By Matt Pearson
2020 SEMA Hall of Fame
Welcome Rich Barsamian, Jack Chisenhall, John Gaines and Joe St. Lawrence
Emcee for the Industry
Rich Barsamian got word that he was indeed one of the 2020 SEMA Hall of Fame honorees, and he was still speechless one week later. “Yeah, I was trying to think—because I’m still sort of in shock,” he said.
The SEMA Hall of Fame will do that to you. It will take your breath away and leave you speechless, even if you’re Rich Barsamian. And that is saying something, because it takes quite a bit to see him speechless.
An innovative salesman, data marketer, musician and stand-up comic, Barsamian is a man with an unusual talent for making friends. His contribution spans many years and is, well, rich in service to the industry. In his long history as a volunteer, he succeeded in putting the welfare of the industry first and worked on numerous programs that benefitted the industry as a whole.
Barsamian got started in the automotive industry around 1982, when he was a teenager in high school and was hired to do automotive product demonstrations for a rep agency. Fast-forward a bit, and Barsamian connected with Grant Steering Wheels as its regional sales manager and started volunteering and working with SEMA in 1995. He worked for Grant for six years, left to put in three years at Edelbrock as national sales manager, then returned to Grant Products.
|Barsamian discusses Edelbrock products with SEMA Show attendees Warehouse West owner Brad Blue (right) and R&R Marketing's Charlie Jensen (second from left).|
As Grant’s vice president of sales and marketing, he was part of the team that helped rebuild the company. Then, after seven years, he went to work at ACT, where he is currently vice president of sales and marketing. He’s helped the company by authoring one of the industry’s strongest pricing policies and grown the business with a host of unique programs and data-driven decisions.
Along the way, Barsamian continued to volunteer in the Young Executives Network (YEN) and eventually served as chair. He then served for more than a decade on the Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council (MPMC), also eventually serving as chair. He is known for his ability to listen to the issues and concerns of members, and he authored a great portion of what is known as the MPMC “Business Guidelines Manual.”
“My end goal in volunteering is simple,” Barsamian told us. “I want to leave things better than I found them and to be involved in projects that bring value to our industry.”
|Barsamian performing with the band Led Foot at a SEMA Show.|
As a marketer, Barsamian was one of the first to recognize and apply insights gained from the use of data, studying topics such as what people were looking up as well as turn rates at the warehouse distributor level, and he created reports that integrated multiple sources in order to illustrate order flows and overall company health.
As a volunteer in a leadership position, Barsamian then began to share insights he had developed for the benefit of the industry as a whole. Among those was his championing of the Vehicles In Operation (VIO) program, which makes vehicle data available to SEMA-member companies to enable a better understanding of what products to make, where to sell them, how to advertise them, and what technical training might be needed.
VIO was an opportunity for Barsamian to connect SEMA members in a whole new way and resulted in a program that provided industry-wide benefits. That achievement also demonstrated Barsamian’s knack for recognizing industry needs and his ability to pull together companies from different segments, even if they might be competitors.
Barsamian has mentored many in the industry over the years. When asked about his ability as a connector—putting people together to help them become stronger in their businesses, seeking solutions to problems or just increasing industry relationships by introducing people to each other—he credits his own teachers. “I am so grateful for the many mentors I have had,” he said.
As a marketer, Barsamian spent years pioneering and developing pricing policies. He educated the industry by organizing insightful seminars at SEMA since 2013, but he believes it will take many more years to truly educate the industry on this incredibly important topic.
Barsamian also chaired SEMA Cares from 2016–2018. He created the Industry Cup Challenge and worked to bring new life into the Pinewood Derby, helping set new records when it came to raising money for the SEMA Cares charities—Childhelp, Victory Junction and the Austin Hatcher Foundation.
If it’s possible to judge people based on the recognition they receive from their peers, Rich Barsamian stands out in the company of any group. The list of accolades he has collected include being named 2001 YEN Young Executive of the Year, receiving the 2010 YEN Vanguard Award, taking home both the 2011 and 2012 Performance Warehouse Association Person of the Year awards, receiving the 2012 Performance Warehouse Association Manufacturer of the Year (at ACT) as well as being named the 2014 SEMA Person of the Year.
