Speed hobby pulls in new customers

Jan. 1, 2020
At the “young” age of 60, Les Stadel says he still climbs in a race car for the occasional hot-lap session.

At the “young” age of 60, Les Stadel says he still climbs in a race car for the occasional hot-lap session.

With 33 years of dirt track racing, 200-plus trophies and seven championships under his belt, Stadel has had to turn over the reigns to son, Mike, who drives their Barry Wright Late Model and daughter, Tammy, who drives a Super Stock.

It’s not that Stadel has lost his love for racing, but life is demanding enough with running a parts operation, maintaining two race cars and spending weekends at the race track.

However, Stadel, owner of Johnson Machine, Inc., a machine shop and distributor of NAPA auto parts in Rapid City, S.D., did find time last spring to fill in for his son who was recovering from a broken wrist.

“Since I’ve quit driving, I spend a lot of time at the tracks and at work answering questions and giving advice to any racer that asks for it,” says Stadel. “I know a lot of racers, or should I say, a lot of racers know me.

“I call customers on Mondays just to see how they did, and if they had any problems with their engines,” he adds. “It takes a lot of time out of my day, but I’m the only engine builder in my area that can help the racers with their whole race program.”

A hobby for most of his adult life, Stadel realized two years ago that he could use his racing knowledge to benefit his parts business.

“In an effort to increase our retail sales, we got into the sport compact and high performance market,” says Stadel.

“It took about six months before we saw any significant increase in sales, but this market has exposed a new type of client to our store,” he adds. “We have a couple of countermen who specialize in the sport compact and performance lines, which help sell the products.”

Besides parts sales, Stadel’s machine shop performance business has also enjoyed a profitable boost.

“We have always done a few race engines, but last year, partially due to a competitor going out of business and selling his equipment out of state, we were able to capture a good portion of the racing business in our area,” says Stadel. “I think if a shop has the right machinists and equipment, a person has to look at a niche like this because the production rebuilders are making it very hard to compete in the traditional business.”

Since the racing business continues to change, Stadel says a shop owner or manager has to stay in tune with what’s happening.

“I rely on my annual visit to the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis each year to make new contacts and learn what I can,” explains Stadel. “I do not have a dyno in my shop primarily because of space and noise, so I have to be confident in my own mind that the person I’m speaking to on the phone knows what they are talking about.

“You can call a company for a camshaft and get three different recommendations from three different salesmen if you want to spend the time, so I make a point to know the person I’m talking to,” he adds.

Stadel says he also keeps a stock of parts on hand in his trailer for any emergencies that a racer might have at the track.

“It’s this kind of service that brings a race customer into my store for all his automotive needs,” says Stadel.

In a pinch, Stadel has no problems rolling up his sleeves and getting into the nitty-gritty of engine assembly.

“I still do some of the engine assembly on the racing engines when the guys in the shop get behind,” says Stadel. “Last spring, I would work during the day at my normal job of day-to-day management of the parts business and at 4 in the afternoon, I’d change my clothes and go to work in the shop till 8 or 9 at night. Saturdays and Sundays were when I got the most work done.”

Stadel says he tries not to sponsor individual racers, but heavily advertises at different tracks and donates cash to points funds that help everyone.

“This past year, I started a points fund for the Late Model Dirt Series in our area and joined up with Muscular Dystrophy (MD) to help promote racing, NAPA and awareness for MDA,” says Stadel.

“As part of our NAPA/MDA Late Model Racing for a Cure Series, I put together a 12-night race series that took us to tracks in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota,” he adds. “We have $11,000 in the points fund this year, with money coming from NAPA Corporate, the tracks and the local NAPA stores that benefit from the racing in their area.”

Stadel says Mearl Tschetter, a friend of his who has MD, does their Internet site, www.napamdaracing.com, which has driver profiles, race results and points updates.

“He also heads up a fund drive at the tracks that we race at where the drivers go through the stands to collect money donations for MDA,” says Stadel. “This promotion ties racing, NAPA and my business to a very worthy cause.”

While racing has become a value-added service of his operation, Stadel says their success can be attributed to his management staff and employees.

“We try to have fun at work, but always keep customer service a No. 1 priority,” says Stadel.

For example, in front of Stadel’s business is a marquee that reads: “The boss told me to change this stupid sign, and so I did.”

Stadel’s proud of that little joke noting that one customer called to say “it’s good to see that businesses still have a sense of humor.”

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 70 years.

Growth plans: “Rapid City is growing at a moderate pace, so I’m always looking for land opportunities to build a third store with more retail potential and a couple of bays in the back to do installs of some of the add-on accessories for trucks and sport compact cars,” says owner Les Stadel.

Number of employees: 68.

Wholesale/retail ratio: 75 percent wholesale and 25 percent retail and growing.

Snapshot of Johnson Machine Inc. history: The business was started in 1934 as an industrial machine shop by Fred Johnson, who stocked a small inventory of industrial related parts, and in the mid-1940s, took on the NAPA line and began expanding the shop to include automotive type machining. Besides its 11-man machine shop, the company operates a main store, a branch store, and a Pennzoil-QuakerState Distributorship which services 11 lube centers and delivers bulk oil and case goods to fleets and repair facilities. The company is open seven days a week.

Affiliation: NAPA since the mid-1940s.

Competition: “Checker, Car Quest, two well-run independent Pronto stores, Bumper-to-Bumper, a couple of warehouses and, of course, the OEs,” says Stadel.

Number of locations/facility size: 10,000-sq.-ft. main store, 6,200-sq.-ft. branch store, a Pennzoil-QuakerState Distributorship, and a 10,000-sq.-ft. machine shop. 

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