Don Ott Racing Engines
Few employers could claim to love their job quite like Don Ott, who for more than 20 years has been building quality sprint car racing engines for race car drivers around the world.
To Pennsylvanians familiar with sprint car racing, Don Ott Racing Engines is a household name. The PA Chamber Insurance member business has its roots in Montgomery County, where Ott grew up next door to sprint car racing legend Fred Rahmer. The hours he spent in Rahmer's garage, and, when he was old enough, in the race track pits developed his early love of the sport.
His work on engines started when popular sprint car owner Bob Weikert asked Ott to join his shop as an engine builder in 1991.When Ott broke off on his own in 1993, the business in his basement continued to grow until the existing shop was built in 2002. Today, Don Ott Auto Racing is housed in a sizable York Springs, PA facility that manufactures close to 10 new sprint car engines a year and refurbishes nearly 180 engines with the help of six additional employees.
In terms of geography, Ott's business couldn't be in a better location. While racetracks in other areas of the country might be separated by a drive of several hours, the central Pennsylvania region is home to five dirt tracks that host sprint car races every weekend from the beginning of March through the end of October. Williams Grove in Mechanicsburg, PA; Selinsgrove, Lincoln and Trail-ways in Hanover, PA; and Port Royal are all speedways within an hour of Harrisburg where local sprint car enthusiasts can catch a race featuring several cars that carry engines with the Don Ott name.
"The sheer number of tracks alone is unheard of in any other region across the country, and on a typical Friday night there will be about 4,000 fans at Williams Grove," Ott said.
That number increases when special events are held. The World of Outlaws, a traveling professional sprint car series boasting two teams that race cars with Don Ott engines— Jason Sides of Tennessee and Lucas Wolfe of Pennsylvania—attracts as many as 15,000 fans when the series visits the mid-state. Large crowds also gather when well-known NASCAR stars Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart, whose careers started in open wheel racing, come here to race.
With such a large regional sprint car fan base, the majority of Ott's customers are largely local to the central Pennsylvania region; but his famed engines have also made their mark overseas.
It just so happens that sprint car racing is also hugely popular in places like Australia and New Zealand, where performance parts are so hard to come by that the cost of an already expensive, fully furnished engine skyrockets even higher. As a result, Aussie racers have taken to purchasing engines from U.S. teams once they're put up for sale. And after having run a successful business with a reputation for high quality for nearly 20 years, it's no surprise why the Don Ott name has become famous "down under
Business was at its peak five to 10 years ago, when so many customers were requesting Don Ott Racing Engines that Don himself admits it was difficult to keep up with the demand. However, in the the wake of the recession, the company has experienced a decline in demand for its product—a story all too familiar among business owners operating in a challenging economy.
"A lot of our customers view sprint car racing as a hobby, and when times are tough, that's where people tighten up," Lee Ann, Don's wife, admitted.
The high cost of a quality sprint car engine—typically in the $45,000 range—has deterred sprint car enthusiasts from making new purchases for the time being
"People don't have the money right now to buy new engines, so we're backing off of some of the reliability standards to get more longevity out of them," Don stated.
Fortunately, advancements in the field have allowed the company to focus on producing an even higher quality product. Engines that used to take several days to construct now take about half that time once the parts are ordered and assembled, giving Don and his team the confidence to satisfy any new customer requests that come their way.
Over the past few years, the Otts have also become absorbed in another aspect of the sprint car racing world. Their son, Aaron, and daughter, Amy, have begun to race competitively at tracks across central Pennsylvania. In the short time that he's been behind the wheel, Aaron has proven himself as a rising star. At 17, he became the youngest driver ever to win at the historic Williams Grove Speedway; winning two races within 15 minutes—first, in a car with a 410 engine and again, in a sprint car with a 360 engine. It was a moment that Don and Lee Ann agree was their most memorable: watching a car with a Don Ott engine be the first to cross the finish line (twice)!
In terms of a future business plan, it's clear that there's simply nowhere else the Otts would rather be but continuing to build sprint car engines in central Pennsylvania.
"We eat, sleep and drink this life," Lee Ann said.
For his part, Don called the sport "addicting" and admitted that he's never held a job that wasn't directly related to sprint car racing. Their hope for the future is to keep a steady stream of clientele and to protect the name associated with their company.
"When something goes wrong with any of these engines, they're not asking for the guy in the back, they're asking for me," Don said, affirming his commitment to building a high quality product.
More than 20 years is a long time to be a business owner, and it's even more impressive to have been involved with the industry since childhood. When asked what's held his interest in sprint cars all of these years, Don doesn't hesitate with his answer. "The speed," he said with a smile.
Lindsay Andrews is senior communications coordinator for the PA Chamber of Business and Industry.