Most recently he was inducted into the MPMC Hall of Fame in 2019. And now, Barsamian has been selected for induction into the SEMA Hall of Fame, class of 2020.
It’s been said that the industry bonded with Barsamian, his keen sense of humor and his ability to entertain. A persuasive speaker and popular emcee, he even appeared on stage with the band Led Foot at the SEMA Show and, over the years, raised funds for the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund. He is a ubiquitous presence at industry events, has led the worship service at the SEMA Show prayer breakfast, and never says no to emceeing any industry event.
“I’ve been able to use my sense of humor and personality to make friends, teach, and do what I do in the industry,” Barsamian said. “I guess that’s the hardest part: When you’re that person, you have to wonder, ‘Are you going to be taken seriously?’ Obviously, with this award, I know that my peers do take me seriously, and I’m really honored by that.”
The Hobby Shop
Ask him if he considers himself an innovator and a leader of technology and he will probably echo the statements of his peers and say, well, yes.
“I’m very interested and always have been very interested in the technical field,” Chisenhall said. “Yeah, I like the technical world.”
According to Chisenhall, it was being a hot rodder at an early age that resulted in his interest in technology later in life.
He was a young military dependent, and his family didn’t settle down much until he was older. But as high school approached the family started to get settled. Chisenhall said his passion at the time was magazines, because he could get them anywhere.
“I got ahold of some car magazines—mainly Hot Rod in those days—and had just started learning the skills to build a car,” he said. “It all came from that.”
At age 13 Chisenhall took the skills he acquired and performed his first engine swap. He was lucky that his father was in the Air Force. All the bases had hobby shops and they were a place you could go work on your own car. He didn’t have a welder yet or enough tools to work on the car, so he took it to the hobby shop.
|From left: Wally Parks, Chisenhall and Ak Miller at the races.|
“I put a Mercury V8 in first and it wasn’t very pretty,” he said. “I got it in, and it actually drove. By the time I was 14 I put in an overhead-valve V8 and that was a whole new deal. I worked at the hobby shop a lot—it was a place where, even if you were working alone, there was always someone else there to help out.”
Chisenhall joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps while studying industrial design at what is now Texas State University and had already earned his pilot’s license before enlisting in the Air Force. He continued to work on cars while in the service and even attended his first Street Rod Nationals in Memphis.
Together with a couple partners, his brother Gordon and a family friend, Milton Jones, Chisenhall started an air-conditioning
company in 1976. The company put air conditioners in new cars. The shop wasn’t large and there was one room at the end that was barely big enough for a car. That’s where Vintage Air got started.
“I started getting guys to bring their own cars in, and we started putting air conditioning in the cars,” Chisenhall said. “It didn’t take long before I started making the molds to produce my first air-conditioning system. A lot of guys knew how to put on a compressor or knew how to do the mechanical stuff, but most guys didn’t know how to mold or work with plastics,” he added.
When he was a getting into the business, many of the guys didn’t want air conditioners. If the car had one, they would say it was too heavy and they’d want to throw it away.
|Chisenhall and son Landis (left) getting ready to race in Indianapolis.|
“If we as old guys wanted our family and our wives to go with us, there was no option—we had to install air conditioning,” said Chisenhall. “You can imagine asking your wife to drive cross country with you without air conditioning. How would that go?
“I guess the fact that so few of the musclecars and hot rods were equipped with air conditioning allowed us to create the segment,” he said. “The fall of that first year I took a unit to Tulsa, to the Street Rod Nationals.
Looking back, Chisenhall makes it sound easy. “We’ve been very fortunate. We are now building air conditioners for six or seven new-car companies,” said Chisenhall. “We didn’t really go looking for that business, but it came to us. We like it because it helps us gain the technology from the automotive OEM world.”
“I’m really proud of being part of the SEMA organization,” Chisenhall said. “I’m proud of the people I’ve come to know in the industry. Honestly, they become your best friends because you have the same interests. It’s an understatement to say it’s a huge honor to be associated with these guys,” he added.
