By Tori Tellem
SEMA Hall of Fame
Honoring Four Visionaries
A pioneer is an innovator. An innovator is a dreamer. A dreamer is an enthusiast. And an enthusiast is what we all are. Each year, the SEMA Hall of Fame recognizes members of SEMA and the automotive aftermarket community who have made a difference as they dreamed ideas and built change—enthusiasts with drive who inspired others and transformed a hobby into a thriving industry, leading a trade association to reach more than 50 years of age and 6,500 members deep.
That didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Not with so many who contribute to the success of SEMA and the aftermarket industry. We may move together as one, but there are many who lead.
The SEMA Hall of Fame criteria have been unchanged since 1969. Contributions must extend beyond the local level and reach national or international levels.
The inductee must be involved in the automotive specialty-equipment industry and/or SEMA for a minimum of 10 years and is required to have made outstanding contributions toward enhancing technology, professionalism, dignity and/or the general stature and growth of the automotive specialty-equipment industry.
Finally, the candidate must have put forth a high degree of integrity both within and outside of the industry. Or, simply put, “If this person had never existed, how would SEMA and the industry be different?”
The four individuals being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 2014 make answering that question easy, because their contributions reach far and wide.
This year, SEMA honors Nile Cornelison, Jim Cozzie, John Menzler and Fred C. Offenhauser for their ingenuity and dedication.
Their portraits will be added to the walls at SEMA headquarters, joining those of previous Hall of Fame recipients as permanent reminders of what hard work and never giving up can do.
These are their stories.
At the Forefront of the Future
Nile Cornelison grew up in Creston, Iowa, where his favorite class in high school was metalworking. Like most of us, tinkering on cars came early. His first vehicle was a 1954 Olds, which he was able to buy with money he made as a machinist at NAPA. Those late teen years also gave birth to a voracious appetite for racing cars, and he parlayed his love of the adrenaline rush to racing Top Fuel in the 1960s and 1970s.
Through racing, Nile found himself the person competitors were turning to for tips on how to build performance engines. That led to an engine-building side business outside of his NAPA job. He soon left to start his own speed shop, specializing in machine work for race cars. At that time, tractor-pulling was a fledgling motorsport, and again, Nile became the person competitors turned to. Only now, it was farmers; they wanted hot rod tractors.
The distribution of speed parts, from manufacturer to speed shops, was beginning to formalize. That would be a career-changing observation, and Nile launched National Custom Warehouse around 1970. “NCW was probably one of the first eight to ten warehouse distributors in the U.S. buying parts from manufacturers and selling to other speed shops. That operation ultimately sold parts in 48 states,” Nile explained.
But he also spotted flaws in the system. “Warehouse distributors did a fantastic job of buying and selling the parts, but they did an absolutely lousy job of moving printed catalogs and price sheets to the parts store front counters so the parts could be sold.”
“So my idea was, why not put together all the jobber/customer lists of all my competitors and create a database—although in those days the word ‘database’ hadn’t been born. The concept was a single file that got rid of all the duplications and facilitated the distribution of catalogs and price sheets, wall posters or anything paper and ink, to the 30-some-thousand outlets so we could cut the time from end of the press to the front counter. We took it from taking 6 months to a year to get catalog information out down to a matter of a couple weeks.”
As you might guess, competitors were reluctant to share their customer lists, so Nile sold NCW to start Direct Communications Inc. (DCi) in 1982. DCi became a direct mail clearinghouse for performance and accessory catalogs and price sheets. “He was an early pioneer in trying to get companies to mail new catalogs on a timely basis to the country’s jobbers and dealers. He did a lot in direct mail and that was in the early days of computers”, explained Chuck Blum of Chuck Blum & Associates, who has known Nile since 1981. “Communication was poor, especially in our growing industry. We didn’t yet have the sophistication of hard-parts distributors, who had been in business for years and years. Getting that information down the line was something our guys just weren’t used to.” In 1996, DCi added electronic cataloging data development and distribution services.
