Ever since he won the NHRA’s season-opening Gatornatonals down the road from his home at Ocala, Fla. – in the first Top Fuel race of his career — Josh Hart has captured the fancy of drag-racing fans as a soft-spoken, humble, boy-next-door sort of young man.
And the owner-driver of the Technet/Burnyzz/R+L Carriers Dragster is all that.
Surprisingly, though, he didn’t grow up at the dragstrip. He didn’t race Jr. Dragsters. His parents didn’t introduce him to this sport.
Too many times as a teenager he caught the attention of the police in Northeast Indiana, tearing around Huntington and Fort Wayne in his car like he was James Dean (who, incidentally, was born just south of there, at Marion, Ind., and is buried at nearby Fairmount, Ind.).
Josh Hart is a one-time rebel who today has a cause.
“I started on the other side of the fence, so I got into a lot of trouble doing stuff on the streets. It’s nothing to brag about,” Hart said. “But I had a friend of mine one day say, ‘Hey, I think you’re a really good driver. Why don’t you go to the drag strip with me?’ I went out there, and I had a blast.
There’s a lot of people out here hunting for money, and they still have a pipe dream that they’re going to land a huge sponsorship just to put the name on the car, and it doesn’t exist and if it does, then it’s going to be a short-term deal.
“That was the big thing: Stop doing it on the streets. Get to the track. I followed the speed limit that night on my way home from the test-and-tune. I was like, ‘This is really cool.’ So it just progressively got faster on the track and [I followed] the rules on the street. It really helped,” he said.
Despite the existence of plenty of racetracks in the region, Hart didn’t have any of them on his front burner.
“You always knew of it,” he said. “I never went. Never even thought about it.”
Hart wasn’t accusing the sport of not promoting itself enough, although a strong case could be made for that. Instead, he simply began to recognize the benefits of a structured way of participating in a speed contest.
“So I understand better than anybody what it takes to get from zero to here,” the former Top Alcohol Dragster standout said.
For Hart, his business and his racing business have been interwoven. That’s why in such a remarkably short time he has become a model for using the drag-racing platform to enable sustainable business-to-business transactions.
He (and wife Brittanie) first built his mini-empire at Ocala, with Burnyzz Speed Shop at the center of it. In mid-July he had what he called a “soft grand opening” of his expanded operations in co-operation with the Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership (CEP) to celebrate the new facility that was a $5 million investment over 14 months. Nearly 400 people – including Ocala’s mayor, the county commissioner, sheriff, and 250 CEP members – attended, proof that Hart’s operation is a benefit to the local economy.
“Burnyzz’s is super busy, anyway,” Hart said of his multi-purpose business. “Car sales are off the charts, and we’re having a hard time keeping the inventory. The service department right now, if you want to build a car, a six-figure car, from the ground-up with Burnyzz’s, you would be on a waiting list for nine months before we could even start. Then you’re looking at another six to eight months for a ground-up car. It’s pretty crazy right now, but that’s where we’re at.”
Ocala happens to be home to drag-racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who operates a museum and his International Drag Racing Hall of Fame from there and has a strong relationship with Hart. “We’re putting Ocala on the map. It’s hot-rod heaven,” Hart said.
There’s plenty of times when we were first starting that Brittanie and I would go home and we would count the money, and we would sit there and go, ‘Wow. Are we going to be able to buy macaroni this week?’
In a meeting of two decidedly different worlds of horsepower, Hart took his dragster in August to the World Equestrian Center at Ocala. Several thousand patrons had the chance to attend his eight-hour meet-and-greet and take a close look at his 11,000-horsepower racecar with the R+L Carriers livery on it. The family who owns R+L Carriers also owns the World Equestrian Center, and that’s where they announced that R+L Carriers would support the race team throughout the season.
The meet-and-greet sessions Hart participates in with R+L Carriers, like the one he had in June at Norwalk, Ohio, underscore his grasp of B2B marketing. R+L Carriers is headquartered at Wilmington, Ohio, and before the northern Ohio race, Hart participated in an open house to help drive potential employees to the company and advertise that CDL-equipped drivers are being offered $28.72 an hour in wages, along with a $3,000 sign-up bonus. R+L Carriers is hiring over-the-road truck drivers, forklift operators, dispatchers, security officers, and clerical workers.
