Above: Illuminated signage, custom designed in the signature Grand Prix theme.

By Jim and Elaine Norland

Little more than three years ago, Keith and Juli Jacobs opened their first car wash in Buffalo Grove, IL. In a radical departure from conventional car wash concepts, these newcomers to the industry created a "destination" wash permeated with a racing theme. (See Auto Laundry News for December 1997, page 48.) The idea of a theme-park type wash, making the car wash experience both entertaining and value-packed, has rarely if ever been carried out as thoroughly as at Grand Prix Car Wash. Making one's car wash look like an offshoot of motor racing fandom may have perplexed many industry veterans.
Now these "novices" have done it again.

In the booming, freshly renewed suburb of Deerfield, a few miles east of the first Grand Prix Car Wash, Keith and Juli Jacobs have opened their second wash in a town that had never had a car wash within the town limits, and wasn't sure it wanted one. What changed the town's thinking took place in Buffalo Grove. The developer of Deerfield's downtown mall saw what fun, excitement, and presence Grand Prix generated there, and invited the Jacobses to be part of Deerfield's renewal.

Both Grand Prix Car Wash locations embody the latest technology in full-service car washing, including DRB customer tracking. Detailing services range from "Pit Stop" express detail work to more thorough packages for exterior, interior, or total vehicle conditioning. Visiting Grand Prix Car Wash is a total sensory experience. From entering the 130-foot tunnel until leaving with a freshly cleaned vehicle, drivers and passengers, from toddlers upward, are surrounded with motor racing insignia, legends, artwork and artifacts, sound and colors.

Racing videos entertain customers as they enter, sometimes featuring "in the pits" interviews with drivers such as Mario or Michael Andretti. As customers move ahead, they encounter part of an actual racing car (courtesy of Newman/Haas Racing) coming out of the wall; the rest of its image is painted so the car seems to be disappearing down the track. Drivers leave their cars as a smartly uniformed, bustling pit crew starts on the interior before the vehicle reaches the conveyor. Guided by a bold red stripe, customers enter a corridor that will take them to the lobby.

Shirts worn by auto racing crew chiefs, oversized artwork from Paul Newman and Carl Haas, flags, and other insignia are part of the corridor's decor. Customers view car washing on one side, detailing operations on the other, through oversize windows that enable children and adults alike to see what 's going on inside. In the retail lobby, one can buy not only the usual car-care items and accessories but also custom-packaged Grand Prix car air fresheners or tire cleaner, the same cleaner used by Grand Prix professional staffers. Racing trading cards, racing-theme sweatshirts, Grand Prix sport bottles, and other items, or simply a soft drink in a NASCAR cup at the soda fountain are among other offerings.

Grand Prix seems to have arrived at just the right time, as auto racing establishes itself as the nation's number one spectator sport. Whether they follow NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) or Indy-type competition, fans of the sport are everywhere. Customers of Grand Prix are known and treated as fans, too. They enter a driveway marked by Grand Prix's checkered-flag logos. They can pick up free litterbags with the same insignia as they move through the corridor toward the lobby. They can sign up for a free "Winner's Circle" membership that gives them a free wash on their birthday, every 10th wash free, and weekly discounts.

Names of Grand Prix offerings continue the racing theme. The detail center is called "The Finishing Line." The four main wash packages range from "The Formula 1" upwards to "The Indy 500," then to "The Silver Crown," and finally to the top wash, "The Grand Prix." Prices of these basic packages range from $9.90 to $17.90, but buyers of "Pit Passes" can whittle those down by 35 percent to 40 percent. The Pit Pass program has been very popular. The customer pays for five washes and gets the sixth wash free, using a credit card-sized card designating his or her choice of wash packages. "The more you buy, the bigger the discount goes," explains Keith Jacobs. If a customer buys three Pit Passes, he gets 10 percent off the total price. Buy nine passes and the discount is 20 percent.

The cards never expire, and can be given to anyone to use. Grand Prix sold out of its first printing of 5,000 Pit Passes within three weeks of opening the Deerfield location.
Detailing packages go from "The Starting Lineup" to "The Inside Track," "The Photo Finish," "The Season Finale," and "The Grand Prix Detail." These are priced from $49.99 to $169.99. Additional detail services such as convertible top cleaning, Scotchgard(r) treatment, and engine cleaning are priced at $24.99 and up.
Why the racing theme?
"We gave birth to that before building," Juli says. "My husband and I are not racing fanatics. My background is strategic marketing, and Keith's is basically developing real estate and custom home building.