“He truly was a pioneer in the beginning of electronic cataloging,” explained Trina Wilson, an account specialist with DCi. “He helped the industry by getting data into the hands of those who needed the information to sell product. Without data, you’re unable to sell the product and accurately get the right part for the vehicle.” According to Nile, today, DCi facilitates $7 billion in performance and accessory parts sales through 60,000+ business outlets throughout the world.
Nile still made time to become an extremely active volunteer within SEMA, serving on the Board of Directors for eight years, during which time he chaired the Educational Services Committee. From that came SEMA Innovations Day, an effort to connect OEMs to the aftermarket for information-sharing, which was also Nile’s brainchild.
The first keynote speaker lined up got other OEMs to stand up and take notice of the SEMA Show: Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca. Nile also led SEMA’s initial entry into market research, introducing the annual SEMA Market Study. And while serving on the SEMA Show Committee in 1981, he created the show-within-a-show format-a display area for new products now known as the popular New Products Showcase.
Among his numerous accolades, Nile was named SEMA Person of the Year in 1982.
As Trina explained, “Without Nile’s vision, there wouldn’t be the same large number of businesses selling specialty parts today and our members wouldn’t have the success in the new internet marketplaces we have today.”
A Leader in Good Times and Bad
Born and raised in the area around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jim Cozzie began living out his dreams at a very early age.
“I pretty much knew when I was five or six years old that I was going to do something with cars and performance automobiles, because while everyone else was reading Dr. Seuss, I was reading Hot Rod,” he said.
Cozzie was 15 when his father passed away, so it was his uncle—an engineer for a company that made avionics for airplanes—who fueled his passion.
“One day, a fellow engineer showed up in a ’27 Ford Roadster that had a Cadillac with trips and a LaSalle transmission, and from that day on, that was it,” he said.
Cozzie worked at a service station at night and on the weekends and, as with many back in the day, the owner of the station raced a ’55 Chevy Gasser. Cozzie began attending races and soon became a racer himself.
“When guys were going on dates, I was going to the dragstrip,” Cozzie joked.
In 1978, he tried over-the-road truck driving for several years but felt compelled to work in the automotive industry. He heard about a position as customer service manager at Hurst Performance.
“In those days, Hurst was a magical name in the performance world,” Cozzie said. “I think I took a $6,000 pay cut to go there. My mom thought I was nuts.”
He began there at age 22 in 1979 and stayed 10 years, “drinking it all in, burning my fingers along the way. That’s where I got schooled and really learned about the business end.”
He rose through the ranks to director of marketing for the corporation. While there, he headed every brand at one time or another and developed a racetrack supply division, which involved developing parts exclusively for drag racing, and built a list of client racers. He was also behind the development of the GM 500ci DRCE racing engine and the Hurst Olds Pro Stock team with Oldsmobile in the early ’80s.
Where Cozzie ended up next was the other extreme: vice president of operations for a T-shirt company, Super Press, which was meeting the growing demand for souvenir T-shirts at races. After three successful years, he became restless for the parts business again, so when B&M Racing and Performance Products called, he answered.
His initial regional manager position there evolved 14 years later to vice president of sales and marketing, wherein he grew the business and expanded distribution to include OE suppliers to the Ford GT and distribution programs in Europe, Australia and the Pacific Rim. By 2005, Cozzie was recruited by the performance division of Berkshire Hathaway to resurrect the Zoom Performance Products brand and guide the company through a portfolio-building program, and he became president of the enterprise. His path then turned toward automotive entertainment, first with RTM Productions and now as managing partner of Brenton Productions.
Cozzie became actively involved in SEMA while at B&M, although he’d attended his first show in 1979 and hasn’t missed one since.
“Brian Appelgate asked me to serve on the newly formed Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council [MPMC],” Cozzie said, and he joined the council in 1996. A year later, he became its chairman. Since then, he has served on the International Task Force, the SEMA Executive Committee, the SEMA Political Action Committee, and he chaired the SEMA Show Committee. He also served multiple terms on the SEMA Board of Directors and was its chairman in 2008–2009 during the recession.
