‘Big Nasty’ Fights Back: Kyle Seipel’s DRAG ILLUSTRATED Interview
“All right, let’s do this,” Kyle Seipel says as he saddles up to his desk in the small office space he rents in downtown Pleasanton, California. It’s 9 a.m. Pacific time and Seipel has just dropped off his 13-year-old daughter at middle school and his 5-year-old son at kindergarten. It’s an important and consistent part of Seipel’s morning routine, and one that took on a more special meaning shortly after the 2018-2019 school year began.
Seipel, 48, was seemingly on top of the world late last August. He was a few weeks away from putting on the Fall Fling at Bristol and a couple weeks removed from helping racing partner Justin Lamb win the NHRA Northwest Nationals in Super Stock, fueling a successful national championship pursuit. Things were looking good until a routine check-up at the dentist’s office revealed signs of cancer. His dentist sent him to his family doctor, who then referred him to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who removed a piece of the questionable tissue and sent it away for testing.
“I’m all about the percentages – my whole life is basically about percentages – so I said, ‘what’s the percentage chance this is anything serious?’” Seipel remembers. “The ENT specialist said it’s a one percent chance. So I’m thinking, ‘shoot, why even have this done? It’s a complete waste of time.’ Long story short, they take that sample and two days later I get a phone call from the doctor and he says, ‘I hate to tell you this, but the biopsy came back positive and you have squamous cell cancer.’”
Further scans and testing indicated the cancer was limited to a small spot on Seipel’s tongue. He scheduled a surgery to have the spot removed after the Fall Fling at Bristol and the NHRA E.T. Finals in Las Vegas. The issue wasn’t weighing heavily on Seipel’s mind at this point, as the doctors believed it would be cleared up with this surgery. But during the surgery the doctors determined the cancer wasn’t as straightforward as they originally believed.
“The worst news was the cancer had traveled to one of my lymph nodes, so they decided to remove about 35-40 lymph nodes,” Seipel says. “They get pretty aggressive when they see the cancer go that direction. At that point, I was considered a stage 4 cancer patient.”
After Seipel’s body had time to recover from the surgery, he began a series of chemo and radiation treatments. He had three rounds of chemo every two weeks within a 30-day period, then he had to go in and get radiation every single day except weekends. Seipel was bolted to the table “like a Hannibal Lecter-type scenario” using a custom mask to shoot the radiation at the specific area being treated. “That was a pretty difficult time,” Seipel casually admits.
Seipel had his last treatment January 23rd and was back to racing in Super Stock at the NHRA Arizona Nationals near Phoenix in late February. He’s back to taking winner’s circle photos with the Wednesday night grudge race winners at Sonoma Raceway. The Fling races are doing better than ever, with the Spring Fling Million offering a record $375,000 payday to the winner and pre-entries for the $500,000-to-win 10th anniversary Fall Fling at Bristol selling out in mere minutes – at $1,850 per entry. “Everything is back to about as close to normal as it can be at this point,” Seipel says.
Today, as the drag strip manager at Sonoma Raceway and the co-promoter of the Spring Fling and Fall Fling bracket races, Seipel has a busy day ahead of him, one that will include crunching numbers and reviewing notes from the recent Spring Fling at GALOT Motorsports Park with business partner and best friend Peter Biondo.
But first, Seipel has agreed to sit down for a candid, extensive and emotional interview to discuss the highs and lows he’s experienced over the last 12 months. The topics range from his cancer battle to the many hats he wears as a drag racer, race promoter and track manager.
As someone who does so many different things in racing, whether it’s your personal racing, putting on the Fling events or running a racetrack, how hard was it to know you had to put all that on hold to fight this cancer battle?
It was hard, most definitely, but I had the support of Peter, Emily (Biondo, Peter’s wife), everybody involved with the Fling, and for that matter everyone at Sonoma was really cool about it. It was 100 percent super-hard. I’m very competitive, so I’m able to put all my efforts on one thing and I think that definitely gave me a better chance of surviving. I was 100 percent focused on this disease and didn’t have to worry about my daily commitments. It was definitely hard, but on the same token it allowed me to focus on the task at hand.
