BUILT FOR SPEED

Builder meets racers, and a hobby is born

Construction exec Bill Heifner also drives vintage race cars

Bill Heifner
Bill Heifner
Bill Heifner, president of Renier Construction, built a career building car dealerships, which led to his passion of race car driving.
  • In 1961: Heifner, 14, built and raced high-performance go-karts.
  • In 1972: After returning from Viet Nam, he graduated from Ohio University with a BS in Industrial Technology.
  • In 1980: Heifner started Renier Construction.
  • In 1988: Heifner built his first car dealership for Germain Motor Company, a Hyundai store in Columbus, Ohio.
  • In 1990: Heifner signed a contract to build Lexus of Dayton for Bobby Rahal.
  • In 2007: Heifner built Bobby Rahal's personal race car garage in Joliet, Ill.
  • In 2011: Heifner bought his first vintage race car.
  • In 2012: Heifner earned his completion license to race vintage events at Roebling Road Raceway in Savannah, Ga.

RENIER CONSTRUCTION, Columbus, Ohio

As a kid, Bill Heifner built high-performance go-karts. Today, he builds state-of-the-art car dealerships and drives vintage race cars.

Heifner, 69, counts many car dealers among his friends. They, in turn, introduced him to vintage car racing. He now owns two vintage race cars that he drives in six to eight races a year. He is proof that a love for racing extends to all corners of the auto industry.

"I was exposed to people whose livelihood was based on motorsports, which to me was very intriguing," said Heifner, president of Renier Construction in Columbus, Ohio. More than half of the company's work involves car dealerships.

In 1990, Bobby Rahal, driver of the car that won the 1986 Indianapolis 500, hired Heifner to build a Lexus dealership. Rahal hired Heifner again 17 years later to build a two-story race car garage.

Rahal, in return, test drove a blue Sunoco Camaro IMSA GT-1 vintage race car before Heifner bought it in 2011.

Pedigree

Vintage racing generally involves cars at least 10 years old with a historical racing significance. Heifner's Camaro, for example, is an endurance car that ran in the Rolex 24 at Daytona race from 1993 to 1998, Heifner said.

Heifner also owns a McLaren M8F with a 1972 chassis, which raced mostly in Europe. He owns the tenth chassis of only 11 made. The car weighs less than a Volkswagen Beetle but packs 840 hp; Heifner calls it a "guided missile." He finished second driving the McLaren in the 2016 Vintage Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio.

Rahal: A hero to Heifner

Vintage racing attracts drivers as diverse as Rahal and Ford of Europe President Jim Farley. It's not for the faint of heart or the weak in wallet. 

The cars race at speeds of 125 to 190 mph. And it's grueling. In summer, the temperature in the cockpit of Heifner's Camaro can reach 120 degrees. "It puts a lot of stress on you," he said. 

To stay fit, Heifner does cardiovascular exercise three or four times a week and eats a balanced diet, making sure to stay hydrated and limit alcohol intake during racing season. In races, he wears a vest with medical tubing that circulates cold water through it to keep his body temperature down. 

"You want to be in good condition so you can keep your concentration," Heifner said. "It's really easy to get dehydrated and disoriented. Getting disoriented in a race is the last thing you want." 

Vintage racing is also expensive. Drivers pay all the transportation costs of the car and a crew, plus lodging and food. The cars range from $15,000 to more than $1 million, depending on their pedigree. "The reason they're worth so much money is because of the historical value, not how fast they are," Heifner said.

Heifner in his Sunoco Camaro IMSA GT-1.

The soft-spoken Heifner, a Vietnam veteran, grew up in the tiny farming community of Newcomerstown, Ohio, halfway between Columbus and Pittsburgh, where his father ran a sporting goods store. 

Heifner started competing in soapbox derby races at age 11. By age 14, he built and raced high-performance go-karts that went 100 mph. "My father wasn't much of a mechanic," said Heifner. "I learned it with trial and error on my own." Rahal calls Heifner a pure gearhead. 

In 1972, Heifner earned a bachelor's degree in industrial technology from Ohio University. In April 1980, he quit a steady job to start Renier Construction on the notion that he could read a blueprint and had sales skills. 

"I never had any construction experience. I watched a homebuilder build our house," said Heifner. "But it's kind of like go-karts -- you take it apart and put it back together and say, "OK, I figured that out.'" 

Renier has built or renovated more than 85 dealerships across the U.S. They're all the result of a chance encounter between Heifner and dealer Steve Germain at a school bus stop in 1986. Germain asked Heifner if he had ever built a car dealership. "I said, "No, but I'm willing to give it a try,'" Heifner recalled.

Heifner's McLaren M8F on the track

Building for Bobby

In September 1988, Heifner built his first dealership, a Hyundai store in Columbus for Germain Motor Co. One year later, he built one of the first Lexus stores -- Lexus of Dublin, outside Columbus -- also for Germain.

The next summer, Heifner signed a contract to build Lexus of Dayton for Rahal and his partner John Higgins. Heifner had met Rahal a few years earlier at a social event. "I have goose bumps right now thinking of it," Heifner recalled. "Bobby was my hero."

Higgins, 68, also a vintage racer, now owns Lexus of Dayton, which has undergone three Heifner-built expansions.

In 2007, Rahal called on Heifner to build a 10,000-square-foot personal race car garage near Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. It includes Rahal's favorite cars, racing memorabilia, artwork, car service bays and a two-bedroom apartment.

Heifner's friendship with Rahal and Higgins allowed him to travel the racing circuit with them and inspired him to enroll in high-performance driving lessons. In the spring of 2012, Heifner completed his rookie race, earning his "hard card," or competition license.

"I thought, "Holy crap!'" said Heifner. "That's a big deal!"

Heifner’s two vintage race cars.

Rahal, now 64, coached Heifner on some driving techniques, such as how to handle the corners, but for the most part, the ex-Indy racer said, "Bill took the skills he had and is able to compete. He has a strong survivor instinct." 

He also pays attention to detail, said Higgins and Rahal, a crucial skill at speeds of 100 mph or more -- or in business. 

In 2004, Heifner was building a used-vehicle center for Higgins. Heifner visited the construction project on a Sunday to check the status. "He saw that his workers had not cleaned up the site," said Higgins. "When I stopped by unannounced, there was Bill with a broom cleaning up the site himself. He's so attentive to detail. You don't have to worry. He does things when he says he's going to do them. And when you're building, time is of the essence." 

Just as it is in racing.

Bill Heifner
Bill Heifner, president of Renier Construction, built a career building car dealerships, which led to his passion of race car driving.
  • In 1961: Heifner, 14, built and raced high-performance go-karts.
  • In 1972: After returning from Viet Nam, he graduated from Ohio University with a BS in Industrial Technology.
  • In 1980: Heifner started Renier Construction.
  • In 1988: Heifner built his first car dealership for Germain Motor Company, a Hyundai store in Columbus, Ohio.
  • In 1990: Heifner signed a contract to build Lexus of Dayton for Bobby Rahal.
  • In 2007: Heifner built Bobby Rahal's personal race car garage in Joliet, Ill.
  • In 2011: Heifner bought his first vintage race car.
  • In 2012: Heifner earned his completion license to race vintage events at Roebling Road Raceway in Savannah, Ga.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com -- Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jlareauan

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