As she watched the auction unfold, Sherri Heckenast's heart was racing. She had traveled last July from Chicago to rural Kentucky with high hopes. Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway, a dirt oval track outside Paducah, was on the block. But once the bidding began, her chances looked slim.
"Going once!" called the auctioneer.
She had persuaded her wary father, a high-school dropout who had built a successful auto-parts company, to put up the money. His limit was $1.4 million. At the auction, he let the other bidders push the price to seven figures without a peep — $1.2 million . . . then $1.4 million.
Investing in a track was risky, her father had warned her. The previous owners of Kentucky Lake had gone bankrupt. Still, it was her dream. Thanks to her father, a lifelong driver in racing's minor leagues, she had been throttle-stomping since her teens, leaving boys in her dust. Recently, however, back injuries had forced her to scale back. Her father wanted her to quit, but she couldn't. "Racing's in my blood," she says. Maybe operating a track would be enough, she told him.
"One point four five."
Frank Heckenast's only bid — $1.45 million — came just in time.
True, Sherri Heckenast, who's 30, is younger than other track operators. And true, she's one of the few women running the show in a largely male-dominated sport. But what's equally impressive is her day job: CEO of the family's $30 million company. A-Reliable Auto Parts, located in Blue Island, Illinois, is one of the largest car and truck recyclers in the Midwest. It buys used cars at auction, dismantles them, and sells the parts.
Heckenast's two passions, business and racing, continually fuel each other. On the track, she speeds as fast as 150 miles per hour; off the track, she still operates at full throttle. Before buying Kentucky Lake, she put in 10-hour workdays, then headed to her uncle's race shop to work on her car. Now she drives to Kentucky every other weekend. "I've always been in my dad's shadow," she says. At the company, in the race shop, and on the track. "Kentucky Lake is about finding something that can be mine."
Sherri Heckenast practically grew up at Santa Fe Speedway outside Chicago. When she was just 5, she was using an electric wrench to help change the tires on her father's No. 99 race car. At 16, she bought a cheap 1986 Ford Mustang, stripped off the glass and chrome and painted "99" on the doors. Within a couple of years, she advanced from stock cars to late-model racing. The 800-horsepower engines are not far behind those in the big leagues, NASCAR's Nextel Cup, but the speeds are slower because the tracks are shorter and made of dirt, which has less traction than pavement.
Heckenast was the only woman in the field, but insists she wasn't intimidated. She was just another racer — with long blond hair, fresh lipstick, and a penchant for pink. Her No. 99 car is hot pink with "Bad Ass Barbie" on the hood and "U Go Girl" on the rear spoiler. In 2000, she competed in the Northern Allstars, a top late-model series in the Midwest. Using a semi, she hauled her car to a different race every week for eight months and finished second in the rookie-of-the-year points race. The only thing holding her back from a shot at the big time was her other career. Behind the wheel of No. 99 was the 25-year-old general manager of a growing company. "My dad always taught me that business comes first," she says.
She didn't plan to work at A-Reliable, much less run it. She was studying to become a court reporter when her father had quadruple-bypass surgery in 1995. She took a semester off to help out at the business and never left. To the astonishment of the almost entirely male clientele (and staff, for that matter), she knew cars inside and out. After a year, she was generating $100,000 in monthly sales, nearly double the previous high for one rep. Five days before her 23rd birthday, Frank named her general manager. Five years later, she took the wheel as CEO, freeing her father to oversee auctions and acquire other companies. "It was the same with business and racing. She earned respect," he says.
Just as she's forever tweaking the 99 car, Sherri enjoys finding ways to improve A-Reliable, modernizing a company that was proudly low tech. Employees used to remove as many reusable parts as they could find on a vehicle. Although there was little demand for most of them, they filled the warehouse. Using software, Sherri focused on the best-selling and most-profitable parts, particularly engines and transmissions. Another recent change is bar-coding, so that products are easier to locate. "I'm old school," says Frank, 48, who has yet to use email. "She's new school. She's got computers running computers. I don't know what it all is, but it works." Over the past five years, A-Reliable's annual revenue has doubled.
These days, Heckenast is trying to apply her business savvy to Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway. She longs to re-create the appeal of the old Santa Fe, with bigger purses, crowds, and sponsors. "I want to take the leap I took with A-Reliable," she says. "I've always been the kind of person who wants to do something big, or I don't want to do it." According to NASCAR, there are about 900 short tracks in North America, and many struggle to make money. Just as not all baseball fans follow the minor leagues, not all 75 million NASCAR fans follow short track.
Heckenast has some advantages, though. Kentucky Lake sits on 600 acres and is considered a miniature NASCAR-caliber speedway. The founders spent more than $5 million to build the track, which is centrally located within three hours of St. Louis, Nashville, and Louisville. Heckenast hopes to put Kentucky Lake back on the map with a race in May called The 99. The purse, to be divided among the drivers, is $99,000 — three times the typical payout. She believes the money will attract the best drivers, who will attract sponsors, fans, and TV cameras. "I'm going out on a limb and putting on a big spectacle," she says.
Chalk it up to some timeless racing advice her father once passed along: Drive your own race, not anybody else's.
Chuck Salter is a Fast Company senior writer based in Chicago.