The founder/co-owner of Vape Club is taking the wheel once more after a mid-tier finish last year and is keen to get his teeth stuck into the competition. But, when’s he’s not focussing on lap times, performance mechanics, and daydreaming about silverware (that’s trophies to us) he finds time to manage a store that prides itself on helping vapers old and new, with an extensive range of products and a customer service division that’s quickly becoming recognised as one of the best in the industry.
After a successful first race placing 7th out of 23 racers, we had a chance to sit down with VC mastermind Vlad Vassiliev, along with longtime friend and business manager Matthew Dorkings to find out about how endurance racing became a part of their everyday life and how blowing up your car doesn’t have to affect your success!
Catching Up With Vlad Vassiliev & Matt Dorkings
Ben Mullins: Thanks for coming today, we really want to know how you started Vape Club Racing?
Matt Dorkings: It really started with Vlad playing Gran Turismo on a PlayStation console. He was using a proper steering wheel and was getting fed up that I was beating him using a controller! So, he very kindly bought me a wheel for my birthday. After that, we were completely hooked!
Whilst some people went home from work to play Call Of Duty, we're racing on Gran Turismo. It coincided with the start of lockdown. It was a way of hanging out with each other and our friends, without actually being in the same room. And it escalated from there.
BM: Thanks for giving us some background. Tell us, where did your passion for motorsports and racing come from?
Vlad Vassiliev: My passion for motorsports started when I was a teenager. My dad bought a force-feedback steering wheel, and I had rally simulators on my PC in the late 90s. I had always dreamt of doing something like this but it never seemed attainable to me.
Jump to 2016, Mike Guasch who previously raced in a Cuttwood Vape branded car in the USA, was now competing in the European LeMan series with United Autosports which was a team co-owned by Zak Brown (now CEO at McLaren F1). I followed the team around Europe and watched Mike race with Alex Brunde (son of Martin Brundle) at Silvertone, Imola in Italy and Estoril in Portugal. It was phenomenal to see the switch from business professional to racing driver. He’d walk out of a meeting with people in the vape industry and then go straight into the pits with a data engineer and then on to the track to race. It was incredibly inspiring and I was a little jealous! Here was someone that was making the most of life, working hard and playing hard at the same time!
In the book “How Not To Be A Racing Driver,” Jason Plato revealed that a lot of people who race are gentleman drivers. They are non-professional drivers that pay for the seat. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment! Finding something like the Fun Cup which is affordable, I told myself… let’s do it. Let’s race!
MD: Motorsports has always been a big thing in my family, my uncle worked for FINA, an oil company sponsoring Formula 1 and he followed it all around the globe. We’d watch the races together on Sundays and go to race days at Brands Hatch, even following the World Rally Touring Car Championship. I never imagined that I would be doing it. You look at racing drivers as a special breed, plucked out and trained. To say it’s a dream come true is weird because it's beyond a dream.
BM: You guys made your first appearance last year, what was it about Fun Cup Endurance Racing that attracted you?
VV: Living in the US, I spent a lot of time on jet skis and driving off-road buggies, but here in the UK I didn't have that adrenaline rush. So, we started looking into buying go-karts and a trailer to go racing. We quickly realised we were in England and it's wet a lot of the time. That’s when we looked at cars like the Mazda MX-5 because they are easy to maintain and very affordable considering the performance.
MD: We looked at race series Like the Clio Cup and Caterhams too.
VV: You can spend a lot of money, to get around 15-30 minutes of race time each weekend. But they are mainly individual events, you turn up, race a bit and you go home. So, I went to Motorsport UK to see what different championships were available. I found Fun Cup endurance racing — this is amazing I thought, this is what we want— I was really intrigued by the Fun Cup. There are Fun Cup national series competed in the UK, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Canary Islands, all of which combine in the 25 Hours at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
These cars might look like VW bugs but the cars are race designed, single-seaters, with super-strong space frame chassis, with a central driving position and a rear-mounted engine weighing 750 KG. They are powered by an 1800cc, 130 bhp VW/Audi petrol engine, with the ultra reliable Sadev sequential gearbox. Paddle-shift and pit-to-car radio are also available as optional extras and they all feature race brakes and fully adjustable suspension. All cars are identical in specification, with no-performance modifications.
