Desert Heat

Jul 23, 2012

In 2006, Newly Tolf already had a wrench in hand, be it an altogether different one than he wields today.

Back then, Tolf was laboring alongside drillers and various roughnecks, working on pipelines in the Colorado oilfields. As a side gig, he’d wrench on diesel trucks and dabble in diesel performance installs. Over time, though, the side gig and the allure of a change of pace and more time with his growing family overtook his lucrative day job.

“The side business kept growing and I was getting busier and busier, to the point I had to choose one job or the other,” he says. “After speaking with my wife, we decided to relocate to a larger city and open a diesel shop.”

After first looking close to home in Denver, then to a host of other Southwestern cities stretching from Albuquerque to Phoenix and across to Southern California, Tolf and his wife found a relative scarcity of diesel performance or repair shops in a somewhat unlikely place: Las Vegas.

“I knew we were taking a huge gamble opening a new shop in a city that had one of the worst economies, but it was something I was willing to try,” he says. “We had a great friend, Mike Meyer, who was in Las Vegas and I knew he was a perfect candidate for a manager because he was college-educated, good with people, had common sense and was into diesels as much as I was.”

Tolf and his wife, Jessica Musick, and their first child, Colin, who was 1-year-old at the time of the move, spent the next few weeks living in a hotel while house hunting. They then set about touring close to 30 commercial spaces before settling into a 4,000-square-foot shop space on West Post Road, nestled in between Highway 15/Las Vegas Freeway and South Las Vegas Boulevard.

“We opened Underground Diesel Performance on March 1, 2011, and we’ve been busy ever since,” Tolf says, noting that his parents, Myron and Louise Tolf, provided support and inspiration during those early days.

“The first six months were hard and at times we barely had enough money in our account to pay employees and bills,” he says. “It was in November-when everyone local kept telling us we would be slow through the winter months-when we exploded. We didn’t know how to handle the overload with trucks. All through the winter we had 25 trucks stacked up, waiting to get work done. It has not slowed down since November.”

Despite the ominous signs lingering in the local economy-high unemployment and depressed real estate and, thus, equity and wealth-locating near Las Vegas’ notorious draw of out-of-state visitors and proximity to iconic off-road markets proved a masterstroke on Tolf’s part.

“We get a lot of customers who come to Vegas for the weekend and drop their trucks off with us to get upgrades while they gamble, swim and vacation,” he says. “And the sand dunes are not far from here and a lot of people pull their sand cars to Dumont with their diesels. People pull their fifth wheels here from all over the country and even Canada. This city is running 24/7 and because of this we always have repair work.”

With a dedication to great customer service and nationally competitive pricing, the Underground Diesel Performance shop is usually filled to capacity, often with out-of-state vehicles.

“What’s helped us evolve is quality work, being great with customers and being fair on price,” he notes. “This is what we are known for and what we plan to keep going by.”

Diesel Performance & Repair Specialists

While moving to Las Vegas, Underground Diesel Performance had three large jobs going in Colorado. Those customers allowed Tolf to complete the projects in his new Nevada shop, while simultaneously readying the business for new customers.

“If it weren’t for this, I don’t know if we would have made it through,” he says. “The first six months are always the hardest, as we had insurance to set up, permits to pay for, business licenses, payroll to set up, workers’ comp. It was hard.”

Now, just more than a year into business, Underground Diesel Performance has quickly garnered a reputation as a go-to shop for diesel repair and performance installs in the Las Vegas area, says Tolf.

The shop sells and installs tuners, exhaust systems, intakes, full engine and transmission builds, turbo and twin-turbo kits, and does suspension work, custom fabrication, cage installs and performs in-house custom EFI live-tuning for GM and Cummins engines.

“Most other shops sub-out their tuning, which brings the quality level down,” he says. “Having the truck here and being able to tune, hands-on, is a big advantage for us and the customer.”

And if that isn’t enough to keep customers pouring in, Underground Diesel Performance also rolls out fifth wheel system installs, Pacbrakes, water methanol injection and nitrous installs, and towing and racing packages for performance-oriented customers.

“Our best-selling parts are tuners and exhaust for mileage,” he says. “We sell a lot of the H&S packages for the 6.7-liter Dodge and we do a ton of our own custom tunes using the EFI live software. Most people want mileage (gains) these days.”

Whether the job is performance, repair or regular maintenance, Tolf’s service philosophy relies on thorough and effective communication with customers.

“While doing the job, we stay in touch with the customer,” he notes, suggesting that communication throughout the process is vital to making customers happy and keeping them that way.

“If the customer’s truck needs other parts, we always call them and recommend it to them rather than just performing the repair with no authorization. When the truck is complete we test-drive it a few times, go over all the fluids and make sure the truck is 100-percent ready. Then the call is made to the customer.”

