Thomas Flohr, the chairman and sole shareholder of Swiss-based private plane company VistaJet, just bought $8 billion worth of new planes from Bombardier. Ask him about it – the largest single transaction in the history of that aircraftmaker – and he’ll give you a matter-of-fact answer. But bring up the prospect of spending more than a week bouncing over 3,000 miles of rocks, sand, mud and grass, with snakes, lions, heatstroke and wind exposure thrown in for good measure, and he lights up. “Racing is in my fingertips,” he says over lunch in Montreal. “It’s my passion.”
The object of his passion is the East African Safari Classic Rally, which he terms “the pinnacle of rally driving in the world.” He’s seen the course from behind the wheel three times–and hit trees, suffered searing sunburn and rolled his car in the process. At one point he splashed the car into a lake created by flash flooding from torrential rain. Which was almost preferable, he felt, to days of suffocating heat.
Apparently he’s loved every minute of it. The legendary Paris-to-Dakar race moved to South America in 2009, leaving the Safari Classic as the last great African rally. Started in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and held each November, the race runs from Mombasa, Kenya through Tanzania and back again. Each day is cut into three stages that take between 45 minutes and three and a half hours to complete. No breaks are allowed until drivers make it to their next overnight spots. “You come out of the car completely dusted,” Flohr remembers. “By eight o’clock you’re in bed, completely beat.”
The most unique challenge: the cars themselves. This race takes the “Classic” part of its name seriously. Rather than battle in turbocharged, four-wheel-drive monsters, all competitors must drive production passenger cars made before 1978. No four-wheel-drives allowed.
Flohr likes Porsche 911s, modestly modified. “It has to be the original engine,” he says. “What you are allowed to change is the shock absorbers. The car is slightly higher because you have to protect it from rocks, and you also have underneath a big piece of metal. You have a roll bar. But it’s very much down to the original car.”
It’s not exactly a simple matter. When Flohr placed fifth in the 2011 race he had put months of training and preparation–including an estimated $39,000-plus in entry fees and additional costs–into the effort. Though he went to Africa with a team behind him, including a follow car with a mechanic and spare parts, success or failure still very much depended on his driving.
“There’s no point to push it for half a day to be the best and then have a failure in the car,” he says. “You’ve got to be completely in tune with the technical aspects of the car. If you’re too slow, if you don’t use the full potential of the car, then obviously you’re getting nowhere. But if you slightly overdo it and wish for luck, you’re going to get caught. At some point of overdoing it, you’re not going to be in control.
“It takes total concentration, which in normal life you have–but not to that extent,” adds Flohr, whose nine-year-old company, which has 400 employees, provides on-demand flights to the most remote areas on the globe. “It really is a lifetime experience, because at the end of nine days you really are a different person.” The rally’s organizer, Surinder Thatthi, who will host 60 cars from 16 countries this year, says that his competitors “like to have a challenge that will defy them beyond their daily lives.”
With the African challenge now conquered, Flohr has bigger game in mind. Based on his strong finishes last November in the six-hour Vallelunga Endurance GT race (third) and earlier this year in the Winter Series of the GT Open in France (second) and Spain (fourth), the Swiss Automobile Federation upgraded Flohr to an international license, which allows him to race in all of the major international GT championships. He now has his sights set on the granddad of them all: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He may need another year or two of training under his seat belt before tackling that one. But he’s in it for the long haul, as it were, applying character traits he’s learned in business life to racing and vice versa: “If you’re going to be a top performer over many, many years, you’ve got to do it consistently,” he notes. “To bring the best out of yourself you’ve got to be fit and you have to be very, very focused.”