2018 SEMA Hall of Fame
Donnie Eatherly, Ed Pink and Chris Thomson
Success looks different for everyone—and that is certainly true for this year’s SEMA Hall of Fame inductees. Donnie Eatherly, Ed Pink and Chris Thomson have distinct backgrounds, aptitudes and professional paths, but they have each built a flourishing career doing something that makes them happy.
Their stories have a few common themes. They all discovered the automotive specialty-equipment market early in life, were charmed by motorsports, and spent their entire careers in the industry. And they all made it to where they are now through hard work, creativity and a little help from their friends. Acknowledging that, they’ve each invested their time and talents to give others the same chance at success. In doing so, they’ve shaped their segments of the industry for the better.
The SEMA Hall of Fame was established in 1969 to honor individuals whose efforts were key to the success of the specialty-equipment market or the association itself. The award is considered the aftermarket industry’s highest honor and has been bestowed upon dozens of men and women in all facets of the automotive realm. The class of 2018 will be officially welcomed into the Hall of Fame at the Installation & Gala, July 20, and they will also be honored at the Industry Awards Banquet during the SEMA Show. The following profiles give a brief glimpse of each man’s achievements and influence.
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.)
Establishing Race-Winning Standards
By Tony Thacker, Courtesy of American Hot Rod Foundation
There is a good reason Ed Pink is known as The Old Master: The man’s command over automotive engineering is legendary and in a league of its own. Engines and high performance have been in his blood right from the start. He didn’t have his first car 24 hours before he had the engine out and apart.
When he was about 16, Pink met Lou Baney. They became instant friends, and Pink eventually went to work for Baney after school during the week and on Saturdays. At the time, Baney had a Golden Eagle gas station, a garage and a speed shop called Hot Rod Heaven. Pink was Baney’s only employee, and he did whatever Baney said; after all, he was on a huge learning curve.
A lot of the legends of hot rodding such as Ed Iskenderian were there bench racing on Saturdays. Pink was also a member of the Russetta Coupes Club that raced at El Mirage Dry Lake, and he got to be fast friends with Fran Hernandez, Bobby Meeks and Don Towle, who all worked at Edelbrock, and also with Vic Edelbrock himself. He had the best in mentors and teachers anybody could ever want, and they became lifelong friends.
At the time, Pink was working only part time for Baney and most of the time for his dad in his paint store. The Korean War was on, and Pink was drafted into the Army. He ended up in the 25th Infantry Division in Korea.
“Afterward, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Pink said. “I went to work as a mechanic for Louie Senter at Ansen Engineering. Then my friend Jack Landrum and I decided to open a little garage and Richfield gas station in 1954. We called it Pinkland—a combination of Pink and Landrum. Jack helped me run a ’34 Coupe at El Mirage, but the partnership just wasn’t successful. Neither one of us had any business experience, but it was something we tried together, and it didn’t work. We remained friends until the day Jack died.”
After Pinkland, Pink went to work for Frank Baron of Tattersfield-Baron fame, but he knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do, so he opened another Richfield station and garage. He soon realized that repairing stockers was not what he wanted to do either, so he moved on to Eddie Meyer Engineering.
“Eddie also had a repair business,” Pink said. “Most of his customers were movie people, and I was his mechanic for whatever he needed done. I learned a lot working there. My mentor there was Eddie’s son Bud, another great learning curve and great friend.”
Again, Pink knew that, as good as the job was at Eddie Meyer Engineering, it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his career, so in 1961, upon an invitation from Tony Nancy, he opened his own shop in Nancy’s Sherman Oaks complex. In addition to Nancy’s upholstery shop, the complex housed Kent Fuller’s chassis shop as well as metal shaper and body builder Wayne Ewing, who shaped A.J. Watson’s Champ Cars and the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster.
