A Chat with Rallye Republic founder Ryan Surber

Categories Interviews, Torque Affair

A mutual friend introduced me to Ryan Surber, founder of Rallye Republic, a while back since we are both auto fanatics and building something for auto enthusiasts.  I followed Ryan around when he was putting together the Bat City Rally and covered the event here.

MOTOGUD's Ryan Surber

Ryan actually has a very interesting background.  I would venture to say Ryan is sort of a modern day renaissance man.  You name it – he has done it.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in religion, been a very successful wealth management advisor, built charity organizations, created road rallies, started private equity funds…and if that wasn’t enough, he is a musician as well!  His latest venture (among many) is Rallye Republic that he started in Austin.  He has big plans for Rallye Republic.

Ryan, it seems to me, lives life to the fullest.  I’m pretty sure he’s never not doing anything (double negatives – my favorite).  As you will find out in this interview, he has some amazing stories all revolving around his passion for autos.

He should write a book some day because the interview barely scratches the surface of all that he has experienced.  Read below – I guarantee that you will be entertained.

TA: What cars have you owned since you first started driving?
Ryan: My first car was a hideous burgundy 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon. Part of me wonders if I should have sold it… because I have literally NEVER seen one on the road since I sold it in 1994.
Granted, it had a 305 carbureted by a infamously horrible quadrajet carb.  But it was fun. And sounded great.  My best buddy Tim had a 1978 Malibu with a 350 4-barrel, and we loved taking our cars out, and “scooping the loop.” Cars were very much a part of growing up – it seems like sports, food, socializing and girls all evolved around the cars that were in our lives.

I remember the search for that car with my father when I had just turned 16. (I learned how to drive on a Ford Taurus – our family car – and the bestselling car in America at the time. I remember it was a joy to drive – but I didn’t have much perspective – mainly because that V6 sounded amazing when I’d stomp on the pedal).  We looked at everything – and I still have remorse regarding passing over a 1978 Chevy Nova for $500. It was a horrible poop-brown in color and only an inline 6. But it was a Nova – a car that has become quite the cult-classic these days… but then we all know I still wouldn’t own my first car anyway, so why the remorse?  Actually, I kinda wish I had that ’78 Cutlass.

I wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt “The Guppy” (the horrible name given to my ’78 Cutlass fitting for the horrible car). But Dad had an early 80s Ford F150, and I really loved that truck. It only had AM radio, and no air conditioning. And it would overheat a bit in the Iowa summer heat – especially if we were cruising and sitting at a standstill quite a bit. But the girls (and the buddies) certainly loved hopping in the back of the truck and cruising. If I had an excuse to beg Dad to borrow the truck, I took it. And that most often occurred when the Cutlass was broke. Which was quite a bit. I think Dad felt a little guilty when it would break, because for some reason he really loved that car. (We bought that ’78 Cutlass with a tad over 175,000 miles on it for $1,500 in 1991).

I think something about it reminded him of his youth – though I never really figured out what it was. He called it a fastback – though it was simply an odd shape of a car in the form of a… well… guppy.  And now knowing his mad passion for the AMC AMX, which is a true “fastback,” I wonder if that could be it. After all, that fastback shape wasn’t being designed in the late 80s and early 90s when I bought my first car.
I took the Cutlass to college to the University of Iowa. I had replaced the engine and the transmission each once, and when the engine replacement gave way to a thrown rod bearing again after my first year at Iowa, Dad and I began our search for new wheels and a good excuse to retire the Guppy that I had found in New Sharon, IA.

I actually fell in love with my next car – though I almost don’t want to admit it. It was a 1988 Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport. It was super clean and grandma-driven vehicle that I found on a used car lot in Brooklyn, IA. It was black with cool pinstripes, and a deep burgundy interior. The air conditioner worked all the time, and the 4-cylinder was pretty tight. I’d never driven a 4-cylinder before, and I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed a bit more zippier than the 305s that I had gotten used to. And I was just happy that I was able to upgrade my vehicle 10 years newer. I would often stare at that digital clock and think how lucky I was. The little car got me through college – we did many outings and dates in Iowa City and from Waverly to Cedar Falls. It took me on many summer road trips.

