SEMA NEWS -- August 2009
HALL of FAME 2009
By Drew Hardin
Bill Perry, Rolan “Jeep” Worthan and Henry “Smokey” Yunick Join SEMA’s Prestigious Hall of Fame
|Henry “Smokey” Yunick||Rolan “Jeep” Worthan|
It seems like everyone gets a trophy these days. Our children’s sports teams don’t keep score anymore; everyone’s a winner just for showing up. The entertainment industry spends so much time staging awards and honors presentations, it’s a wonder that films, TV shows, music and theater still get produced.
Even in our own industry, it’s hard to keep track of all the “…of the Year” statuettes that are handed out in each and every automotive niche.
The net effect of all this is an overall dilution of an award’s true meaning. When everyone gets a trophy, does that trophy matter anymore?
Here, it does—very, very much. SEMA’s Hall of Fame award isn’t something you get just for showing up. It is the highest, most prestigious honor in the entire specialty-equipment industry—an industry that encompasses some 7,100 member companies that contribute more than $31 billion to the world economy.
SEMA’s Hall of Fame is almost as old as the association itself. Created in 1969, just six years after SEMA’s formation, the Hall of Fame award recognizes those members of the automotive aftermarket whose ingenuity, enthusiasm, integrity and old-fashioned hard work formed the industry’s very foundation and shaped its growth over the past four decades. Through their various contributions, these individuals have grown our industry from a small group of pioneering speed-part manufacturers to the wide-ranging economic powerhouse it is today.
The qualifications for Hall of Fame membership are rigorous. Nominees must have contributed to the industry on a national level and have been involved with the industry, or SEMA, for a minimum of 10 years. Their contributions must be seen as enhancing the technology, professionalism or general standing of the industry, and their activities must have been performed with a high degree of integrity. Involvement with or contributions to SEMA are important considerations in the nomination process, though the nominating committee has the discretion to honor a person who has significantly contributed to the automotive aftermarket without close ties to the association.
Each of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees made very different kinds of contributions to our industry, but one trait seems to unite them: a true, deep passion for their particular automotive calling—a passion that drove them to high levels of achievement in each of their fields. It’s an honor and a pleasure to welcome Bill Perry, Jeep Worthan and Smokey Yunick to SEMA’s Hall of Fame for 2009.
Writing about Bill Perry after he lost his battle with leukemia earlier this year, SEMA Chairman Jim Cozzie and SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting paid him one of the greatest compliments you can about another individual: “Simply put, Bill was one of the good guys.”
Everyone who knew and worked with Perry agreed. Joel Rosenthal, vice president of Gantt-Thomas & Associates, considered him a mentor and called it a “true blessing” to have worked with him. John Towle, PWA’s executive director, called Perry an “honest, forthright, compassionate and competitive individual” who was “dedicated to the industry and his family.” Bill Wagner, vice president of sales and marketing for Winfield Consumer Products, said Perry’s wife, Cathy, and his sons, Chris and Michael, “were the typical Southern family, and Bill was the southern gentleman. They couldn’t do enough for you.” And Ron DiVincenzo, general manager of Cap World, summed up what many felt when he called Perry “a great leader and a role model for us all.”
Like many in the automotive aftermarket industry, Perry had an early love for fast cars. He built radio-controlled cars as a kid and raced them at tracks in his hometown of Atlanta. He started working on real cars at age 14, and by the time Cathy met him when they were attending the University of West Georgia, “he had already done all the local dragstrips,” she said.
Perry’s experience as a racer led him to a job at a local speed shop while he attended college. In 1980, he became a manufacturer’s rep with Quality Parts Sales Inc., and he took a major step in his career when he bought the company just five years later and renamed it Bill Perry & Associates (BP&A). In the years to follow, Perry expanded his agency to the point where BP&A now has seven reps covering eight southeastern states.
