It's a drill every gearhead can relate to: turn 18, get a credit card, order up go-fast goodies from Summit Racing, and then repeat on a monthly basis for the rest of your adult existence. By offering budget-strapped racers affordable prices on the hottest aftermarket performance hardware, few companies have done more for the hot rodding cause than Summit. For speed junkies, perusing the Summit catalog in the garage or cubicle is as routine as breathing. Considering the significant role the company plays in the enthusiast lifestyle, we took it upon ourselves to answer the question that everyone has pondered at some point. Exactly what does it take to run a veritable automotive empire, and what goes on behind the scenes at Summit?
To find out, we engaged in an enlightening conversation with Nan Gelhard of Summit. Although it's best known as a mail-order stalwart, Summit Racing started out as a humble speed shop that was operated out of a spare bedroom in the '60s. Founded by racers for racers, Summit has never lost sight of its grassroots beginnings, and is always looking for ways to give back to the hot rodding community. In addition to the company's legendary low prices, Summit actively supports and sponsors NHRA and IHRA Sportsman contingency programs. Furthermore, the company is busy expanding its own in-house brand of parts to pass even more savings on to its customers. Without a doubt, the average street machine would be a heck of a lot slower without the outstanding values Summit offers. Here's an inside peek at what it takes to make it all happen.
Birth of an Empire
As one of the best-recognized names in the entire automotive aftermarket, every enthusiast has spent lots of their hard-earned money with Summit. While it's best known for offering outstanding values on go-fast parts through a massive mail-order network, Summit's beginnings were far less elaborate. "The company was founded in Stow, Ohio, in 1968 as a one-person, part-time business by an avid drag racer who became frustrated by the lack of speed shops in Northeast Ohio. He started out by selling parts to friends, but once word got out about his great prices, the company began to expand rapidly," Nan explains. "Summit Racing opened its first store to meet this growing demand in the Akron, Ohio, area. The company remained strictly a retail operation until the early '70s, carrying parts from big names like Accel, Holley, Mallory, and Mickey Thompson. In 1972, Summit Racing placed its first ads in the back of Hot Rod and Car Craft magazines, and soon found itself taking orders from across the country. The success of those ads led to the creation of the first Summit Racing catalog, and a few years later the transformation into a mail-order company was in full swing." Today, Summit Racing produces six primary catalogs, plus tool and garage accessories catalogs. In addition, SummitRacing.com features an online catalog with the company's entire inventory. Through it all, Summit has managed to stay in touch with its retail roots, with retail locations in Tallmadge, Ohio (Summit Racing headquarters); Sparks, Nevada; and McDonough, Georgia.
"We employ the latest technology to fulfill orders quickly, but our most important asset is our people. We all have the same goal: to help our customers get the right parts as quickly and easily as possible. We keep our toll-free ordering and customer service lines open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so customers can order whenever they want. We pack our website full of technical product information, so shoppers have the info they need to make the right buying decisions. Plus, we have the industry's largest full-time technical department to provide expert advice when customers have technical questions. Once our customers place their orders, we focus on getting those parts delivered as quickly as possible. Our huge in-stock selection is a big part of the equation, because we promise to ship in-stock parts ordered before 9:00 p.m. EST the same day. We keep inventory in three different warehouses-Ohio, Nevada, and Georgia-so we can ship parts from the warehouse located closest to each customer for fastest delivery. Most orders arrive in one to two days via ground service in the contiguous 48 states, and we have express shipping available for when customers need parts even faster."
The Summit catalog is a staple of every car enthusiast. Not surprisingly, creating nearly 400 pages of goodies every two months is no small order. "With six 'big book' catalogs a year, plus the Tools and Garage Accessories catalog, and the Genuine Hotrod Hardware catalogs, it requires a mammoth effort by people from multiple groups in our company. Summit Racing has always been on the leading edge when it comes to new products, so we rely heavily on our team of merchandisers to pay attention to what is going on in the industry, watch for interesting new products, look for industry trends, and then add new products and brands accordingly," Nan explains. Compiling the catalogs is truly a team effort, as it also requires substantial cooperation from the manufacturers. "We want our print and online catalogs to include as much information as space allows, so we work closely with our manufacturers to get accurate information in a timely manner that meets our production deadlines. Members of our catalog production team are gearheads as well, so they know how to present products in the best possible way. The bottom line is that it takes a total team effort to bring a catalog from concept to our customers' mailboxes."