The fact that the cars are identical is great, so you don’t end up with what’s called chequebook racing. Where basically the more you can afford to spend on expensive components, the better you do. So in order to even be competitive you have to start spending a lot of money. This is what attracted me to The Fun Cup, it’s a relatively inexpensive endurance motorsport and team event.
Vape Club racing is a self-funded endeavour. It has the Vape Club name on it as it’s a business brand that we’re extremely passionate about, but we wanted to put forward the money ourselves. This was possible thanks to success in the crypto market and particularly Dogecoin gains in 2021. I could have bought a super car and drove it around London at 10Mph or taken it on my own to track days, that just didn’t appeal to me and didn’t fulfil my adrenaline addiction!
Team racing sounded far more appealing and it just made sense to participate as “Vape Club Racing”. McLaren F1 team have the Vuse vaping brand as their key sponsor. We are trying to mimic the Red Bull Racing model, but on a much smaller scale!
BM: You've both led people professionally, Matt you're the Operations Manager of Vape Base, Vlad you’re the CEO of Vape Club. Is there a strong link between leadership and a desire to compete?
VV: 100%! Everything we do in business is a competition, you’re up against competing teams, sometimes with the same tools, and it's all about finding those small incremental gains. This really translates into racing, whether you're talking about consistency or teamwork. One of us could be faster or slower on a given day but it's our combined result that matters.
MD: Yes, we are in business so we compete every day. Everything I’ve done in the past I’ve felt like I've competed against myself. Being a skateboarder for 22 years, you have fun and challenge yourself. When I started racing I realised just how competitive I was. As we started to get better and had battles with other people, I understood more about myself and my competitive nature. The only person you can truly compare yourself against is your teammate because you are in the same car.
BM: Placing 13th out of 28 competing teams you had an impressive debut, tell us about some of the highs and lows you had in your first season on the track?
MD: The “highs” have got to be getting on the track. It was unbelievable how quickly everything came together. It was only a few months before our first race that I got my racing licence.
VV: We’d planned on doing lots of practice and winter testing, but because of COVID, it was pretty tight. We couldn't get any days on the track and races had to be delayed. I had less than a month to pass a test to get my racing licence.
MD: The heavens opened on the day of our first race. It's a completely different animal racing in the wet. I was so nervous, I thought I might vomit inside the car. That feeling just pulled me in deeper. I like to do things that really push and challenge me. It's the scariest thing I’ve ever done and I've been on a flight where the plane has had to make an emergency landing.
VV: That first race, I’ll never forget Matt doing a full 360 spin on Craner Curves at Donnington Park and managing to regain control of the car in the wet. You could hear the commentator —There's Matthew Dorkings spinning and catching it with the composure of Senna—.
MD: Definitely a high point of my first race being compared to Senna for all the wrong reasons. As for the low points, everyone says that motorsports is a cruel mistress. We had one race where we drove all the way to north Wales. In the first couple of hours, we blew our engine up, with two races that day we had to withdraw from both. Even when you have a low point though, I find myself pinching myself and saying —we're still doing motor racing— and the low points aren’t really that low.
VV: Yeah I agree, those low points teach you how to deal with disappointments. It's really given us gratitude for life. Approaching our 40’s, it's also given us a real drive to work on our mental and physical health.
BM: 2022 has already started off on a great note for you guys with a top ten finish at one of England's most notable racetracks, Silverstone. How do you guys prepare to race on these internationally known courses?
