In mid-city Los Angeles, tucked behind a wall of green hedges and a gate topped with barbed wire, some of motorsports’ freshest minds are dreaming up their next move.
The project could be anything, really: A production shoot worthy of a nearby Hollywood studio, a high-end apparel line that appeals to the most fashionable L.A. denizens, an eye-catching car build assembled inside the facility’s garage bays or a community gathering which draws a crowd of car culture enthusiasts.
Meet Race Service, the creative agency with a mission to transform the way Americans view motorsports and car culture. If you’ve heard of Race Service, you’re early; for most of the public, the company has a tinge of mystery mixed with an if-you-know-you-know vibe.
But those entrenched in the racing world are well aware of what Race Service is doing.
You know the iconic opening of Seasons 3 and 4 of the Netflix show “Drive to Survive” with the images of all 20 Formula One drivers together on the grid? That was shot, produced and edited by Race Service.
Have you seen F1 driver Charles Leclerc’s glossy vlog episode showing how he spends a day in Monaco, which has drawn 5.4 million views? That was Race Service, too.
F1 fans have certainly seen driver Daniel Ricciardo’s creative helmet designs, which were drawn up at Race Service. The company also was responsible for ESPN’s long drive competition on a golf simulator inside the U.S. Grand Prix paddock, F1 driver Pierre Gasly’s new clothing line shoot in Milan and commercials for the EA Sports F1 video game.
NASCAR champion Joey Logano swung by Race Service the day after he won the Cup Series title earlier this month. Los Angeles Lakers guard Patrick Beverley boarded a team flight recently sporting some Race Service merch.
So who the heck are these Race Service guys, and how did they gain a foothold in the broader motorsports world?
The answer, like the agency itself, isn’t easy to explain. But if you have a moment, we’ll give it our best shot.
In 2019, as F1 was in the early stages of its new era under the ownership of Liberty Media, its brand marketing department was trying all sorts of ideas. One of those was a partnership with Complex, which decided to bring the rapper A$AP Ferg to the Hungarian Grand Prix to shoot a five-part video series called “The Pit.”
But Complex didn’t know how to navigate the F1 paddock, so it called Race Service co-founder Jacob Agajanian for help.
Agajanian and business partner James Kirkham had mastered the art of YouTube while starting the popular Donut Media channel and were well-connected in the racing world. Could they recreate some of their magic for Complex and F1?
Maybe, but there was a challenge. Ferg would only get limited time with each driver and team; five minutes with Kimi Raikkonen here, a couple laps in a ride-along with Carlos Sainz there, 15 minutes to pop champagne bottles with Ricciardo on the podium.
“I would say 99 percent of production companies or any artist would fail epically at that because it just wouldn’t work,” said Nick Jayr, who worked in F1’s marketing department at the time. “And those guys somehow managed to make it work.”
The result was a joy-filled series of unique content that both Ferg and the drivers clearly enjoyed making. Jayr immediately realized: “What those guys do is what the sport needs — and we need more of it.”
That opened the door to a partnership with F1 at the start of 2020, in which Race Service served as a strategic and creative consultant and handled F1’s preseason content in Bahrain. The duties included reimagining the traditional full-grid shot, which formerly was the bland yearbook-style photo of all 20 drivers sitting in chairs.
Though they were constrained to a 15-minute window, Race Service came up with a “supershot,” which paired the drivers by team and lined them up in a large V. They had time for exactly one take in that formation.
Netflix saw the footage and fell in love with it, using it as the opening for DTS and plastering it onto promotional materials for the show. By Year 2 of the supershot, Race Service arranged for cars to be on the grid along with the drivers. There was a helicopter hovering overhead, creative director Ryan Davis shouting instructions through a megaphone and tattooed crew members with baggy clothing making sure everything flowed smoothly.
“I had some people tell me, ‘That was the moment we knew the Americans had arrived,’” Jayr said.
More recently, Race Service’s reach within the F1 world has expanded to individual drivers, teams and brands. After doing two commercial shoots with Race Service in May, Leclerc was impressed enough to ask the agency to help him film a vlog.
The Ferrari Formula One driver and lifelong Monaco resident was frequently asked by fans: What do you do on a typical day at home? So Davis and Agajanian flew from California to meet up with Race Service’s European team in Monaco, where they spent two full days shooting activities arranged by Leclerc.