While Tolf insists the shop doesn’t specialize in any of the three major diesel truck brands, he notes that injector jobs on Cummins and GM are among the most common, as well as a large number of Ford 6.0-liter head gaskets, head studs, HPOPs and turbo system installs.

High-Profile, High-Dollar

While it’s the daily local customer projects that keep the lights on, Tolf says he’s also especially proud of a showcase project shop truck the crew recently completed.

For the project, the team started with a 2004 Duramax diesel. With participation from everyone in the shop, they built the motor and transmission from the ground up and performed the TCM/ECM tuning in-house.

When all was said and done, the vehicle specs read like a who’s-who of the diesel performance market, says Tolf:

“We did s475/s510 twin turbos, twin Industrial Injection 85-percent-over fuel pumps with ATS twin CP3 kit, Industrial Injection injectors, Billet Cam, MAHLE cut and coated pistons, Crower rods, SoCal Stage 2 heads, SoCal injector hold downs, ATS manifolds/up-pipes, ATS head studs, ARP main studs, Industrial Injection Gorilla Girdle and balanced with a SoCal dampener.

“The transmission has a PPE high stall converter, ATS clutches and steels, ATS billet shafts, ATS co-pilot and ATS deep pan,” he adds, noting that the final product creates over 1,200 hp and has a best time of 10.50 seconds at 138 mph in the quarter-mile.

Like all of Underground Diesel Performance’s shop trucks, the vehicle was wrapped with logos and messaging about the shop, helping to increase exposure among local residents, especially when it’s racing at the local track.

Those rolling advertisements, in combination with support of local car clubs and car shows, have given the young company an outsized presence on the Vegas diesel scene.

In the end, though, “the best advertising is word of mouth due to quality work,” says Tolf. “And we always focus on taking care of locals first.”

While locals are the primary source of revenue, the company has seen a brisk sale of parts nationally through its online distribution network, he says. That effort has the added benefit of allowing the company to constantly compare its pricing to those of other shops and manufacturers around the country.

“Were very competitive with pricing,” he says, noting he offers a price-beat guarantee to customers. “We are always checking the prices across the country.”

High Standards Throughout

In order to maintain a large offering of products and quick turnaround times-in addition to the meticulous builds and repair work-Tolf says having a quality staff of six that is dedicated to the shop’s success is vital.

To be sure the right members are on the team, Tolf personally interviews potential employees and screens all resumes and applications. This hands-on approach has helped him build a group of employees that allows him the flexibility to grow in a way that matches the company’s goals.

“I meet with them in person and try to get a feel for who they are,” he says of the hiring process. “We go over what I expect of them and what I need from them, and we have good luck with employees because of this.

“I want quality guys who do quality work and will go to great lengths to make sure this happens,” he continues, noting that he recently flew the company’s Ford mechanic to Vegas from New York City to be sure everything was on the up-and-up before committing to hiring him.

For the effort, Tolf found another great mechanic and the company continues to grow rapidly.

Underground Diesel Performance recently agreed to expand into an adjacent shop, which will grow the overall size of the shop from 4,000 square feet to about 6,000 square feet in coming months.

“A bigger shop means bigger bills and more employees,” he says. “Doing this and staying successful will be our biggest challenge.”

To help in that effort, Tolf continues to build strong relationships with local truck dealerships, including Henderson Chevrolet, Gaudin Ford and Chapman Dodge.

“They give us great pricing and keep a lot of the parts we need in stock,” he says. “Because of this we can keep our customers happy by completing a job on time and under budget.”

Looking to the Future

Tolf is thrilled with how Underground Diesel Performance has established itself in the local market and has grown notably in the first 15 months in business. Despite that success, all eyes are firmly focused on the future.

“We have a lot going on right now and the future will be awesome,” he says.

The company continues to expand its capacity, with the recent addition of another 12,000-pound lift. It also recently introduced its own line of branded parts, including billet oil caps for Dodge and GM diesels as well as billet fuel rail plugs, air intake heater deletes, tie rod sleeves and billet fuel filter housing bleeder screws.

“Our best seller (among its own line) is a billet fuel filter adapter for the Duramax that allows a 2-micron CAT fuel filter to be fitted to the stock filter housing,” he notes. “This allows for longer injector life, since the OE unit filters 6 to 8 microns, which doesn’t catch as much debris as the 2-micron CAT filter.”

Tolf says manufacturing its own line of products will establish Underground Diesel Performance as a higher-caliber brand in the minds of customers.

“I believe (having our own line) shows we have pride in what we do, since we’re willing to take the time to design something rather than just always buy someone else’s product,” he says.

Also on deck for coming years is a planned partnership with Dieselmotorsports.us to “host a huge yearly diesel event here in Las Vegas,” says Tolf.