Editor’s note: This story is part of the 2019 USA Cycling Season Guide published in the January/February issue of VeloNews magazine.

There are times when Austin’s Driveway Series criterium races feel more like a party than a bike race. Stroll through the Driveway Motorsports track on a typical race evening in the summer and you will see beer and food tents and hear the thump of rock music. Banners for the series’s sponsors Lifetime Fitness, Castelli, and Muscle Monster, flap in the breeze. As the peloton speeds by on the racetrack, crowds of racers and their families cheer on the sidelines.

This scene repeats itself every Thursday night from April through September.

“We’ve worked really hard to create our vibe,” said Andrew Willis, owner of the series. “We don’t want people to just come out and race. We want them to hang out, drink some beers with friends, and make an afternoon of it.”

This ambiance, when combined with the Driveway’s innovative racing model, has created one of the most successful weekly racing series in the country. Between 300 to 400 riders of all abilities participate in the Driveway each week, with dozens more showing up to cheer and spectate. The Driveway’s swooping loop allows organizers to create four separate course configurations, so the racing is never stale.

During the summer, each racing night supports six different racing categories. In the springtime, there are five.  This past week, the Driveway sold out all five of its racing categories online before the events even started — a new metric of success for the series.

The series has graduated riders off to the pro ranks; it has also helped hundreds of riders develop a love for racing.

“It’s where I learned to race a bike because you can try different tactics out every week,” said pro rider Colin Strickland. “It’s the most amazing resource out there in amateur cycling.”

The Driveway’s success springs from a model of steady and measured growth. Austin supported a weekly racing series for decades, and in the mid-2000s it was moved from an office park to the recently constructed auto race track. The series was small, attracting fewer than 100 riders each week. It looked and felt like a typical grassroots mid-week event.

Willis and his wife purchased the series in 2009, and slowly invested in infrastructure in hopes of growing attendance. Participation grew slowly in his first years, and Willis lost money on the event.

“On a good week we had 90 people when we first took over,” Willis said. “We were out there 33 weeks a year with our baby daughter in this kangaroo pouch. That’s how mom ‘n pop it was.”

Rather than cut costs, Willis reinvested the revenue from registration and sponsorship back the races. He adopted a long-term vision for growth, and saw Oklahoma’s Tulsa Tough as a model to replicate. Huge crowds and a party atmosphere always surround the Tulsa race’s famed Crybaby Hill climb — the party invites even casual fans to watch. But how do you create a party without any money, and at a mid-week race?

Willis saw a solution with his sponsor relationships. Starting in 2010, he adopted a new model with sponsors. He would spend no less than half of each sponsorship check on accouterments that actually gave value to the brands. Willis paid for banners, a professional race announcer, and email blasts that broadcast each sponsor’s message. He gave away merchandise branded with the logos of each sponsor. He bought social media campaigns that advertised each sponsor’s message.

All of these purchases cut into Willis’s bottom line, but he made them anyway. In fact, Willis lost money on the series for his first three years of ownership.

“One thing I noticed was that a lot of bike sponsorships were more like donations to just keep a race going,” Willis said. “I wanted to spend on deliverables I could show to the sponsors. I had people in the community, including sponsors, who all thought I was nuts.”

Photo: Driveway Series

Rather than chase a big marquee sponsor, he sold smaller deals in the $1,500 to $15,000 range. Sponsors liked Willis’s investment in activation, and how he offered lower buy-in prices for sponsorships. Small local brands increased their spend, and larger regional companies began to take notice. By his third year, Willis netted $66,000 alone in sponsorship revenue, much of which he invested back into the races. In year four it was $77,000.

By year five, he had crested $100,000.

The revenue from sponsorships, when added to the registration revenue, helped Willis build his party atmosphere. Beer tents and food trucks became regular sights at the event. Finish line flags gave way to a huge inflatable arch.

The revenue also helped the series overcome the pitfalls that often ensnare grassroots events. The Driveway’s growth cemented its ties with the national federation, USA Cycling. In 2016 track owners renovated the asphalt track, and the new plans called for the narrowing of a turn that would make the track unusable for cycling. USA Cycling officials met with the track owners and convinced them to adopt a design that was more friendly to cycling.

The financial strength has also allowed Willis to strengthen his relationship with the racetrack owners. After a freak thunderstorm flooded the track, Willis paid for pumps to drain a crucial area. The move allowed the cycling and auto racing to continue.

Maintaining that relationship helps the series continue. The rent to use the facility rises, yet the series’s financial health allows it to continue.

“We’ve been able to respond to every rent increase because of the sponsor base,” Willis said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to make it work.”