Interview: Billy Boat – Racer, Manufacturer, Entrepreneur
I learned to weld when I was eight, and made my first set of headers when I was twelve – for a Pinto road racing car. – Billy Boat
More than most industries, the automotive aftermarket is filled with companies founded by people intimately connected with racing and performance. It’s a natural path to follow, turning a hobby that costs money into a business that (hopefully) makes it, but not everyone who’s found success on the track is equally savvy running a business. One man who’s demonstrated the right balance of performance know-how and business acumen is Billy Boat, owner and president of Billy Boat Performance Exhaust. Billy is noted for his success in Indy Car racing as well as being a manufacturer of premium quality high performance exhaust systems, including those for the LS family. We got a chance to sit down and ask a few questions – here’s what he had to say.
Billy Boat: “I began racing when I was 5. I started with motocross then as the years progressed I moved onto carting, mini sprints, sprint cars and midgets.”
LSXtv: What got you into it?
BB: “My dad was into drag racing and road racing, and he got me started in racing. It’s something we did together.”
LSXtv: What do you see as your biggest racing career successes?
BB: “With my USAC career I raced with John Lawson and we won 18 out of 25 races one year. We won all the big races with USAC Belleville and Chili Bowl – just about all the major midget races in the ’95-’97 timeframe. That success gave me an opportunity to race for AJ Foyt and made my first IRL start at the Indianapolis 500. In 1998 I got pole position at Indy, and Texas Motor Speedway I won my first IRL race. In 1999 I came in third at Indy.”
LSXtv: You were married in 1990 and started a family shortly thereafter. How did racing impact your family life?
BB: “Racing is a family sport, so it was never a negative factor. They went with me to races as much as they could. I stopped driving in 2003, but continued my involvement in racing with my son Chad. Like my father got me into racing, I did the same for Chad. He is doing really well. He started off in karting, worked his way up to midgets, and is now racing in the ARCA Racing Series – driving for the Billy Boat Exhaust / AmenZone Fitness Race Team.”
LSXtv: How did you acquire your skills for manufacturing exhaust systems?
BB: “My dad and I built our race cars and engines. He had a business in Phoenix with a garage, machine shop and fabrication shop. So that’s how I learned to build cars and parts for the automotive trade. I learned to weld when I was eight, and made my first set of headers when I was twelve – for a Pinto road racing car.”
LSXtv: What got the exhaust company started?
BB: “Well, I started B&B Fabrication in 1990 out of my dad’s garage as way to make money and also give me freedom to be able to take off and go racing. So, I started off making headers for the 930 Porsche as subcontractor for another company. Exhaust was just our niche – one of the first products that we manufactured.”
LSXtv: What was the progression of Billy Boat Performance Exhaust?
BB: “After I got married I decided “maybe we could make this a little more real”. So, I rented a 1,000 square foot shop here in Phoenix, and started with just me with a welder and a grinder. Within a year we grew to a having a couple of employees including my brother, Mike. We saw a niche in the Porsche market and found other products we could do exhaust-wise for the Porsche and grew from there. We then added BMW exhaust, and in the mid ‘90’s Corvette was added. VW and Audi were added in the early 2000’s and the other domestic stuff was added later on. During the 1990’s the size of our facility went from 1,000 square feet to 14,000 square feet in about seven years. In 1998 we moved into a 30,000 square foot building, and in 2002 we expanded that to 50,000 square feet.”
We build parts the same way as we would build them if were putting them on the track.
LSXtv: How long does it take to develop a new part, and what kind of R&D and testing are required?
BB: “It is a four week process. We bring a car into our facility, put it up on the lift and begin evaluating what we have to work with. We then put the car on a chassis dyno and get baseline data on horsepower and torque. We also get baseline data on exhaust sound decibel levels inside and outside the car, and those are later compared to the exhaust system design we come up with. From there, we begin brainstorming on what we can do to improve the performance and sound of the exhaust system and start making test designs. Once we have a system developed that we are pleased with we make fixtures that are used in production to ensure dimensions and tolerances of the finished product are exact.”
“I think most of the philosophy for the exhaust company came from my background in racing. Racing is very precise, low tolerance for error – very performance focused. Nothing less is accepted. So we build parts the same way as we would build them if were putting them on the track. We make the highest quality parts, and use the highest quality materials, and we make sure they perform.”
LSXtv: There are a lot of exhaust companies out there, and plenty of potential customers who buy only on price, or are brand-loyal to the point where you’d have a very hard time getting them to switch. How do you succeed in that competitive environment?
BB: “We rely on the reputation of our brand. Many of our customers purchase our exhaust systems based on word-of-mouth. We have been around for over twenty years and people know we build quality parts, stand behind the product, and can rely on our customer service. They tell others about us. If someone is considering buying a Billy Boat exhaust all they have to do is compare our exhaust tone against other manufacturers and talk to others who have a Billy Boat and they are sold.”
LSXtv: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently, in business or racing, if you could go back and do it all over again?
BB: “When I was racing Indy Cars I had an opportunity to move to the South and race in NASCAR. It was a great opportunity, but I decided to stay with Indy Cars because it let me stay in Phoenix where I could best manage the exhaust company. Of course I’ve wondered how things would have gone if I went to NASCAR, but if I could go back and do it over I would do it the same way.”