80 Day Race: A Modern Phileas Fogg
“Anything one person can imagine, other people can make real.”
Frank Manders is the Dutch entrepreneur behind the 80 Day Race– a race that is rapidly becoming the aspiration for adventurers and environmental activists (quite literally) around the world.
Frank is a true pioneer- enthusiastic and committed, with a remarkable network of supporters. He is a person that gets people to sit up and listen. He is a person that gets things done.
When I was introduced to Frank via a mutual friend, my inner-adventurer was instantly captivated at the prospect of the 80 Day Race, in which teams race around the world via 8 checkpoint locations without using fossil fuels. When you look at the astounding line up of ambassadors for the event, consisting of many of my idols, you can see the huge impact of the 80 Day Race already.
Frank kindly agreed to let me interview him, so I could find out more about what inspired him to create the 80 Day Race and hopefully pick up some winning tips!
The race is in 8 stages and begins in Paris, where teams head East towards China, choosing their own route. From Asia the teams travel across the North Pacific Ocean to arrive at the West coast of North America. This is the halfway point. Teams will then proceed to race down towards the East coast of South America, before returning to Europe. The journey is an incredible 40,000km.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to create the 80 Day Race.
Well, I’m a Dutch guy and as a kid I used to watch the Paris Dakar rally. I think I was about eleven or twelve years old when I first saw a glimpse of the Paris Dakar and I was taken by it. I saw those men and women battling through on their mean-machines and I thought “Wow, this is so amazing. I want to do this.”
Actually we had an old television back home and I had to sneak downstairs to programme one of the channels to a French broadcaster in order to watch the Paris Dakar. I then had to change it back before the morning otherwise my parents would have known that I sneaked down during the night to watch the rally. But it was the only way I could watch it- at 1am in the middle of the night as a twelve year old because then there was the replay. That was my exposure to motorsport and the land adventures that I really like.
When I grew older- about sixteen or seventeen- I realised that actually there were two problems with entering the Dakar Rally. One was that I didn’t have the money. And two was that I didn’t have the talent. Apparently if you have money you can buy the talent, but I didn’t foresee having any big amounts of money anytime soon because I was still at school.
So when I was eighteen, my brother and I bought an old Land Rover and together with my Dad, we overhauled it. We then went with five of us through the Sahara, taking the Paris Dakar route. That was actually the start of me doing my own overland adventures.
I kept doing these types of adventures, then in 2005 I wanted to go to Timbuktu. I hadn’t been to Timbuktu before and it sounded like such a mythical place. There was an opportunity to go and so I emailed all my friends saying “I’m going to Timbuktu. Who wants to join?” I got five responses saying yes, so we got three cars and went to Timbuktu. On the way back there were so many people we spoke to who wished they could do things like we had but they didn’t know how. They asked if I could help and I thought, “Yes, I might be able to help.”
I set up a company called Seven Adventures that arranged trips to the new Seven Wonders of the World. What we tried to do was give people a goal for their travel, and the goal was to reach one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And if you reach it in that way then it has a completely different meaning compared to if you went there via aeroplane and air-conditioned bus. We tried to use sustainable mobility, so for example in India we converted auto rickshaws to run on natural gas, so they would have far less emissions. We took them through India to visit the Taj Mahal and when they arrived, they realised they had done something extraordinary. It was something that is not on the bucket list of many people, but the experience of the travel gave a sense of achievement and gave it far more meaning.
I also did an electric bicycle trip from Shanghai to the Great Wall of China. We did a chip fat rally to ride to the Colosseum, where teams were only allowed to drive on waste cooking oil. They had to pillage the bins of the restaurants in order to fuel their cars!
That’s what we did as a hobby. And the hobby got out of control.
There were two things we began to notice. Firstly, that we weren’t having an impact or getting anyone to do anything about sustainably mobility, because it was all just fun. Secondly, we noticed that in order to have a media impact, you need to have the bigger brands on board. The bigger brands liked what we did but they couldn’t sponsor it because it was too weird (!) so we realised that in order to make an impact, we needed to scale things up.
One day Jenny Berlo and I saw the movie “80 Days Around the World,” with Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan. Jenny realised that was something we should do- go around the world and make it sustainable. I suggested “Let’s make it a competition,” and from then on it spiralled a bit out of control into what is now the 80 Day Race.
Q: How does the 80 day race work and what is the goal?
