A lifetime motorsports afficionado, Big O Tires Inc. dealer Bill Windham is living a lifetime dream of owning a race team with the potential to contend for a championship.
Mr. Windham and fellow Big O franchisee Greg Mitchell bought a world-record-holding A-Fuel Dragster operation in May and have been competing in National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) races this season. The two acquired Mitch Myer's car, which holds an elapsed time record of 5.10 seconds for a quarter mile driven at 279 mph and won the 2004 A-Fuel championship.
``It's a dream come true,'' Mr. Windham said. ``I mean this is something I've thought about for a number of years.''
For Mr. Windham, the 2005 NHRA season is merely a warm-up to contending for the 2006 championship, and he and his crew are busy putting the needed elements together. Already, Mr. Windham's team qualified at second fastest at its national event debut at the Autolite Nationals at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. The car experienced a mechanical problem in the first round, but the team did win a trophy for best appearing crew out of four or five other teams, Mr. Windham said.
``We've got a really good crew,'' he told Tire Business. ``It's a great car. We're making changes to it. We've done some updates to the car itself. We had to do a chassis update and all that. We're changing some things in the motor, but it's a strong contender.''
His dreams don't stop there. Eventually, Mr. Windham said he and Mr. Mitchell hope to ``graduate'' to the Top Fuel category by 2007. Top Fuel racing involves running cars with superchargers to get higher horsepower and speed, Mr. Windham explained. Currently in the A-Fuel class, Mr. Windham's car drives with injected nitro fuel-the same as Top Fuel cars-but without a supercharger.
Joe Windham, Mr. Windham's brother, drives the A-Fuel dragster, though Mr. Windham said that if the team expands into multi-car racing then he definitely will share in the driving chores as well.
Big O has partnered with the two men and is the primary sponsor of the team for the 2005/2006 season, the first time the subsidiary of TBC Corp. has joined with a franchisee in a race sponsorship, according to a Big O spokesman. Messrs. Windham and Mitchell also are seeking associate sponsorships from vendors and suppliers as well, since the cost of running an A-Fuel dragster operation is approximately $400,000-$500,000 per year.
``When you get into Top Fuel, it's over $1 million a year,'' Mr. Windham explained. ``When you start moving into nitro-methane for fuel, a lot of times you're going to damage one of the engine's parts. You've got to have more spare parts, more equipment. We're running with seven crew members, and you got a lot of traveling expenses.''
The car-which races on Goodyear Eagles-is painted in the company's red, black and white colors and logo, giving Big O further exposure in many of the markets where it operates stores. ``I know the dealers in northern California are pretty excited about this car. They feel like it's their car as well,'' he said.
Store customers also have taken notice of the car at NHRA races and have approached the team for autographs at the Hot August Nights car show in Reno, Nev., where they were displaying the car, he said.
``We have a strong customer base in northern California, and they were definitely excited about the car,'' Mr. Windham noted. ``Just walking through the crowd in our uniforms, people were yelling, `Hey Big O!' There was just a lot of excitement. Our customers are really getting behind us.''
Messrs. Mitchell and Windham, together with Big O, are looking at ways to market their NHRA involvement through selling T-shirts, promoting giveaways, advertising and displaying the car in Big O stores.
Mr. Windham, who operates 10 Big O franchises in the Sacramento and East San Francisco Bay area, started racing locally soon after high school and moved into the NHRA's Super Gas class in the early to mid-1980s. He said his first car was a 1965 Pontiac GTO, which he bought at age 17 and turned into a drag racer after much ``tinkering'' on his part.
``My passion is with drag racing and NHRA, although I like many forms of motorsports,'' Mr. Windham said. ``I've got dirt bikes, and I like a lot of different motorsports.''
He left the sport for a time, then came back to crew chief for a team running a 1968 Chevy Camaro supercharged on methanol and for a supercharged 1970 Chevelle after that.
With a strong desire to own a team, Mr. Windham partnered with Mr. Mitchell, a longtime friend and Big O dealer who operates seven franchises in northern California and who had worked for one of Mr. Windham's crews. Mr. Mitchell said the two talked about owning a team for some time, and when the opportunity came up Mr. Windham didn't have to twist his arm to say yes to acquiring Mitch Myer's team.
Messrs. Mitchell and Windham have been Big O franchise owners for 13 and seven years, respectively. NHRA racing takes them away from their businesses on weekends, but Mr. Windham said laptop computers and e-mail help them to keep up with their businesses while on the road, and many of their track duties are divided up among the crew members.
Both men share responsibilities in the business, promotional and maintenance aspects of their race car and are equally passionate about winning a championship.
Mr. Mitchell admitted he had never dreamed of owning a racing team as Mr. Windham did, though he said he sometimes lives vicariously through his friend.
``I honestly never really dreamed of it, but now I don't know why I didn't because it's so exciting,'' he said. ``It's fun. I'm having a blast.''