“It was something that I wanted to do for R+L Carriers,” he said. “It was basically like a job fair. You could walk through their trailer, and it described how R+L Carriers got started and how they grew. Then, as you got inside the trailer, it was kind of like an exhibition, as you could see what the perks were, starting pay was — a very attractive job offer.”
Initially, Hart had gone into a meeting with the trucking company and told the R+L executive that “for every dollar you put into our race team, I’ll match it with business or double it.” But his bold promise received a bit of a rejection. Hart learned that wasn’t what the company needed. He learned, by listening, that what the company needed were drivers, workers. Hart said, “That’s just an amazing outlook on things. Totally changed my viewpoint.”
Hart has introduced other companies to the opportunities of drag-racing marketing investment. Buymetalbuildingsdirect.com began its partnership with Hart’s team in April and in June significantly increased its agreement. He has brought in HLC Trucking and Ohio West Virginia Excavating to drag racing for the first time.
“I realized very quickly,” he said, “that the good old days of people writing checks to put their name on the side of your car don’t exist anymore. I was a businessman before I ever even touched a racecar. If you can bring actual value to whatever they are trying to sell or whatever they need, and you focus on that, the benefits will come back to you.
“There’s a lot of people out here hunting for money, and they still have a pipe dream that they’re going to land a huge sponsorship just to put the name on the car, and it doesn’t exist and if it does, then it’s going to be a short-term deal. If you build a relationship with someone, that benefits both of you for all practical purposes it should be a long-term partnership,” Hart said.
What startled him was a video that popped up recently that featured a couple of young drivers. Hart said, “They said, ‘All I want is the money,’ and they actually put that on the video. And I’m thinking, ‘You’re already starting off on the wrong foot.’ But that’s just my opinion. If you want to build something here, you have to start a long-term partnership with somebody. It is not about the money. I mean, yes, it takes money to be out here. It takes money to run this thing and obviously get a message across. But that was the wrong message.”
An encouraging message he sends to Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racers comes in the form of cash. He donates his contingency money to them, saying, “I just thought it was a nice way to kind of give back, try to take the edge off for other people. Those guys deserve a little bit more attention. But I’m biased. I spent five years in Alcohol. I’m very blessed to be in Top Fuel, and I feel like I need to give back to the NHRA community.”
Hart has done well on the racetrack with a strong case for the Rookie of the Year award (two victories and a 17-10 race-day record heading into the final event of the year). And he had done well enough off the racetrack to secure a shop in the heart of “Nitro Alley” at Brownsburg, Ind., and to promote crew chief Ron Douglas to partner in the team.
“Ron has proven himself to be a great crew chief and more importantly to be a great man of character. We [have] the same demeanor and work ethic. I am a loyal person, and so is Ron. We want to build this race team for a long, successful future. I can’t think of a better person to build it with than a guy that has been there from the start.”
But Hart’s success wasn’t automatic. His entire integrated program also had modest beginnings.
“Spent the first 25 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Huntington, Indiana,” Hart, 38, said. “We sold and closed our first business in 2008. And in 2009, we were in that transformation. We actually started Burnyzz kind of as a hobby. It was supposed to just be for fun, and now it’s a monster that’s bigger than I ever dreamed. A lot of great people. I’m very grateful for all of them. I mean, they really do run it. My sales manager is amazing. Service manager, he’s learning the ropes, and he’s doing great, and most of the people that are employed by Brittanie and me, they’ve been with us since we started. We’re going on 10, 11 years already with some of these guys. That’s priceless. They know your move before you make it, and it’s a very seamless team.”
However, he said, “There’s plenty of times when we were first starting that Brittanie and I would go home and we would count the money, and we would sit there and go, ‘Wow. Are we going to be able to buy macaroni this week?’ But we made sure all of our people were paid. That’s the type of sacrifice you’ve got to make when you’re trying to build something from the long haul.”
Now it’s time for Hart, wiser with his racing venues and a powerhouse with his business insight, to start reaping the rewards.