The summer after school in Des Moines I got hit by a dump truck running a red light (luckily no injuries) and totaled the Eurosport. She died a tragic death – but in some manner I feel like she kept me injury free in that accident. It gave Dad and I a reason to get together to go find wheels.  By this time Dad and I had come to realize that our favorite shared sport was car searching and dickering with the sales people. I helped him purchase our Taurus, Civics and trucks. And even helped him and my brother in the sport of purchasing my brother’s cars.

I moved on to my first salvage-title car – in the state of Iowa a car that had more than $5,000 of damage which had to be disclosed on the title. This was an Oldsmobile Alero – and I really loved this car. It was a pooch of a car – the 4 cylinder was crap and the suspension was crap. But it was the most stylish car I had owned to date – and I had moved about another 10 years newer – so things were getting exciting!

I had the opportunity to sell the Alero for a profit after about 18 months – something I’d never done before, and decided to move on. I moved on to a completely hideous Saturn – I bought this car not based on style, or a cool-factor. Because there is no cool factor with a Saturn. But it was my first major financed car – and Saturn offered me the best terms. So it was pure logic. This was also the first car that I bought without Dad by my side – he still felt the Alero was a good car and couldn’t understand why I was selling it after 18 months of good service. (He wasn’t paying the repair bills!)

After a couple of years in the finance industry I realized that the lack of cool in my Saturn was doing me no favors in regards to taking clients to lunch or my dating life. So I made the jump to a Mercedes C-class. Between my first German car and a time when I was beginning to find financial success in my career, I found a whirlwind of vehicle opportunities.

A little while later I bought the first car that I said I would never sell – due to it being the first car that was strictly a hobby car. No man needs a second vehicle, but most men want a second vehicle. This was a symbol of a newly found financial success – and it was a time when I could take reward in having the ability to splurge. So I bought a buddy’s 1988 BMW 635csi. I told him years prior that if he ever sold his E24 “Shark” that I surely wanted to be first in line. And out of the blue, upon his decision to purchase a new 7-series, he asked me if I was interested in it. I thought he gave it to me for a song ($2,500) – and I in turn rewarded the next owner after me with another great deal (yes, I sold the car I said I would never sell). I still see that E24 in Facebook pictures and other social medias where it cruises the streets throughout Minneapolis.

I went on to decide that big vehicles were good to own because 1) the tax incentives, 2) the Iowa winters, and 3) seemed to be great for carrying tools for all my broken-ass hobby cars. I had pretty good luck with my Trailblazer, Denali and Ram 1500, though I did replace the transmission in the Denali and the Ram 1500 developed an exhaust leak at 10,000 miles and really kind of started falling apart all over at 25,000 miles.
Ryan's Denali

In the meantime while focusing on larger daily drivers, I was able to focus on fun cars – to the point where I acquired a large 5,000 warehouse with a buddy to store our cars. Hobby cars that I have dearly loved and owned – and some I still own: 1957 MGA fastback edition, Datsun 510, Datsun 510 purpose-built vintage racer, 1984 and 1988 RX7, 1967 Lincoln Continental, 1976 BMW E12 Alpina, Jeep Wrangler and 2006 Lotus Elise. I’ve also cared for many family cars in my possession – most interestingly Mom’s 1988 ACS McLaren Mustang and Dad’s 1969 AMC AMX.

I also had the opportunity to co-own a business that had a decent stable of cars, including a Ferrari F355, a BMW 530i newly purchased from the drummer of Slipknot, a Hummer H1, a Hummer H2, a BMW 745, a Dodge Viper SRT-10, a Mercedes S55, a Landrover HSE, and a Mercedes CLK430. I made sure I got plenty of wheel time behind each – especially the Ferrari, the Viper, the H1, and the CLK 430.

TA: Wow, you’ve owned a lot of cars and shared some awesome stories.  Out of all these cars, which of these cars was your favorite and why?

Ryan: The 2006 Lotus Elise was the first real exotic sports car that I bought – a real eye-turner. Another car that I have said (and continue to say) I will never sell. I grew up with Dad talking about the first car he loved (and maybe the only), his first 1969 AMX that he bought upon returning from the Vietnam conflict. The way he would tell the story – he was actually driving to test drive and purchase a Corvette in Cedar Rapids, IA… and there just happened to be an AMC dealership on the way to the Chevrolet dealership. So he thought since he was in test drive mode, he may as well test drive the AMX.