Pink couldn’t have found a better home. Initially doing some ignition and cylinder-head work, Pink found himself in the middle of drag city, and his customers included Nancy, “Big John” Mazmanian and “TV Tommy” Ivo, to name but a few.
His main concept was that you first have to make the engine live, and then you make it run faster. His whole outlook was preparation. That was one of the lessons learned from Bobby Meeks that he follows today.
Pink’s attention to detail brought him to the attention of racers beyond the quarter mile. That sport was changing, and drag racers were starting to build their own engines. They only needed Ed for advice, and that was hard to charge for. However, a call came from Bill Eaton at Vel’s Parnelli Jones to say that they were converting a DFV Formula 1 engine to run Indy, and they asked Pink to do some special machine work on some connecting rods for them. He said yes, and that started another great relationship.
After word began to spread about Pink’s talents, Cosworth Engineering asked him to perform similar work for its IndyCar engine program, including building its DFX engines. At the peak of that period, Pink was building engines for half a dozen IndyCar teams, including Tom Sneva’s, which won the 1983 Indy 500. He also did engines for Arie Luyendyk and Tim Richmond, who won rookie of the year honors in their respective years. That kept him busy until the late ’80s, when engine building again shifted in-house.
Where next? Well, why not the 24 Hours of Daytona? Old friend Jim Busby was racing 962 turbo Porsches and wanted Pink to take over his Porsche engine program. Pink agreed, and that was the start of another very successful program.
Busby’s Porsches became the fastest in the field and the ones to beat. Pontiac contacted Pink and wanted him to take over its GTP Sport Car racing-engine program, which featured an all-aluminum five-liter V8 to be raced in a Spice GTP car built in England, and that led to a Trans Am program for Pontiac.
Pink helped develop the Turbo Buick V6 engine for Indy and was the head of the design team for Nissan’s Infinity V8 engine for Indy. He was also heavily involved in midget racing with four-cylinder engines for Ford and Toyota that won a combined 10 USAC National Midget Series championships, and the Ford Silver Crown V8 that won four titles in the USAC National Silver Crown Series—all four in a row.
It was a Nissan Indy engine that gave Pink the toughest time. The cylinder block was 80% developed, and some cylinder heads were somewhat finished. But that was it. Pink had to design the rods, pistons, dry-sump oil pump, and every component to make a complete engine. Turns out, they didn’t have the necessary budget to do the project right. In spite of that, the team did win a race and were in contention at a few others.
“I learned a lot, so it wasn’t all bad,” Pink said. “The biggest thing I learned was what you can do when you don’t know you can’t do it.”
Of all the projects over the years, Pink was the proudest of the Toyota Midget engine.
“All TRD had was a cylinder head and a valve cover, and we designed the complete engine,” Pink said. “The first time out at the one-mile Copper Classic in Phoenix in 2006, it set quick time and won the race with Dave Steel driving. To this day, the Toyota engine is the one to have, as it wins most of the races, plus all of the championship teams are Toyota powered. I’m very proud of that.”
Pink learned a lot over the years doing what he loved. He achieved what he did because he listened and learned and applied what he learned. While he’s won many awards and been inducted into numerous halls of fame, Pink said that his key was to keep focusing on the project in front of him.
“Retirement” is a loose term for Pink, who sold Ed Pink Racing Engines in 2008. He has remained involved in the industry with projects such as donating engines for auction to benefit the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund. Today, he still keeps busy at Ed Pink’s Garage in Newbury Park, California, where he and longtime friend Bob Brandt are involved with some very interesting projects.
Dedicated Mentor and Association Ambassador
A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Chris Thomson’s first introduction to racing was at age nine, when he began to hang around a speed shop owned by a schoolmate’s parents, Everett and Thelma Goosic. From his home, Thomson could hear when they’d fire up a car. He’d jump on his bike and pedal over as fast as he could to watch the tuning. The first time he was invited to join the Goosics at a race, he was hooked, and the same family gave Thomson his first job as a teenager, working in their warehouse at Arizona Performance Equipment.
