It’s not coincidental that several of the most successful IMSA racers are successful car dealers and vice versa.
The two largest U.S. dealer groups, Penske Auto and AutoNation, both won their respective IMSA championships in 2019 and 2020.
Ferrari of Houston’s Giuseppe Risi has multiple wins at Sebring, Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans. The Canadian Pfaff team has a long and storied record of success, and there are more.
On the eve of the 2021 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, Michelin interviewed three of the most successful current IMSA car dealers, Ben Keating, Paul Miller, and Bobby Rahal. Here is Part 1 of the series.
What came first? The dealership, or your racing?
Paul Miller: “You know it’s kind of an interesting story. I got into the business in 1976, 45 years ago. And the reason I did is because I was racing. And I was racing a Corvette, then a Camaro. I was getting beaten by Porsches regularly!
“And so, I decided I had to have a Porsche dealership. It did not take long to figure out the guys were really successful at the time were Mike Kaiser, Peter Gregg and people like that. They were just dominating sports car racing. It was pretty obvious that all of them had some kind of factory affiliation or dealership.
“There was a dealership in our area; I was a newspaper publisher at the time. And a dealership was literally in bankruptcy. So, racing had a lot more to do with me getting involved in the car business than anything else!”
Bobby Rahal: “I worked at a Mercedes-Benz and BMW dealership during college years, the back half. My father raced. So, I was up to my neck in it as a kid. Frankly, I probably would have gone into the car business had car racing not worked out!
“Then of course when racing did work out, you think, ‘What are you going to do the second half of your life?’ You aren’t going to race forever.
“It seemed like a natural given my previous, pre-racing experiences in the automobile business and then with my father. It would make a lot of sense to parlay what I did in racing into the car business. I met people; the first was our Honda store.
“The genesis of that came after I won Indy (in 1986); we met with the Honda people. So, there was no question the success I had in racing did a lot to give us a leg up in discussions with manufacturers.
“At some point you have a story to tell as a business, as a dealership business. You don’t rely on the racing so much anymore. But clearly racing came first.”
Ben Keating: “I’m a third-generation car dealer. I actually went to Texas A&M to study engineering because I wanted nothing to do with the car business! I thought working in a dealership meant parking cars in straight lines, washing them, and picking up the trash because that is what I did in high school.
“But I fell in love with the dealership business when I was doing an internship at an underperforming dealer. I acquired my first dealership in March 2002, an underperforming Ford dealer in Port Lavaca, Texas.
“My first racing experience was when my wife gave me a racing school in 2005 at Texas World Speedway in College Station. I took a Viper off the showroom floor and it was the most fun I had ever had!
“I did some quick math and figured it was cheaper to buy a race car than to modify an existing production car. So, I put a Viper race car in used car inventory at the dealership. The first year was a lot of trial and error. I made a lot of errors, then became more successful. Getting in racing has been because of the car business.”
Fans may be familiar with your racing success and championships, but not your dealership success. How many dealerships do you have now?
PM: “We have 10 stores (all in New Jersey) with 12 brands. We are selling 22-23K cars a year in total. But we have brands from Rolls Royce and Bentley to Volkswagen, Subaru, and Honda.
“It is a broad spectrum. It’s not all high-line, boutique-y type brands.”
BR: “We have 18 franchises (all in Pennsylvania) in 12 rooftops. When we started in ’89, I thought we’d be a one-trick pony with one little Honda dealer and that’d be it! Here we are, 32 years later.”
BK: “Today we have 20 dealerships, all in Texas, and I think there is strength in being that size.”