finished fifth in his first race.
He left the track that day with a sense of accomplishment. He wanted to race again. The adrenaline, he said, is invigorating.
“It’s something a little not scary, but you’re out of your comfort zone. I don’t know what the word is for that feeling, but we’ve all had to experience that,” Ecklin said.
From then on, he raced twice a year in the amateur series for seven years, finishing his last race in the Skip Barber series in 2010.
Ecklin now races an Aston Martin Vantage about five times a year in the International Motor Sports Association Continental Tire GT4 series. He has participated in the sports-car racing series since 2011. Each race is over two hours long and requires a driver change.
Ecklin’s No. 9 car carries a logo for “Invisible Glass”– a glass-cleaning product produced by Stoner. He doesn’t own the car, but he does brand it and his team’s shirts with Stoner signage.
“I like to think it helps my day-job from marketing our great products. That’s one of the reasons I got into the series,” Ecklin said.
Though he races in a professional series, Ecklin is still considered an amateur racer because he only races a few times per year.
Time and money are the limiting factors for him.
Racing is an expensive hobby and, Ecklin said, a fairly selfish one, too, noting that he feels guilty leaving work and his family, which includes four daughters, to race.
“But once I cross the gates and get into the track, it’s like, ‘I wish I could be here for a long, long time.’ Because you transition to this different world,” Ecklin said.