By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
BERRYVILLE -- At various promotional events, Alex Ratcliffe and his King Rat Motorsports team will dress up like royalty. Part of the team merchandise includes T-shirts. The lettering on the back of the T-shirts says "It's good to be the King."
The words are very true for Ratcliffe these days. Ratcliffe, who resides in Berryville, is a racecar driver. He is a racecar owner. Most importantly Ratcliffe, who is originally from England, is having fun doing what he loves to do the most.
"It's quite indescribable," Ratcliffe said of racing. "If you're into exciting things, it's certainly up there on the list of things of exciting hobbies and pastimes. You come around in a pack of cars at 100 miles an hour, take a start and then race for 30 minutes.
"I just like to go fast, I guess, as much as anything else. It's a lot of fun."
He and his team have won numerous championships in several different series and types of racing. Ratcliffe has always loved street car racing, and it was only natural that eventually he would get involved with it himself.
Ratcliffe, who owns King Rat Motorsports along with his wife, Kim, has worked in the information technology business for 18 years, while racing on the side for the last 11.
Recently he raced in the World Challenge Series at Watkins Glen, a race that was on TV. Ratcliffe has done a little bit of everything in the racing industry, and he still loves it as much as ever.
"It can be quite a challenge," Ratcliffe said. "You have to always remind yourself, are you still having fun? Any business that's born out of something that was a hobby still needs to be fun even though it's a business. When it stops being fun, you probably should do something else."
In the fall of 1999, Ratcliffe heard about a program that allowed individuals to bring their street car to the track and drive it around with an instructor helping them out. Once he drove on a track for the first time, Ratcliffe was hooked.
He soon went out and bought a racecar book and tried to learn everything he could about the business.
Ratcliffe also attended a race school with the Street Car Club of America. The SCCA certifies and trains men and women to race at an amateur level.
In 2001, Ratcliffe decided to try racing professionally in the Grand Am Cup (formerly the Motorola Cup). He raced in six events and finished in the top five in three of them. However, the financial strain was too much and so he switched to racing in other series events. In 2003, Ratcliffe won the East Coast Honda Challenge and was voted as the East Coast Honda Challenge Driver of the Year.
He often races at Summit Point, in Summit Point, W.Va., just outside of Winchester. Alex and Kim's love of the racetrack at Summit Point is part of what brought them to Berryville from Fairfax six years ago.
They loved the area and wanted to be closer to the track that they enjoy racing at the most.
Over the past seven years he has continued to compete in various racing series with different types of cars. Although he loves street car racing, Ratcliffe said he has respect for every driver and series.
"I think I have a reasonable appreciation for most motorsports, even though some aren't particularly interesting to me," Ratcliffe said. "Every successful race team is professional and dedicated."
After his stint racing in the Grand Am Cup, Ratcliffe realized how expensive motorsports could be. He and his wife decided it would be better if they not only raced, but owned a race team as well.
In 2002, King Rat Motorsports was born. There are currently four main members of the King Rat team. The Ratcliffes, as well as Payton Wilson and Rich Hromin, do the bulk of the driving for the team. Ratcliffe said the team has won four or five championships over the last seven years.
Ratcliffe said it's been a learning process for him as an owner, and it's important to find a balance between being the driver and the owner.
"It's a challenge," Ratcliffe said. "I'm not quite ready to give up driving yet, I still like racing. But I also really enjoy being a team owner. It's fun to see a team work together and be successful. I think ultimately that's more enjoyable than driving a racecar. We won championships. It was a very sweet feeling to enjoy that from the ownership point of view."
Ratcliffe has also discovered different ways for his team to make money and also help out others.
"Along the way, we started to build a business around lending racecars to other people," Ratcliffe said. "If someone came along and didn't necessarily want to own a racecar, they could rent it from us without the headache of owning it and towing it."
One of the most difficult decisions Ratcliffe has faced as owner has been when he should be driving for the team and when he should let someone else do it.
"A successful team owner knows when he has to put somebody good in the car to win a championship," Ratcliffe said. "I've had a couple years where I've been more of a team owner than a driver, and a couple of years where I've been more of a driver than a team owner."
Mrs. Ratcliffe was happy being a racing wife, but her husband kept asking her to give it a try. She finally gave in and, like her husband, she became hooked immediately.
This is her ninth year of racing, but she admitted during her first two years she wasn't sure how long she would last. She began by racing go-karts at Summit Point, and it helped her tremendously.
"The first two years I raced, I would be scared out of my mind," Mrs. Ratcliffe said. "I would be anxious before a race. And I was a good driver, but it's just my personality. After two years I said, 'This is stupid. You have to either get over this or quit.'
"I didn't want to quit, so that winter in the offseason I did a series of go-karting and it really helped me. That's what helped me get over that hump. It gave me the aggression that I needed and the feeling of car control."
There are times when the Ratcliffes are running at the same tracks, though not in the same race. However, they have raced many times against each other in go-karts for the fun of it.
Ratcliffe said the fact that women can race with the men is just another reason he loves the sport so much.
"Even though it has a very male bias, it's a gender-neutral sport," he said. "Once you put a helmet on and get in the car, it all comes down to ability. It's nice to see women accepted in the sport at very high levels.
"You look at someone like Danica Patrick. The fact that she's a woman is interesting to some of her sponsors. At the end of the day, she puts a helmet on and she's racecar driver."
The bright, light blue Lexus catches the eye of a Versus TV announcer, who comments on how nice the car looks as it goes another lap around the road-course track at Watkins Glen in New York. Inside is Ratcliffe, who finished 25th in the race.
Ratcliffe won the Best Standing Start award for having the best start of the drivers in the field. He moved from 27th to 23rd on the first lap. Ratcliffe was in 21st for most of the race, but with five laps left had mechanical problems that ended his day.
Racing in the World Challenge Series is one of Ratcliffe's favorite racing circuits.
"Three years ago, we actually bought another team," Ratcliffe said. "And we acquired some Lexus IS300 cars. They fit quite nicely in [the World Challenge] series."
Ratcliffe said racing in the series is much different from many of the other series. It's much more intense and a much more professional circuit. They take a bigger crew with them to the races and have to do public relations events, as well.
It also allows Ratcliffe and his team to be shown on TV, and gives the company solid exposure.
"It's a good way for us to expose the team and what we do at the club level," Ratcliffe said. "And we get name recognition and association with motorsports through that. It's a racing program, but it's also our way of marketing ourselves towards a wider audience."
The shop located at the Ratcliffes' home just outside of Clear Brook doesn't look too extravagant. It's not too big, not too small. What started out as a team with just one car now has six or seven at the shop on a given day.
What started out as a small team with just one car has evolved into a solid business capable of winning races and championships on tracks across the country.
The Ratcliffes still have much they want to accomplish. Mrs. Ratcliffe said she wants to race in a professional event and see what she can do against the competition.
Ratcliffe, meanwhile, said he would like to be able to race on a regular basis on the World Challenge Series. He would also love to compete in more endurance events, one of his favorite type of races. Ratcliffe said he'd most like to run in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Whether he reaches his lofty goal or not, the most important thing is that he continues to have the same passion about the sport that he has today.
"I'd like to still be racing when I'm 60," Ratcliffe said. "That's 20 years from now. I'd like to still be enjoying it.
"I'd just like to continue to enjoy it and have fun at it more than anything else."