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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ There's much more to Carl Haas Auto than meets the eye

by Gordon Kirby
Carl Haas has been in the racing business for more than fifty years. Haas started by trading and selling gear ratios and gearbox parts out of the trunk of his car. The enterprise was the basis of Carl Haas Auto and helped support his hobby racing MGs, Porsches, Jaguars and ultimately a Ferrari in SCCA races across the upper Midwest.

"A friend of mine took me to a race at Elkhart Lake," Haas relates. "Prior to that, I had been involved in model airplane competition. I wasn't that interested in cars, but I was really taken by the race so I got into it and loved it. For quite a while it had nothing to do with business. It was my racing... what I loved to do."

As well as becoming the American agent and distributor for Hewland gearboxes, Haas sold Elva sports cars and then Lola racing cars of all types from Formula Fords to Indy cars. "I went to Hewland to find a gearbox for the Lola sports cars and I took some of those back to the States and started selling them," he remarks. "That's really how it started. I got into the business by accident. I was racing and selling gearbox parts, and it got to the point where you had to do one or the other. So I slowly got out of the racing which you couldn't make a living at."

Haas also sold European sports cars. "I knew Luigi Chinetti pretty well," Haas said. "He was the Ferrari importer for North America and I was a Ferrari dealer for many years."

In the mid-sixties Haas started running his own, quasi-factory Lola team in the SCCA's USRRC, CanAm and Formula 5000 series (the latter in partnership with Chaparral founder Jim Hall). Among Haas's drivers were Masten Gregory, Chuck Parsons, Peter Revson, Jackie Stewart, Brian Redman, Patrick Tambay, Alan Jones and Jacky Ickx. All this preceded the creation in 1983 of Newman/Haas Racing with Mario Andretti driving. Newman/Haas has gone on to become one of the sport's most successful teams with seven CART or Champ Car championship titles and more than one hundred individual race wins.

Haas has invested in a variety of property developments over the years and is also an avid art collector. Another thing that has also been very important to Carl is the SCCA. He served on the SCCA board for twelve years and was a director for five years.

Last winter, Mike Lanigan became the third partner in the renamed Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Lanigan and his three brothers own Mi-Jack, North America's leading manufacturer and supplier of gantry cranes, and it was announced recently that Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is expanding into NASCAR by entering into a partnership with Robert Yates Racing.

"Going into NASCAR is not a situation where the success will come automatically," Haas commented. "It'll take a while. We're going to have to work at it. If we keep our engineers together, we'll be alright. There's a good nucleus there and we're getting some good people new to the team.

"I've known Robert for a while and he's a pretty straight guy," Haas added. "He's a good person. He's a little behind technologically but he's one of the few people we could do what we're doing with. He's been in the business a long time and we believe we can bring a lot to the table to help move the team forward."

Today, Haas Auto continues as a key component of Haas's Lincolnshire, Illinois-based motor sports empire. Haas Auto operates out the same facility that houses Newman/Haas/Lanigan racing. The parts and distribution division is run by Greg Wrzesinski who's been with Haas for twenty-seven years, joining the company at the beginning of 1980.

"Carl raised me from a pup," Wrzesinski grins. "Carl takes care of his people on everything he does. People don't come and go at Haas Auto or Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. He brings in good people, looks after them and they stay with him. Many of us met when we were single and a little bit wild and crazy, and now everybody's got wives and kids and families. Carl takes care of his people and there's no desire to leave. In this soldier-of-fortune kind of auto racing world, that's a rare thing."

Haas says building longterm relations with his employees has been a key to his success in racing. "The people are everything," Haas declared. "In racing you need good people, good engineers, good craftsmen--people who are committed and knowledgeable about their jobs, and you're right, many of our people have been with us a long time. You do lose some people, but often people join us and stay with us as they learn, and that makes the team stronger."

Over the years many people have been amazed by Haas's ability to make money from racing, a sport renowned for consuming many fortunes. "You can throw rocks at Carl because he makes money in auto racing," Wrzesinski observed. "But he does it one hundred percent, one hundred percent of the time, whether it's his race team or the parts business. As many people have said to me, when you're dealing with Carl you know exactly what you're going to get. There's a price to pay but there's no question about what you're going to get and the level of service your going to get. The Haas entities are run as an efficient business."

Among its many tasks, Haas Auto continues as the North American importer for Hewland transmissions, providing gearbox components for everything from Formula Fords to sports cars and Champ cars. These days, much of this work is sub-contracted.

"Over the years we've developed relationships with some smaller, regional dealers," Wrzesinski explained. "As the Champ car series grew through the eighties and nineties it occupied so much of our time and effort that we more or less farmed-out a lot of the SCCA work to guys on the east coast, or Texas, or Michigan, or the west coast. We tend to steer people to regional prep shops who are going to be there on a Saturday afternoon when you've got trouble at Blackhawk Farms. But we deal with all the Hewland products from A to Z."

Haas Auto also possesses a large cache of old Lola Indy, Champ car, CanAm and sports car spares accumulated over the years as well as many Reynard and Swift parts and two different types of Indy Lights cars.

"We've got some old Swift Atlantic stuff that we still occasionally roll out the door," Wrzesinski said. "There are a couple of guys who run vintage Swift Champ cars and come to us from time to time chasing parts and pieces. And we still get the odd, old Lola Formula Ford customer and the vintage CanAm guys looking for something. Just a couple of months ago we sold some Lola T332 oil cooler covers."

