For Mike Julson, some of the most vivid memories of childhood consist of endless hours spent playing under the hot desert sun of Ocotillo, Calif., just east of San Diego. It was in this rolling, sand dune-spotted desert that Julson and his father built and tested their first off-road vehicles together.
Mike’s father, Jim Julson, was an engineer at a nearby naval station and he made sure his son’s childhood was populated with countless memories of family hiking and biking trips, and days filled with time spent together tinkering with recreational toys of one type or another.
On one such trip the elder Julson, inspired by other desert recreationists, made a fateful decision to take the family’s fun to the next level and set about building his first desert buggy, with a young Mike along for every turn of the wrench.
“Our family, like a lot of families in the business, was made up of desert recreation people,” says Julson. “That’s our roots.”
It wasn’t long before those roots in the off-road community would grow even deeper, with the Julsons competing in races with the family buggy. From those humble beginnings, the family’s legacy in off-road racing-among the best-known in the sport-began.
“In those days, it was really more about us going racing and spending that time together, as opposed to being focused on the business side,” says Julson.
But it wasn’t long until other racers began inquiring about the family’s vehicles, the first being a Class 9, 1,200cc single-seater that quickly attracted a passionate following with local drivers. When Jim retired from civil service, it was a no-brainer to turn what had become known as Jimco Racing into a full-time operation.
Throughout the 1980s, the father-and-son team raced and sold their innovative vehicles, experiencing success in both areas until the elder Julson’s retirement in 1989, placing the business at a crucial juncture.
Should the family passion and emerging business fade away with the father’s waning involvement? Or should the younger Julson continue on and chart his own course?
For Mike, the decision was simple.
The Creation of a Legend
“At that point, I realized that I really needed to make a living doing this,” he says. “I was always racing, but when my father retired, that’s when I put more of a business hat on. That’s what really got the thing cooking.”
And cook it did. With a growing family of drivers came talented fabricators, and Jimco capitalized by continuing to innovate with its race-proven chassis. In 1992, Score International presented Jimco Racing with its first Score Chassis Builder of the Year Award.
Two years later, Julson was among the first in the off-road industry to see the potential in front A-arm suspension systems, introducing the first production chassis with the new technology. The vehicles had an immediate impact on the sport, and race teams that used the new technology cleaned up.
“We won everything in 1995 with these new vehicles, and that’s when the lid really came off for us as a business,” says Julson.
As the wins and new clients began to arrive, Julson felt an ever greater pressure to innovate, resulting in the Jimco 2000. With more upright seating, advanced steering and suspension improvements and a stylish fiberglass body, the vehicles quickly became the darling of the off-road racing community.
Over the next four years, the company’s vehicles scored a number of major wins, culminating in one major year that saw Julson and his driving partner, Bob Lofton, set a record in Class One with six victories including the famed Baja 1000.
With a growing reputation, Jimco Racing soon made the leap to building full turnkey vehicles, which Julson considers one of the most significant decisions for the company throughout its history.
In the years to come, these turnkey vehicles-as well as a wildly successful foray into the world of Trophy Trucks-have kept the Jimco Racing name at the forefront in off-road racing.
A Family Foundation
For Mike Julson, Jimco’s long and impressive track record of success both on the race course and in business can arguably be boiled down to two words: passion and family.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to have been born into this community, and I work hard to deserve that,” says Julson. “I don’t know a lot about a lot of different things, but I know a lot about off road racing. I’ve spent the night out in a car, broken down. I’ve spent long nights grinding it out in the shop. And I do those things because this community, it’s my family. I’ve developed these relationships for three generations now. We absolutely live it and breathe it. It’s our life.”
With that dedication to the sport and the lifestyle, it’s no wonder that Jimco Racing attracts some of the most talented fabricators in the business. But what keeps those talented people on the staff year after year, says Julson, is the family nature that remains in the company offices today.
“When it comes to our employees, I’ve obviously been very fortunate to have some of the most talented people around,” he says. “I’ve got a number of guys who’ve worked for me for over 10 years, and I think that’s a great example of what we’re trying to create here. Make no mistake, it’s a business and we treat it as such, but when you work here you get treated right: health insurance, vacation, paid holidays. We’re here at 7 a.m., and we run it like a business. But if you do your job and work hard, you’ll get paid good money.”