Perry’s relationship with SEMA pre-dates the forming of BP&A. He joined SEMA in 1977 and became very active within the association. He served on the Board of Directors and was in his third consecutive term when he passed away. He was a member of the Board’s executive committee, and he served on the Manufacturers Rep Council (MRC) select committee for a number of years. Both he and BP&A have earned numerous awards and honors from SEMA, including the MRC Hall of Fame Award in 2008 and SEMA’s Manufacturers’ Representative of the Year award.
Perry’s enthusiasm for high performance never flagged. According to Cathy, he “…always loved cars, and always had a car he was working on, even when he started his business and raised his family.”
In fact, it was that enthusiasm that took Perry’s interactions with his customers to a higher level, said Rosenthal. “He was at his best at interpersonal relationships. When he was standing in a parking lot of a retail store, talking to a product’s end user, he was that enthusiast again. His face would light up when he was talking about that part, and the racer he was talking to just sensed it. That focus on enthusiasm had a great deal of influence on how he ran his business.”
Perry was also very generous with his time, Rosenthal said, no matter how big (or small) the customer was. “A lot of people would push back from having to talk to the ‘little guy’ who might not create a big sale. But even if he was talking to a guy who would just buy one piece, you still sensed Bill’s enthusiasm.”
Perry was a spiritual man, Rosenthal said, so when you were around him, “life lessons and business lessons often intermingled. Even in tough situations you’d see his spirituality play out in how he handled things. He was never ‘in your face.’ He was a gentleman’s gentleman.”
Rolan “Jeep” Worthan
Let’s start with the nickname. “That’s a question that’s been asked of me more times than I can count,” Jeep Worthan said with a laugh. “My mom gave it to me as a baby, though she claimed she could never remember why. Maybe it was because I looked like one when I crawled around on all fours. Or maybe it had something to do with my conception.” He paused. “That usually gets a chuckle.”
Currently the vice president of marketing/sales for Auto Meter Products Inc., Worthan was a Chicago-area racer and enthusiast before he knew there was an aftermarket parts industry. By chance, he spotted an ad in the Chicago Tribune classifieds for a job at Auto Meter while recuperating from knee surgery in early 1974. He joined the company that April, and he’s been there ever since.
Immediately Worthan went into sales, using his experience as a racer to introduce fellow racers to Auto Meter’s products.
“I always had a love of going fast; that was my advantage,” he explained. “I had a passion and cared for the racer—the customer—and I would bring his needs back to the factory so the engineering team could develop products that the racers would want to buy.”
That strategy launched what Worthan considers the most significant product in his Auto Meter career: the Monster Tach. In 1977, Worthan took a “tach tester,” which incorporated the new electric tach, to race tracks around the country. Ostensibly, the tester would help racers calibrate their own tachometers, but once they saw how responsive Auto Meter’s gauge was compared to their own, “they became new believers,” Worthan said. “That product really helped us penetrate into racing and got the ball rolling.”
Worthan brought that same level of enthusiasm to SEMA after he experienced his first SEMA Show with Auto Meter.
“Up to then, my experience had been as a user of performance products, and suddenly here I was on the other side of the fence,” he said. “I immediately fell in love with the industry.”
It wasn’t long before he made friends in the association, one of whom was a member of the Board of Directors.
“He told me how much he enjoyed it and that I’d be perfect for it. So in the early ’80s I got on the board, and I’ve been heavily involved ever since.”
To date, Worthan has served eight terms on SEMA’s Board of Directors. “Eight and counting,” he said. “I’m running again.” He has also been involved with a number of SEMA’s councils and had a hand in the formation of the Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council (MPMC). He’s currently an active member of MPMC, the Young Executives Network and the Hot Rod Industry Alliance, and he is the SEMA Board liaison for the MPMC. He has also been recognized by the Performance Warehouse Association (PWA) as its Person of the Year, and Auto Meter has been PWA Manufacturer of the Year four times during his tenure with the company.
