Larry Larson doesn’t know only about engines, racing and winning-”he also knows how to build a race car business and then expand upon it.
Larson Race Cars in Oak Grove, Mo., is Larson’s original enterprise-”the doors have been wide open since 1997. But most recently Larson launched LRCRaceParts.com, an online store to complement his shop.
The mix works and Larson comes by his businesses passionately.
“The chassis shop (Larson Race Cars) does primarily Pro Mod and Pro Stock-style race cars, but is also involved with some of the smaller heads-up cars as well,” says Larson. “The majority of everything we do is 5-, 6-, 7- and 8-second cars. I got into this because I was a mechanic for 11 years and then went to work for a chassis shop in Topeka. I worked there for three years and then that shop closed and I picked up some of his customer base and started Larson Race Cars in 1997. I’ve always been into cars. I raced motocross in my 20s, and in the mid-late 1980s I got back into the car side of things.”
Then, just recently, came the online business.
“In late 2009 we developed a website,” he says. “We offer people not just parts, but package options. A lot of people offer parts, but we’re trying to offer some package options.”
Calling the site a “work in progress,” Larson believes he’s hit on a business model that will continue to strengthen and grow.
“We’re an authorized Ford Racing distributor,” he adds. “We’ve built three cars for one of our customers and supplied engine and transmission packages complete with EFI controls. We offer high-end packages so that the consumers can buy one thing as a complete kit and not have to go out and pick through everything themselves. They can buy a fuel system or an engine and put it in and know it’s right when it’s done.
“We don’t know of anyone doing the packages,” he continues. “It’s an area no one seemed to be looking at. For example, a dragster has a 5.4 modular in it and it’s a crate motor-”so we can furnish a customer with a brand-new engine along with an engine management system.”
It’s a plan that others believe will take off.
“Where Larry can hang his hat versus the competition is his experience and the guys on the phone,” notes Jesse Powell of fuel products manufacturer Aeromotive. “It’s not just a take-an-order deal. They can actually put together entire systems for you, ensuring perfectly matched components from multiple manufacturers, due to their extensive experience with drag racing and street performance. These guys are the real deal, and it’s served them very well to start.”
Larson Race Cars prefers to find customers the old-fashioned way-”through a solid reputation for offering quality, service and speed.
“It takes a while to build a presence on the Internet,” says Larson. “Like anything online, it takes awhile for Google to start bringing ‘Larson’ up. But with Larson Race Cars, most of our business comes from word-of-mouth over the years. Our reputation, plus some advertising we did in the Kansas City area, has us with customers in Arizona, Maryland, Texas and California. We’re pretty spread out across the country.
“We’ve also had some overseas calls,” he adds. “We haven’t done anything yet, but I think that’s going to happen.”
It’s certainly happening on the track. Larson recently won Hot Rod’s Drag Week, running 6.95 seconds at 209 mph in his own street car. It was the third straight victory for Larson, who has stormed into the Drag Week record books as the first to exceed 200 mph and first into the 6-second range.
“My personal car started as just something for me to do and enjoy when I wasn’t working or helping other customers. But as things progressed and Drag Week evolved, what once was just enjoyment has brought the shop work also by showcasing what can be done with the proper combinations of power, drive-ability and durability,” he says.
Larson works his race car magic in a modest but robust shop that is family-run. He also notes that a smaller workforce requires everyone at Larson Race Cars to act as a bit of a “jack of all trades.”
“We’re a 4,000-square-foot shop,” he says. “It’s me and three full-time employees, and my wife works here part-time. In a small shop like this, you’ve got to be able to do everything. It’s not big enough to specialize in one area. With just four of us here, everyone has to be able to weld and to fit to whatever’s required.”
Small doesn’t mean dated, however. Larson’s well aware of how technology has driven big changes in the industry.
Technology, as good as it is and as prevalent as it has become, is not always perfect, however.
“Technology is the biggest trend, the biggest change I’ve seen since I’ve had this business,” he says. “Data reporting capabilities have grown so much, and with all of that additional data comes more information and then that snowballs. Also, the tires, transmissions, and engines have all gotten better in terms of quality. That’s a result of technology.
“Yet even with all the technology,” he says, “it really all comes down to what a crew chief can interpret, what’s going on with a vehicle and what adjustments need to be made. The same car built in the late 1990s is different than those built today. Today, there’s more tubing, better shocks and suspension components for example, that are so far advanced from what they were just 10 years ago. Of course, the price and the costs have changed as well.”
Modern vehicles have also produced some memorable projects for Larson Race Cars.
“We’re just now finishing a car for Aeromotive,” Larson notes. “It will be a Ford new Pro Stock motor with twin turbochargers. It’s most likely going to be the fastest Ford-powered drag race car when it’s done. Nobody’s built one with this particular combination before.”
That uniqueness is part of the fun.
“We do a lot of one-off cars,” he adds. “We’ll do an Outlaw 10.5 car one time, and then the next time we might do a Pro Mod car. I really have to stay up on my game as far as what’s happening in each class and what’s the latest technology, because we build so many different types of cars. But I spend a lot of time at the race track. I go out with different customers and race with them and offer on-track consulting and tuning. It helps me stay current and knowledgeable. That’s where I was this past week-”at a track with a Pro Stock car customer.”
Of course, Larson doesn’t really consider being out doing field work for clients as work at all.
“I’d much rather be hands-on,” he says. “I’d much rather be in the back building the cars or at the racetrack trying to tune one than sitting behind the desk doing paperwork. Even though sitting behind the desk is where the money’s made, the office part is my least favorite piece of the business.
“I enjoy going out and tuning these things,” he says. “On occasion I get a chance to drive them. Last month I drove one for a customer who hadn’t driven in 12 years, so I went out and shook it down for him to make sure everything was good.”
So, what’s Larson’s preferred ride? His Drag Week daily driver, of course.
“I’ve got a 1966 Nova Chevy II that is a street car that I’ve had for 20 years now,” he says. “It’s a twin-turbocharged 565 big-block Chevy with a Lenco 5-speed transmission. It went from being an 11-second car to a 6-second car.”
Down the Road
Even with all he’s accomplished, Larson’s looking to the future and has firm plans for his businesses.
“I’d like to expand a little bit. If I had four to six guys in the shop, I’d be happy with that. I don’t know that I ever want to have 15 or 20 guys, because I always want to have my hands on it, making sure everything’s the way I want it. I still do the majority of the setup on the cars when they leave here, like the suspension,” he says.
But there are areas where he’d like to see growth.
“I wouldn’t mind getting bigger on the chassis side,” he adds. “The Internet element will hopefully evolve and be getting bigger. It can get as big as it wants. I look at it long-term as a way to service some other customers who want to buy the parts and don’t need to bring the race cars into the shop.”
Finally, Larson offers a word of advice for those who may have their eye on opening up a shop similar to Larson Race Cars one day.
“The biggest thing to know is this: If it’s something you want to pursue, you need to have a passion for it. It’s that way with any business or occupation, but I spend a lot of time at the track and the shop, and it can be hard on the family life. But I honestly love what I do.”
And the results certainly show.