IRL: Hard work is Hemelgran's secret

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2000 -- Ron Hemelgarn stood on a 55-gallon drum in the fourth turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the first time he watched the Indianapolis 500 in 1964. In similar common-man fashion, Hemelgarn launched...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2000 -- Ron Hemelgarn stood on a 55-gallon drum in the fourth turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the first time he watched the Indianapolis 500 in 1964. In similar common-man fashion, Hemelgarn launched his business career by scrubbing toilets and tightening nuts and bolts. Today, Hemelgarn owns numerous businesses and employs thousands of people. He also owns Hemelgarn Racing, the 2000 championship team of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. Hemelgarn knows board chairmen on a first-name basis, but he remains a blue-collar worker. He's a throwback to the days when a person could start at the bottom and work to the top through sheer hard work and determination. He did just that, first in the business world with a chain of fitness centers. And then applying the very same techniques he used to succeed in business, he now has found ultimate success in the highly competitive world of auto racing. This year, Hemelgarn joined the legendary A.J. Foyt as the only team owners to have won both the Indianapolis 500 and a series title during the five years of the Indy Racing League's existence. Hemelgarn Racing driver Buddy Lazier won the Northern Light Cup this season and the Indianapolis 500 in 1996. Hemelgarn and Lazier, along with the team headed by manager Lee Kunzman, will be saluted at the annual Indy Racing Northern Light Series Awards Ceremony on Nov. 11 in Indianapolis. They will pick up a bonus check for $1 million from series sponsor Northern Light. "Anytime you win a championship of anything, it says just what it is," Hemelgarn said. "You've been paid back for a lot of hard work and a lot of determination, lot of drive. "Buddy, my guys, they've just worked so hard just to get to this level. It' s been a lot of ups and downs. To win a championship, it's very exciting. It 's like winning the Indy 500. I mean, there's no way of describing it." Hemelgarn is a boss who commands respect, but also loyalty. For instance, Kunzman has been with the team since its beginning in 1984. Engineer Ron Dawes has been there almost as long. Hemelgarn receives the same allegiance from employees in his other businesses, which include fitness centers, finance companies, leasing companies and real estate investment firms. "I look at an employee as an artist," he said. "And basically if you tell artists the painting you want, leave them alone, they usually do a pretty dog-gone good job. If you stand over their backs and constantly change everything they do, they'll get confused and make an ugly painting. "And I believe that with mechanics. I hire professionals. These guys are professionals, they know their business. They know what we're trying to accomplish. And once we set the game plan, I leave the guys alone. "I don't sit there and try to show them I'm boss. I know I'm the boss; they know I'm the boss. I don't constantly have to reinforce I'm the boss." Hemelgarn said this feeling of personal security has allowed him to hire qualified people for his team who had trouble functioning well with other racing outfits because of pressure from above. And he calls that one of the secrets to the long tenure of many team members. "You take these years, and we've done something right," he said. "But they' ve done something right, I've done something right. We're a team, we work closely together, we're friends. And when we lose, I feel bad, I know they feel bad. When we win, I feel good, they feel good." Hemelgarn also has an eye for talent. He saw something in Lazier 11 years ago when the young driver struggled to makes races and be a part of the Indy-car scene. At the time, Lazier was driving for a team that had budget problems and put Lazier in antiquated equipment. "But his determination was unbelievable," Hemelgarn said of Lazier. "He would go out there with equipment that shouldn't have been on the track and be that determined to go out and compete and run up front. That was pretty impressive." Lazier's determination didn't end with the racing. He kept in constant communication with Hemelgarn, telling him always that someday he was going to be part of his team. Lazier made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1991 in a Hemelgarn-Byrd Racing entry, but he was taken out by another car in the first lap. Then in 1995, Hemelgarn's driver, Stan Fox, was badly injured in a first-turn accident. Davey Hamilton was scheduled to drive the car for the first Indy Racing League season