“Jeep’s eighth term on the Board of Directors only scratches the surface of his involvement,” said Ron Funfar of Hedman Hedders. “He has either served on or chaired nearly every SEMA committee—many more than once. He was a charter member of the World Motorsports Society and was influential in the formation of what is now SEMA News.
“It’s not often that a person’s name is synonymous with the company he works for, but when someone says ‘Auto Meter,’ the first thing that comes to mind is Jeep Worthan,” Funfar added. “Jeep’s love and passion for this industry are unparalleled. You will not find an individual more deserving than Jeep to be inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame.”
Henry “Smokey” Yunick
There were really two Smokey Yunicks. The first was the stuff of legends.
Henry Yunick dropped out of school as a teenager to work on his family’s Pennsylvania farm after his father died. His nickname came from a track announcer commenting on the condition of his motorcycle during a 1941 race. He joined the Army Air Corps, flew bombers and fighters in World War II, and then returned from the war to open what was at first a tiny shop in Daytona Beach, Florida, “The Best Damn Garage in Town.”
It wasn’t just bluster. First in NASCAR, then at Indy, Yunick applied his prodigious mechanical talents to making fast cars and making cars go faster. The roster of men who drove for Yunick is a Who’s Who of racing champions, from Allison (Bobby) to Vukovich (Billy). He won two NASCAR Grand National Championships as a car owner and mechanic, and he won at Indy in 1960 as the co-chief mechanic for Jim Rathmann’s Offenhauser-powered roadster.
“Indy was his love,” said Jim McFarland, who was an editor at Hot Rod magazine when he began a 40-year friendship with Yunick in the ’60s. “He came out of NASCAR but gravitated to Indy since he wasn’t bound by all the rules. He could explore more things there. The technological challenges were something that intrigued him.”
Yunick’s speed secrets could be so ground-breaking—or difficult to discern—that some hung another nickname on him: cheater.
“I get offended when I hear that,” said Trish Yunick Brown, his daughter. “He maintained he didn’t cheat. What he did was innovation. As far as he was concerned, if it didn’t say what he was doing wasn’t allowed, then it was perfectly fair. Many things that weren’t in the rulebook on the weekend became rules on Monday morning, courtesy of Smokey.”
Yunick’s talents weren’t limited to the racetrack. Pontiac, Chevrolet and Ford were among the auto makers that benefited from either his hands-on engineering or consulting work. He is credited with developing, among other components, variable-ratio power steering, reverse-flow engine cooling and the extended-tip spark plug.
He was closely involved with the development of Chevy’s small-block V-8. According to McFarland, he “…pioneered a lot of thinking that builders of aftermarket parts picked up on. He came up with a cross-ram intake that Vic [Edelbrock] built later, did cylinder head work, pioneered things ostensibly for Chevrolet that wound up in various segments of the aftermarket.”
Racer safety was a big concern of Yunick’s as well. He stopped competing in NASCAR when the sanctioning body wouldn’t let him use a fuel bladder; and he designed a “safe wall” in the ’60s that would move on contact, absorbing some of a crash’s energy.
The Yunick of legend could be blunt, even ornery. “Cantankerous, that’s a good word for it,” Trish Yunick said. But then there are the stories about the other Smokey, the one who would open his garage in the middle of the night to help a fellow racer, even if he was a competitor. Or who, in his later years, found time for a family that had learned to live without him for long stretches, especially from late April to early June.
Trish told this story about her dad’s other side:
“Smokey and John DeLorean were friends. They worked at Pontiac at the same time. Smokey called John one morning, and John was going through his first very public divorce. They didn’t talk about the divorce, but Smokey knew he wasn’t in good shape. So he hung up the phone and flew to Detroit to check on him. They talked for a while, and Smokey felt better about John, so he flew home. John later said he was thinking about killing himself that night. Smokey did have a bad side, but he really was very human.”