2018 SEMA Hall Of Fame Inductee
P&E Distributors Inc.
Tenacious Leader and Enthusiastic Advocate
Donnie Eatherly’s career path hasn’t always taken him in a straight line, but each experience shaped the second-generation co-owner and president of P&E Distributors in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. His father, J.D. Eatherly, founded the company in the mid 1950s, first as a retail operation and then later expanding into distribution. Today, it’s one of the longest-running speed and truck-accessory shops in the region.
Eatherly knew he wanted to be around racing after his father started taking the family to the Saturday night races at the Nashville Speedway in the late ’60s to watch some of the customers, including P.B. Crowell, Coo Coo Marlin, Marty Robbins and Daryl Waltrip.
Later that fall, he requested two stacks of model cars from Santa for Christmas. Appropriately enough, it was model cars that also led to the early beginnings of SEMA, and the association and Eatherly were on converging paths to meet in the future.
Some of Eatherly’s earliest memories were of the installation bays at P&E—running and playing or sweeping the floors. Later, he stocked shelves, and he was learning to install stereos by age 14.
“I always ran around with people who were a lot older than I was. I always had a thirst for knowledge, and I had a lot of respect for people who had already been through the things that I was trying to learn, so I relied on them a lot. I was being taught by a fellow named Buzz to learn the installation business, I enjoyed listening to the music and the camaraderie of being around my Dad’s employees. You know, they didn’t give me a hard time,” he laughed.
It was also during his teenage years that Eatherly fell in love with motorcycles. A neighbor let him ride his 1973 Kawasaki 100, and Eatherly was hooked. He saved up what he made in the shop over the summer and bought that bike for $300.
“After a couple of years, I took that bike and stripped the wiring to the bare bones, headlights and blinkers gone,” he said. “I painted it Kawasaki lime green with a rattle can of Dupli-Color touch-up paint from the shop, added a Webco head, a Hooker header, Koni shocks, a K&N filter, Preston Petty fenders, and planned on being the next Roger DeCoster!”
As a young adult, Eatherly worked off and on for his father in every facet of the family company, in addition to other ventures. He remembers unloading truckload after truckload of Holley carburetors.
“At that time, we were Holley’s largest aftermarket distributor,” he said. “Big Dave and the wholesale guys on the phone would pre-sell those things by the cases. I would help unload the trucks, stack them by part number, label them to the customer, and sometimes they would all go back out the same day. We were the first Holley customer to turn in a million-dollar order. It jammed their computer because it didn’t handle that many decimals!”
Eatherly’s other fond memories include repainting the exterior of the store with all of the manufacturers’ logos and the store sign. That’s what lead him to attend commercial art school, where he met his beautiful bride of 37 years, Donna, and honed the skills that he later used painting commercial signs, interstate billboards, and lettering racecars and delivery vehicles. But he hadn’t forgotten about motorcycles.
“I tried motocross, but I was not very good,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t a racer. I belonged behind the wrenches.”
Then he became friends with a family of racers, the Peraleses.
“The mother and father were both anesthesiologists and had no problem funding their boys with top-notch equipment,” he said. “I remember driving with Kenny, one of the brothers, to New Port Ritchey, Florida, to pick up some new racers from a privateer race-bike builder—a YZ100, a YZ80 and a 125 Elsinor. This was around 1976.”
That was his first encounter with lendendary tuner E.C. Birt, the Smokey Yunick of the two-stroke world. Not long after that, the Perales family opened a Honda and Suzuki dealership in Dickson, Tennessee. They talked E.C. into moving his business in with them to focus on their family’s racing venture.
“Soon they couldn’t keep me away, and I talked E.C. into letting me come to work for him,” Eatherly said. “I was doing all the porting and polishing and some machine work. I learned a lot from E.C.—how to weld and run lathes and end mills.”
Some of the motorcycles he worked on won races such as the Daytona Half Mile, the Canadian Grand Prix, and the Houston Astrodome National 125.
“I had a blast working for E.C.—some of the most fun in my life,” he said. “When I would be doing a cylinder, E.C. would say, ‘Think like gasoline, boy!’”
A fire at the family business in 1982 took Eatherly back to work for his father for a time, but he missed working with his hands in a machine shop. A deal that he and his father put together to purchase a small shop in town fell through, so he cooked up a plan to get back into one. His plan was to learn as much as he could while working at a shop and then open his own place at Tennessee Speed Sport.
The deal fell through on a Friday afternoon, and Eatherly’s father ask him in the parking lot, “Well what are you going to do now?”
Eatherly replied, “NASCAR’s in town down at the speedway this weekend. I’m getting a 12 pack of beer and going to the races, and then I’m going to work for a machine shop come Monday morning.”
Eatherly called the first person he thought of: Roger Grooms at Grooms Engines.
“I told Roger: ‘I’m going to work for a machine shop today; it might be yours, it might be Rock City Machine, or it could be John Ripatoe’s, but you’re the first person I called, and I’ll meet you for lunch today to discuss it.’”
So they met for lunch, and Eatherly disclosed his love of machine shops and his ultimate plan of starting his own. He told Grooms, “I guarantee I’ll be your best employee.” Eatherly bought lunch, and Grooms hired him on the spot.
