By Tori Tellem
2015 SEMA Hall of Fame
Joel Ayres, Jim Bingham and Dennis Gage
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At first glance, the 2015 SEMA Hall of Fame inductees may appear to have only one thing in common: farms. But upon closer inspection, you will notice something else. They are the epitome of “live your best life.” This is not always easy to do; there is no roadmap to that destination, yet the route defines who we are. And each Hall of Fame honoree embraced the crossroads as much as he chased the unknown. He exuded grace in hardships and saw chance in challenges. He believed in himself and in those around him when others may have disbelieved. What some called struggle, he called purpose. Their footprints leave invisible impressions on our own road map, reminding us of how to be on the way to where to be.
The SEMA Hall of Fame is the automotive aftermarket industry’s highest honor, awarded annually since 1969. It celebrates distinguished work and service to the industry and to the association as well as to community and others in need. The Hall of Fame honors those who have been instrumental in growing the aftermarket industry, playing a role in advancing technology, inventing revolutionary products and redefining how business can be done. Their contributions are seen on national and international levels and within all generations of SEMA membership.
This year’s SEMA Hall of Fame recipients are Joel Ayres, Jim Bingham and Dennis Gage. They continue to strive to live their best lives. Here are their inspiring stories.
Joel Ayres: The Consummate Volunteer
Joel Ayres has a reputation. A shrewd businessman and salesman, he has had a successful aftermarket career for more than 40 years. But his reputation is not hard-as-nails or barbarous. Joel Ayres is known for being one of the nicest guys in the industry.
His father, Boyd Lee, was a farmer (who later joined an upstart company called Winnebago RVs), so Joel was born on a farm in Forest City, Iowa, later moving to Waterloo, Iowa. He grew up with four brothers and a sister and loved school (an honor-roll student) and sports—although at 5 ft., 10 in. and 125 lbs., his football career did not last long.
Ayres said that his family had always been around racing and cars. For example, Boyd would take them to Tunis Speedway to watch races every Sunday night. Ayres refers to himself as “the least mechanical of my family,” yet when his older brother Dean became a stock-car racer after high school, Ayres would sometimes help in the pits.
At 16, Ayres got his first car, a VW Bug, and he piloted a ’69 Mustang while at the University of Northern Iowa, although “our family was a pickup-truck family.” Joel intended to study education, with the goal of becoming an elementary-school counselor, but he switched to business.
“I’ve actually had a little regret that I didn’t teach,” Joel admitted.
By now, Boyd had started his own company, Ayr-Way, which manufactured various items that included fiberglass truck caps. So Joel, his younger brother Jerry and his older brother Jim went to work for their dad. Boyd sold the company in 1978, but Joel and Jim had to continue in their positions for another year as part of the sale. When competitor Rigid Form called, Joel said yes to a job offer, and he moved up from sales manager to general manager over the years. He also oversaw a chain of nine truck-accessory retail stores in the Midwest.
Ayres eventually landed in California, working for truck-cap and tonneau manufacturer Leer, first as a sales manager and then as national marketing director. The company became part of Truck Accessories Group (TAG), where Ayres stayed for 20 years. In 2010, he moved to Tākit Inc., the maker of Bedslide, as vice president of sales and marketing and as a partner.
Those who know Ayres understand why he was perfect for a job offered in 2015: executive director of the Automotive Aftermarket Charitable Foundation. The organization provides financial assistance to those in need within the aftermarket industry from problems such as sickness, catastrophe or accident. The foundation is more than 50 years old, yet Ayres became the first to hold that position. And it speaks to the core of who Ayres is: that nice guy.
“My volunteer work started when I was very young,” he explained. “My whole life has been about volunteerism and charity work. It’s been my passion.” He’ll tell you that his father “gave me my business and selling side, and my mother and stepmom gave me my loving, caring and charitable side.” As such, he cofounded the first Big Brothers of Northeastern Indiana and has been a volunteer teacher and had a nearly lifelong involvement with various children’s charities.
“Someone told me back in my 30s, ‘You can make an impact every day on people’s lives that you work with, and that has a ripple effect. You may not be out there curing anything, but you can say the right thing, be the right example and make a difference,’” Ayres reflected. “It finally hit me that I could be in business and didn’t have to be a stereotypical businessman. And that’s why I’ve become good friends with all my competition. It’s not a war or a battle; it’s a game. And when the whistle blows, you share a beer.”
His colleagues and peers learned that attitude quickly, as he helped the truck-accessory aftermarket industry grow by becoming a founding member of the Truck Cap Industry Alliance that became the Truck and Off-Road Alliance (TORA). Beyond that, he was “off to the races.” His involvements with multiple SEMA councils, committees and task forces are too numerous to list, but they have included the SEMA Board of Directors for multiple terms, the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network (SBN) board liaison and the SEMA Show committee. “I love the industry,” he said. “I’m a hand-raiser, and I just enjoy it.”