Thomson later worked at Service Center Speed Shop in Sheldon Konblett’s chain. The store he managed had a parking lot with enough space to host weekly car shows. The shop sponsored a few local drag racers, who would park in front of the shop on off weekends. Thomson’s knack for marketing became evident as the little shows drew crowds, and the neighboring businesses were also thrilled with the foot traffic.
Thomson later went on to open his own speed shop, Performance Plus. He was in business for eight years, during which he made many industry connections whom he still values today.
“I loved dealing with the consumers,” Thomson reflected. “No matter where I was, the consumers were fun. You're always involved in everybody's project. They're always excited about what they're doing. You get to build a lot of cars without spending a lot of your own money.”
After closing Performance Plus, Thomson transitioned to the manufacturing side of the industry, working for Mr. Gasket Exhaust.
“It turned out that my background in the retail side really helped a lot when it came to product development, product ideas and marketing,” he said. “So I moved from administrative assistant to a product manager for the exhaust division and eventually became the marketing manager. And I enjoyed that immensely.”
When the company was bought, Thomson became one of the first employees at FlowTech Exhaust, which was founded by another Mr. Gasket alumnus, Gary Biggs. Biggs quickly became a mentor to Thomson, making sure he was involved in the management of the company.
Thomson navigated several acquisitions throughout his career, as he held sales positions at Holley when it bought FlowTech, and at Airaid when it was acquired by K&N. Eventually, Thomson took a similar position with Baer Brake Systems, and he has recently become national account manager for TMG Performance Products.
In each season of his career, Thomson can identify one or two individuals who invested in him and the lessons they taught him. The person he credits most for encouraging his SEMA involvement was John Menzler. The two first met when Menzler was a sales rep for Thomson at Performance Plus, and it was later Menzler who nominated Thomson for the Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council (MPMC) select committee.
Thomson served three consecutive terms on the committee and contributed to the development of industry resources such as the MPMC Business Guidelines Manual, which outlines best practices for managing a successful manufacturing operation. He was also instrumental in establishing the MPMC Hall of Fame.
Each of the projects Thomson worked on prepared him for his six years of later service on the SEMA Board of Directors. He has been a leader in numerous SEMA committees and special task forces, contributed to panel discussions for SEMA Town Hall meetings, and been honored with awards from several councils and networks. He champions legislative efforts related to the specialty-equipment market and supports the SEMA Political Action Committee.
“There were a lot of people who opened doors for me along the way, and that's probably one of the reasons why I wanted to serve SEMA—because people paid it forward to me,” he said.
Apart from SEMA service, Thomson is known as a mentor to young professionals. He’s earned a reputation as a facilitator of collaboration among industry members. He is also a longtime advocate of the Custom Automotive Network and was twice recognized as its Person of the Year.
A great day for Thomson is one he gets to spend at the drag strip. Not only is the excitement of the racing a blast, but it’s also about camaraderie and community—accomplishing something with people you enjoy, win or lose, Thomson said. He has owned several racecars over the years, and he enjoys tuning them for his drivers. His first was an NHRA Competition Eliminator C/Dragster that established the NHRA record for the class. Today, he owns a nostalgia blown alcohol-altered car.
Reflecting on his career, what stands out to Thomson is that he found success doing something he loved.
“I never had to work for a living,” he said. “I had a career that I enjoyed—it was never a job. I sell things that people don't need. How about that? I’m in a multi-billion-dollar industry, and nobody needs a thing we do.”
When he received the phone call about his SEMA Hall of Fame induction, Thomson said he was speechless.
“The true joy of the moment came when I called my wife Kathie,” he recalled. “She and my daughters, Kristin and Emily, have always been my greatest supporters and fans. I look at the Hall of Fame list, and I'm blown away. I have some friends who are on there. I just pinch myself because I can't see my name next to them at the same level.”