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."