Since many hot rodders never actually see Summit's facilities, it's easy to lose sight of the massive scope of the company's day-to-day operations. Meeting the demands of a power-hungry public requires lots of square feet, and hundreds of dedicated employees. Summit's headquarters-in Tallmadge, Ohio-is located just down the road from where the company was founded. This setting is home to the bulk of Summit's employees, including most of the round-the-clock sales and customer service staff, the industry's largest full-time technical staff, a retail super store, and a state-of-the-art warehouse. In addition to its flagship facility in Ohio, Summit also has retail and warehouse locations in Sparks, Nevada, and McDonough, Georgia. The beauty of strategically locating multiple warehouses in different regions of the country is that Summit is able to deliver parts to most mail-order customers in about two days via standard ground shipping at a discounted flat rate. "Since we're known these days primarily as a mail-order and internet company, many people don't know about our large retail stores," says Nan. "Our retail locations in Ohio and Georgia are massive 25,000 square-foot facilities, and our Nevada store measures 11,000 square feet. These stores are packed with parts displays, and are connected to huge warehouses, so many parts are in stock and ready for immediate pick up. We've come a long way from that speed shop that was run out of a spare bedroom in 1968."
To maintain its status as an aftermarket powerhouse, Summit is always adding new parts and manufacturers to its inventory. With the diverse preferences of enthusiasts, determining which parts are in demand-and which ones would waste precious warehouse space-can be a daunting challenge. However, with a dedicated staff of in-house hot rodders, Summit has no problem staying on top of the latest industry trends, which helps the company offer the most desirable performance parts. For instance, due to their overwhelming popularity amongst the masses, Summit has recently added companies like AFR and Classic Motorsports Group to their roster. "Most Summit Racing employees are also enthusiasts, and share the same passion as our customers," says Nan. "We're constantly reading industry publications, talking to our manufacturers, and most importantly, listening to our customers. We go to shows, races, and other events to see firsthand what's happening in the industry and look for new trends and potential new product lines."
Despite the tough economic times, Summit offers a SpeedCard credit card that provides several benefits for loyal customers. "It's basically our way of helping our customers kick-start their projects. By using the SpeedCard, you can pick up the parts and tools you need to get started on a project right away, plus the incentive of up to 360 days of interest-free payments," Nan explains. "The SpeedCard has three interest-free payment options-360 days interest-free on purchases over $1,000, 180 days interest-free on purchases over $500, and 90 days interest-free on purchase over $150. There's no annual fee and it comes with 12 months of free emergency roadside assistance, which includes tire changes and jump starts."
"Within the past few months, Summit's website has been completely revamped. The most noticeable improvement is a cleaner, crisper look, but we think the most important improvement involves our online store. When people visit SummitRacing.com, they want to browse, research, or buy parts as quickly and easily as possible. To help them accomplish this, the online store features new and upgraded navigation features, including make and model, year, engine family, keyword, and part category. An easier-to-read lefthand navigation bar allows narrowing search results by attributes, such as price range, material, exact engine application, and more. In addition to in-depth product information, each individual part is displayed with suggestions for tools and installation accessories, related products, and in many cases, instruction sheets. In short, we want our customers to have all the information they need to get the job done right.
Additionally, there are many great new features outside of the online store. The Savings Central section includes all of our rebates, manufacturer specials, and Summit Buck offers. The Expert Advice section features tech articles, instruction sheets, helpful charts and guides, and interactive tech advice, which allows customers to browse common tech questions or submit a question to our technical department. The Customer Service section allows shoppers to create a shopping list for their projects, and track their orders right to their doorsteps."
Summit's house brand of parts started out small, but has rapidly expanded to include everything from carburetors to wheels, to connecting rods and cylinder heads. According to Nan, Summit's goal is to provide high-quality parts at unbeatable prices. "The reason we started our in-house brand was to give customers an even more affordable alternative to more mainstream brands without sacrificing quality," says Nan. "It's a big deal to put our name on a product, and we don't take it lightly. We use our years of experience and passion for high performance to evaluate and develop products that enthusiasts want, then sell them factory direct to pass the savings on to our customers. The bottom line is that if we wouldn't use it on our own cars, then we won't sell it or put the Summit Racing name on it."
The Professor Overdrive icon plastered throughout the Summit catalog is as recognizable to hot rodders as Mickey Mouse is to toddlers. For years, Professor Overdrive has been offering helpful tech tips ranging from carb jetting to radiator selection, in addition to answering customer questions in the catalog. Although the Professor's true identity is classified, Summit feels that educating its customers is just as important as providing great products. "The Professor, with help from his band of Summit Racing tech advisors, answers questions from enthusiasts because we feel it's important to engage our customers, and let them know we have the answers to tech questions," says Nan. "The better informed a customer is, the more likely he is to make an informed decision and get the most out of his hard-earned money. Professor Overdrive is a great representative of our extremely knowledgeable tech department, and a symbol of the expert advice we can provide. If a customer has a question, they can ask the Professor or just call our technical department."
