Shifting gears from a race car driver to startup founder

Daniel Race Car

By Annie Lin
Medill Reports

When Daniel Woodroof, 24, went go-karting with his dad one weekend, he never expected it would lead to a professional racing career. Neither did he expect to shift gears. When life took him down a different route, he co-founded Pandan Social, a digital marketing agency in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The Life

From the age of 12, I was a professional race car driver. I represented the country in international competitions and pursued my sports career in tandem with academics. When I graduated from high school, I was convinced I could keep my career going all the way to Formula One. I’ve made my mom cry multiple times because I didn’t go to university. I was supposed to be this child prodigy that went to Oxford University like my dad. Instead, I took a gap year to focus on my racing career. I moved up the ladder from Formula BMW, Formula Four to Formula Three. Then I ran into funding issues. As you can imagine, racing is a costly sport. So, I had to pivot.

When I realized I couldn’t afford racing anymore, I took on a consulting gig working on projects in Malaysia and Bangkok. It was great. It was my first time frequently traveling for work. One day, I get a cold call from a production house about a new TV show specifically about a race car driver that traversed Southeast Asia to learn about traditional forms of racing. They wanted me to be the host. The show was called “Go Fast or Go Home.” It aired on Discovery Asia and TV1. I got to experience crazy things like bull racing in paddy fields, dragon boat racing in Penang, tractor racing in Thailand and racing down a mountain in the Philippines on a wooden bicycle. It was the start of an entertainment career that brought me recognition and exposure, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. I was one younger, better looking Eurasian kid away from losing my job. So, I decided to pivot again.

I landed another job that took me to Australia for a bit, another consulting gig. I had a lot of marketing exposure from the entertainment industry by then, combined with my consulting experience – I thought, why don’t I just monetize this myself? So, I called up my best friend, Brandon Lee, who used to race with me. We decided to start Pandan Social in January 2019 with only $1,400 dollars between us, and we have been profitable since. We’ve now grown into a team of eight, and we’re still hiring.

Daniel Racing
Daniel Woodroof drives a Formula Masters car. (Courtesy of Daniel Woodroof Racing/Facebook)

The Lesson

Facing the end of my racing career was incredibly challenging to overcome. Everything I had apparently worked for my entire life was crushed. It caused mental health and physical impacts. But I think the way to move forward is to realign and give yourself a new target. Having self-confidence and knowing you’re good enough to do whatever you want. It’s only one set back. You can go ahead and do it again.

The pressures of extreme stress have always been consistent for me; it’s the external forces causing it that changes. In motorsports, it’s physical, emotional and financial stress. In consulting, it’s the stress to perform when you’re brought into an industry you probably haven’t had experience in, and you’re told to fix their business because that’s what consultants are paid to do. In entertainment, I guess it’s a bit more fluffy. But being on camera is a lot of stress, especially when it’s live.

Ultimately, owning a business is where I am now. Not only are you working to satisfy your clients, there’s an additional dimension of stress, knowing you are responsible for multiple people’s livelihoods at the end of every month. You’re the one responsible for putting food on your team’s table. To take an overarching view of it, you have to consistently adapt and overcome.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Daniel Woodroof back in his racing days. (Courtesy of Daniel Woodroof Racing/Facebook)