"I did the marketing and the conceptual overview of the project while he got the place zoned, land-planned it, worked with architects and got it built.
"We wanted something to do with cars, and since racing is one of the top spectator sports in America, we jumped on that. We took cues from Planet Hollywood and other theme settings, came up with motor racing and named it Grand Prix Car Wash, with the tag line, 'Redefining the sport of clean.'"

The racing theme is carried out also in corporate sponsorships sold at each Grand Prix location. At a cost of $1,600 a year, corporate sponsors can sign on to have their company logos embroidered onto Grand Prix crew shirts, thus gaining exposure to some 200,000 customers at the washes during the year. Sponsors also get company cars washed (The Grand Prix package) as frequently as they wish for an entire year. The program is so popular that would-be sponsors are lined up well in advance, Keith and Juli Jacobs report.

Catchy logos, theme treatment and entertaining surroundings, and imprinted gifts or souvenirs don't take away from the essential business of Grand Prix Car Wash, getting cars thoroughly clean. The wash is fitted out with an AVW equipment array, mostly in racing colors of red and black, using top-quality chemicals to triple soap every vehicle and get it clean with lamb's wool cloth. The triple soaping contrasts with the single soaping of many washes in the area, and Grand Prix is the only car wash in the area using lamb's wool cloth, Keith Jacobs says.

"People have called us saying, 'I don't know what you did to my car but it has never shined like this two days after I've had it washed. Water is still bouncing off my car,'" Team VP and marketing director Juli Jacobs reports. The detail center is staffed entirely with car-care veterans, each with eight to 10 years detailing experience. Grand Prix's detail shop is one of the few in the area that does high-speed buffing to give cars a showroom shine, Keith Jacobs reports.

The combined crews of 75 to 80 persons are headed up by John Nardini, himself a 20-year veteran in professional car cleaning. Nardini, who began detailing cars when he was 15 years old, is manager and now a full-fledged partner in the two Grand Prix operations. Keith and Juli Jacobs credit him with setting the tone of excellence among their personnel that has delivered excellent results to their customers.
"Take away all the glitz and glamour, all the aesthetics," says Juli Jacobs, "and basically the quality of your wash and other services comes down to your team." The team leader's mindset and customer service mentality is reflected in the crew he directs, she says.

"Not only did he (Nardini) open our first car wash, he stocked it, staffed it, and trained the staff, all those internal details. He was instrumental in our second opening, which came just three years after opening our first Grand Prix." So effective is Nardini's leadership and example that potential employees are always available, a rare situation for many car washes.

"We've never had a problem getting employees," says Keith Jacobs. "There's a waiting list to get in. Many are friends or family of people who already work here, or they come from other car washes because our facilities are that much nicer and [here] they're treated with respect." It's so difficult to get in here, he adds, that "there's not even room for my nephew. Respect and treat your crew as hard-working, and the people will come."
The company promotes from within, so crew members may advance to line supervisor, greeter, and assistant manager posts. Such opportunity for and attention to employees help explain why 25 percent of the current workforce have been with GP since it first opened in Buffalo Grove more than three years ago.

Employees are saluted and given rewards at Christmas parties. Those marking their first anniversary with the company are given custom-made Grand Prix wristwatches. Second-year employees get travel bags embroidered with the GP logo. This past Christmas, the company also gave out sweatshirts, again custom embroidered with the GP insignia.
Nardini uses service bulletins from area trade associations in his one-hour Saturday morning crew meetings, held before the doors open at 8 a.m. He also covers problems that may occur with particular makes, models, and parts of vehicles, ranging from rear-window wipers to inside parts that might break off.

Beyond the essentials of car cleaning, crews are also trained in timely topics such as child-seat handling. Some washes or detail centers may routinely unfasten and may or may not reinstall those safety seats. Grand Prix team members ask the parent/driver whether they wish to reconnect the seats themselves or want GP personnel to do it.
All the pizzazz of Grand Prix's theme wash, the attention paid both to customers and employees, and events ranging from Halloween promotions and other community support don't restrict productivity or add to costs, Keith Jacobs says. Per-car labor cost and the cost of space aren't any greater than those of the industry at large, he says.
The result seems to advance the image of professional car cleaning, providing it at a reasonable price, and making it fun for both customers and the crews who serve them.
Zoom, zoom!

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.