Julson says these high standards aren’t just a good philosophy, but are also required practice in the eyes of the affluent customers that Jimco Racing serves. By creating a culture in the shop where high-quality work is demanded and rewarded, the company is able to win and keep customers.
“When you spend a minimum of $100,000 to go racing, it results in a very specific type of customer. Most of our customers own their own companies,” says Julson. “These people have high standards and you have to work hard to meet them. If you do, though, you’ll have a customer for life because they respect that. We’ve worked hard to build a reputation for doing what we say we’re going to do, for the amount of money we quoted, and that has really helped us root the Jimco name into the core of the sport.”
It also has helped the company to experience consistent growth over the years. In 2005, Jimco moved into a new 16,000-square-foot shop and race prep facility. The staff, always the heart of the organization, has grown to employ 10 full-time fabricators, three preparation and finish mechanics, an office manager and a full-time parts manager.
Innovating for the Future
Even with a high-end clientele and a sterling reputation in racing and fabricating, Jimco hasn’t been immune to the weakening economy in recent years.
“Since this recession came into play, it has definitely changed things. Today, if you aren’t innovating you won’t survive,” he says. “You can’t just hand someone a price sheet and close the deal, and the days of people not even asking about the cost are over. Even the days of a constant backlog of orders are over, for the most part, and I don’t know that it will ever be the same again.”
To meet this new reality, Jimco Racing (www.jimcorace.com) is doing what it always has done to survive-and thrive-in the off-road racing business: adapting.
Since introducing its first Trophy Truck in 2005, the company has worked diligently to again earn a reputation as being among the best in an elite field, and with great success. In 2009, it moved into the closely related short-course racing arena as well.
“When we first made the move into Trophy Trucks, a lot of the people in that business were saying that we didn’t belong in that industry; that we we’re just buggy builders,” he says. “But I think we’re in the process right now of turning out the finest and most competitive Trophy Truck that has ever been built. We’ve had setbacks that have been difficult for me to swallow-even some poor decisions on our part-but the trucks are winning now and doing so consistently.”
Much like he did in the 1990s with A-arm front suspensions, Julson hopes that new Jimco Racing innovations regarding overall vehicle weight might permanently change the paradigm for truck racers.
“Now we’ve won three of the last four major off-road races, and we’re gaining speed,” he says. “We will continue to take a lot of the weight out of these trucks. We invested a lot of time in this, and we believe it will be the next big thing in truck racing.”
This constant dedication to innovation is what Julson says will keep his company at the forefront of an incredibly competitive industry.
“There are many secondhand trucks on the market for cents on the dollar,” he says. “If you’re not innovating, there is no reason for people to buy a new truck for $400,000 when they can pick up a truck with a season or two of driving on it for half that price. But if these new trucks go out and win consistently, you’ve got a compelling argument for people to continue to buy the cutting-edge products.”
With both cars and trucks on courses around the world and a well-earned reputation for winning, other new opportunities abound for the company. Over the years, Jimco Racing has become a go-to provider of race support vehicles and crews for racers, creating an additional revenue stream.
Additionally, the company’s branded parts have become equally profitable. In the next six months, the company plans to release a substantial new parts catalog and an accompanying advertising campaign to boost awareness of Jimco Racing parts.
While successful, Julson is quick to point out that he struggles with business challenges just as much as a new shop that might just be starting out. For him, some of those struggles come with the explosion of manufacturing technology in recent years.
“For me, the biggest challenges relate directly to technology,” he says. “I’m 55 years old, and when I started out building chassis I would literally put a seat on a table and then physically build a frame around it. Today, everything is created on software, so if you’re not there from a technology standpoint, you’re out to lunch.”
Through the years of successes-and a good many failures-”Julson still loves what he does with a passion that is increasingly rare today. He chalks that up to two factors:
“First, one of the things that keep me going is that I don’t have any misconceptions that this couldn’t all end tomorrow,” he says. “I know that with a sign of a pen, some senator could outlaw racing in this country.
“And secondly, I’ve developed lifelong friends in this business, both here at the shop and out racing,” he adds. “I have personal relationships with many of my clients. It’s business, but it’s also so much more than that today. And here at the shop, I know that at the end of the day I have a great group of people here, many of whom have families of their own. I’m really proud of being able to provide for them as well.”
It’s the path to off-road success, family-style.