Ryan's dad's AMX

The AMX was in its second year of production, and was making headlines throughout the country. Mark Donohue, a mechanical engineer from Brown University – and likely the most famous driver in the country at the time, signed up with team owner Roger Penske to campaign for American Motors in the SCCA’s TransAm series. And here it is where AMC received some well deserved but short-lived glory.

Maybe Dad was just intuitive and knew that he wanted to join a winning team by purchasing the often made-fun-of and odd looking AMX. Donohue and team-owner Penske went on to win an amazing amount of TransAm victories and championships in the early 70s for the newly resurgent Team AMC.

What does this have anything to do with my favorite car? Because I too wanted to own a 2-seat sports car that had pedigree and the ability to turn heads – one perhaps a bit more economical than it’s competition yet exotic by its own right. And it was when this formula came to light that I settled on the Lotus. But it’s not the car that provides it’s place at the top of my favorites. It’s the journey and the experiences that have been provided by the Lotus.

Starting from the get-go – the online journey and ultimate purchase from Las Vegas Lotus – where I purchased a 1-way ticket to Vegas from Des Moines, landed, took delivery the same day on the Lotus and promptly drove to Orange County to enjoy the July 4th weekend driving up and down the PCH (a good buddy of mine subsequently decided that he didn’t want me to have all the fun, flew into Vegas a few days later where I picked him up after a week in California, and proceeded to drive very fast home through Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska.)

I’ve taken several multi-1,000+ journeys in the Lotus. Sometimes with a very cute navigator. Sometimes with my dog. Sometimes with a buddy.  But mostly just me – where I experience man and machine, finding a harmony with the road, all the while playing a game against the elements. (The most harrowing experience was when I took a 2-month sabbatical and decided on a mega roadtrip to the south – and leaving Des Moines in a March ice storm – ice that lasted 36 hours and didn’t relent until just north of Tampa, Florida.)
Ryan's Lotus

But if I could choose any car in my possession, though the Lotus represents much of me – there is no question I would choose my favorite as the 1969 AMC AMX – a car that represents much of my Dad.

TA: Do you wish you kept any of your cars that you ultimately got rid of?

Ryan: Absolutely. I eluded to the 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon – though most of my remorse here is centered around the notion and wonder around my pure hatred for this car. Because I’ve never seen another Salon on the road since I sold that car to a junkyard in 1994, I wonder if this ugly mule could have ever become beautiful in its rarity… in its ability to get people talking about the cars from their youth.

But the car I regret most is the car I originally said I would never sell. I loved that 1988 BMW E24 “Shark.” I was simply at a point in life where I had too many 4-wheel “toys,” and I put up several for sale at the time. It had taken some time to come to terms with the idea of purging part of the collection – but I wanted a simpler life and multiple jalopies weren’t helping. Though the E24 was not on the “for sale” list, it was the first car for which I received an offer… one from a buddy that had been scoping the car out for years. (Attached is a recent picture, taken in May 2014 of the car that the new owner posted on Facebook from Minneapolis). I’d love to be cruising around the streets of Austin and Des Moines in the E24. So much that I may have to begin shopping for the next one (after the most recent posting of the E24 I asked my buddy if he’d sell it back to me… he told me there was no chance at all he was selling the car).

TA: Are there any cars you really want to own?

Ryan: My car bucket list consists of 6 cars that I would feel very honored to own and steward at some point:

  1. Jensen Interceptor
  2. Alfa Romeo Montreal
  3. Triumph Stag
  4. Pantera Mangusta
  5. 1988 Lamborghini Countach
  6. 1970 Javelin TransAm vintage racer

TA: How did Rallye Republic get started?  Where did you get the idea?
Ryan: I was the volunteer president of a charitable organization consisting of young professionals in the early 2000s. We were pretty motivated to do gala-type events throughout the year, but we wanted to reinvent what this type of event could be. One of my best buddies, suffering through a sleepless night in a world of 100% commission, was watching a show on the Discovery channel. This show suggested that a charity road rally was a good community-centered event for car lovers and community members alike. A few phone calls later and we had found a flavor of “gala” fitting for our group.