But he managed to mix business with heart as only Ayres could do. He is perhaps most associated with SEMA Cares,
the charity arm of SEMA: He was instrumental in its formation and was its original chairman.
His devotion to the industry and community has resulted in many accolades, including the TORA Hall of Fame, the SBN Athena Award, the Professional Restylers Organization Jim Borré Lifetime Achievement Award and the SEMA Person of the Year. Still, Ayres feels unworthy of his SEMA Hall of Fame induction.
“I’m still in a cloud,” he confessed. “To think about the legends who are in this—the people I grew up hearing about or people I’ve known—it’s just…wow. I shouldn’t even be here. I’m very honored and very proud. The biggest achievements in my life are my children and grandchildren, but as far as the industry and this association, this is huge!”
Jim Bingham: Inspiring the Next Generation
Profiles of SEMA Hall of Fame inductees are not typically love stories. But you cannot tell the journey of Jim Bingham without it being one: Love of father. Love of wife. Love of aftermarket.
It began in Indiana. Bingham grew up on a farm in Enos, which was small-town life to the fullest.
“I went to a two-room schoolhouse for the first eight grades, and there were only two of us in my class,” Bingham said.
His first employer was his dad, Leonard James. At the age of nine, Bingham was driving a hay baler on the family farm. By about 13, he was doing everything, acting as Leonard James’s right arm.
“I was his best bud,” Bingham said. “I was everywhere he went. I was always assisting him in whatever he did, and I think that’s where I learned to help people.”
Bingham went to nearby Morocco High School, and he pondered a career as a civil engineer building roads and bridges. But after a tour of Purdue, he told his father his plan, “and I could see the look in his eyes,” so Bingham stayed on the farm, then enlisted in the U.S. Army and served three years, specializing in missile defense.
Outside the farm work and the military, Bingham had brief stints piecing together electronic circuit boards, working at a steel mill, putting up farm buildings across America, and as a specialty collection teller at a bank. But around 1966, he had an itch to come back to the farm. Thanks to that decision—as well as an opportunity to go along with his father to look at some farmland—he met his future wife, Linda. Soon, she would act as his right arm.
By 1968, Bingham realized that he wasn’t making it financially by farming and joined a construction company that was building highway I-65 in Indiana. But it was not what he wanted to do.
“I always thought it would be neat to look up parts,” he said. “Whenever I went to a parts store or an implement dealer, I thought the guys who went through catalogs had a really neat job, an important job.”
He answered a help-wanted ad for a counterman trainee at Lang Auto Parts and got the job.
“Lang had performance parts, and when those customers would come in, the other guys didn’t want to wait on them,” he said. “They thought it was a fad, and because I was young and those customers were young, it was my job to wait on them. I didn’t know what headers were or even intake manifolds.”
But Bingham did recognize supply and demand and suggested that the owner expand the store to ensure that parts were always in stock. The owner did not share Bingham’s vision, but a drag racer named Don Wiley did.
“If you took our business plan to a bank today, they’d laugh you out,” Bingham said. “But I’ve always been a risk taker.”
By now, Bingham was 26 years old with a wife and twin daughters. So he and Wiley immediately found a building—directly across the street from Lang, their competition. They opened Winner’s Circle Speed and Custom in 1970 in Kankakee, Illinois.
“That first summer, we were so determined, our hours were 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.,” Bingham said. “We were young and willing to work tons of hours.”
The business took off fast, and they opened a second store in Joliet later that year. A few months later, they had a third in Peoria.
Bingham and Wiley parted ways about a decade later, and now Jim and Linda own three retail stores: Joliet, Peoria and East Moline. Linda is the controller and has been working at the company since day one.
“I think it’s improved our marriage,” Bingham said. “She raised our kids, she’s been my bookkeeper, and she’ll sometimes stay behind with the business to make sure there are no problems when I travel. God brought me the best woman in the world.”
Bingham’s father passed away in 1993. “All of a sudden, the light started clicking,” he said. “I’m next and haven’t done what I want to do.” That translated into helping get Route 66 Raceway in Joliet built, followed by Chicagoland Speedway, also in Joliet. Bingham is one of the owners.
He attended his first SEMA Show one year after Winner’s Circle took flight, and through the years, he has volunteered with the SEMA Membership Committee and various other committees, and he has been a board member for the Performance Warehouse Association. He has been active on the SEMA Board of Directors and received the association’s Chairman’s Service Award.
One of his greatest passions is his involvement in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge.
“I’m selfish—I love this industry and I want more people to come to this industry,” he said. “I want them to go work for performance people.”
In fact, Bingham currently has four members of the Hot Rodders Joliet team working for his company. And he is lucky enough to have members of his family at his side, too. His son Rodney James has taken the reigns of the Challenge, and grandson Noah works in the store.