The race is for zero emission vehicles. We basically came to the conclusion that the combustion engine was the issue. No matter what fuel you put into the combustion engine, there will always be particle emissions because the combustion engine is not very efficient no matter what you put in it. The exception might be hydrogen, however it’s not the route to go. Hydrogen should be used in the form of a fuel cell.
So rather than us saying “You can’t use this,” or “You can’t use that,” we decided that everything is allowed as long as it is not powered by a combustion engine.
Normally you hear people talking about thinking outside the box. That is because “the box” is normally drawn very small. With 80 Day Race, the box is extremely big and you can do whatever you like. There is no need to think outside the box. The box is almost as big as the whole future. Anything is possible.
So one of the goals is to allow engineers to show what is possible, without already prescribing the future of technology.
Another goal is to pull together all media on individual adventures that are out there already. For example, there’s this great guy Wiebe Wakker* who I think you know and he is doing something amazing. And because he is by himself and doing literally everything, there is no way he could give enough attention to the media. That will always be the case with adventures with one or only a few people. However, if we bring it together in a competition we can have a much bigger media impact. It would be like me going out and running 42km through New York. Nobody would care because it’s just Frank running 42km and alone I can’t drum up the hype. But if I combine that with 40,000 others and make it the New York marathon, then suddenly you will have the press attention.
That is what we are trying to do with the 80 Day Race, in order to help and accelerate each other.
*Beth’s note: If you don’t know him already, check out the amazing journey of Wiebe Wakker from Plug Me In on his website or social media accounts.
Q: Tell us a bit about some of the competitors and ambassadors of the event?
When Jenny Berlo and I founded the 80 Day Race we realised we were not household names and it’s very difficult to convince people of your idea. We tried to gather support from people that had credibility in the field they are working in, so we approached a professor at a university that was the leader in sustainable mobility. We approached ex-Formula 1 drivers, people who had completed big adventures and had a heart for sustainability. We asked them if they thought the 80 Day Race was a good idea and if they wanted to pledge their support for it.
Now we have a network of around fifteen ambassadors, some of them very high profile. Some are even a little bit unexpected. For example, the President of the ACO, the organisers of 24 Hours of Le Mans, which of course is considered one of the top motorsport events in the world. It’s not really known as being a sustainable event, however they see the developments in this area and they believe that if motorsport wants to stay relevant for society they need to start developing sustainable technologies.
So we got support from very prestigious names, including Bertrand Piccard of Solar Impuse and Erik Lindbergh, who is recreating some of the adventures of his grandparents (Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh) this time with sustainable aeroplanes. It’s a great story! It’s like what 80 Day Race is doing with the old story of Jules Verne, but using sustainable mobility.
Of course the organisation of the event also features some amazing people. One of my childhood heroes Hubert Auriol (3 times Dakar Rally champion) came on board, first as an ambassador and then as a race director and Tom Touber, COO of the Volvo Ocean Race has agreed to become the operations director. Then Fox, owner of National Geographic channel, embedded a commercial director in our team because they believe in the project and the great content we can make for their TV channel.
So that is how we built the management team of the 80 Day Race and I think we have a strong troop right now.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far and how did you overcome it?
We haven’t overcome all the challenges yet. A great example of the challenges we face are actually described in the book by Jules Verne. It is that one person believes they can go around the world in eighty days and everyone else says it is impossible. I can show that 40,000km around the world divided by 80 days is 500km per day. With an electric car that is more than possible. I’ve done London-Oslo in three days and that was 2500km. So, it is possible.
But, like the book, one person says it’s possible and there are dozens of skeptics- people that think it is not possible or too risky. They say, “Come back after you’ve done it. After you’ve done it, I am completely on board.” But that is the idea of pioneers. Pioneers do something, whilst everyone else sits back and waits for someone else to do it before they follow. It’s like Tesla with the electric car and now all the other manufacturers following.
We are trained to not take risks. We promote people who manage stuff, not people who embrace opportunities, because if you fail you will be axed. If you manage the risks, you get rewarded. I’ve had meetings with big corporations where I’ve had a team of people sat across from me and two of them are Risk Managers. I said, “Ok, where are your Opportunity Managers?” They looked at me with a blank face and asked what I meant.