Being an efficiency nut, Eatherly soon recognized opportunities to increase production. After coaching his teammates, he helped to successfully triple head-building output in two weeks. His zeal was contagious, and Eatherly was moved throughout the factory to rally the troops and up production across the board. He eventually landed in the crank-grinding department, where he learned how to run crank grinders and welders. He doubled the output there, as well. He couldn’t know it then, but this art of persuasion would serve him well as an industry advocate later in life.
One day in the mid-‘80s, Eatherly’s father showed up at Grooms’ and asked to see his son.
“They came and got me from the crank grinder,” Eatherly recalled. “I went up front to meet my father, and he said, ‘Come with me. I have something to show you.’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t work for you. I can’t just walk off. I have to get permission.’ And I started laughing.”
It turned out that his father had purchased a 90,000-sq.-ft. warehouse for the distribution company and was excited to share it with his son.
Not long after that, Eatherly went back to work at the family business. During that time, people such as Bob Cook, Bill Perry, Skeeter Jordan and Sam Compton were some of his mentors and manufacturers’ reps calling on P&E. Cook encouraged Eatherly to join SEMA, but convincing his father would prove to be a challenge. Eatherly came up with a plan to pay the dues using a cash bonus from Dee Zee’s SEMA Show special, which paid $1 per running board ordered.
Eatherly made use of the association’s resources right away and volunteered in many different capacities over the years, including being a early member of the Young Executives Network. During his three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors, he was a contributing factor in the formation of the SEMA Data Co-op, and P&E was one of the first receivers to sign up.
Eatherly has also served as a mentor to many in the industry, including young entrepreneurs participating in the SEMA Launch Pad program. He’s a proud contributor to the SEMA Political Action Committee, and he was thrilled to accept SEMA’s Warehouse Distributor of the Year award on behalf of his team at P&E in both 2004 and 2009. He served a long list of other SEMA committees over the years and now once again serves as a newly elected SEMA Board member, beginning in July of 2018.
Aside from his SEMA activities, Eatherly has served as president of the Custom Automotive Network (formerly known as Performance Warehouse Association), three terms on the board of the Custom Automotive Network as well as on various committees, and still sits on the board of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. He advocates for the industry politically whenever he has the chance and has been called upon twice by members of Congress and the Senate to speak at the Capitol and the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on behalf of small businesses regarding The Main Street Fairness Act.
One of Eatherly’s proudest accomplishments was purchasing P&E Distributors from his father in 1995, along with his brother Steve. By 2007, the two had almost doubled the revenue of the company.
Being a business owner hasn’t always been an easy ride, but Eatherly has drawn on the lessons learned about hard work, tenacity and the cycles of a business from watching his father. Today, P&E has 80 employees in three locations, and Eatherly’s son and nephew are learning the trade.
He did realize his dream of owning an engine machine shop that he, Jim Simpkins and a fellow he called Mr. Bill started at Tennesse Speed Sport. Eatherly named the company “The Engine Shop” after one Sunday spent at home painting signs in his basement while listening to the Talladega NASCAR race.
“Davey Allison had won the race, and he was in victory circle celebrating and thanking all his sponsors,” Eatherly recalled. “He said, ‘I have to thank all the boys back at the engine shop,’ and I said, ‘That’s it, the perfect name!’ The Allisons are my heroes.”
Reflecting on his career, Eatherly said, “I love working in this industry, helping others like our customers, manufacturers, reps or other warehouses. It’s wonderful to see how we all work together and communicate and learn—even competitors. It’s fun to look back at how it’s changed and some of the ideas we talked about in the past that came to fuition. It’s truly gratifying to know you were a part of that growth and success.”
Eatherly said that his induction into the SEMA Hall of Fame is an incredible honor.
“You know, it’s a strange feeling to be humbled and excited at the same time,” he explained. “Those two just don’t seem to go together, and it’s the weirdest thing—you just don’t know what to say.”
SEMA Board of Directors Member 2007–2013
SEMA Political Action Committee President’s Club, Red Line Member since 2016
SEMA Executive Committee Member 2009, 2012, 2013
WTC SEMA Board Liaison 2007–2013
SEMA Marketing Task Force Mmember 2008–2013
SEMA Rep of the Year Chair Person 2005, 2008, 2017
SEMA Rep of the Year Committee 2016
SEMA Election SOP Task Force 2007 and 2013
SEMA Nominating Committee 2009, 2011, 2013
SEMA WD, Person, Rep of the Year SOP Task Force Member 2010
SEMA Data Pool Program Volunteer and Current Participant
SEMA Launch Pad Mentoring Program 2016, 2017
CAN Pioneer Award Honoree 2014
CAN President 2012, 2013
CAN LRP Chair Person
Three-term CAN Board Member
Chaired CAN Person of the Year Committee 2009
Chaired CAN Manufacturer of the Year Committee 2008
Hosted the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Division 2 Championships 2009–2015
Antique Motorcycle Club of America Board Member since 2013 (Membership of 10,000 across the world.)