Racing into work

LeRoy drag racing products business has five competitors in the nation.

LeRoy – A half mile east of downtown LeRoy, nestled among clumps of trees on LeRoy Road, sits a pole barn that could pass for a large tractor shed.

Inside the building, however, is much more than a piece of farm equipment.

The workshop serves as the home base for Chrome-Works Performance Products, a performance drag racing car and parts business, servicing customers in Switzerland, Canada, Australia and across the United States.

“People around here don’t really buy stuff like this,” said owner John Parkes. “It really doesn’t matter where I’m at because it’s an online (business). I could be out in the middle of the woods somewhere.”

Parkes, 30, works in the shop daily with his trusty canine sidekick, Bruno, and his father, John. He meticulously assembles specially-ordered vehicles, fixes and upgrades components of cars shipped to him from owners, and adds his own touch of perfection to each fabrication.

“He’s really well respected in the custom dragster market he operates in,” said Steve VanderSloot, racer and Chrome-Worx regular customer. “There are other people who do the same thing, but I would consider him to be the elite in the business.”

Most of Parkes’ business is gained through word-of-mouth in racing circles and at drag racing events. There are only five similar businesses in the country that he would consider his competition.

An ultra car sells for anywhere between $60,000 and $150,000. The narrow vehicles hold one person and can reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.

“Its a highly specialized field and he serves a very high-end discerning customer base,” VanderSloot said.

Parkes began work in the world of racing as a 15-year-old Pine River High School student. He first raced an ultracar with his cousin at Mid Michigan Motorplex in Stanton. He fell in love with the sport and began selling parts to other racers with a partner.

“Originally we started selling parts and then we started building racecars,” Parkes said. “I built a racecar for myself and

somebody wanted it, so I sold it to them.”

In 2005 he graduated from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, unsure of his future plans.

“I had no idea (what I wanted to do),” Parkes said. “The direction I was headed was working in a dark room drawing up parts on a computer all day and I’m more hands on.”

Parkes spent a year after graduation working at the site of his college internship, Wilson Steel Factory in Mount Pleasant. In his spare time, he maintained his racing hobby, purchasing parts for his own car and selling them to other racers as well as competing in the races himself all over the country. Parkes raced in Switzerland, England and California as well as at 131 MotorSports Park in Martin, Mich.

In 2006, he decided to pursue his hobby full-time and opened his shop in LeRoy.

“He was young, and there was no better time to try it,” said the elder John Parkes. “It’s not too often that a person is able to make a living in his hobby.”

Fellow racers questioned the idea to expand to a full-time business, but the quality of Parke’s work spoke for itself.

“A few people thought it was a crazy idea but if you know John’s attention to detail and his desire to do things a step above everyone else, and you take that with his passion for drag racing, it was a perfect fit for him,” VanderSloot said.

The business began in a 1,200 square-foot garage with a partner who Parkes later bought out.

With two to four drag racing vehicles in his shop at a time and business increasing, Parkes said his operation was outgrowing the facility.

Earlier this year, he moved his business into the new 3,000 sqare-foot facility with additional work area and storage space.

Lori Leudeman, longtime family friend and LeRoy resident, said few people in the area know of the shop’s existence.

“It’s certainly unique,” Leudeman said. “It’s neat that someone local and young could be so successful in that business.”

Parkes is considering hiring someone to help him with the business’s administrative work, so he can focus solely on the hands-on work. If he worked on a car from start to finish, it could be built in 5 weeks.

Parkes enjoys doing the work on the cars, but said his favorite thing about the business is satisfying customers.

“When I finish the cars, I like seeing the looks on people’s faces,” he said.

Though he has not done much racing in the past few years, Parkes said he has discovered some more important things in life. He married his wife, Kristin, in 2009 and now has a 20-month-old daughter, Allison.

“They’re my favorite thing,” Parkes said. “Racing’s not as fun as being with them.”

Parkes also enjoys living by his parents and sister and starting a business in the area he grew up in.

His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? Break out of the mold.

“Think outside the box. You don’t have to do what everybody else thinks you should do. If you like something, go for it and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But if it does, you get to do something that you like and that’s the most important thing,” he said.

Parkes’ entrepreneureal spirit sparked the beginning of another recent business, a wood boiler company called Alternate Heating Solutions.

He and his partner, Craig Nelson, plan to sell wood boilers during the fall and winter when the Chrome-Worx business slows down.

That business will be advertised to the local community.