Peter and Emily were kind enough to take over the reins. I wasn’t able to go to the PRI Show and do my normal tasks for about two or three months. The bottom line was it put a lot of pressure on them. Obviously, I’d do the same for him and he would do it all over again, but the bottom line was for a short time there it put a lot of pressure on their marriage and business and that sort of thing, but we got through it.
How has this experience changed your perspective?
It basically makes you focus on the bigger things in life and you don’t stress about the smaller things. The things I would stress about prior to this ordeal I definitely don’t stress about now. It’s a whole different perspective. I don’t take for granted the time I have with my family. I don’t take for granted the time I’m able to race, or for that matter the fun times we have putting on these races. I don’t really know how to explain it, but it gives you a whole different perspective to where you don’t take anything for granted, that’s for sure.
Continuing on the perspective topic, how did it help your spirits to be able to start the year racing again?
It was great. I’ll be the first to admit, even now, my brain is pretty much on the starting line and my car is at the finish line. I’m still pretty much behind the car, but with that being said, I’m out there racing. I’m doing OK. I’m very competitive and I want to be doing better, but on the same token, shit, six months ago you tell me I’ll be out here racing, I’d be kissing the ground.
To be racing again is emotional. At times I didn’t think I’d ever race again, let alone racing so soon after going through this. You go through times when you’re going through the chemo and the radiation and the people to the left and right of you through that process that you get to know, they’re no longer here. Here I am racing. A lot of people I got to meet along this road aren’t even around, so that definitely puts it into perspective.
You’re one of the universally beloved characters in Sportsman racing. From the “Team KS” T-shirts and decals popping up at races all over the country to hearing from well-wishers near and far, what was it like to know you had that support system?
It was cool. It basically reassured me that I wasn’t in this alone. I had a whole team of friends and people who I didn’t even realize knew who I was, quite honestly. But I knew I had a whole team behind me. I never once thought I was going into this by myself. Through the hard times, it made a huge difference to know not only that I had a team behind me, but I didn’t want to let them down too, so to speak. That made a huge difference, absolutely.
Justin Lamb and I were chasing the championships last year. He was chasing it in both classes again and I wasn’t able to go the second half of the year, but every single race I was helping him dial and watching the numbers and that sort of thing. At the Vegas divisional they had probably 100 people wearing my shirt and they won Best Appearing Crew with all my shirts on, so that was pretty cool. I was able to watch that live via Division 3 TV. That was another thing that put things in perspective, for sure.
You took over the track manager position at Sonoma Raceway last year. It was a role previously held by your mother, Georgia, for 29 years. How special was it to take over that position?
It was very sentimental. My mom had a great foundation there and I wanted to bring some freshness to it and incorporate some things we learned with the Spring Fling. I wanted to incorporate those things at the local level, like posting the winner’s circle photos on Facebook. I don’t care if you win a Wednesday night grudge race or the Spring Fling Million, I think you deserve the accolades and you deserve a lot of credit.
My mom, she’s from the old school, where she didn’t really do a whole lot of that. She’s very good at managing a race. Sonoma has a 7 o’clock curfew and she’s very, very efficient at getting a race done in a timely manner. But I thought I could do some things to give it a newer look. We raised the purses on the bracket race level, got the big checks for winner’s circle photos and just tried to spice it up a little bit.
How did taking that position affect your efforts promoting the Fling races?
Steve Page and the whole crew at Sonoma, we had some meetings after my mom decided she wanted to retire. First and foremost, I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t deter from our Spring Fling events. They assured me that wouldn’t be a problem – any time off I needed during those races would be fine.
Essentially, I have to be there once a month for staff meetings and I have to be there whenever there’s any type of drag strip events. There’s Wednesday Night Grudge Drags about 75-80 percent of the Wednesdays from March through November. I have to be there every single Wednesday. We have about 12 bracket races throughout the year that I’m there for to manage and run. We have the national event in July. Then this year we have the double divisional.
