JONESTOWN – It isn’t easy to turn your one true passion into your life work. It requires entrepreneurial spirit, faith, vision, persistence and adaptability.
But if one can pull it off, it is truly a sight to behold.
And if one can stay at it long enough, he or she can become an advocate for the industry.
Walk into Bernheisel Race Components shop and you get the distinct impression that it could never even exist without owner Jim Bernheisel having some connection to, or past experience with, auto racing.
“I’m actually proud of being able to pull that off,” said Bernheisel. “I’ve had a lot of people help me over the years. For some people, it’s very difficult to be able to translate their passion into a business. Sometimes I’ve had to put family first, which means making the business first. I probably could’ve had a few more wins over my career if that weren’t the case.
“I’ve always known how blessed I was,” Bernheisel continued. “I’ve only ever had one other job which I enjoyed. For the most part, I get to play with race cars. People say I’m living the dream. Maybe I didn’t dream big enough, but I am. I try to remember how blessed I am.”
Bernheisel began racing when he was a senior at Northern Lebanon High School in 1976, and he’s dedicated himself to that pursuit ever since. Five years later, he started his speed equipment business on a part-time basis, and then in 1988, he made it a full-time endeavor.
“I built a race car,” said Bernheisel, “and then I had people come up to me and say, ‘Hey will you build me one. Hey will you build me one. Hey will you build me one.’ And it just started from there. I’m the first person in my family to race, and own a business, so I learned the hard way.
“When I started, I had no clue,” added Bernheisel. “I quit a very good job to do it full-time. My wife has been very supportive. If you had told me we got passed the new millennium and the business had reached this, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Bernheisel Racing Components sells all types of racing equipment, to Bernheisel’s racing colleagues in the area – and sometimes his competition – everything from complete race cars to dirt late-model chassis to parts and accessories. Bernheisel Racing Components also features a show room which offers $1 million in inventory.
“Our business caters to dirt stock cars,” said Bernheisel, 56. “We’re not exclusively about late model dirt-track cars, it’s just our strength. Racing in and of itself is a broad term. It’s like ‘sports’. There’s some commonalities, but a lot of differences Racing has always had its different entities, but now, as the sport evolved, we found a need to supply local stock-car racers with parts. We love the sport, being a part of it. But the opportunity for business, and the sport, go hand-in-hand.
“For me as a businessman, I’ve got to stay on top of technology and be out ahead of it,” Bernheisel added. “I’ve got to try to be a visionary for the sport. If it’s good for the sport long-term, it’s good for me.”
But before he was an accomplished businessman, Bernheisel was first an accomplished racer.
Bernheisel has won feature races over four different decades, at five different tracks, in three different states. He also has more than 70 career victories to his credit.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” said Bernheisel. “We’ve raced from Wisconsin to Iowa to Florida, and all points in between. But no matter how good you are, you lose more than you win.
“I actually won a big race in Potomac, Maryland a few years back and I announced my retirement in Victory Lane,” continued Bernheisel. “The problem was, I realized I had worked my whole life to put myself in position to be able to do this. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m still pretty good at it. My eyesight, my reflexes and bravery aren’t what they used to be. I plan on doing it a few more years.
“I’m not sure I really like watching my son race. It is difficult to watch. I’ll make that transition (from driver to owner or crew chief). Will I make that difficult transition interesting? Yeah.”
Growing up in the sport, Bernheisel was never aware of Lebanon County’s storied and successful history in racing. But as he has become seasoned, Bernheisel has become acutely aware of it, to the point where he now is somewhat of a local racing historian.
“There are hundreds of racers in Lebanon County,” said Bernheisel. “There are guys who race at Linda’s Speedway. There are guys who race at Brickerville (Clyde Martin Speedway). There are guys who race at Silver Spring. The county’s full of it. This area has been a hotbed for racing since before I was born. But a lot of people don’t have the knowledge of the success of racing in this county. I’d like to think I’ve carried on that tradition.
“I don’t know how to answer that (why local racing doesn’t receive more attention),” Bernheisel continued. “I think the local media is blind to it. They simply don’t know. If you hear anything about racing, it’s NASCAR. But it’s a combination of things.”
While racing in the area may be as strong as it ever has been, there are now fewer fans in the stands. And while on the outside that may be good for business, Bernheisel knows what’s best for the industry as a whole is what’s ultimately best for him.
“It’s easy to say that expenses have gone nuts,” said Bernheisel. “That doesn’t begin to touch on it. Now, a right front shock absorber costs as much as the first car I bought. The game has changed, and not always for the better. Our sport has done a terrible job of reaching out to the current generation. That’s something we’ve got to improve.
“As the sport has gotten more expensive, it’s brought more people to our door step,” added Bernheisel. “You can’t make things for yourself any more. From a competitive standpoint, it’s stronger than ever. The fields are deep, as far as the quality of competition, the quality of drivers, the quality of equipment.”
Through his hard work and dedication to racing, Bernheisel has put himself into the position of becoming an advocate of the sport, someone who has the power to make a difference. Because he is a visionary, Bernheisel can see things in the future that most people can’t.
“In my opinion, racing gets into your blood,” said Bernheisel. “It is intoxicating. It is alluring. The sight, the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere. If I watch a good race, I still get a knot in my stomach. It stirs me.
“My biggest concern is: ‘How do we involve youth in our sport?” continued Bernheisel. “Now, I’ve never promoted a race track. But let’s reach out to schools. Let’s reach out to the Boy Scouts. Let’s reach out to youth groups. And then maybe on a Saturday night, instead of sitting at home, they’ll want to come out to the race track. But there’s some really good things happening in our sport. I’m not a doom-and-gloom guy. I’m a realist.”