For many years, of course, Haas Auto served as Lola's American agent and component supplier, servicing Lola customers in CART and then Champ Car. In recent years, as the Lola B2/00 became Champ Car's de facto spec car, Wrzesinski and Haas Auto were essential to the series survival and the company has now taken over the same responsibilities for Champ Car's Panoz spec car program. Its expertise in the field made Haas Auto the only serious choice for the job and also gave Champ Car's teams confidence that the task would be handled properly, particularly as many of them had doubts about Panoz's ability to produce the goods.

Haas Auto also services the Dynamic Suspension spec shock absorber program for the Atlantic series so the company parts truck is the base for Wrzesinski and three other employees during race weekends, including his right hand man Skip Williamson.

"The truck hits every Champ Car race, and it's fully stocked and with a professional staff," Wrzesinski said. "At the beginning of the year we had teams tell us that they were glad we were doing this program because it removed doubts about the issue of spares. They knew the spares were going to be there."

Haas Auto invested several million dollars in Panoz inventory. "We've been doing this a long time and Carl, of course, is cautious," Wrzesinski commented. "It's his money and his checkbook that we're using. When we talked about this in January he said, 'Be careful.' Because, of course, he's a businessman. But the point was you've got to go in headfirst. You just can't wade into the pool. You can't order a couple of sets of stuff and see how it goes. If you don't have ten sets of suspension on hand, you'll never catch up."

Things like suspension components and wings can be manufactured in four or five weeks but more complicated stuff like gearbox and driveshaft parts and CVs take from eight to twelve weeks to make.

"You have to be so far in advance as far as ordering those kinds of parts as well as gear ratios, bevel sets, main drives and clutch rings," Wrzesinski said. "All that stuff takes eight to ten weeks, if you're lucky. You need to be well ahead on your ordering in all those areas.

"It really helps working with a company like Hewland Engineering," he added. "They are totally committed to making this program a success. We work very well together because we both have the same goal which is making sure the teams have what they need when they need it."

Wrzesinski is equally appreciate of drivetrain and wheel hub supplier Metalore. "The same thing applies to Metalore," he remarked. "Kenny Hill's group is very professional and they make my job a lot easier without getting much credit.

"I haven't added it up but we have gone through millions of dollars in spares," Wrzesinski added. "The investment for Carl Haas Auto is staggering, but that's what we've always done and it's what the teams expect of us."

Wrzesinski makes the point that his job is all about advance preparation and organization. "All your work is really done before you get to the racetrack," he said. "You've got to make sure your shelves are stocked and the paperwork is all done, and when you're at the track you're like a fireman waiting for the bell to ring."

Wrzesinski says it's difficult for the top teams and Champ Car to reconcile their differing strategies and methods. "One of the challenges is trying to deliver what Champ Car wants and also trying to deliver what the teams want," he commented. "That's a very difficult balance to hit right. Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Forsythe, and some of these teams are used to running at a very high level of design and perfection is almost good enough. For those teams, it's very frustrating to fall back to where you have to run spec wishbones and wings and you can't do your own wind tunnel program and all the development you're used to.

"And it's very difficult for Panoz to match the teams' expectations of what they're used to and to deliver that over thirty cars at a price that Champ Car specifies."

Wrzesinski says the brightest light to him in the Panoz spec car program has been a serious reduction in the price of spare parts. "I've told Champ Car and the teams if there's anything that Champ Car has hit a home run on, it's the price of spares," he said. "They are almost at an Indy Lights level. When you crash a car and take off a corner, it's $20,000. Back in the Lola days an upright assembly would have cost you that. So they've hit a complete home run on the cost of spares."

Haas Auto will lose profits because of the reduction in prices but will make some of it back because Champ Car prohibits any serious development which means most spare parts will enjoy a much longer shelf life.

"The trade-off for us is volume versus profit," Wrzesinski said. "In the past, the minute you got parts on hand that part could be obsolete by the next event because something different would come along as a result of development. What you had in stock was old news and everyone wanted the new part. So you reduce your margins to minimal levels but you know that all the teams need to come and get their spares from you and you're putting parts in stock that are good for at least one year, if not two or three."

This has enabled Haas Auto to invest more than six million dollars in inventory. "You know it's not going to be obsolete at the end of the year which is what we've always dealt with in the past when we only had so many events to get our money back," Wrzensinski noted. "So everybody's reduced their margins across the board with the trade-off on volume and longevity."

Through investment, good planning and hard work, Haas Auto has found a way to do business in today's spec car world. As always, Carl Haas and his people have developed a business model which should be studied by everyone in the sport.

And of course, it will be very interesting to see how the Newman/Haas/Lanigan expansion into NASCAR with Robert Yates takes shape and develops over the next few years. After all, Haas Auto and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing are bulwarks of the American road racing and open-wheel racing industry. The trio of team owners and their senior people could not be more committed to this segment of the sport both in their hearts and pocketbooks. But as businessmen with a longterm investment in highly-skilled personnel they must plan for the future.

The question Messrs. Newman, Haas and Lanigan are grappling with is this: Can the powers-that-be in American open-wheel racing create a dramatic turn away from Champ Car and the IRL's seemingly inevitable paths to commercial ruin? If not, Haas and his partners already will be on the road to completing a required transition to NASCAR, the only form of American racing that operates as a business. Let's hope it doesn't turn out that way.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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