Shuttered retail space being transformed for kart racing, entertainment

[caption id="attachment_11350" align="alignright" width="331" caption="Rod Towery (left) and Matt Stearn plan to open an electric-kart-based family entertainment center in the shuttered Linens 'n' Things store in Rohnert Park this fall."][/caption]

ROHNERT PARK - Two former Telecom Valley executives are on the move from high-speed communications toward high-speed fun with plans to open a family- and corporate-oriented indoor kart racing and entertainment center in a shuttered big-box store by this fall.

Matt Stearn and Rod Towery quit their jobs at telecom equipment supplier Calix in Petaluma on June 22 to position their Driven Raceway LLC venture in the vacant Linens 'n' Things store at 4601 Redwood Drive to cross the finish line by early to mid-September.

"For years I wanted to start my own business, and I was searching for a concept that brings together family entertainment and the racing concepts," said Mr. Stearn, the 39-year-old chief executive officer and father of two.

They're spending several million dollars transforming most of the 40,800-square-foot former household goods store into adult- and junior-level tracks for electric karts, two bowling lanes with smaller balls and pins, nine holes of blacklight miniature golf, a game arcade and a snack bar, all with a racing theme. The facility also will have rooms for parties or group meetings, all with a racing theme. It would employ 25 to 30 mostly part-time employees.

The design team includes Tierney/Figueiredo Architects of Santa Rosa, Canada-based blacklight mini-golf designer Shankz and Kart1, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based kart track designer and distributor for manufacturer OTL Italia.

The facility is being fashioned to attract families, but the focus will be on attracting corporate events and team-building business as well as having competitive racing leagues, according Mr. Stearn.

En route from Italy since June are 20 adult karts, which have 20-horsepower electric motors capable of speeds up to 45 miles per hour on straight-aways, and 10 slower-speed versions for children. The adult track will accommodate up to 10 cars at a time, and can be configured to include the junior track for longer races. Codding Construction has the interior transformation under way.

As is increasingly common in the business of concession karting, each vehicle will have an electronic transponder that allows track staff to not only control the speed of reckless and inexperienced drivers but also track times for use in qualifying for various leagues.

Kart racing has turned into an internationally competitive motorsport since the acknowledged "father of karting," hot-rod designer Art Ingels, built the first vehicle in Southern California in 1956. It's even one of four motorsports with a championship sanctioned by Paris-based International Automobile Federation (FIA). The federation's Geneva-based International Karting Commission (CIK-FIA) last month created a global championship for drivers younger than 18 and Driving Academy for young teens, both set to launch in summer 2010.

The Driven Raceway venture started taking shape in mid-2006 when Mr. Stearn and Mr. Towery were working for Motorola in Rohnert Park, and the company closed local operations.

"We wanted more control over our careers," said Mr. Towery, the 37-year-old chief operating officer and a father of three.

The two then landed jobs at Calix, with Mr. Stearn in sales and marketing and Mr. Towery in customer service and support, but were commuting from Windsor to Petaluma.

Over the past two years, their concept of a racing business took on the family element and then the corporate-events aspect. Yet when they initially commissioned real estate agent Rich Fenske of NAI BT Commercial to scout Sonoma County they had significant challenges not only finding or possibly building a facility large enough but also a property owner willing to take a chance on a startup entertainment business in a slumping local economy with lease terms agreeable to a bootstrapping venture.

The partners then pieced together funding. They received Small Business Administration financing through Redwood Credit Union and Safe-Bidco, were approached by local investors and chipped in their own money and friends-and-family resources.

Mr. Fenske also worked out a helpful lease deal with the Linens 'n' Things building owner, Rohnert Park-based Codding Enterprises. Instead of a light-industrial building, where other karting-only facilities are located in the Bay Area, Driven Raceway will have Highway 101 visibility and be in a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center.

"They saw the potential in the business and what we're trying to do in the community," Mr. Towery said about Codding. "They were flexible in lease terms and are taking a risk with us."

Pricing for racing is set to start at $25 for adult members of the racing club and $15 for children, plus a $6 annual license and $2-per-day head sock rental and excluding member discounts and specials. Corporate events pricing starts at $40 a person.

For more information, call 707-585-DRIVEN (3748) or visit www.drivenraceway.com.