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When it comes to selling performance, nothing succeeds like success
Dick Fox, owner and president of Champion Racing Engines in McCordsville, IN, understands that, while customers may be impressed by his speed-shop showroom and his long time commitment to excellence, it’s his success rate at the track that really opens wallets.
Fox, 54, says his shop services national and international customers. In business since 1970, Champion has been in the same location since 1974. His dedication to engine performance became obvious during his high school years, and though Fox has carefully honed his skill since then, he doesn’t claim any "secret" business formula – hard work is all it takes.
AR: With a name like "Champion," one might assume you do some performance work. How much?
DF: We’re pretty much all performance – probably 99 percent. We do some stock work, mostly block, head or crank work for long time customers, but we don’t encourage it. Of course, since we have customers who have been with us for 25 years, it’s hard to say "no" to them.
Most of what we do is for drag racing, but we also build for other types of racing. Right now we’re building five engines for SCCA road racing.
AR: What makes Champion Racing Engines special, both from an employee and a customer perspective?
DF: I’m proud of the fact that we really, honestly care about our customers. We want to know the person and understand his needs. We don’t necessarily sell an A, B or C motor – we like to talk to the customer and find out what he wants to accomplish, and then design an engine to meet those goals.
Additionally, we’re extremely conscious about cleanliness, accuracy and neatness. Frankly, the appearance of your personnel and the shop’s condition matters a great deal. I’ve been in other shops and have seen the conditions – the lights are dirty, the floor is a mess, the people and equipment are filthy – and I just wonder "who would bring something here?"
To prevent that at Champion, we clean every day. Every time a guy uses a machine, he’s required to sweep it. In fact, we wax our equipment regularly. We try very hard to have a "hospital" atmosphere. I’d like it cleaner than it is, but, of course, dirty engines make it hard to keep it clean. I drool over the spotless NASCAR race shops, but they never work on anything dirty.
AR: Do you have trouble hiring and motivating employees?
DF: Finding qualified people is a constant struggle. They come in saying they can do this or that in the shop and you find out they can’t even read a micrometer. I’m trying to figure out how to make a 90-day probationary period a reality, where I can have a guy work for three months or so before I decide to keep him.
I think there is a certain amount of pride and accomplishment that goes along with this job. When you see your engines run well and win and your customers are satisfied, well, that’s just about what it’s all about.
This isn’t only for performance, either. Even production shops and stock rebuilders should take pride in their work. Even though it seems that nobody wants to sweat or get dirty, this is important work – somebody needs to do it.
AR: Do you get much business through referrals?
DF: That’s part of the reason certification isn’t critical – we’ve proven we can do the work. It’s satisfying to know that our repeat customers have the faith in us — that we’ll do a good job for them, and they don’t need to look elsewhere.
In addition to our repeat customers, we count on 70-80 percent of our work coming as a referral. When a customer comes in and says, "So-and-so sent me in; he said you did a good job," – that makes you feel pretty good.
My past racing experience helps. When we were running IHRA a lot, we were #2 in the world. We tried real hard to be a success. Since I’m still racing, we get a lot of business from our track relationships. This is the 40th year I’ve been drag racing, and I’m competing in both NHRA Super Comp and IHRA Quick Rod classes; both are 8.90 classes.
We also do a lot of business in sales of performance parts, any kind of engine parts imaginable.
People are surprised to see that we’re not just a machine shop; we’re a speed shop, too. That’s a throwback to my days in the ’60s. In addition to the showroom, we also sell a lot of parts on our Web site, www.go-champion.com.
AR: Performance work is reported to be profitable – any areas that aren’t so great to talk about?
DF: The most profitable area in the shop is our cylinder head service department. The least profitable is the assembly process. I’m not losing money on it, but I’m sure not making what I should. I can’t charge enough, and people don’t understand what goes into assembling these engines. We’re checking clearances, mocking things up and taking them apart – do things right and they won’t notice. Do something wrong and they’ll care. This is one of the areas we’re trying to boost our profitability.
AR: What would make your shop more profitable?
DF: Right now I’m debating between a crankshaft grinder and a dynamometer. I’ve been working with the same crank shop for more than 20 years and, up until about two years ago, their turnaround time was fantastic.
Lately, though, turnaround has suffered. They’ve had a crank for more than two weeks and that’s not doing any of us any good. Let’s face it, that’s the building block of the whole engine, and I can’t do anything until I get it back.
I’m also tossing around the value of a dyno. Right now I work with a dyno guy about 80 miles away. If I had my own, I’d probably dyno everything, but this way it’s a day lost to test an engine.
There are a few guys with dynos closer, but I don’t think my neighbors need to know what I’m doing. Everybody’s scratching for that buck, and if they can get their feet in the door with my customer, they’ll do it.
If I had my own dyno, I would sell the service. We don’t dyno everything now unless the customer really wants to pay for it. For example, with the five SCCA motors, we’ll probably dyno three of them. They’ll be identical motors, so this will give us a good average. If the work is pretty much a repeat job, I don’t think the dyno is always necessary.
AR: How have things changed from a customer-satisfaction standpoint?
DF: It’s the same as in a non-performance facility. If there’s a problem, take care of it right away. We have very few of those problems, but if we do, my main goal is to get the thing fixed, get it done properly. If it costs me money, that’s my problem; I just want this guy happy. Keeping the customer satisfied is the name of the game.
Part of customer satisfaction means having things in stock and using quality parts. Of course, everyone says they want the best price, but honestly, we’re not the cheapest shop in town. I will only use the best parts I feel are available. If you can get it through your customers’ heads that you get what you pay for, it’s better. There’s a very real difference between an $8,000 motor and a $15,000 motor.
Of course, customers want faster turnaround times, too, but that’s because they’re racers. If a guy hurts his engine today, he wants it to be ready to run again next week. It may seem impossible, but I understand it – I’m a racer too.
We pretty much do whatever we can to help our customers. Every time we’re at the track, we’re helping somebody between rounds. It’s just like going to work – no time to relax!
AR: What problems do you see with the rebuilding market?
DF: The sourcing of engine parts is probably my biggest concern.
With the SCCA motors we’re building, I had to wait 10 weeks for the crankshafts. And blocks are a problem, because there’s such a demand for them, they can’t keep up.
I understand that suppliers can’t keep everything in stock all the time, but as a businessman, I can’t stock everything all the time either. I need to be able to depend on my suppliers to have what I need when I need it. It isn’t always happening that way.
AR: What will it take for rebuilders to be successful?
DF: As an industry, we need a better image and present ourselves in a more professional manner.
When a person walks in your door, the first impression he gets is really hard to overcome. The first thing he sees had better be positive, because if he’s disgusted by the shop, you have a problem to overcome…especially when you present him with a hefty repair bill.