This rally event (The Des Moines 20/30 Road Rally) morphed from event to organization over the first few years (Road Rally Charities) and soon the leadership team found ourselves experimenting with different single-day events and even a multi-day event. We made a ton of mistakes along the way, but given our success, I believe the one hurdle we were consistently able to overcome was being a group of volunteers willing to overcome differences for the common goal of producing extremely unique events that built community, built relationships, and carried on the tradition of automobile as art and automobile as a passion.

Once settled in Austin, I scheduled an evening to catch up with an longtime buddy from Des Moines who had also settled in Austin. When Dan was in Des Moines, he was a residential real estate agent and entrepreneur – running youth gyms for athletic and community development. So when I found out that he owned a very successful marketing company and had relocated with his new wife to Austin, I was more than intrigued to catch up.  I’m not sure if I was more interested in catching up with Dan or finding out if his new bride had any cute friends that she could introduce me to.

Less than an hour into our conversation, Dan asked me if I had any intention on bringing rally to Austin. I immediately responded “no,” because honestly it hadn’t crossed my mind. So after Dan discussed producing rallies, and what it would take to do rally in Austin, I decided a little homework would be in order to find out the history of rally in Austin. This conversation renewed a passion and spirit that I hadn’t experienced in over a year – the time I had resigned my leadership position with Road Rally Charities to hit the road and do charity work.
My Charity Life

Over the first few months, I worked with Dan to form the foundation of Rallye Republic, and we were well on our way to our first events by the end of 2013.

TA: What challenges did you face in getting Rallye Republic off the ground?

Ryan: I had other business-related reasons to create a dual living situation between Des Moines and Austin, but I really didn’t know too many car enthusiasts in town. I was meeting them here and there as I’d drive the Lotus around town, but I wasn’t building relationships or keeping any business cards.

One thing that Dan and I decided was that much of the assets that we would need to launch Rallye Republic already existed – and those were the bumps, bruises and lessons I had experienced doing rally for nearly a decade in Iowa as well as competing in events in the southern, midwestern, and eastern United States. This was an opportunity to take those lessons and develop something pretty magical in Central Texas.

Dan and I had just come off of ventures that were pretty capital-intensive to launch, and we decided this was a venture that was worth pursuing if we could develop a formula that took more brains, hard work, and effort with our unique skill sets than capital. We launched Rallye Republic on less than $5,000, which makes for a great story but was excruciating work along the way.

TA:  What is your best memory from a Rallye Republic first ever Bat City Rally?

Ryan: I really loved seeing our Bat City’s winning team bond over the competition in May, 2014.  It was a father-son team in Dad’s Subaru BRZ. It’s hard sometimes for a father to find ways to bond with his teenage son. And though I’ve seen it over and over again, it was really just fantastic to see this father-son duo win the rallye. It’s not easy to win, and usually takes quite a bit of work and communication between driver and navigator.

Many times fathers tell me that they’ve never experienced an event that gives them so much incentive to create legitimate and valuable conversation with their sons for such an extended amount of time. Sometimes its hard for fathers to know what to discuss with their sons. This takes all of the “art” out of creating conversationally intimate moments – we tell them what to talk about. And many times sons simply tell me it was the best day with their dads… ever.

TA: Why did you want to start Rallye Republic in Austin, Texas?

Ryan: I wear a few hats, which is pretty common for Austinites to do. I am a musician and I enjoy business development. I fell in love with Austin in early 2013 when I was promoting charity during SXSW, and I began considering Austin as the next city to explore… on a long-term basis.

Getting to know Austin as a community is also getting to know its unique culture around cars. There are exotic dealerships, road tracks, meetups and, of course, the Circuit of Americas all based or within close proximity to Austin. Yet groups, clubs and organizations are very fragmented and isolated.

I saw an opportunity to create a car-agnostic group based around the love of the automobile (and the motorcycle) with no pretension or bias towards automobile mark. This organization, based on community building, relationship building, and carrying on the authentically American tradition of the “art of the car;” has a real shot at being a connector and influencer in the future of a fledgling automobile and motorcycle mecca called ATX.