As far as day-to-day operations, I focus on the Flings primarily, then I try to promote Sonoma the best I can as far as bracket races and the national and divisional. I have a great team at Sonoma to where a majority of the employees have been there 20 or 30 years. I don’t have to prep the track and I don’t have to do a whole lot with the track. A guy like Jeff Foster (director of drag racing operations at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) wears a lot of hats. From track prep to checking the rollout to painting lanes to laying concrete, he’s right in the middle of it. I’m very fortunate that I’m just essentially at Sonoma to manage the races and promote the races, similar to what I do with the Fling. I’m not (at Sonoma) on a day-to-day basis.
You obviously have a ton of experience at the drag strip, from growing up there to racing yourself and putting on the Fling races. How have you taken all of that experience and applied it to the operations at Sonoma?
Just like the Flings, first and foremost I try to make my decisions based on what the racers want. But it’s a fine line because we also have to be profitable and I know exactly what my bosses at Sonoma are looking for also. We’re in business to make a profit, but on the same token I want to do things that are from the racer’s perspective first and foremost. It’s a fine line having to teeter-totter there.
My mom ran Fremont from 1983 until it closed in 1988. I was born in ’71. I didn’t play any sports. I was at the track essentially every weekend anywhere in Northern California. Four decades of being around the track, there were things I definitely liked. In racing, I always try to take some things from different racers and put it into my program so I can be the best racer I can. I do the same thing from the track manager standpoint to where all these different tracks I’ve been to, I try to take a little bit from each track and try to incorporate it into Sonoma.
You’ve spent a lot of time at that one track, but a lot of your time over the last 10 years has been spent promoting races on a national level, trying to draw racers from all over the country to races at Bristol, Las Vegas and GALOT. How has it been different to focus on that one track with that one group of racers and hone in on what they want?
It’s a whole different model, that’s for sure. One thing I learned, regardless of if you’re at the local level or the Spring Fling, is that racers come to the track because they want to get away from their normal day-to-day duties. Whether they come to a Wednesday night race at Sonoma or they come to the Spring Fling Million, I think the thing you really have to keep in perspective is they’re trying to get away from their day-to-day lives. They’re coming to the track to have a good time, relax and not worry about their job or their home life or whatever. That’s the similarity.
The difference is, with the Wednesday night program or even the bracket race program, a lot of the racers are solely focused on what happens at Sonoma. They don’t know what happens at the Spring Fling. They don’t know what happens at the Winternationals. They’re solely laser-focused on Sonoma. It took me a while to realize that.
You have to change your marketing a little bit and change your way of thinking, but regardless of what it is, I think the main thing is people come to the track to have a good time and they’re paying you hard-earned money to do that. I think that’s the biggest thing I keep in mind. I try to manage the smoothest running events. I don’t want them to worry about the small things. I want them to just go out and race their car and have a good time.
You’re celebrating 10 years of the Fling this year. Did you ever imagine it would turn into what it’s turned into when you started out?
Not at all. Peter and I were just talking about this. I just got home from his house a few days ago. Typically I fly to New York the Friday before the event and we’ll take a couple days to drive to the track, then we have the five days of racing, then we’ll take a couple days to get home. We talked about this quite a bit. In our wildest dreams, we never would’ve thought we would be where we’re at now.
Ten years ago, we were vacationing together when we came up with this plan. We’re both very passionate about bracket racing. That’s my background and that’s his background too, watching his father race his whole life, and me watching my mom and dad, for that matter. We were both very passionate about bracket racing. We both had thoughts of this before we brought it up to each other, but we thought the big-dollar bracket races weren’t as much fun as they used to be. We wanted to put on a race at Bristol that would pay good money, but most importantly try to bring the fun back to these events, bring them to a premier facility and try to allow the racers to have the most fun possible.
