Whether it’s winning Formula 1 championships or Indianapolis 500s, David Salters is arguably one of the best engineers of his generation and his career at the likes of Cosworth, Ferrari and Mercedes has led to a presidential role at Honda Performance Development, the manufacturer’s U.S. arm.
As is an increasing trend in motorsport, Salters is an engineer-turned boss, which presents its own challenges for someone who has trained in how to design a race car or engine, not specifically in how to run a business or lead people.
It’s clear from HPD’s results since Salters took on the role – which include the Daytona 24 Hours, Indy 500, INDYCAR championship and Baja 1000 class wins to name a few – that he’s taken to the role like a duck to water.
There is likely not a big name from the world of motorsport David hasn’t worked with at some point, and he’s drawn on all of that experience and knowledge to shape his presidential style at HPD.
He joined Podium Life in this Q&A to provide a window into his motorsport experiences and how it’s shaped his running of one of motorsport’s most successful racing divisions.
Who are some of your mentors?
With mentors, you probably don’t realise they are until afterwards. Everyone just gets on with their job. You have people you respect.
Leadership is hard, you’re trying to balance a lot of things. So if I look back over my career, I was very fortunate. If I go back to Cosworth, there were people like Steve Miller and Rob White, Bruce Wood, John Vaughan, these people (all engineers also), they were really smart and just got stuff done.
You end up respecting those type of people. I was lucky enough, I went to Ilmor so Paul Morgan, Mario Illien, these people achieve a huge amount.
We did Mercedes F1 when I was there, and you got to watch a bit from afar, Adrian Newey and how cars were put together, and then fortunate enough to go to Ferrari and there was Jean Todt, Stefano Domenicali and Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, who was brilliant, and Aldo Costa.
You watched all of these people, but you don’t realise how much you learned from them until afterwards, when you ended up having to need some of those skills. You can probably subconsciously draw on it, I think is what happens.
When you start to lead, you start to look back and you realise the people you worked with who are really good people-managers.
Best piece of advice you’ve received?
I don’t know if it was advice or it became obvious, I think it was a bit of both. The culture of, just get on with your job, don’t worry about too much else. Do what you need to do work-wise. You’ve got your task, just try and do a good job with it.
Think about your engineering, work with your colleagues and try your best. It’s amazing what can happen after that sometimes, but just focus on the task and try and enjoy it as well.
Another piece of brilliant advice that’s always stuck with me. There’s a very, very smart team owner who once told me two years is a very long time.
Sometimes you’re thinking what’s going to happen next year or the year after this. I once had a very smart team owner put his arm around me and just say, two years is a very long time in motorsport.
Everything seems to be like a two-year cycle. It doesn’t matter how much you plan for it and stuff. It’s going to be different probably. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for it but just be aware.
So that was some good advice I had.
Biggest lesson learned in motorsport?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is, ‘put it in perspective’.
We’re not curing illness, there’s people with much more noble things that keep the world going around. We’re very privileged with looking at technology, we’re developing things, we’re entertaining people. You’ve got to put that in perspective.
Put things in perspective. Do your best and then with the right people in the right places, help the team work on the things that are important. Don’t complicate, try and simplify.
I think it’s all about the people. It’s about making sure the people have got the tools they need to do the job.
You’ve got the right people in the right places. They’re motivated, you’re helping motivate them.
Sometimes you can just take on too much and if you dilute your efforts too much, if you have too much work to do, typically you don’t do the best job ever.
We all know when we’ve been overloaded from work and the quality goes down slightly. And it’s the same with a business really, you’ve got to be careful, you want to challenge, and then people rise to the challenge, but you don’t want to overload the system.
What book/article/film has best shaped your leadership style?
What I find very inspirational is there’s some books about Kelly Johnson, Lockheed Skunk Works.
One of the things that made me really, really smile, almost tear up slightly. There is Kelly Johnson Parkway, just around the corner from here where they used to have the supersonic wind tunnel. And as a kid going through college, I found the stuff that the Skunk Works did and Kelly Johnson’s leadership style and everything very inspirational.
Weirdly, I came to work here and around the corner where Walmart is, is Kelly Johnson Parkway. It’s like fate isn’t it?
My passion is engineering and things that I think are some of the highest accolades and examples of that are things like the Skunk Works, Kelly Johnson, and also the space exploration that went on here.
You see there’s various documentaries and read loads of books on getting to the Moon. What those men and women achieved and the leadership required is quite simply still astonishing. So that really floats my boat.
What does the future of racing look like to you?
Funnily enough, that’s a good question. If you’d have asked me three years ago – two years is a long time in racing – I would have thought, I don’t know.
However, I think it’s got the most amazing outlook now.
What has dawned on me – and we’ll see, I may not have understood – we’re in this massive transition in the automotive business. And actually, when automotive came to be, there were big transitions, racing really prospered because people were trying new technology. I suspect we’re in the same thing again.
So I think there’s great opportunity for racing. With electrification, everything’s up to play for. So we can come up with some cool stuff. It could really resonate.
Through change there’s massive opportunity, especially the technical stuff, there’s a lot of change. So actually, I think there’s great opportunity for racing in the future. And probably two years ago, everyone would have been a bit unsure.
Now I think there’s this great opportunity to showcase technology, try different stuff we haven’t thought of yet.
You had a strong start in IndyCar winning the 500 and IndyCar title in your first year, but last year Chevrolet fought back. How has your leadership style developed throughout that and how do you feel entering 2023?
It’s a balance. At HPD, the lovely thing is we get to do all this different stuff. If it was just IndyCar it might not be quite as exciting.
Of course, IndyCar is immensely important.
It wasn’t too bad. We set a new record in qualifying and we won the Indy 500 which is what the primary goal is. Any year you win the Indy 500 is not a bad deal.
Again, in perspective, it’s a bit like Mercedes in F1, you become tied to your own success sometimes, so that couple of years beforehand we’ve monstered the drivers championship, manufacturers’, you’ve done the clean sweep. Well, racing doesn’t work like that.
Once you do that, you’ve got the target on your back and someone’s gonna come back at you. That’s exactly why we do it. So last year actually was great. If you look at the achievements, we won the Indy 500, acquitted ourselves reasonably well [in teh championship], not our normal standards.
So we need to do better. There’s no hiding behind that we weren’t quite good enough.
But then off we went to DPi in IMSA, which is our other pinnacle series, and you win in Daytona, win the championship.
Then we do other funky stuff. We won our class in the Baja 1000 again, with the same engine that did DPI. Then our touring cars, which we’ve all got a huge soft spot for here because Honda is Honda and its car culture, they won the championship.
Did IndyCar need to improve? Yes. Are we working to improve? Yes. Is it getting harder? Yes. That’s why we do it. You know I mentioned about overloading, we certainly overloaded ourselves.
Remember we’re working on the current IndyCar engine and new hybrid IndyCar unit for 2024. We’re also working on DPI and LMDh, all over the last couple of years.
Normally you’d have two pinnacle projects, we have four.
Thanks to the awesome men and women here, everyone just rose to the challenge. So in light of that, it wasn’t so bad last year. In fact, it was bloody good. But you know, it doesn’t matter. Control, Alt, Delete, it’s all last season now!
We’re working hard. We can we can do more. We’ve done a lot. It’s always the case in racing, it gets better then it gets a bit harder, but that’s just an excuse. We know where we are, we’ve got work to do. We’ve done lots of work and it’s never ending, which is why we do it.