But there always needs to be a balance. You can’t just manage risks or you will get nowhere. You have to also manage the opportunities and that involves having someone saying, “We need to invest in these opportunities.” Yes there is always a risk with an opportunity but there is also a risk by missing an opportunity- just look at Nokia for example.
You see this throughout history, where companies missed the boat because they are only trying to manage risk. And that is the biggest hurdle I have come across. I can’t change the culture of society by myself, but I can give good examples of what can happen if people do embrace an opportunity.
One example I like to give is asking people about the book Around the World in 80 Days. I ask people if they can name a character and always someone in the room can remember Phileas Fogg. I then ask the room to name one of the people in the book that didn’t believe it could be done. And every single time, the room goes silent, because nobody remembers those people. They remember the people that did it. Who advised Edmund Hillary not to climb Mount Everest? Do we know? Of course we don’t. We know Edmund Hillary.
That’t how it works. People do not remember the Risk Managers, they remember the person that took the opportunity.
Q: You’ve met and are supported by a lot of really influential people. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t listen to the rest.
Most of them are people who see opportunities and that is why we have them on board as ambassadors. We have very similar philosophies. They are all people that have done stuff that other people thought was impossible and they all know how incredibly difficult it is to achieve your goals.
Perseverance is what they all say. Most people give up when things become too challenging, but if you believe in your idea and the power of your dream you have to continue. It’s what they have all done and it’s really heartwarming to hear that because it is a difficult journey to set up something completely new. It’s hard work and you need people around you to motivate you.
Q: Erm… Asking for a friend… If you were going to enter your own race, how would you win? 😉
Well without giving too many secrets away…
I think the idea behind 80 Day Race is that everybody could win and that goes back to the passion I had for the original Dakar Rally. There were two brothers that won Dakar in a simple rear-wheel drive Renault. They won not because they had the best car, but because it was simple, they were clever with their choices, they had a great strategy, and a bit of luck.
But it’s a great way to inspire people to participate, with the idea that everyone could win. If you would enter a Formula 1 race team right now you can’t win. You would need an extremely big budget and even then, the chances of a privateer winning are close to none. It’s similar now with the Dakar Rally too. You cannot win if you don’t have big factory support.
With 80 Day Race there are a few simple rules of the game and one of them is that you have to stick to the law. That means no speeding and means there is no additional gain to be had from building a vehicle that can go 300km/h. An incremental gain in top speed is not relevant in our race, which means that the budgets stay low. A perfectly functioning car with a decent range could actually win the race. There is no need to invest in a car that costs millions. The rest comes from strategy, planning, and organising support.
I think that in order to win the race, I would try to build a network of friends of the team for charging, so I know I could charge no matter where I was. Then I would take a standard car and modify it slightly. Rip out everything that is not essential, to make it lighter, and take a co-driver that is extremely good at navigating.
Q: What is your favourite electric car on the market right now and why?
My favourite available right now is- sadly- the Tesla Model S. This is shocking because it came out in 2012 and so far, none of the big manufacturers have produced something with a comparable range. There is nothing that comes close to the range of the Tesla Model S and I think that is bizarre because it’s not like Tesla has this magical battery technology. It’s the standard cells arranged in packs and they have a 400-500km range in that car. Of course, it’s not a perfect car and the interior is not necessarily the greatest, but I can travel from Holland to Paris in one charge right now. There’s no other vehicle right now that can do that.
If I was talking about my dream electric vehicle, then I would say the Rimac Concept_One.
The stunning Rimac Concept One
It’s incredible to see what Mate Rimac has designed and built. I know how difficult it is to set up something from scratch and this guy has just been amazing to see what he has achieved. I think it is probably the most brilliant showcase electric vehicle to inspire kids and teenagers who like watching drag racing and doing number-crunching on cars. That type of stuff stays with you, and I think what he does with the Concept_One is build a whole new generation that look at the numbers and look at the car and think: You know what? Electric is far better than that combustion engine V6, V8, Turbo-Charged crap! It’s loud. It breaks. And it doesn’t deliver.
Bottom line is that you have this old machine that is complex. It puffs and bangs and does all kinds of strange things, but it doesn’t deliver. The Rimac Concept_One delivers. In the end, I think that is how to inspire the next generation.
You can follow Frank Manders and the 80 Day Race at www.80dr.com or via social media channels.
Thanks to Frank Manders and the team at 80 Day Race
Author: Beth Lily Georgiou