“I believe that Jim had the toughest job any SEMA Chairman has ever had in navigating the worst economic times our industry has ever faced,” said Mitch Williams of TrimParts Holding Corp. “SEMA’s existence wasn’t at stake, but certainly SEMA’s future health was. Some of the tough decisions were ones SEMA had never had to make, so there was no precedent—no one to ask. Jim just had to figure out the right course of action largely on his own. I believe that anyone can look good during the good times, but it takes excellent leadership to look good during the tough times, and that is exactly what Jim and Chris Kersting showed.”
Cozzie also became a driving force behind the SEMA Education Institute and the CU-ICAR program with Clemson University. He was inducted into the MPMC Hall of Fame and, in 2004, was named the SEMA Person of the Year for his ongoing commitment.
“Very few people in our industry have given so much to it and have worked as hard to leave it a better industry for generations to come,” said Bob Scheid of McLeod Racing and SERES. “Jim always has his eye toward success.”
Loyalist and Ambassador for the Industry
“Life doesn’t come with a remote…so get up and change it yourself!”
—Mornings with Menzler
Ask people who knew John Menzler to describe him, and “funny” will probably come up most often. But you’ll also hear “mentor,” “enthusiast” and “giver.” To his daughter, Kristi, the word is “hero.” Sadly, the automotive industry and the SEMA family lost Menzler in October of 2013.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Menzler’s first jobs were mowing lawns and a paper route. He didn’t put those early savings toward a car; rather, the first thing he bought was a necklace for his mom. But once he reached his teen years, he took to vehicles and the faster things in life.
“Anything to do with transportation,” Kristi said. “A wagon, a tricycle—if it moved, and he thought he could make it go faster.”
According to close friend Mitch Frey of Hughes Performance, “John led a colorful life before his involvement in the automotive aftermarket. He would tell me the story of riding his horse to school when the only paved roads were in the downtown Phoenix area. He was a cowboy and won awards for roping. He was also deputy sheriff for a time.”
Menzler’s automotive career launched with a stint pumping gas at a Blakely station, but he transitioned to sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve Control Group, Rifle Specialty, from 1965 to 1967 and received an honorable discharge. By 1974, he was back in the automotive world, this time as a car salesman for a Chevrolet/GMC dealership. In 1978, he launched Inventive Marketing to focus on automotive-related parts, eventually adding Motofeet—a company known for its engine stand—under the same umbrella. Yet his calling seemed to be as a sales representative, working for companies such as Baer Brakes, Centerline Wheels, Dart Engines and Manley Performance.
“He liked people and loved the industry, and that gave him the opportunity to go places, see people, share his knowledge of cars and parts and be a part of the auto industry,” Kristi explained. “And when new things came out, he could share them. He was also able to be a part of ideas with other people on things that would enhance the industry.”
Menzler eventually moved to COMP Performance Group, where he remained employed until his final days.
“I truly believe that being hired by COMP was the turning point,” Frey said. “John had many jobs throughout his career, but his job as ‘ambassador’ was the perfect fit.”
Another perfect fit was SEMA. Kristi explained that Menzler’s late wife Wendy actually encouraged him to join by stating, “You will never be able to understand what this industry is about until you’ve seen what it’s like to give back and participate with a group of people who give back.”
He took to volunteerism immediately.
“John truly believed in SEMA,” Frey said. “When John spoke to a customer or another manufacturer, he always asked ‘Are you a SEMA member?’ If the answer was no, he would tout the advantages of SEMA and, more times than not, he would convince that person to join.”
Added Kristi, “His life changed because of the people in SEMA, and he went forward to change others’ lives.”
That included his passion for the SEMA Cares Pinewood Drag Races.
Dennis Overholser of Painless Performance met Menzler about 15 years ago through SEMA.
“He became a very close friend,” Overholser said. “We did a lot of things together on the education side for both the MPMC and the Hot Rod Industry Alliance councils, including the MPMC media conference. He’s someone who dedicated many years to the organization and many years to the aftermarket.”
Menzler’s honors included National Hot Rod Association Division 4 Person of the Year in 1988, the MPMC Industry Recognition Award in 2000, the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network Mentor of the Year and the MPMC Hall of Fame in 2010, the SEMA Person of the Year in 2011 and, posthumously, the inaugural Dick Dixon Legacy Award from the Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show.