But back to the original question, no, we never would’ve guessed that we’d get to this point. At the time, I was working for Helmet City. I wasn’t super-happy and I truly think one of the reasons we put on these events is that Peter, being my best friend, he wanted me to enjoy life a little bit more and be able to have some income with these bracket races and not have to rely on Helmet City for my sole income. With that being said, we never would’ve guessed we’d be in the position we’re in now. Races selling out in minutes’ time and having the demand that we have, we never would’ve guessed that, not at all.
You clearly share a tight bond with Peter, from a longtime friendship to what seems to be a very smooth business partnership. How has that friendship developed over the years as you’ve worked together on these races?
We make a great team. The things I’m not very good at, he’s great at. Some things let’s say he’s not the best at, I’m really good at. I think the craziest thing is how quickly he adapted to the race promoter role. I grew up at the drag strip watching my mom run Fremont and Sonoma. I’ve been in the tower my whole life and worked about every job at the track: I’ve been the starter, worked the staging lanes, I’ve done time slips, I’ve done tech, and I’ve been in the tower all my life. Peter and I started this business and I thought, “OK, I’m going to be the guy who runs the events since that’s what I’ve been around having watched my mom run these tracks since 1983.”
This guy, Biondo, he puts his mind to something, it doesn’t matter if it’s a world championship or his marriage or his business, Biondo Racing Products, he can basically accomplish anything. I thought I was going to be the guy running these events. Well, he’s in the tower and he’s managing these events in a way I never envisioned. That being said, I don’t think there’s anybody better at running these races. He had no prior experience with running events. Here I’d been around it my whole life, but this guy comes in and totally has the knowledge and the wit to run these races better than I’ve seen anybody do. That’s one perspective.
I think the biggest thing we have is we have very little ego. We put our egos aside and we try to improve ourselves, improve our partnership and improve our friendship. I think over the years we’ve done a very good job of doing that.
The Fall Fling $500K, Sept. 17-21, 2019 at Bristol Dragway, made a big splash in the bracket racing scene when it was revealed. What was the idea behind that event?
Peter and I had been working on this 10th anniversary race model for about 18 months leading up to it. We decided we wanted to make it $500,000-to-win guaranteed. The early stages of this business model, about 18 months ago, we were asking racers to pre-enter at a high entry fee, which is unheard of. Obviously at this point we’ve tried pre-entry races in the $690 price range and we’ve had very good success, but we’re asking somebody to pay $1,850 for one day of racing and having to, regardless of if they paid that in one lump sum or if they made payments, we’re asking them to pay that upfront.
We truly thought in the early stages of this that if we’d sell out in two or three weeks we’d be ecstatic. Asking somebody to pay a substantial amount of money upfront was uncharted territory. That being said, we promoted it the way we normally do and the closer we got to the pre-entry date, we started thinking this thing is building up some good steam. We might sell this thing out in a couple days instead of a couple weeks.
But it ended up selling out in a couple minutes, right?
Yes, a few minutes. It was March 5th and Emily and Peter flew in and we were all together here at my Pleasanton office. I utilize Google Analytics where you can see live how many people are on the site. About five minutes before we went live, we knew there was already 300 people on the site. Your mind starts wandering and our first concern was if our billing system would be able to handle the traffic. We bill in real time, just like if you entered an NHRA national event.
We were also in uncharted territory with the payment program. We spent a good 6-8 weeks leading up to it where we had everything fine-tuned to where somebody could enter their credit card info and it would be billed on that March 5th date, then there were three different programs: You’d be billed in full upfront, you could be billed $500 on the spot and two payments of $500 every other month with the final $350 paid at the gate, or you could be billed $250 on the spot and get six payments every month. We fine-tuned that and we were very worried that something would go amiss on that because we had never tried that before.
Anyways, a couple minutes before we went live we had a ton of people on the site, so we were very excited. Right at noon Eastern, the orders start going. Within the first 30 seconds we had 90 entries. We refreshed again and had 140. As soon as you could refresh it was skyrocketing.
We had an issue with the site where it took too many entries. We wanted a 385-entry cap. Well, the web guy mistakenly set it up to allow 385 entries per payment plan method, not 385 entries combined. Once we got to that number, instead of it shutting down the site like it was supposed to, it kept allowing more and more orders.