VV: It's come a long way from the hours we put in on our PlayStations. Now we have these impressive racing simulator rigs. I have a motion platform with a force feedback wheel, haptic feedback and wind simulators. Matt has a similar platform and we spend a lot of time working on our racecraft using iRacing, which is used by many professional racers and racing enthusiasts. The simulator allows us to learn the tracks and identify turning points, breaking points and what racing line to take. We also do a lot of go-karting, which has been good season prep. Pre-season, we had been doing track days, one at Oulton Park just before Christmas, and recently we had a day at Brands Hatch. We arranged days with our team, they prepped and brought the car to the track and we spent the day getting used to the track under different conditions.
MD: Yeah, the simulators have been fantastic. It's pretty much 70% of the experience. If you spend your evenings practising on a simulator, you're not guessing if there is a chicane or a hairpin bend ahead, you already know. So, we get a lot of guesswork out of the way. Like Vlad says, the track days have been focused on getting in the car.
BM: With all of the technology that you have just spoken about and the specs of the car being so similar, what would you say sets you apart from other competitors?
VV: When you're racing against people like the founder of Phones4U John Caldwell, you know they have some serious backing behind the team. We have just as much to prove, but we have to do it on a much smaller budget. It’s been really interesting to network with other business entrepreneurs on the grid, and get a different understanding of their businesses and stories of success.
There is a pretty advanced data gathering system in the car too. It's called a Vbox. It records on two video cameras and tracks everything, lap times, our speed, G forces, and tracks our accelerator and brake pedals too. We can compare my fastest lap with Matt's fastest lap, or with a lap driven by a professional driver. With our telemetry, we can look at the speed and the G forces we are generating. This is where our business experience comes in, we use this data along with live video playback to ask ourselves “where are our opportunities?’ and “what do we prepare for?”. That way we’re not driving aimlessly around a track.
Along with coaching from the team, we organised a training day with Rob Wilson. Rob has trained the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Daniil Kvyat. We spent a lot of time talking about sympathetic car control, understanding how to maximise grip during each phase of the corner etc.
We also watch a lot of content on YouTube which is extremely useful. Driver61 really stands out as someone that’s taught us a lot!
BM: Endurance racing must be hard on the body and the mind, how do you maintain focus and deal with fatigue?
MD: If you can do a lap two seconds faster than anyone else, you’re really quick. But we are racing over four to six hours so one lap doesn't really mean a lot. You have to be consistently quick without making mistakes. That's where the mental aspect comes into play. It’s part of the reason you are so tired when you get out of the car, your brain is switched on the whole time you are in there. Trying to calm yourself down mentally can be quite tough too. You strap in and your adrenaline kicks in for almost an hour straight, managing that is quite a big part of it.
VV: At times you’re doing 100mph coming round a corner, with cars in front of you, to the side and behind too. It’s fast-paced door-to-door driving, in a car with no power steering, no ABS, and no air conditioning, it's very physical. By the time you finish you are dehydrated and struggling to stand. But you rehydrate and dig deep to find more energy to get back in the car.
You’re playing chess. You're relying on having a faster pit stop than your competition. Hoping someone else will have mechanical issues or run off the track. If we go into corners aggressively and make a mistake, it might cost you two seconds. To make that up you’ve got to hit 20 corners perfectly, gaining points of a second. One mistake can really cost you even with two perfect laps. It's about minimising your errors and being consistent while managing traffic around you, it's very strategic.
MD: Yeah I love the chess aspect of it too. You're competing against another car so similar to your own. You need to make sure you can overtake and get the move done. Sometimes you’re lining someone up for half a lap, and thinking two miles down the road at the same time.
BM: There is a team in the pit too, how do they support you to make sure your experience is as smooth as possible, and you can focus on the race?
MD: One of the things we realised pretty quickly was running a car by ourselves with some friends just wouldn’t have worked. So we partnered with EDF Motorsport which has been fantastic.