Granted, shopping via mail order can save lots of time and money, but some people may still have reservations about whether or not a company will stand behind its products. Fortunately, Summit has a very simple policy to make sure its customers go home happy. "If a customer is not 100 percent satisfied with our products, prices, or service, we'll give them their money back-guaranteed," Nan affirms. "Customers can return any new or unused part to us within 90 days of the date it was shipped, and we'll refund the full purchase price. That's our 'Handshake Guarantee,' and there's a reason why it's printed in every catalog and displayed prominently on SummitRacing.com."
"Summit is always looking for ways to help hot rodders save money, which led to the development of our own automotive paint system designed for the DIYer. Since bodywork can eat up such a large portion of any muscle car restoration, it was very important for us to make it affordable for the average enthusiast. In many cases, materials for an entire paintjob will total around $300. Plus, it's very easy to use. The urethane primer, single-stage topcoat paint, and clearcoat mix in a simple 4:1 ratio with the activators, so the painter doesn't have to worry about multiple mix ratios. The line includes the single-stage urethane topcoat paint, urethane and epoxy primers, medium- and high-solid clearcoats, activators, reducers, surface wash, grease removers, and fish eye eliminators. In other words, everything needed for a great-looking paintjob. It's proven to be a very popular line, so we're continuing to add new colors on top of the 40 different ones already available."
One of the most talked about new products released under Summit's house brand is its new line of carburetors. Like all Summit brand products, the goal was to provide a great quality product at an affordable price. "We literally put years of research, thousands of hours of dyno testing, and thousands of miles of real-world driving into our carbs, but we finally came up with a design we are happy to put our name on. Our street/strip modular carburetors are ready to run out of the box with minimal tuning, have a lot of the top-flight features people demand from higher-end carbs, and start at just $249.95," says Nan. "They come with a lot of smart features like a one-piece design that eliminates gaskets below the fuel line for leak-free performance, clear sight glass bowls for easy tuning, color-coded vacuum ports for simple installation, and a booster cluster design with interchangeable pump discharge and idle circuit restrictions. These are all features that make the Summit carburetors a great value for the money. It's even compatible with standard Holley tuning parts which are available at Summit Racing."
Some people think of Summit primarily as a parts distributor, but the company also has a full R&D facility complete with dynos and flowbenches to assist in the product development process. "Now that we offer products ranging from cylinder heads to rocker arms under our house brand, we use our chassis and engine dyno extensively-along with the flowbench-to test for performance and reliability. That's only part of the equation, as we also conduct lots of real-world endurance testing on our products," explains Nan. "For example, we put a lot of real-world mileage into testing our carbs before we deemed it worthy of having the Summit Racing name on it. It's also important to mention that we really do pay attention to what our customers say. The volume of feedback we get is one of the advantages of talking to so many customers on a daily basis. If there are suggestions that will make a product better, we work closely with our R&D department to make it happen."
Low prices, fast shipping, and an excellent assortment of products is Summit's claim to fame, but it's not content to stop there. At any given time, Summit Bucks can be earned on thousands of different items. It's as easy as flipping through the catalog, or clicking on the "Savings Central" tab on the company's website. "They work like gift certificates, and arrive in the mail about 10 days after a qualifying purchase is made. When you purchase certain promotional items, you can earn anywhere from $10-$50 Summit Bucks," Nan explains. "For instance, if we're offering a $15 Summit Bucks award on a set of MSD plug wires, then you can redeem them to get $15 off of your next order. This can be done over the phone, through the mail, on our online store, or in person at one of our retail locations."
"We're always adding new products and new brands to our lineup, and enthusiasts can expect us to remain on the leading edge when it comes to the latest products. We'll also continue to add Summit Brand products as an even more affordable alternative for value-conscious customers. You can also look for us to further develop our Powersports line for ATVs, UTVs, and dirt bikes, and we'll continue to improve our line of replacement parts for everyday maintenance and repair needs. In the meantime, we've taken on sponsorship of the Summit Racing Equipment Show Car Series, which consists of autoramas and World of Wheels shows across the country. The series is a great way to support street performance enthusiasts, which is another major segment of our hobby. As always, we'll continue to look for other ways to the support high-performance enthusiasts and the hobby they love."