And it’s simply based on the premise that people want fun, competitive and challenging events in which they can drive their car or motorcycle, regardless of mark. We are really going back to a golden era from the twenties through the sixties of when people were discovering automobiling and motorcycling for the first time. When peoples imaginations were going crazy thinking about how they could push the limits of fun with the carriages that were powered by internal combustion engines. When things were fresh. Were new. And where anyone felt they could discover the next best modification in their garage.

I guess this answers a broader question – the question of “Why rallye?” And after touring dozens of American cities in 2013, the more specific question of “Why Austin” became abundantly clear. We want to make a difference in a city that needs leaders and influencers to help guide it in a phenomenal time of growth and discovery. Though I wasn’t around for the past thirty years while this city established world-class traditions with the likes of SXSW, ACL, COTA, the title of “Live Music Capital of the World” and Sixth Street, I’d like to think I’ll be around for the next thirty years and some new world-class traditions like competitive rallye.

Oh…and sorry I use “rally” and “rallye” freely. They are the same thing. I just tend to favor “rallye,” giving credit to the genesis of this great sport in Europe.

TA:  I was wondering if there was a difference between “rally” and “rallye”.  Thanks for clarifying.  How would you compare the 1st Bat City Rally vs. the first rally you organized in Des Moines, Iowa?

Ryan: I’ve thought alot about this, and though they were about the same size, I think there are some really cool things that happened between our first rally in 2006 and our first ATX rally in 2014.

The similarities are pretty obvious – our ATX leadership team had never done rally nor had they ever witnessed rally. They were simply taking my word for it – and realized that their love for cars could be developed and encouraged through a competitive event and series such as rally. And of course this community has never seen rally before (at least the way Rallye Republic does rally), and that is always an uphill battle for any organization – introducing a new product or service that people don’t understand. Our leadership has now witnessed and participated in rally – and they’re sold. We’re really firing on all 8… or 12 cylinders. And the community has experienced a taste of it – though we’ll still be educating Austin and Central Texas on why Rallye Republic should be a priority on their calendars.

The differences may not be so obvious. In the initial 2006 rally – we had a leadership team of 7 individuals that put on the event – and we really didn’t know what the hell was going on during the entire event. It really is by the graces of the universe that we pulled it off, that we entertained our competitors, and that we actually wanted to do another rally in 2007.

With Bat City, I had quite a few rallies under my belt – both from a leadership standpoint, from competing in them, and also winning them. So when I made the judgement call for ALL of our leaders to compete the week of Bat City, though there was some anxiety there was really no question that I could pull of Bat City on my own – with the help of one other volunteer.

And that’s what we did. From registration, to the Team Meeting, to running activities at 6 checkpoints, to re-routing the rally midday due to timing issues, and to hosting the Awards Ceremony, Andrew and I pulled it off in fine fashion. The leadership team helped with merchandise in the morning, helped heard the flock all day (to try to keep the route flowing per scheduled timing) and helped with calculating results. But it really couldn’t have been a more perfect rally for these Austin leaders to experience. And yes, I’m more than enthusiastic to get my leaders back to produce future events!

TA: What’s next for Rallye Republic?
Ryan: I really couldn’t be more excited about the future of an organization than I am with Rallye Republic’s future. We are scheduled to hold a midnight Halloween auto rallye, a motorcycle “cafe” rally and a city rally yet in 2014. We’re working hard to also do a vintage rally this fall simultaneous with F1 Grand Prix weekend.

We are very excited that Rallye Republic calls Austin it’s home and headquarters, and we will continue to develop and grow Bat City, ACE MOTO, Boneraker and Hill Country into world class competitive driving events. Austin is a destination place where more and more people visit each year. They come here for the music, the festivals, the Circuit of the Americas, the barbeque, Hill Country, and the vibrant community that Austin is. We’re excited to play an integral role in expanding this region’s offerings for tourism – creating a reason for driving enthusiasts around the world to visit Austin.

As driving enthusiasts demand, I’m more than excited to expand our single-day rallies to other great cities into multi-day rallies that rally to destinations such as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas – Fort Worth, New Orleans, Orlando, Las Vegas, and beyond.

Here’s to Driving with Passion, and Driving with Purpose.

BMW Alpina

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