“Oh, I’m absolutely not a risk taker,” Ron Fellows says. His warm eyes dance, betraying not a hint of irony.
Not a risk taker? A man who is considered one of North America’s best road racing drivers, in a career spanning nearly three decades and winning everything from NASCAR to the 24 Hours of Le Mans? A man who was so certain of his future as a race car driver, he maxed out credit cards and took out bank loans to keep racing?
In a world of aborted hopes, short careers and fickle support, Mr. Fellows has displayed an astonishing ability to maintain career-long bonds with sponsors, be a fan-voted “Most Popular Driver” four years in a row, and to win. A lot.
The oldest of five children of an Anglican minister and a schoolteacher, Mr. Fellows, 52, learned early on what he calls his only real motto: Do things right, and do the right thing. He’s applied it to every aspect of his life.
To see how a self-employed race car driver manages for his retirement, I sent him an e-mail requesting an interview to discuss RRSPs. Mr. Fellows answered quickly and cordially that he’d be happy to meet. Most people, especially public figures, are a little more hesitant to do this. I was pleasantly surprised. Within a few seconds of securing a steaming cup of green tea (“I’ve had way too much bad coffee all day”), he started laughing.
“I had to re-read your e-mail. I just looked at it quickly on my phone, and thought you were referencing some racing acronym. It’s not until later I double-checked and saw it actually said RRSP. You really want to talk to me about RRSPs?”
Mr. Fellows is a perfect person to ask. With more and more people having to plan for their own retirements, the instability of something like a racing career is a great template to place against the slow and steady nature of building RRSPs. Is he comfortable? Certainly. Was it always that way? Not even close.
The early years of racing for Mr. Fellows were run on raw talent, determination and credit cards.
“In 1979, I bought a Formula 1600 car. And another one. I blew an engine, and trying to keep up meant bank loans,” he begins. He pauses to do a calculation mid-air. “The interest rate was either 21 or 22 per cent.”
With sponsorship money lean and winnings not enough, he smiles describing the creative borrowing he did. While his family was always supportive, this was no rich kid going to the race track. The debt caught up, and his juggling finally got to be too much.
Recognizing his debt was overwhelming, Mr. Fellows dropped out of racing to pay it back. He spent a decade working full time in construction, laying natural gas pipelines.
It was during this time he met Lynda, and their marriage thrives to this day. Proud parents of Lindsay, 27, Sam, 18, and Patrick, 14, Mr. Fellows stresses the best advice he has for anyone, especially young racers: stay in school.
“Racing is difficult. You see some kids come in early, with lots of talent, but it’s about timing, too. Or else they get too much too fast, then it’s gone,” he notes.
Securing private school educations for their children was important to the Fellows. “I didn’t go to university, so that 10 years digging out of debt is my PhD,” he laughs.
As he managed to beat back the debt, Lynda, with a background in finance, took the money reins as Mr. Fellows climbed back into a race car. There was never a doubt this is where his future lay, and as the wins began stacking up, he finally started to secure a living doing what he loved.
I ask this self-described non-risk taker if he’d ever considered any other career.
“Sure. I was going to play pro hockey. But I realized I could go a lot faster sitting down,” he smiles. “And one time I was 28, lying there wrecked up from a crash and my mother brought me a present. It was the book Golf My Way, by Jack Nicklaus.”
Mr. Fellows and his wife are very much a partnership, in every way. With Mr. Fellows travelling constantly – and the whole family used to go, too – it’s at least a two-person job juggling all the details.
“The thing is, in racing, even when you’re doing well, you’re working by contracts. If you’re lucky you can get a three-year contract, but I’ve had sponsors stop racing a series I’m in at year two. Sure, I get paid the final year, but you’re always wondering, what’s next?”
By 1995, signing with General Motors in the United States brought the Fellows family the ability to start the business of what mattered a great deal to this couple: paying down the mortgage as fast as they could, and maxing out RRSPs every year as they prepared for the future.
Wise investments in real estate and carefully nurtured long-term relationships with both individuals and companies have put Mr. Fellows in the driver’s seat in more ways than one. He runs the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch near Las Vegas, and last year he, along with two partners, purchased Mosport International Speedway, near Bowmanville, Ont., considered by most to be one of the top racetracks in North America.
At this part of his life, as he prepares for less competitive racing, I ask whether this was about investing. He grins once more. “This was pure passion.”
According to Jillian Bryan, portfolio manager with TD Waterhouse, Private Client Services in Vancouver, Mr. Fellows has done exactly the right thing.
“The faster you get rid of that mortgage with the non-deductible interest, the better,” she explains. She also addressed the uncertain nature of being self-employed, or working on contract. “You don’t want a large lump sum sitting in your chequing account. Set up a tax-free savings account,” she says, to help budget down the road and reduce your taxes.
As for Mr. Fellows’s decision to quit racing to repay all that debt?
“Making the sacrifices can be difficult, but to get rid of debt is always smart.” She advises paying down the credit cards, and resisting the trap of making just minimum monthly payments. For many who, like Mr. Fellows, face a sporadic flow of income, she has reassuring words: “Don’t let doubt or discouragement keep you from starting to save for your retirement right away, regardless of age. It’s never too late for RRSPs.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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