but stepped out. Hemelgarn quickly called Lazier, and they've been together ever since. "When he got it, he deserved it," Hemelgarn said. "He got the pole in the first (Indy Racing League race at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 1996). He came back from a broken back there at Phoenix and wins the race (Indianapolis 500, also in 1996). And that's sort of been the story. He wanted it so bad, he was so determined that even now when he gets in the car he's getting in the car to win." The MCI WorldCom 200 in March 2000 at Phoenix once again proved Hemelgarn's ability to take a risk and work with his team and driver to produce a winning outcome. When Lazier's primary car handled poorly in qualifying at Phoenix, Hemelgarn withdrew it and inserted an untested Riley & Scott backup machine in its place. Lazier started from the rear of the field and still won the race. "All odds were against us," Hemelgarn said. "But he believed in my car when I said I'm going to take that car, disqualify it, get it out of the thing, put a new one in, unproved, never seen the track. "He believed in me that much to make that call that I believed that much in my crew that they would make a good car, and it worked. Now, could you do that with a new team with a new driver? Uh-uh. No way. It would spook them. But I think again, through that trust and belief, it worked." Ron Hemelgarn was an April Fool's baby, born April 1, 1947, in Dayton, Ohio, the son of Bob and Velma Hemelgarn. His father was a truck mechanic for a supermarket chain, and his mother volunteered and eventually worked for the American Red Cross. The son remembers their home on Dayton's east side as being filled with a good emotional attitude and assets but not a lot of money. That meant if Ron wanted a bicycle, he worked to buy it. He said he did a little bit of everything as he grew up and graduated from Chaminade High School, where he played football. "I've always been hustling, always been working, always been trying to make it better and better and better," he said. Hemelgarn began listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio when he was 9 and imagined what it was really like. Finally, in his junior year of high school, he got out on the road, stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked to Indy, some 100 miles to the west. "I was totally, totally, totally fascinated by this place," he said. "They used to have those 55 gallon drums painted green. I stood on one of those down in Turn 4. "I can remember the old garages and standing there. They had that old chain link fence and standing there looking in, I'd say, 'Someday, I'll do anything to get in there, sweep floors, polish wheels, do whatever.' I didn' t know how." But first he had to find a way to make a living. The muscular Hemelgarn had worked out regularly in high school, and after graduation he joined a health club to continue his fitness routine. He said the club was in disrepair, with a lot of broken equipment. One day, Hemelgarn suggested to the manager that he should hire someone to clean up the facility. The manager replied, 'Do you want to do it?' Hemelgarn took on the task. "I started out cleaning toilets and tightening nuts and bolts," he said. "I realized very soon into it that, wow, this is a fun business. There's a lot of things here to do. I noticed there were a lot of people not wanting to do their jobs, so it was very easy to advance up just by doing things nobody else wanted to do." Hemelgarn worked there from 1967 through 1969. Then he learned about an opportunity in Toledo where some fitness clubs were about to go under financially, owing $368,000. He had nothing but a bright mind and skilled hands, but he took on the challenge, moved his growing young family straight north and became the owner of some dying health clubs. Within 18 months, he made the clubs profitable. "And from that point on, I just started growing and, basically, acquiring bankrupt facilities," he said. "And it grew much larger than I ever thought. I remember in '85 when this thing was valued at over $200 million, it was beyond what I ever imagined." He sold his chain of spas that year and had a five-year "no compete" clause. He started other businesses during the period. When he once again could commence anew in the fitness business, he began a new chain that now operates from Hawaii to Boston and Canada to Puerto Rico. The spas have some 800,000 members. "The thing is, I like business," he said. "I think I enjoy more creating than I do running. I enjoy the challenge of taking something from nothing and making it into something. That's my expertise." Hemelgarn's dream of entering the garages at Indy and being a part of the Indianapolis 500 never wavered. In fact, when he found a way to accomplish this goal, it paid big dividends