Veteran Competitors Join Forces at Auto Sports Center

Steve Haynes has prowled the aisles and fielded phone calls at Auto Sports Center in North Little Rock for less than two months.

But the 61-year-old businessman is far from a newbie to the world of high-performance auto parts and accessories.

Haynes joined Leonard Lamia, 63, owner of Auto Sports Center, after he closed his own business in southwest Little Rock and sold the Steve’s Speed Shop property last year.

“We’ve been having fun ever since Steve came over,” said Lamia, who got in the business in 1982.

“And we’re just getting started,” said Haynes, who opened his store in 1971.

The two retailers-racing enthusiasts have known each other for years as friendly competitors, buying merchandise from each other and even referring customers to each other.

After striking a deal to sell his property, Haynes was able to liquidate his inventory during the three months leading up to the closing. On Dec. 1, he had a new work address at Auto Sports Center but retained his long-time Steve’s Speed Shop phone number, which rolls calls over to Lamia’s store.

The assimilation of two customer bases under one overhead includes stocking new inventory that Steve’s Speed Shop clients expect to find. Blending two businesses into one could lead to the formation of a new company in the months ahead.

“It’s kind of like putting a new race car together,” Haynes said. “We know it ought to work. But now we have it on the race track to see how it works.”

They began discussing the idea of joining forces about five years ago, as the two battled rough pricing competition from Internet vendors and struggled to find reliable help who knew and understood the speed shop business or were willing to learn.

“I was about ready to quit and retire, and he was frustrated, too,” Haynes said.

“We have fought this until the end,” said Lamia, pausing to chuckle. “We weren’t smart enough to get out of the business when we could.”

The two veteran retailers rely on tried-and-true, old-school tactics to combat the pricing advantage sometimes wielded by Internet competitors: Keep and win customers with friendly service backed by decades of knowledge and experience.

“They can’t order service over the Internet,” said Haynes, a race car driver, now a track chaplain and a card-carrying member of the Track Announcers Guild. “We can offer personal service where customers can hold a part in their hands and look at it.”

“We pretty much consider our customers our friends,” Lamia said.

That old-school business vibe at Auto Sports Center extends to its attraction as a commercial-social destination. The break room serves as an unofficial clubhouse for customers and visitors to hang out and talk cars, politics, sports or whatever.

The midday gathering on this particular Wednesday is no exception. Old friends-customers freely ignore the sign posted “employees only” to visit the facilities in the back room behind the counter. A group of men talk and cajole in the break room while Lamia and Haynes take care of business on the phone and on the sales floor.

“It’s pretty much an everyday event,” Lamia said.

Racing gear and customized accessories aren’t the only merchandise carried by the specialty shop. Engine programmers have grown in popularity for auto owners of all persuasions.

Among other things, the computerized devices squeeze more fuel efficiency and more power from engines to save money and improve performance.

The mix of new and old is symbolized by the store’s centerpiece: a 1965 Corvette Sting Ray with a 427-cubic-inch, Chevy big block engine under the hood.

Not mere eye candy to garnish the sales floor, this 800-horsepower hot rod set a 1988 record at the Houston Raceway by running a quarter-mile in 9.74 seconds while hitting a speed of 137.53 miles per hour.

Upgrades over the years now enable the car to turn in a quarter-mile time “in the high 8s” while hurtling down the track in the “150-miles-per-hour range” according to Lamia.

The times and the technology have changed, but the love of the business hasn’t waned for Steve Haynes and Leonard Lamia.