Leclerc showed off the beauty of his glamorous city while also letting fans see just how normal his life was (he wandered aimlessly through the grocery store, had a game of padel with his brothers and practiced the piano skills he’d learned during COVID lockdown). The result was spectacular, with the video drawing the most YouTube views any active F1 driver has received on their own channel.
“It was one of the best days of our careers, because it was a dude who wanted to do this himself,” Agajanian said. “These drivers are starting to think more about their own brand image and how they want to be portrayed. It’s got to be right and strategic, but also extremely natural and show their characters.”
By now, word has gotten around in the F1 paddock that a Race Service shoot means hug-filled greetings and laughs — which allows drivers to loosen up while still getting their work done in whatever small amount of time is dictated by contracts. Brands have realized it’s worth making sure drivers are in a good mood, which helps when the racers already know the people behind the cameras.
“One of these brands’ biggest troubles is getting drivers to come and not hate every second of their required time,” Agajanian said. “When you’re in Singapore and it’s a random crew and a guy with a camera on his shoulder, they don’t care. They won’t perk up.”
Kirkham believes the best approach is to treat the drivers as regular people, which generates the most success in getting them to be open and enjoy themselves.
“These guys spend their lives trying to be normal,” Kirkham said. “That’s all they want. They’re just trying to find some sense of normalcy. We’re not weird around them. It’s what we do every day. It’s about just treating them like humans.”
It’s also easy for Kirkham and Agajanian to put themselves in the drivers’ shoes and think of what might resonate with the talent; after all, they’ve spent a lifetime chasing race cars.
Agajanian came from the NASCAR world, where his father, Cary, was the godfather of driver agents through the powerhouse Motorsports Management International. Cary at times represented the likes of Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth; three of NASCAR’s top agencies today are all operated by MMI disciples.
Having a family connection in racing got Jacob involved from an early age. He swept shop floors at 16 years old, was the tire specialist for a Busch Series team and worked his way up to junior manager for Kahne.
Accompanying Kahne to appearances with thousands of fans in the midst of NASCAR’s mid-2000s boom and carrying hero cards for the driver to sign helped prepare Jacob to be unfazed around famous athletes and celebrities.
“You become focused on what needs to get done and less that you’re with a star and that people love them,” he said.
The family history doesn’t stop there. J.C. Agajanian, Cary’s father and Jacob’s grandfather, was a legendary player in American motorsports. He promoted races, owned cars (two of which won the Indianapolis 500) and gave Evel Knievel his first opportunity to do a motorcycle jump over 15 cars at the Agajanian-owned Ascot Park racetrack — which aired on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” in 1967.
“We were making viral videos; his grandpa was making viral moments,” Kirkham said.
Kirkham didn’t have any such family history in racing but was introduced to the sport while attending races with his father (a truck driver for Texaco) at Portland International Raceway. But when his father passed away while Kirkham was still a teenager, it resulted in a “superpower,” as he put it.
“You can do whatever you want; we create our own universe,” Kirkham said. “I really believe that. I never let people tell me no.”
Kirkham started selling real estate at age 19 to fund his racing dreams (which started in sports cars) and was bold enough to show up in the Long Beach Grand Prix paddock, knock on the trailer doors of teams like Porsche and ask for a ride.
Kirkham didn’t have much exposure to NASCAR while growing up on the West Coast, but was floored by a visit to the Charlotte area while attending his grandfather’s funeral in 2009. Shortly thereafter, he packed up and moved across the country in further pursuit of a racing career.
He dabbled in Late Model racing at Hickory Motor Speedway outside Charlotte — competing against the likes of a teenage Chase Elliott, eventual Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jr. and current F1 hopeful Pietro Fittipaldi — and gained a new appreciation for stock cars in the process.
“I thought, ‘My God, this is a hard sport,’” Kirkham said. “I have all the respect in the world for circle track racing, because you’re turning in on the limit of the car at 95 miles an hour every seven and a half seconds with other cars around you. That was the most fun I’ve had in a race car.”
Around that time, Kirkham was urged to contact Agajanian via Twitter — both were early adopters of the service dating back to 2008. They connected in fall 2009, and Kirkham used his SCCA racing license to sneak into the NASCAR garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway for a meeting with Agajanian.
The Agajanians opened the doors to Kirkham and gave him a job to get him started in the industry. He eventually became marketing director for Kevin Buckler’s TRG NASCAR team.
