Starting Line: Life on the Road

It’s 6:00 on a Tuesday morning. I’m sitting in the lobby of a La Quinta motel in Virginia Beach, having just eaten my free continental breakfast.

Yesterday, I spent the day photographing and taking notes on how to build a 331 stroker small-block Ford for our Sunbeam Tiger project. Today, we will dyno the engine in search of 400 horsepower; tomorrow, with the engine loaded up in our Ridgeline, I will head to Atlanta’s Balanced Performance to pick up our 240Z project car.

As part of this job, I get to travel a lot—a real lot. If you want to know where to get lunch in L.A. or, as I discovered last night, dinner in Virginia Beach, I know the answer. If you need to know the best way to get to Mid-Ohio from Florida, or how to get around the traffic in Monterey, just ask me.

At the Import Carlisle swap meet last weekend, a bunch of readers asked me how I manage to get all of my garage work done while juggling my wife and kids, running two magazines and building all these crazy project cars. That’s a tough one.

I guess my life involves a combination of constantly pushing the envelope of time management, a very, very understanding and patient wife, a complete lack of sleep, not much personal life, and a lot of help. I suppose that what we have here is organized chaos.

Speaking of organized chaos, the shop where we’re working today is Abacus Racing. Manager Chuck Botwright and his guys, Steve and Seth, build some of the best race engines in the U.S. Looking around the place, though, I’m not exactly sure how they do it. Like most of the shops I visit, they are fueled more by passion than MBAs.

They might not be big businesses, but it’s guys like Chuck and his gang who make my life possible. Sure, I like knowing some of the kingpins at America’s largest manufacturers, but it’s shops like Balanced Performance and Abacus Racing that are at the center of my life. They represent the core of this publication and the backbone of the racing we cover. If it wasn’t for these guys who dream of owning and running a race shop and/or a team, this publication would cease to exist. And without this talent pool’s contributions, I could never get all of these wacky project cars onto the pages of GRM.

From coast to coast, I have traveled to these shops. From GPR in central California to Shine Racing in Massachusetts, I have worked with them, talked to them, profiled them and tried to help them as they have tried to help me. I have listened to their problems, helped with their marketing efforts and, on the pages of this publication, tried to show you, our readers, the passion and talent that these shops and the amazing people who run them have mustered. As a result, I have gotten to know a lot of neat people—guys like Cameron Worth of Pettit Racing—the craziest, most perfect combination of race car driver and mechanic I have ever met—and Steve Eckerich and Denny Crabill, two of the most talented fabricators on the planet.

Although all of these guys and their shops are different, they are also surprisingly similar. Most work out of insufficient rented space. (If you aspire to own your own race/performance shop, buy your building as soon as you possibly can!) Most also think that the guys who advertise a lot are much bigger than they actually are. (Not true; many of the guys who run full-page ads in the magazine have smaller shops than the companies running little ads or none at all. I’ve seen multi-car World Challenge efforts run out of two bays in a U-Store-It facility.)

Most of the shop owners I deal with are more than a little curious about what some of these big-name shops look like, but very few of them are ever any more impressive than the shop belonging to the guy who’s wondering.

I’ve also seen a few shops lose their way. They’ll get a good reputation for building and fielding club race cars, then get a pro racing deal and get carried away, forgetting the club racing customers who helped build the business. From there, it’s often a steep decline, sometimes culminating in shutting the doors for good. Fortunately there always seems to be another young guy who wants to fill in the gap and go out on his own to take over those customers.

There are some fundamental truths that cannot be escaped. To make it all work, every shop needs to have at least two or three sugar daddies. These are the wealthy customers who will drop a hundred grand a year to keep their cars prepped and ready to race. Everyone seeks that customer.

Every shop also needs to find good help. The catch-22 is that there are more shops than good workers. As a mechanic, why would I work for a flaky, low-paying race shop when I can work in the clean, high-paying car dealership right down the street? Obviously passion comes into play, but creating a good environment with good benefits will go a long way to solving the age-old problem of how to get and keep good help in a race shop.

Working weekends are another problem. Your first season of traveling to all these cool places where you get to be a part of the action and drink beer with your buddies at night can soon turn into a grind if not managed properly. This problem gets compounded when spouses and kids are involved.

Quality is another thing every shop owner struggles with. You might know what you are doing, but it is difficult at best to manage every minute of every employee’s time and look over everything they do. This is important when the guy is dealing with street cars, but it can be do or die if the customers are headed to the race track. And of course, anyone who works on cars for a living has to deal with the “who touched it last” syndrome where a customer comes in for, say, a limited-slip diff and then complains that this install somehow mysteriously caused the power steering pump to fail.

Another real business-killer is the inability to turn a project. Cars often sit in a shop, tying up a lift or bay, because either parts are backordered or the customer has run out of money. That’s never a good thing.

Despite all of these headaches and challenges, these shop owners persevere. Some even prosper. Some even have fun. Some come to their senses and get out of the business.

That’s okay, because it’s a never-ending cycle. Through it all, I will continue to travel around the country to meet with you guys, learn what you do, and write about it.

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Comments
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Q900RR
Q900RR New Reader
7/16/12 3:58 p.m.

Very good read. Always love reading all your articles.

Karl La Follette
Karl La Follette UltraDork
7/16/12 6:21 p.m.

Nice read Thanks Tim !

Argo1
Argo1 SuperDork
7/21/12 5:29 p.m.

So true. Some of the smallest, obscure shops have some very talented guys.

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