November 29, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Micron in race to build a brand
What's the worst part of the thousand-mile off-road race in Mexico known as the Baja 1000? Probably the silt.
The fine, powdery sand forms traps along the trail that can stop cars completely, said Steve Appleton, CEO of Micron Technology. He won the Challenge class in this year's race on November 17. One of the four cars that Micron sponsored spent most of the race mired in a silt trap.
Appleton never got stopped by the traps. But because his car--like all the cars in the race--didn't have windows or windshields, the silt would wash over him and brother Chris, his co-driver, in waves.
"They (the silt traps) are horrendous, horrendous," he said. "I had silt coming out of my eyes for three days. You'd shower and days later silt would leak out."
Then there was also the swamp where cars and drivers got mired in waist-deep mud, huge boulders, obstacles created by bored locals, and the constant vibration and noise. One pair of racers who failed to notice a fork in the road plunged into the Pacific Ocean. They survived.
During the 25 and a half hours they raced, Appleton and his brother were only out of the car for a total of 6 to 8 minutes for the occasional pit stop.
"My head was ringing from the engine noise for about two days," he said.
But in a way, hardship is the point. Micron is trying to evolve from a somewhat anonymous memory manufacturer that started in a dental office in Boise, Idaho, into a larger, better-known manufacturer of higher margin silicon.
In the past year, the company formed a joint venture with Intel to produce flash memory, and bought flash memory card maker Lexar Media. The company has also become more aggressive in getting market share in image chips for video and still cameras. The automotive market will be a larger focus in the future, too.
So, by putting 16 executives and four cars into the race, Micron had a chance to promote its name, test out its technology under harsh circumstances, build joie de vivre within its ranks, and show the rest of the chip industry the kind of culture they are building.
"That's the kind of image we want--that our guys can mix it up," he said. "How many other companies can say they put their executive staff into the Baja 1000?
"We also learned a lot about white balance and the stability of imaging when there is a lot of vibration," he added.
The race originally started out as a personal project for Appleton, a former college tennis player at Boise State with a penchant for outdoor sports. As a kid, he raced motocross. Now, he runs triathlons and flies stunt planes. (In 2004, he crashed a plane a few days before he was slated to do a keynote. He went on to give the speech.)
Although he had driven off-road cars before, the Baja 1000 was Appleton's first off-road race. Not only did he and his brother win the Challenge division (in this division, the cars have governors that keep the maximum speed to between 70 and 90 miles per hour), but they placed 37th overall in the race. That's the highest place ever for a Challenge division entrant.
Technologically, the Micron equipment performed well, according to Appleton. The video cameras mounted on different parts of the cars captured more than 140 hours of video, which filled 288GB of flash memory cards.
The Appleton brothers also didn't have any wipeouts or flat tires on their car, a customized number from a company called Wide Open. They switched seats about every 250 miles, averaging about 40 miles per hour for the race. They ate mostly slices of turkey, peanut butter, celery and Clif bars.
Other equipment, however, did not perform as well. The course route did not match the information in the GPS (Global Positioning System) gear provided to the drivers. That's because race organizer Score International changed the route right up until the end of the race to try to deter manmade obstacles. In some towns, Appleton said, some entrepreneurial types would sometimes dig pits, fill them with mud and then charge drivers to get towed out.
The intercom system in Appleton's car also broke right after the start, so he and his brother couldn't speak to hammer out decisions about navigating or driving.
"I'd give him hand signals," he said. "Sometimes it wasn't the hand signal he'd like."