Profile in Success - February 2010

Rookie Operators Shine in the California Sun
By Timothy Denman

The wash’s logo and literature feature the checkered flag.

Raceway Express Car Wash is thriving under the guidance of an unlikely source: the man who built it.

Mike Austin built one of only a handful of express washes in Southern California, but had no plans of running it until economics forced his hand.

Austin, a retail developer and investor, developed the 4.5-acre site with plans on selling the finished product. Unfortunately, once the site was finished in August 2008 the country was in the depths of a recession and buyers were scarce. One parcel containing a fast-food restaurant was sold, but the remainder of the property, which included the car wash and a 10-store-retail center, was still owned by Austin.

Faced with the selling the property undervalued, Austin decided to hold onto the site and found himself thrust into car wash ownership.

Raceway’s entrance features two lanes: one automated and one cashier controlled.

“I was not a car wash operator at the time,” Austin says. “We were not planning on going into the car wash business. We built the place on spec with plans to sell it. We rolled up our sleeves and found ourselves car wash operators. We had to learn real fast.”

Once Austin decided to keep the wash, he hired a manager to run the place. Unfortunately things didn’t work out with the manager, and Raceway became a family owned and operated affair.

Austin stops by the wash once every two weeks to make sure everything is running smoothly and to attend strategic planning meetings. Brother-in-law Rick Salisbury handles the daily operation with the assistance of Mike’s wife Lori.

Salisbury was a mortgage banker before the market collapsed and was working 18-hour days in the beginning learning the business. Although it was a rough couple of months after the opening, things are running smooth for the operators now, as Raceway solidifies itself as a member of the Fontana, CA community.

Raceway is the only express exterior in the area — the surrounding competition is all traditional full-serve operations.

“The competition is certainly there for the full-serve sector,” Austin says “I think we serve a different customer, and we market ourselves that way.”

To help capture customers from the surrounding middle-class community Raceway mailed out free wash coupons before the grand opening to help get people acquainted with the wash.

“California doesn’t have a lot of express car washes,” Austin says. “We needed to get people used to the concept. We have been open for over a year already and I am still explaining the concept to customers.”

In addition to the initial free wash coupons, Raceway markets itself through Val-Pak, Clipper Magazine, and web banner advertising.

Once the advertising campaign convinces customers to give Raceway a chance, it is up to the wash to secure a steady client with superior service.

The tunnel entrance decorated for the winter holidays.
Raceway sports free vacuums.
The 150-foot-long tunnel features plenty of prep space.

“Our general philosophy here is to provide a consistent, quality result every time,” Salisbury says. “We work constantly to make sure all the equipment and facilities are in good working order. There are plenty of places customers can go to get their car washed. We want to make sure that our place is the wash of choice.”

Helping to keep the wash running smoothly are the site’s 13 employees. Staffing is kept bare-bones during the week, with only four employees on site. During peak weekend washing hours seven employees are on duty.

Customers at Raceway have three wash packages to choose from: the $6 Qualifier, the $8 Final lap, and the $10 Checkered Flag. The basic wash features a sealer wax and a spot-free rinse. The medium package improves the offering with clear coat, wheel cleaner, and tri-foam. The top-of-the-line package adds Rain-X and tire shine.

The Qualifier and Final Lap packages are running neck-and-neck in popularity, while the Checkered Flag is leading the pack. More than half of Raceway’s customers opt for the highest-priced package.

Customers pulling into Raceway’s drive can choose between two lanes: one fully automated and one staffed by a cashier. Customers who choose the automatic lane can pay by credit card, gift card, or utilize the wash’s Fast Pass membership plan. Those choosing to enter through the cashier-manned lane can pay by cash or credit card.

After payment is received, customers make their way onto the conveyor with the help of the tunnel loader. The loader inspects the vehicle for any problems and pre-treats potential difficult areas like brake-dust-laden wheels.

The 150- foot tunnel is adorn- ed with Sonny’s latest express equipment. The only equipment in Raceway’s tunnel that is not provided by Sonny’s is the Proto-Vest drying unit. The drying station features a top blower and two side shots, and is aided by 15 feet of drip space between the final rinse and the blowers. Early in the wash’s operation, hand drying was offered as an upgradeable feature, but currently wipe downs are not available.

True to the express concept there are free vacuums available at Raceway. Currently the wash contains one central vacuum system with 13 drops, but plans are in motion to add another system with nine additional vacuum stations.

There is no indoor retail area at Raceway, but a well-appointed vending center helps with the bottom line. The vending center sells snacks; drinks; and all of the usual do-it-your-self essentials like microfiber towels and Armor All.

Rounding out Raceway’s offerings is a menu of express detailing services. Although Raceway takes in the occasional full-serve detail client by appointment, the main focus of the detailing center is express services.

Plans are in place to add another nine vacuum drops
The automated pay station.

A Mini Detail features a car wash, hand wax, vacuum, wheel cleaner, tire dressing, interior shampoo, interior dressing, and fragrance for $69.95.

“Managing an express wash with a full-service detail center is a bit of a dilemma from a staffing perspective,” Salisbury says. “We decided that rather than going after the full-serve clients we would focus on express services. Our goal is to not have the customer waiting more than an hour for their car if possible.”

After a year of car wash ownership, Austin is warming to the business but is still undecided about his future in the industry.

“We are unsure of whether we want to sell the wash in the future or continue to run it,” Austin says. “It is a lingering decision we haven’t made yet. We have become a part of the community here and we are really enjoying the industry.”

Although Austin is unsure about the his future at Raceway he is looking to build more washes in the future, and might just build one for himself.

“We are in the process of looking for one or two other locations,” Austin says. “We haven’t found anything that we like, and financing is difficult, but we are looking.”

Austin’s and his family have set the bar high at Raceway, and will have a good blueprint to follow if and when they decide to put shovels in the dirt once more.

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