You all know the stars behind the wheel of your favorite racing series (us... wink, wink), but you don't always know about the folks behind the scenes. Here at Red Bull Global Rallycross, we'd like to change that—so we'll be featuring interviews with some of the players that you might not know here on our Kinja blog for the rest of the season.
Today, we're kicking things off with a chat with Brett King, who provides artwork for two-time X Games gold medalist Scott Speed and Daytona GRC Lites runner-up Alejo Fernandez. In only a few short years, Brett's design company has become a leader in the industry—in fact, you'll probably recognize quite a few of his clients on this list that don't race with us (...yet). Without further ado:
First things first—what can you tell us about your background, and how you got into helmet painting?
I first got into helmet painting in 1991, back in my motherland, Canada! I used to race motocross at that time, and I painted my own helmet which led to me doing my friends' helmets as well. Then I started painting helmets for other local riders and drivers and some pro motocross racers as well. A couple years later I started to race BMX as I couldn't afford to race motocross anymore, which led me to start painting many pro BMX teams' helmets here in the US. I painted for Factory Powerlite, Haro, SE Racing, GT and many more in the mid to late 90's.
This exposure helped me to get noticed, and I ended up landing a job with a new company called Felt Bicycles back in 2000, where I worked for 13 years as their Creative Director. I hung up the airbrush and paint gun during that time, but still had the urge to express myself greater than I was able to in that environment. So in 2011 I decided to come back to my roots and start Brett King Design, and here we are! It's been very exciting to see how quickly the brand has grown in such a short amount of time. Needless to say I'm very grateful for all of the success so far!
Right now, we know of at least two clients that you have in Red Bull GRC: Scott Speed in Supercars, and Alejo Fernandez in Lites. Do you have any other clients in our series, and if not, who are some of the other key clients you've worked for?
I don't have any other GRC clients right now, but that's not to say that's not going to happen next year—we'll see how things play out. For other series, I work with Josef Newgarden for IndyCar; Joey Hand, the factory DTM driver for BMW; Fabian Coulthard in V8 Supercars; Jamie McMurray in Nascar SprintCup, Michael Essa in Formula Drift, Robb Holland in the World Touring Car Championship; Connor De Phillippi, a factory Junior Porsche driver, in addition to a few other very talented up-and-coming drivers as well. So we definitely have some great people in different series around the world to help get the Brett King Design brand out there.
How did your relationships with Alejo and Scott begin?
I actually met Alejo when he started racing go-karts a couple of years ago. He and his brother David came to me to paint his helmet, so that's how that started. I think I've done three helmets with him now, and I designed the livery for his car this year as well. Scott, I actually met last year at the SKUSA SuperNats event out in Las Vegas. We met each other through Gary Carlton, a famous American go-kart racer. When Scott went to race GRC this year, he contacted me about working together and we hit it off instantly.
When drivers come to you, how much involvement do they have in the process? Do a lot of them stick with old designs, or do they tend to have you start with a clean slate and redo everything?
Some drivers like to retain a livery that they've had since they were young— but on the flip side, guys like Josef Newgarden like to have a different design every time we do it. So it's very cool to work with clients either way, I just care that they are really happy with the results!
Which category does Alejo fall into?
They like to keep it similar, but not exact—we have another helmet in the shop for him right now, and we're going to change it up a little bit again, so we'll see what that shakes out like. It should be pretty cool!
With Alejo you were also responsible for his livery design. How much of that has your company done, and are you looking to do more in the future?
I've designed tons of liveries in the past, but it's just something I didn't really push to do when I started the company so I could focus on getting the helmet painting and brand off the ground. However now we're starting to really push the livery design service for teams and drivers. It's definitely something that I want to offer to teams and drivers, a better image and brand that they can pitch to their potential sponsors.
Let's get into the process itself, which casual race fans may not have a great understanding of. What's the most important thing that someone needs to know about your work, and what does the process actually entail?
Helmet painting is a very tedious and time consuming process. That's the thing that most people don't understand about it—it's not like you can just design it on the computer, hit print, and it's done. Typically, on helmets, we'll put anywhere from 20 to 40 hours of labor into each helmet depending on the complexity of the design, finishes and details. As for the process, I'll design how the helmet looks on the computer, which we'll get the customer to sign off on before we paint. Then we disassemble and prep the helmet, paint it, clear coat it, and then wet-sand and buff it to get it perfect. Then we re-assemble the helmet and ship it back out to the customer.
Does vinyl ever become a part of the process, the way it has with vehicle wraps in recent years?
There are no vinyl or stickers on the finished product—we take great pride in having everything done with paint. We only use a masking vinyl to cut out templates to paint logos or intricate patterns. Back in the day when I used to paint, I didn't have any of this equipment to do that, so everything was cut out by hand. So the quality of what you get now is much better. We strive for nothing but the best quality, and feel that not using stickers or vinyl is how you achieve that.
Your work definitely stands out in a crowd, which really seems to be your company's MO. Do you ever take the time to compare it to the work of others?
I honestly don't like to look at what other helmet painters are doing, and rather pay attention to what other industries are doing instead. There is a conscious effort to make things that are completely different from everybody else, which has resulted in developing our own style, which a lot of people say is very distinctive when they see our helmets out on the track. I've been told that when they see our helmets on track without seeing our logo, they still know that we did them. So I'm very proud of that—I think it's pretty cool to come out of nowhere in just three years and be able to accomplish that kind of recognition from racers and fans.
How about any favorites within your own catalog of work?
Honestly, there have been a bunch so it's really hard to pick! The latest helmet for Josef Newgarden which he wore at the IndyCar final in Fontana was really cool. We used color-changing paint on it and it had lots of different textures and neon colors as well. My personal original white Arai helmet will always be my favorite, and Gary Carlton's which is actually one of the very first helmets that I did in 2011 was very cool as well. It's kind of hard to pick just one however—I love them all in one way or another. It makes it very tough for me to design something for myself !
How early would somebody need to make a request for their helmet for next year? Knowing how many top-tier clients you have right now, you must have an impressive to-do list over the winter.
That's one of the major issues that we're running into now. Time. The company is getting so popular that the backlog is approximately six months right now. It's tough because it's really art, not a production line. It's not something that's done quickly, and if you rush it you will make a mistake in one way or another. Being only three years into this business, it's been pretty tough trying to tackle all the work that we have and still run all of the other parts of the business in a timely manner. Some people completely get that and understand, but others are less patient and want their stuff right away. I can understand from the consumer's perspective that waiting six months to get your helmet painted is a very long time. However you get what you pay for, and good things come to those who wait! If you wanted your helmet done by Brett King Design for early next year, I would highly suggest putting in your order right away!
Finally, for somebody who's looking to break into your wing of the motorsports world, do you have any advice? Is there a key to success that's more important than any other?
Ultimately I think it's all about creating your own identity and style, and not selling yourself short by giving your work away for next to nothing. It is very important as well to understand and accept that running a successful business, and being a designer / painter, are two completely different things. Even though I saw what Felt Bicycles went through first hand from the time that we started it, until the time I left, I really had no idea what running a business truly entailed as an owner. The stresses of bills, cash-flow, strategy, fraud, and the endless amount of hours that you have to put in to make it a success. A twelve hour work day, is a short day. Weekends? Forget about those for awhile as well… No rest for the wicked!
For more of Brett King's work, visit BrettKingDesign.com.
Images via Brett King (1, 4, 5) // Photo credit: Alison Padron (2, 3)
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