The popular “Mornings with Menzler” inspirational quotes found on his Facebook page will be continued by Kristi, who said she has “thousands” of quotes that her dad put together for people to continue to enjoy.
“He was just one of those kinds of guys. He was one of us,” Overholser said, choking back tears. “I miss his friendship. That’s one of those tough ones.”
Fred C. Offenhauser—
A Pioneer in Performance
(Editor’s note: Shortly after our interview about Fred C. Offenhauser, Bill Smith passed away. His memories remain an invaluable addition to Offenhauser’s life story.)
You might not know that Fred C. Offenhauser had a pet pig named Olive Oil as a child and a poodle named Dolly as an adult. He made Sunday morning breakfast every week for his family. He loved his motor yacht and would cruise to Catalina or along the coast quite often.
What you probably do know about Fred C. Offenhauser is that he founded Offenhauser Equipment Corp., and his company was behind an extremely successful line of intake manifolds. Offenhauser parts became synonymous with performance.
The hardest thing to know about Fred C. Offenhauser is that we lost this industry giant in 1992.
Offenhauser grew up on a ranch in Perris, California, before moving to West Los Angeles around 1935, near his uncle Fred H. Offenhauser’s shop, Offenhauser Engineering. Uncle Fred was already well known in the industry for being the designer of the famous Offenhauser four-cylinder racing engine that dominated Indy starting in the ’30s, yet Offenhauser wasn’t born into an automotive environment per se.
His father wasn’t much of a car enthusiast, but Offenhauser had a natural gift when it came to machining. He ended up working for his Uncle Fred as an apprentice machinist, learning about engine design. He then joined the Navy and became a machinist working on blimps until his discharge in 1946 and his return to his uncle’s shop, where he was poised to take over the business. When circumstances prevented that from happening, Offenhauser instead opened his own place, Offenhauser Equipment Corp., which made hot-rod parts.
Detroit’s Big Three quickly came calling, with Offenhauser making hop-up kits for Chrysler. And when Ford introduced the Y-block in 1954, Fred and his team—his brother Carl, who was shop foreman, and chief engineer Ollie Morris—developed innovative intake manifolds. The team was also developing performance parts for the new Chevy V8.
“In the early years of our industry, Fred was a big contributor,” explained Don Smith of DCS Consulting & Export, who met Offenhauser as a teenager when he was just starting out in the business. “There was also the Big Three in manifolds: Edelbrock, Weiand and Offenhauser.”
But Offenhauser’s ultimate dream was to give the general public high-performance intakes.
“He provided a broad range of improved intake systems, helping thousands of enthusiasts to get more performance out of their average street machines and introducing performance to many who were on a more limited budget, popularizing performance to the masses,” noted Butch Lahmann of TunerWear. “He designed and engineered unique products to that end. In my opinion, he was the epitome of the American entrepreneurial dream.”
But that was before warehouse distributors were born.
“Most of the manufacturers at the time were making hard parts, not accessories,” explained Bill Smith, founder of the Speedway Motors speed shop, which at the time was essentially a start-up. “If you needed a bearing for your front wheel or a brake drum for your rear wheel, there were manufacturers who made them and sold them to established jobbers, who resold them to dealers, and that was how the system worked. Not all hard-parts stores wanted to even deal with accessories.”
Smith attended one of the only automotive shows in the country in the ’50s before SEMA and the SEMA Show existed. But he got to know Offenhauser in a hotel room after that Chicago show. He was there with a few other future industry heavy hitters, including Vic Edelbrock, and these product sellers and original charter SEMA members would later hold meetings back home in California to talk about who they were selling to who owed them money.
“SEMA basically started out as a collection agency,” Bill Smith said, and he joined when the organization invited dealers, jobbers, and warehouse distributors so that a distribution structure could be put into place for the industry.
“Most of the products that Fred innovated and came up with were very hard to manufacture,” Smith explained. “An Offenhauser product was something you could take out of a box and show to a customer and know everything would work right.”
“My dad never talked about being a pioneer,” said Offenhauser’s son Tay. “I can look back on it now and say, yes, he manufactured and sold performance parts to dealers around the country in the early days. And he was out there doing what pioneers do: He helped lead the way in the development of speed parts for every enthusiast.”