“That’s where I learned content,” Kirkham said of the North Carolina experience. “Every step of the way, I had to learn to be creative to try to keep going racing. And selfishly, to this day, if I get to keep racing, I’m happy.”
Kirkham and Agajanian later reunited to launch Donut Media, the youth-focused automotive channel that has become one of the most prominent such outlets on the planet.
“Doing a YouTube channel and proving you could get million-view videos every week was satisfying for a bit,” Agajanian said. “But then we wanted to do something that was a little bit more real and less just living on YouTube.”
Enter Race Service.
The easiest way to define Race Service, the founders said, is to call it a “creative agency focused on motorsports and car culture.” That’s the simplest way to explain how they generate revenue, too.
But Race Service’s converted garage space also serves as a community gathering point. There are free “cars and coffee” events, watch parties (they just had one for the NASCAR championship race), photo shoots, panel discussions and anything else that brings people together for collaboration and interaction.
And these aren’t your stereotypical race fans or gearheads. Race Service sits at the intersection of pop culture and the automotive world in a very niche way, with a mission statement to “elevate the look and style of motorsports.” That includes art, music, design and apparel.
“There’s exclusive and there’s premium; Race Service is premium,” said Jayr, who left F1 last year to work for Race Service’s European division. “It’s something aspirational and makes you dream, but it’s equally super important to be accessible and give people a chance.”
Though the agency business is humming along, apparel is where Race Service could be on the verge of an explosion.
Race Service gear is largely unattainable at the moment. Of the 39 items in its online merchandise store, all except a keychain are sold out as of this writing. It wasn’t supposed to be a thing, but rather “a creative exercise to give free T-shirts to our friends,” Agajanian said.
But as it turns out, Race Service’s stylish clothing has become quite appealing to those with an eye for design. Recently, Race Service did a collaboration with Porsche to design an apparel collection — an occurence so rare, it had to be approved by the Porsche board of directors — and launched it at the manufacturer’s new flagship brand store in Stuttgart, Germany, with Patrick Dempsey in attendance.
When the Race Service team arrived at the store’s opening on a Saturday morning, they were shocked to find a line of people wearing old RS gear and asking for pics. All of the Porsche x Race Service pieces sold out that day.
“It was insane,” Kirkham said. “The Porsche people were blown away — and we were, too. We were like, ‘What?!’ We don’t have a huge following, but I guess we have a pretty devout following. It’s hopefully indicative of a really strong brand.”
The clothing designs and hats have been more about proof of concept than anything (the profits so far have been “laughable,” Kirkham said). But they’ve seen enough to realize where this all might be headed.
“Hopefully we can create a brand that is as big as No Fear was or Stüssy is, or maybe Von Dutch in the way they made hats popular,” Kirkham said. “I think Race Service has an opportunity to do that.”
With Race Service already having made so many inroads into F1, one of the next logical steps aside from apparel would be a return to Agajanian and Kirkham’s origins in the NASCAR world.
NASCAR? Cool? Yes, the Race Service team is convinced of it and believes they can share their passion for stock cars in an authentic manner.
“If you’re a Formula One fan, you damn sure should be a NASCAR fan,” Kirkham said. “It’s that simple. Yes, there’s some re-lensing we need to do in the NASCAR community to bring it to people in a new way and to show how cool the sport is. There are some old-school things that needed to change and are changing. But I think we’re gonna see a big uptick in the popularity of the sport through pop culture.”
When Kirkham visits the hottest L.A. flea markets to see what’s selling, he sees vintage NASCAR shirts going for $150-$300. So he brought his personal collection of 40 NASCAR shirts to the Race Service watch party, put them up for sale at a discount ($65 each) — and they all sold out. Kirkham said he can actually envision a scenario where he brings a NASCAR-themed collection to Paris Fashion Week.
“It’s a little bit of a scary situation seeing motorsports so popular right now because it’s like all of a sudden your sports team won the championship,” Kirkham said. “But at the core of it, the recipe is there. We don’t need to change it. It’s easily one of the most entertaining sports in the world. The more community we can create around motorsport in general, we’ll continue to build and grow the sport we love.”
Jayr, speaking on a Zoom from his home in Amsterdam, smiles when he hears words like that in Race Service meetings.
“There’s a real soul to the company,” Jayr said. “What just keeps it going and what makes it beautiful is that soul and spirit of what they want to do and the mark they want to leave within that world.”
(Top photo of the Formula One grid shot: Dan Istitene / Formula 1 / Formula 1 via Getty Images))