“It’s all about that. The car is how we connect with other people that are doing things like we are. I think it’s all about that.”
Pioneer of Warehouse Distribution
From a very young age, John Gaines knew that he loved cars. How much did he love them? Well, growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he became a car enthusiast before he even got his driver’s license.
“I loved the whole look of the car,” Gaines said. “The wheels, rims, body and especially the sound of a hot rod.”
Gaines was born in Washington, D.C. He attended Bladensburg High School in Maryland and served in the Air Force. He went to a couple of races in Manassas, Virginia, where he hung out in a garage owned by Paul Osmond that was called Modifications Unlimited. He saw that Osmond was building a dragster, and Gaines wanted to do
In the late ’50s, Gaines began his pursuit of racing. By 1961, he was already racing dragsters, and he purchased his first dragster in 1962. Not even two years later, he bought another dragster, turned it into a Top Fuel car and was racing all over the East Coast.
Gaines went on to compete at the World Finals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas. And whose Top Fuel dragster set top speed at Tulsa? You guessed it—it was Gaines’. In 1963, he also successfully raced his Top Fuel dragster at the Indy U.S. Nationals.
|Next generation: Gaines’ son and grandson taking it all in at a recent Gatornationals.|
Continuing to live his dream, Gaines and his racing partner, Fausto Marino, opened a two-bay retail speed shop in 1966 in Cottage City, Maryland, called Automotive Specialties. Gaines was purchasing more and more performance parts, and his need for parts was the birth of that shop.
Gaines’ automotive parts business was booming so much in the late ’60s that by 1969 he had given up racing to devote 100% of his time and effort to his growing business.
When Gaines was asked what he felt was his proudest accomplishment in racing, he answered without pause: “Winning!”
In 1970, Gaines realized that he had enough vendor lines to sustain a business, so he ventured into wholesale distribution at a time when aftermarket manufacturers could benefit from a service that could deliver parts directly to speed shops on demand. He hit the road and solicited business up and down the East Coast. Soon after, he was operating a fleet of 10 delivery trucks.
Gaines also changed the company name from Automotive Specialties to G&M Performance Parts to dedicate his business full-time to wholesale. He outgrew the retail speed shop business and knew that wholesale distribution was the path to the future.
Less than four years since first opening the doors of the small speed shop, G&M was doing $1 million in business.
In the early ’70s, G&M was the first performance parts company in the country to create an annual warehouse jobber show. The first show drew more than 100 vendors, and it eventually grew to attract more than 2,000 jobbers.
|In 1966, Gaines (left) and his racing partner Fausto Marino, (right), opened a retail speed shop in Cottage City, Maryland.|
Gaines designed and built an 80,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art warehouse and office space in Largo, Maryland. G&M was servicing more than 4,500 accounts up and down the East Coast and most of the Southeast. In 1982, G&M was recognized by SEMA with the Performance Warehouse of the Year award.
Gaines also knew it was time to expand into the western half of the United States. In 1983, he formed Three Star Industries with two other industry leaders, Ron Coppaken from Arrow Speed Warehouse and Steve Woomer from Competition Specialties.
The three of them knew that they would have a greater impact on the industry together, so they created a national retail program called Performance Corner for jobbers, speed shops, truck shops and dealerships that were not familiar with performance parts.
Performance Corner introduced traditional automotive parts stores to performance parts that they had never considered stocking in the past. Performance Corner also generated a 300-page catalog and retail national advertising for customers in several automotive trade publications.
Business at both G&M and Performance Corner continued to grow at a record pace, with G&M alone servicing more than 6,000 accounts through a fleet of more than 40 delivery trucks and nearly 300 employees.
Gaines attended his first SEMA Show in the late ’60s. He went on to attend the Show every year up until the early ’90s. He was very involved with SEMA and took great pride in serving on the Board of Directors and as a committee chairman; his many contributions over the years; and his business earning that recognition as Performance Warehouse of the Year
“It was very humbling knowing this group of esteemed colleagues and knowing that we were helping to determine the future health and growth of the industry,” he said. “I wish I could do it all over again. Dreams came true for a kid with nothing but a dream to reach what I feel is the pinnacle of the industry. To be elected into the SEMA Hall of Fame just tops it off and justifies the hard work and determination to be the best I could be.