Despite his significant contributions, being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame was not on his radar.
“I thought it would be neat, but I didn’t feel I was on that path,” he said.
Deep down, he is still simply an industrious farm boy. Yet he will have been in the aftermarket industry for 45 years in June, noting, “I’d like to make it to 50!”
Dennis Gage: Creating Awareness of Car Culture
“Is he the guy with the moustache?” If the name Dennis Gage is not instantly familiar to someone, his handlebar moustache certainly is.
Dennis Roy Gage spent his childhood in northwestern Illinois, growing up on the family farm. There was not a lot to do in the small town, so playing with cars and motorcycles was entertainment. His father, CP, and mother, Rose, were both into cars.
“He was a Buick guy and drove like a madman, and she liked big engines and fast cars,” Gage said.
Gage got his first motorcycle at age 12 (a Honda 50) and his first “official” car when he was 15—a ’59 Ford Thunderbird. Rose was driving a ’65 Chevy Impala, but Gage talked her into a ’67 Pontiac GTO convertible, which he then drove to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where he landed with only $20 and
It was the early ’70s, and Gage launched a triple major: chemistry, physics and math. But after two years of “partying my brains out and working my brains out on three majors” he quit to become a technician at Amoco Chemicals. He lasted only nine months, but it was a life-changing experience, and he returned to college even more focused. He dropped math, but his undergrad degree was in quantum physics, and he was primed next to get a PhD at the University of Wisconsin. But as fate would have it—a constant phrase in the twists and turns that are the life of Dennis Gage—an Eagles concert changed his life.
Fascinated by a musician playing a pedal steel guitar in the warm-up band, Gage taught himself how to play. Instead of grad school, he started a band called
Madfoot with college friends. Before long, he was invited to join another band that did warm-up for acts such as Charlie
Daniels and Waylon Jennings.
“Even though I loved music, I didn’t like it as a job,” Gage said. “I’m not nocturnal. I’m more of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. It’s all flipped if you’re in a band.”
And so, off to grad school he went in 1977, this time pointing his dad’s ’70 Ford Maverick westward toward the University of Idaho, with plans to become a professor.
As fate would have it, Mount Saint Helens volcano erupted in Washington, and Gage was part of the university’s atmospheric monitoring group, which set out to monitor the particulate levels for health implications of the ash now covering four states. He also happened to have taught himself how to use the department’s Raman spectrometer—and as the only person who knew how to use it, he became the guy who analyzed Mount Saint Helens’s volcanic ash.
“I had the only technique that could do this, so I had my PhD thesis project literally fall from the sky,” he said.
Wooed by Proctor & Gamble to become a scientist in their food division after graduation, his product development work included the Pringles chip (his name is on some of the patents). Then came a case of corporate espionage that turned into a legal battle. It’s noteworthy, because this ultimately became the largest patent settlement in U.S. history at the time.
“I was kind of the key guy again,” he said, ”because I do weird stuff. So I developed a way to do X-ray refraction spectrometry on cookies.” (He monitored crystal growth to show the infringement.)
Gage next became director of product development for Bristol Meyers Squibb and spent five years traveling the world. He also was juggling life as father to three children with his high-school sweetheart, Ellen. While he was looking into modeling schools for his two daughters, an agency suggested that Gage take a headshot, too. And, as fate would have it….
“I had my picture taken, forgot about it,” he said. “Then, a couple years later, I get this call that a local law firm was wanting someone with a turn-of-the-century look for a commercial.”
In case you wondered, he had that moustache even back at Proctor & Gamble.
Gage and the commercial’s producer started talking cars, and the two put together a 30-minute sample episode of “My Classic Car,” with Gage as host. TNN premiered the full series in 1997, and it has been on the air now for 20 years, enduring network changes.
“People think I know so much about cars, but I’m not an authority,” Gage said. “I’m the ultimate enthusiast. No one knows more about a car than the guy who owns it.”
He also made time to volunteer with SEMA, including with the Automotive Restoration Market Organization (ARMO). In that group’s early years, Gage was a vocal proponent of bringing more awareness to its mission. He was also a member of the Hot Rod Industry Alliance (HRIA) and served three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors.
Gage has been the recipient of many honors, from awards for science in school and from the American Chemical Society to the ARMO Hall of Fame. But ask him about the SEMA Hall of Fame, and you will render him speechless.
“It’s beyond flattering,” he said. “When I think of the SEMA Hall of Fame, I think Carroll Shelby, Vic Edelbrock…iconic, legendary people. And they bring me into that? I’m totally stunned.”
Perhaps it has not been only fate guiding Dennis through this journey but also his belief that if you work hard, you get ahead.
“Deliver the goods, deliver results,” Gage said. “And don’t fear failure.”