New owner turns failed-firm’s assets into racing-parts business

Eagle Creek Golf Course owner Jerry Hayslett has acquired assets of Kenny Brown Performance and teamed with Brown's former sales manager to launch a racing-parts business.

Engineered Performance set up in one of Brown's former bays at 57-C Gasoline Alley after acquiring virtually all of Brown's tooling and other production equipment from Regions Bank.

In November, the Birmingham, Ala.-based bank won a judgment against Kenny Brown Performance in Marion Circuit Court for $704,367, representing the outstanding balance of small-business loans, and for about $50,000 in fees and interest.

Brown earned a national reputation as a Mustang tuner and producer of performance parts for rear-wheel-drive cars used on the track and street. Enthusiast chat rooms still buzz about what happened to a man whose firm's modified cars were often featured in enthusiast media such as Car & Driver magazine and TV show "MotorWeek" .

Brown's family blamed a worsening respiratory condition for the ultimate demise of his Gasoline Alley facility. His Web site describes it as a "temporary" suspension of operations. Brown moved to Indianapolis from Omaha in the early 1990s.

The other half of Brown's facility has been cleaned out, with former landlord Tom Godby now operating an air-conditioning and plumbing shop that looks conspicuously out of place in the Gasoline Alley village of racing businesses, a mile south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"Kenny Brown is still a strong brand and we have an incredible following," said Brown's wife and business partner, Cari Southworth. She added that Brown is improving, but "he is still in the recovery mode."

She expects him to return to business, though perhaps in a different form.

"Once a car guy always a car guy," she added.

"All I can say is, I'm sorry, because Kenny was conscientious and did good work," said John Phillips, a veteran columnist at Car & Driver, who worked with Brown several years ago to hot-rod a Ford Crown Victoria for the magazine. The article on the black cop-car-from-hell, with imitation G-men in dark suits and sunglasses, was one of the magazine's most popular features.

More notably, the 355-horsepower car dubbed "the Lounge Lizard" helped inspire Ford Motor Co. to introduce its Mercury Marauder muscle car a few years later.

Demand still healthy

Former Brown sales chief Rich Cottrell, now general manager of Engineered Performance, said demand was still strong for the type of car parts Brown used to manufacture.

"My cell phone bill in January was $600. The company was closed and people were calling and asking what was going on … . I had people seeking me out for product," Cottrell said.

Those customers sought parts such as subframe connectors, strut tower braces and suspension control arms.

Cottrell took a job at Indianapolis-based Champ Car, all the while hoping to rebuild the wreckage of Brown's business. Cottrell convinced PGA golf pro Hayslett there was more value in reviving a performance parts business than in liquidating its assets.

While Hayslett's decision will be applauded by automotive enthusiasts, it could land him some legal trouble. Hayslett said Brown contends that some of the assets he acquired are proprietary–Brown having designed both tooling and performance parts over the years. Hayslett and Southworth declined further comment.

Cottrell said he sought Brown's involvement in the new company as an adviser, but that Brown declined.

"The fact is, they are two [separate] companies right now and what the future holds I don't know," Cottrell said. "As an enthusiast, you would hope both companies would cross paths again."

Former Brown employee Timothy "Heid" Heidenreich said he was "heartbroken" when Brown announced the shop was closing and he and about 20 other employees rolled out and loaded up their toolboxes.

Heidenreich said he joined Engineered Performance without hesitation, with the prospect of designing and building new lines of parts.

Last month, the company hired a driver from Portland, Ore., to drive Brown's famous "Kermit," a 5-year-old green Mustang used to test new parts. Kermit spent the day playing cat and mouse at Putnam Park Road Course, near Greencastle, with a new Mustang being tested by Jack Roush Performance. The Livonia, Mich., company sells its customized Mustangs through car dealers.

Competition intensifies

Cottrell said Engineered Performance has no immediate plans to modify cars in-house, as did Brown. Rather, it is arranging installation through a network of racing shops in the Indianapolis area.

One reason is that the new venture was able to hire only two of Brown's nearly two dozen former employees–a low-overhead situation Cottrell said should give Engineered Performance an advantage in the competitive business of car modification, known as tuning.

Some of that competition these days is coming from automakers themselves.

Phillips said one prominent Mustang tuner "told me he was having a hell of a time staying in that end of the business because the Mustangs coming directly from Ford are so fast and fun and are under warranty. So the aftermarket guys suffer when the original car is so good."

Cottrell said he's found plenty of room for improvement of the new, hot-selling Mustang. For example, Engineered Performance is building tubular control arms in place of relatively flimsy stamped-steel versions used on the factory cars.

The firm also sees continued strong demand for parts to beef up the 2003-2004 Mustang Cobra, including subframe connectors to tie together the front and rear ends of the unibody car and eliminate chassis flexing.

Many of Cottrell's customers are those who use their cars on weekends for road and drag racing or simply to add muscle to their daily drive. Some of the customers have specific goals in mind for handling characteristics.

"Ford and Chevy still build cars for the masses. We build them for individuals," Cottrell said.

The bulk of sales comes not directly from drivers, but from parts distributors. Ford Racing recently placed a major order for 300 subframe connectors, Cottrell said.

Ford Racing in turn sells parts under its name to major national racing-parts distributors, including Jeg's High Performance and Summit Racing, both based in Ohio.

The appetite for rear-drive muscle cars is growing stronger. Cottrell noted DaimlerChrysler has launched the Dodge Charger and General Motors Corp. plans to bring back the Camaro.

"It's a brand new market for us again," Cottrell said. "The Big Three have realized that pony cars are not going away."

Meanwhile, Cottrell is trying to broaden his firm's parts line to include the Ford Focus–a low-cost, front-wheel-drive car popular with weekend racers and rally car teams and a favorite of the youth market.

He's also had discussions with California-based Lucas Oil Products, which recently purchased naming rights to the new Indianapolis Colts stadium, about co-sponsoring amateur racing events.

Cottrell also would like to establish a presence adjacent to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as a way to help the local motorsports industry achieve more prominence.

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