for his business operations. In 1978, he had some businesses in Indianapolis and decided to sponsor a car in the Indianapolis 500 to hype the interest of his employees. "And, man, it worked," he said. "The customers and employees were excited about our involvement. But because that was on national TV, all of a sudden after the race I started getting calls from all over the country from people who wanted to join part of our organization, to be part of it. And they would bring their companies in. And it really was a stepping stone to building a huge company. "So racing's been good to me, very good. It's more the connections I've made, the opportunities that have allowed the business relationships I've done, the people I've met. When you can know the chairman of the board of a big, big corporation, a billion-dollar corporation, and know him by his first name, you can see him in a T-shirt, that gives you an edge over your competitors." After being a sponsor for several years, Hemelgarn decided to form his team in 1984. He wanted to control his destiny. He told people he was going to win the Indianapolis 500, and they laughed at him and asked, "What year?" There were times over the years when he asked himself the same question. That's why, he said, the excitement and emotions were so high when Lazier outraced Davy Jones to the checkered flag in 1996. When Hemelgarn saw tears not only in the eyes of Kunzman but in the eyes of sponsor CEO's, he realized truly what it meant to win that race. "You say, 'Wow, what a magnificent place this is,'" he said. "This brings the emotions out of everybody to win it. I'd never seen anything like it." Despite winning at Indy in 1996, Hemelgarn still is willing to take risks to win and meet his goals. Last May provided a perfect example. Hemelgarn's goals for 2000 were to get $20 million in TV exposure for his sponsors and win the Northern Light Cup as series champion. Despite Lazier's last-to-first victory at Phoenix, follow-up tests at Indy indicated the team would need to switch to a Dallara chassis to be competitive on the longer tracks, including Indy, that faced them for the remainder of the season. "I had to step up to the plate and start all over again," he said. "I had to get all new equipment, and that's hard. Financially, that's a big blow." Hemelgarn took the big swing just before the Indianapolis 500 and came within seven seconds of hitting a homerun in the Indianapolis 500 as Lazier finished second to Juan Montoya. But Lazier and Hemelgarn Racing rounded the bases by the season's end with a second win in the inaugural The Belterra Resort 300 at Kentucky Speedway and a close fourth in the season finale at Texas to earn the championship, a first for both. "To me as an owner, it would be horrible if I let (the team) down," Hemelgarn said about the switch to the Dallara chassis. "Now they know that I as an owner, I gave them everything they needed for them to do their job. They in turn were committed to me and gave everything they had to pay me back for what I'd done. So again it revolves around to that teamwork." Fans in the stands have no idea the highs and lows, the emotional trauma, the financial burden that racing teams encounter, Hemelgarn said. Neither, he added, do newcomers to the sport who expect instant gratification. "We learn," he said. "Each one of my kids learned the oven was hot after they touched it. You could tell them, 'Don't touch it,' but once they touch it they realize it. Well, it's the same thing in this game. Once you touch it, you're going to realize real quick the ups and downs of the business. "But looking back, I think I'm pretty fortunate to have struggled as we did, because I have much more joy that we are accomplishing these things. I don't think you can appreciate winning at Indianapolis, or even the championship, if you won it the first time you were ever involved in racing. I don't think you have the true appreciation of a championship, of what it means." Sharing the joy with Hemelgarn is his wife, Helen, and their five children, three boys and two girls ranging in age from 31 to 18. The children have grown up around racing, and Hemelgarn feels the family atmosphere of racing has helped turn out decent young adults. "And I think one of the reasons is they've always been with us, and traveling with us, going to races and whatever," Hemelgarn said. "Racing is a very clean environment, pretty much. It's not a drug-ridden business, something of that nature. It revolves around total optimism, so it creates that rah-rah winning atmosphere constantly. You need that in life if you're going to go out in life and compete and win." Ron Hemelgarn has been a winner all his life. Even when he was cleaning toilets.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Davey Hamilton , Davy Jones , A.J. Foyt