Full Throttle: Indiana State grad finds a career and adventure in motorsports

March 3, 2014

Five years ago, Kyle Cunningham could be found tooling around a dragster as a crew member of Indiana State University's student -led Team Sycamore Racing. Today, dragsters are still part of his life - just on a larger scale.

Cunningham manages close to $5 million in projects in his role as marketing, merchandise and show car manager with Don Schumacher Racing in Brownsburg. The 2009 Indiana State alumnus can be found overseeing photo shoots promoting the team for NAPA Auto Parts and MOPAR, managing the Valvoline sponsorship, working with designs for team and souvenir shirts, as well as the layout and design of Schumacher's merchandise trailer that travels the 24-race NHRA circuit.

Not bad for someone who had no desire to work in drag racing as a student.

"I like racing," said Cunningham, a Muncie native who finished his fourth season in racing. "But a career in the business side of the industry is what interested me."

He was fortunate to begin at Don Schumacher Racing, one of the titans in NHRA - winning 11 championships and 219 "Wally" trophies with well-known drivers that include Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Ron Capps.

Like many industries, to get where he wanted to be required him to start at the bottom. He was fortunate to get in with Don Schumacher Racing through another Indiana State alumnus. Keith Stein was in charge of the team's show car at the time and hired Cunningham as a driver.

"I drove the U.S. Army show car all over the nation," Cunningham said. "I was gone 240 days my first year with the team."

He also ran the merchandise trailer. After doing $450,000 in a 26-foot trailer at age 25, Cunningham was promoted to his current position.

Today Cunningham supervises the three employees in charge of the show car and works with sponsors to schedule the appearances, including large shows like the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in Las Vegas. But the bulk of his time is spent on merchandising.

Currently in the off-season, he's in charge of getting the team's new 53-foot merchandise trailer ready to go. That's no easy feat, Cunningham said, noting that includes overseeing the arts for the trailer's vinyl wrap; designing, approving and purchasing apparel and supervising two employees.

"It's a shop on wheels and I'm really excited to see how it turns out," he said. "We're hoping to bring in some new elements such as LED monitors to make the experience better for our fans. The goal is to do a million dollars in sales trackside this year."

Cunningham is the primary contact for Schumacher's Valvoline Funny Car, driven by Jack Beckman. In addition to producing a DVD for the sponsor and setting up meet-and-greets he sets the paints schemes and approves the design used for the car art and the crew shirts and fire suits.

Cunningham, who graduated with a degree in automotive engineering technology and a minor in motorsports studies, has found his niche in the world of racing.

"My minor in motorsports studies provided me with a foundation in business as well as technical experience," he said. "I encourage students interested in doing what I do to pursue a marketing minor as well."

Since his job is marketing-focused, Cunningham has also dipped his toes into the field of video production.

"I have absolutely zero experience in video production," Cunningham said. "I'm learning as I go."

Many of his videos are products of a Go-Pro camera mounted to the cars, tools and crew. He currently is creating a video that will show the fabrication of a single cylinder head from raw material using a Go-Pro camera.

"Go-Pro, who happens to be a partner of ours, will make it a video of the day and it will get a million hits," Cunningham chuckled.

But he's also learning how to use a RED camera, created by Jim Jannard, the founder of sportswear and sunglass icon Oakley.

"Jim (Jannard) used his engineers to develop RED, a $45,000 camera that shoots in 5K resolution," Cunningham said.

Cunningham and the team got their hands on one thanks to a deal proposed by Jannard.

After being flown out to Hollywood to get a crash-course in using the camera, Cunningham shoots and edits videos for research and development, sponsors and for racing enthusiasts to view on You Tube.While it's hard work and entails long hours, the work had its advantages.

"You're getting paid to travel the country," he said. "You get to see the country and have fun. There are only five states I haven't visited."

Cunningham also has his share of travel tales to tell - sky diving in Phoenix, deep sea fishing with Schumacher in the Dominican Republic and touring Jay Leno's collection of classic cars near Los Angeles.

"I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather do," Cunningham said, smiling ear to ear. "It's been a life changing adventure."

 

Contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3783 or paula.meyer@indstate.edu  

 

Story Highlights

Kyle Cunningham, a 2009 Indiana State alumnus, manages close to $5 million in projects in his role as marketing, merchandise and show car manager with Don Schumacher Racing in Brownsburg.

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