Listen now on
#123 Albert Champion (Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon)
May 1st, 2020 | E123

What I learned from reading The Fast Times of Albert Champion: From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, An Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal by Peter Joffre Nye.


Come see a live show with me and Patrick O'Shaughnessy from Invest Like The Best on October 19th in New York City. 

Get your tickets here


Subscribe to listen to Founders Premium — Subscribers can listen to Ask Me Anything (AMA) episodes and every bonus episode. 


[0:01] A brief summary of the life of Albert Champion: Champion had been born in Paris April 2, 1878. By age twelve he was an errand and office boy for a Paris bicycle manufacturer. He became interested in bicycle racing, won the middle-distance championship in France, and went to the United States in 1899 for a series of races. He won the American and world championships, returned to France to study automobile manufacturing, and returned to the United States in 1900. He tried auto racing, almost lost a leg in a racing accident, and then organized the Champion company. His original backers kept the name and moved the company to Toledo at about the same time Champion joined Durant. In Flint, Champion became known as one of the most colorful and flamboyant figures in a town full of them. He lived to see both his new company, later named the AC Spark Plug Division (using his initials), and the company he had left, the Champion Spark Plug Company, become giants in their field. He was a multimillionaire when he died.

[2:55] His father dies at 47 years old: One of the turning points in Albert’s life is the early death of his father. He had to become the breadwinner of the family at 12 years old. The experience formed Albert’s character. For the rest of his life, he threw himself into work, forever escaping into the task at hand, keeping busy, always planning new projects, in time building up a business with factories in three countries and offices of his own.

[6:19] Albert Champion was a showman who was addicted to self-improvement: He was willing to put in the work necessary for self improvement. Champion practiced rising a unicycle everyday. He learned how to draw onlookers and hold their attention. Champion had discovered the value of self—improvement. He would apply that principle again and again.

[9:15] Adolphe Clement is a blueprint for Albert Champion: Clement goes from poor orphan to building a successful bicycle and automobile manufacturing company.

[13:46] How do you introduce a brand new product to a society that is resistant to change? You sell to those who would be willing to pay for improvement: Dunlop pneumatics faced a tough sell with a public forever wary about buying a new product —only persuasive evidence would sway the public to accept change. Clément could count on the rabid racing crowd to try anything they thought could give a competitive edge.

[15:53] What Albert Champion learns from watching a 750 mile bicycle race—tenacity is more important than talent: A chord struck with Champion that Terront came from nothing, a nobody. Yet through the force of willpower, keeping his wits under extreme physical demands that made Lavel give in, and drawing on the strength of his body, Terront turned into a grand winner. Perhaps Laval had more talent, which he showed as the first to reach Brest. Nevertheless, Terront had greater tenacity — and that difference made him the victor. 

[22:17] Attaining glory motivated Albert Champion: Racing was about making money for the dual compelling needs that invigorated him. He gained financial support for his family and the ego endorsement enjoyed by entertainers and politicians. As his ego grew, he needed to impose himself on crowds of strangers and win their love. Each race he won was greeted immediately with audience approval followed by a bouquet of flowers, a victory lap, then a cash award. 

[23:49] Lessons Albert Champion learned from his trainer Choppy Warburton: Warburton offered two axioms from his experience about competition that impressed Champion. No lead is too great to overcome, and you can’t win unless you think you can.

[25:01] Albert Champion on the benefits from the strenuous training regiment Choppy made him endure: But Choppy was doing something — he was educating me to take punishment, and whenever I began to tire in a race, the grueling training I had would permit me to overcome the fatigue and come out victorious time and time again. No matter what game a man is in, he is only as big as the amount of punishment he is able to take. He educated me on the importance of physical training, for as the old saying goes, you cannot be mentally fit unless you are physically fit.

[34:12] Albert Champion’s personality: Champion, quick—tempered as usual , grew disgusted with colleagues he saw riding with caution rather than daring.

[36:31] Albert Champion’s plan to raise money so he could start his own company: Champion felt the onus to create his own business to serve America’s mushrooming auto production. He considered forming a company , taking advantage of his name recognition, to import French auto parts, especially spark plugs. To get in the business, he needed capital. To acquire the needed capital, he would have to win frequently in his final season as a pro cyclist. He determined to go all out for one last campaign — not in America, but in France.  The purses were much bigger there, and he could win the money he’d need in order to establish his own business. Albert staked his ambitious future on capturing the title en route to raising the money to create his place in the nascent US auto industry.

[43:40] Albert Champion on the importance of continuous learning: He told an interviewer that one of his constant efforts was to manage his time for more and better work. He explained that he always sought to improve everything he did. I remember a salesman one time telling me that he knew the game from A to Z. He stated that nobody could tell him anything about selling. That was to me the best proof possible that he knew nothing about selling because those who really understand merchandising, manufacturing, or anything else that is important in life are those who realize how little they really know about it and how much there is to learn every day.

[47:25] Billy Durant prioritized speed. Durant recruits Albert Champion to move to Flint the same day they meet: Durant sounded out Champion before nudging the focus toward recruiting him to Flint. Durant later recalled: If he were quite sure that he could make a plug that would answer our purpose, I suggested that we go to Flint, and if he liked the place and the layout, I would start an experimental plant, and if he could make good, I would give him an interest in the business. (this later makes Albert very, very rich) He had never been to Flint, knew nothing of the Buick, or the plans I had for the future.

[55:10] Albert Champion invested heavily in research and development. This is why: I spent a fortune on spark plug experiments at the start. My friends thought I was crazy. I knew I was right. He put prototypes through long and rigorous tests before submitting patent applications. More durable spark plugs would benefit passenger cars. He said: “Keep ahead of the race. That is what brings success. It makes the great racer. It makes the successful businessman. No champion ever arrived resting on the oars.”

[56:33] Albert Champion on the similarities of athletic competition and building a business: I have always felt that the education and training I received as a bicycle racer was a great help in business because it is a game in which you train to fight and win. He emphasized that experimenting and learning leads to progress: I always remember what a friend of mine once told me. He was a well—known chemist, an authority in the automobile world. He said that four times during his life he has had to scrap his knowledge of chemistry and begin again at the start. He was not only happy about it. He is ready to do the same thing over and over when he finds it necessary.

[1:03:20] The legacy of Albert Champion: His death closed a career as brilliant as that of any Horatio Alger hero, from errand boy in Paris, France, to millionaire automobile accessories manufacturer in America. The spark plug designs, dashboard speedometers, and companies Champion started have stood the test of time. Today the Champion Spark Plug and ACDelco brand names are recognized around the world. More than 200,0000 people a year attend performances at the Boston Center for the Arts, all passing the brass plate celebrating his Albert Champion Company, where he had made his first Champion spark plugs. Approximately 50 million vehicles operating in the United States are currently on the road with ACDelco spark plugs, filters, brakes, and other components. And every April at the Paris Classics bicycle race, another winner’s name is added to Albert Champion’s on the roster of legends.


I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested, so my poor wallet suffers.”— Gareth

Be like Gareth. Buy a book. It's good for you. It's good for Founders. A list of all the books featured on Founders Podcast.