How did you fix that issue?
We sat here for hours trying to figure out what to do. Do we allow all these entries to race and do we pay out like a million dollars? But we spent a year and a half on this business model and we really thought the model we came up with was truly the best model, so we decided to only allow racers to have one single entry, which is what they used to do like at Moroso. None of our competition could do this, but we were in a great position where we could. We had to call up about 80-100 racers and say, “Listen, I’m sorry for the problem, but you’re only going to be able to race one car. Would you still want to race in our event?” Every single one of those racers decided, “Yep, it’s a very prestigious event. I’ll be fine with just doing one car.” We’re still higher than where we want to be, around 450 entries. But we’re still doing the payment plans and we don’t know how much attrition is going to happen.
What’s preventing you from raising the advertised winner’s payout?
If we would have kept all the entries we had on the original oversell, we surely could have advertised a higher winner’s payout. But after taking out double entries, we will be down to a manageable car count and it’s too early to tell exactly where we will end up on race day. Peter and I have always been more on the side of under-promising and over-delivering. With that said, if we end up 50-plus entries higher than we originally anticipated, and the event goes as planned, we could very well surprise the racers and add to the purse.
You and I spoke in 2016 for a DRAG ILLUSTRATED roundtable story about the state of bracket racing and one of the topics was the way big-money bracket races were popping up left and right. That trend has continued to the point where bracket racers around the country can race for large sums of money at least once a month, if not every couple weeks. But even with that increase in competition, the Fling races have continued to do very well in terms of racer participation and manufacturer support. How do you and Peter continue to raise the bar in what’s become a crowded market?
After each race, Peter has a whole sheet of notes – and I do also, but he’s the ramrod behind this – and we’ll go over those notes after the event. Like when we drove home for eight hours after GALOT, we talked about everything that went well, but most importantly, how things can improve.
From the racers’ perspective, I think if you talk to them, they’ll say it was a very smooth event, but internally, we know there’s a lot of things we can improve upon. That being said, we spent an eight-and-a-half-hour ride home going over everything Peter made notes on so we could make the races smoother internally, which in turn makes the event look even better externally.
Using that analysis, that’s what we’ve done for all three events. We try to make them better all the time. For the racers, we increase payouts when we feel that we can and we try to get more and more racer appreciation giveaways. At our events we always have at least $50,000 in giveaways. I think the most important thing is we’re always fine-tuning our business model at each event to where we try to make them the best we can. From the racer’s perspective they might think we can’t make this any better, but internally we know that we can and I think that’s what separates us from the pack.
We pretty much spend nine or 10 months a year working on three events, whereas most of our competitors put on, let’s say, eight, 10, 12 events. We’re staying at the very small number and trying to fine-tune those the best we can so we give the racers the best experience possible. I think that’s pretty much the separation. We probably have enough demand to go to five or six events, but we’re keeping it at three for the time being so we can still fine-tune each one and make them the best events possible.
Do you think you and Peter will ever add another race?
I could see us possibly going to a fourth event in two or three years. I think we have enough demand.
Peter and I both have fairly young kids. I have a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old. He has a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. We want to go to more events, but for the time being we want to focus on family life. I sense going to another event in two or three years.
Finally, where do you see your personal racing endeavors going from here? You’ve won a total of 22 NHRA Division 7 championships, as well as NHRA national events in five different classes. What’s next on your radar?
Well, my personal racing, quite honestly, I see that slowing down. This whole ordeal I’ve been through puts things into perspective. When I’m gone racing, my wife runs the show by herself while my daughter and son are playing competitive soccer, swimming or playing baseball. I want to enjoy those times more with them. With what I’ve been through, I’ve pretty much made the decision that I’m still going to race here and there, but I think I’m going to pull back a little on that and focus more on the Sonoma races, the Flings and focus a little more on family vacations and that sort of thing.
Photographs by Bryan Epps, John DiBartolomeo and Sadie Glenn
This story originally appeared in DI #145, the Sportsman Issue, in June of 2019.