Joe St. Lawrence
It’s Been a Great Ride
|Joe St. Lawrence|
Joe St. Lawrence is clearly excited at the prospect of talking about his passion for automotive television—as well he should be. He’s credited with pioneering the how-to automotive television shows that allowed aftermarket companies to reach hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts and create many new companies and even some industry icons.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said.
St. Lawrence was born in 1945 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father and mother were both on naval bases during the war, and he was born on a ship.
|Before he became a television producer, Joe St. Lawrence raced motorcycles professionally.|
The family moved to a suburb of New York City. His father was the football and track coach at a high school, and St. Lawrence and his brothers were involved in sports. But motorsports called to young Joe.
“I was kind of the black sheep of the family,” St. Lawrence said. “Everybody else was into football, water polo and swimming, and I was into motorcycles and cars. That was the genesis of my involvement with our industry and our sport.”
When he was old enough to get a license, he got a motor scooter. That turned into a motorcycle, which turned into a racing motorcycle. Ultimately, he started racing motorcycles professionally in 1962 and opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Rockland County, New York.
It wasn’t long before St. Lawrence started making parts in the back room of the dealership. He manufactured and distributed motorcycle performance parts under the name Powerband, and that evolved into St. Lawrence selling the small business to a Fortune 500 company that owned the Accel performance division.
“I stayed there for about eight years and had worked my way up to vice president of sales and marketing by 1986,” St. Lawrence said. “My wife Patty and I decided that television had been so successful for Accel back in the early ’80s that we should start doing TV.”
They also decided that Nashville was the place to be, thanks in part to it being the home of The Nashville Network (TNN), which featured the NHRA, NASCAR and World of Outlaws. They weren’t how-to shows, but it was auto-centric programing.
According to St. Lawrence, there was a small group of those automotive shows that ran on weekends in addition to a bunch of anthology programs, and the ads were so successful that the couple decided to start a television broadcast company. They formed RTM Productions, and their first show was called “Road Test Magazine” (hence the name RTM). The first show featured Don Garlits as host of what was basically a car-review program.
|By 2011, St. Lawrence’s (right) Powerblock Show had attracted huge audiences and key sponsors, including (from left) SEMA Hall of Famer Corky Coker; Kevin King, president of Year One; and SEMA Hall of Famer Vic Edelbrock Jr.|
At one point, St. Lawrence reached out to his friend and colleague Robert Petersen. He suggested that Petersen needed a broadcast extension for his most powerful magazine, Motor Trend, and they could build it together.
“We shook hands on it,” St. Lawrence said. “He allowed me to take his proudest asset, which was Motor Trend, the brand, and take it into television.”
St. Lawrence felt that Motor Trend Television was working but wasn’t really serving the aftermarket to its full potential. St. Lawrence spoke to Petersen again, and he agreed. So they looked to Hot Rod to reach enthusiasts.
“We were very faithful to what Petersen’s publishers and editors were doing—and those shows were a success,” St. Lawrence said. “It was quite a run in producing shows. I think we produced just under 2,300 automotive shows during that 30-year period, and just under 1,000 commercials for our clients. We typically had about 100 clients a year. At one time, we had more than 10 million people watching our programming on the weekends. That’s a tremendous audience to reach. That was an unduplicated audience on Saturday and Sunday of 10 million people on Spike TV. That was the high point of it all.”
St. Lawrence also worked with SEMA and its member companies by providing production of legislative videos and the airing of SEMA public-service commercials as well as providing more than 29 years of coverage from the SEMA Show.
He sold the company to a large media group from France in 2001. He and his wife Patty worked with the group for about five years until its principals decided to return to France. The couple bought back the business with plans to expand it.
“We did that for another 10 years,” St. Lawrence said. “When I hit 70, I told my wife that it’s time to stop. So we sold the business again—this time to a larger company out of Montgomery, Alabama.