VV: EDF Motorsport have treated us like their own. They looked after everything from booking training courses, getting the racing licences, safety gear, the upkeep of the car, and race strategy. They really are family now.
BM: With a year of driving under your belts, what are your biggest challenges in this upcoming season of racing?
VV: The biggest challenge is employing a different race strategy. We’re more competitive now and fighting in the main pack. Last year we were playing safe by focusing on circulating the tracks. This year there are going to be a lot more dog fights, which means a bigger potential for crashes and damage to the car.
MD: I'm trying to be very aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I went in thinking that we were quick on the simulators and karts so we're gonna be fast in the car too. As soon as we got in the race car we realised we were terrible. We’ve had a whole year of training and our winter testing went really well. The work we’ve put in has made us quicker in the car. At the moment I'm feeling really confident. Like Vlad said, that means we’re going to end up bashing doors with a lot more people.
BM: With all of this mental and physical prep how are you guys approaching the cars and racing differently from last year?
VV: Every time we understand more about the technical aspects of racing. In a 30 lap stint, you can gain half a second each lap against some slower teams. Meaning you can gain 15 seconds driving perfectly the entire stint or you can make that gain in one pit stop. Sometimes we’ve taken 30 seconds to complete a pit stop, the fastest team can do it in around 12 seconds. So we’re really working on our pit stop strategy.
MD: Last year I was really cautious about the pace. What I found towards the end of a race is I’d be just as fast or faster than other people around me. In my mind, I’ve done a whole day racing, it doesn't matter if I crash the car now. So I've been working hard to get out of that mindset and go full throttle from the start.
BM: With a new season just around the corner, who is your biggest competition heading into this year?
VV: The entire field. Fun Cup has some really experienced drivers and many celebrity drivers joining teams throughout the season. Last year Freddie Hunt, son of racing legend James Hunt took part in one of the races.
MD: You’ve got John McGuinness who has won the Isle of Man TT 23 times. Along with Jimmy Broadbent, the biggest sim racer on Youtube. Last year UVIO/Hoffmans Lotus won the championship. They just dominated. They were on their A-game every lap. It was impressive. If we could beat them in a race that would be a hell of an achievement.
VV: This year, we’ve also got our eyes on some new friends of ours. DespatchBayExpress.com, we really want to beat them!
BM: Looking beyond this season what else can we expect to see from Vape Club Racing?
MD: One word: SILVERWARE! We want some podiums.
VV: Last year we had a top ten finish and won awards for most improved team and most improved driver. Until we win this, we aren't going anywhere. Our ultimate aim is to take part in the world's longest road race in Spa Belgium. 160+ Fun Cup cars and they race for 25 hours.
BM: When you're not tearing up the track you’re business leaders, what do you see coming for Vape Club, what are you really looking forward to?
VV: Vape Club has been at the forefront of the UK vaping industry for the last decade, we led and set the standard. We have our eyes set on international expansion. We’ve always planned to build Vape Club into a global brand. It’s something we want to achieve in the next five years.
BM: I’ll finish on this. In your mind why should a vaper come and check out Fun Cup racing and where can they find you?
VV: You get a real behind-the-scenes experience, you get into the paddocks and meet the drivers. If you are interested in coming along to a Fun Cup race day, get in touch with Vape Club Customer Service, we’d love to see some of our loyal customers become fans!
MD: We’ve helped countless people quit smoking and move towards a healthier lifestyle. I hope that we can inspire a few of our customers to look at motorsport too.
What’s Next For Vape Club?
Off the track, Vape Club is making waves with their new faster shipping. They dispatch orders seven days a week and offer a free next-day delivery service on all UK orders for £20 and over. They’re also keeping up with the latest trends in vaping, alongside a full selection of pod kits and classic vape kits, they also stock a huge range of disposable vapes. Behind the scenes, Vlad has been working closely with designers and industry experts to launch his next venture in the vape space.
Find out more about where you can catch the Vape Club Racing Team next by following them on social media: