When Ron Brink worked with Jack Roush at a small community college about 25 miles north of Toledo, he recalled the boast his colleague made more than 40 years ago.
“Someday, you’re going to know who I am,” Roush told Brink.
Brink, a former automotive instructor and assistant professor at Monroe County Community College, didn’t blink. He didn’t doubt the confidence of a fellow automotive and mathematics instructor who had a passion for drag racing — and who became one of NASCAR’s most recognizable and candid team owners.
Roush built his team, Roush Fenway Racing, into one of NASCAR’s powerhouse organizations, but his foray into higher education is a footnote in his biography. There’s only one mention of his time at Monroe County Community College on his bio page on RoushPerformance.com, and little has been publicized about it.
In the early 1970s, at the urging of a colleague at Ford Motor Company, Roush taught for more than two years at Monroe County Community College as he sandwiched his time in the classroom between raising his family, his passion for drag racing, and his work in engineering with Ford Motor Company and later with his own engineering and racing businesses.
Roush entered teaching as a means to balance his passion for competition and his desire to provide for his family, without making a major financial sacrifice. As he segued into building his business, he took what he learned from teaching and applied it to overseeing a global brand.
■ Age: 71
■ Born: Covington, Ky.
■ Hometown: Manchester, Ohio
■ College: Berea College (bachelor’s); Eastern Michigan (master’s)
■ Business: Roush Industries, a global engineering company headquartered in Livonia, Mich. (annual revenue, $500 million)
■ Racing team: Founded in 1988 with one driver, Mark Martin; joined with Fenway Sports Group in 2007 to form Roush Fenway Racing
■ NASCAR titles: Sprint Cup, 2; Nationwide, 4; Camping World Truck, 1
■ Sprint Cup: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
■ Nationwide: Travis Pastrana, Trevor Bayne, Chris Buescher (developmental)
“I got involved in business because I like mechanical challenges, but more and more, I’ve found myself as a teacher and a mentor and a champion of the people who work for me,” said Roush, who earned his undergraduate degree from Berea (Ky.) College and earned a master’s degree in scientific mathematics from Eastern Michigan University. “We employ more than 3,500 folks at Roush Industries, we’re a promote-from-within company, and we advance people based on merit and opportunity. It’s great to help people realize their dreams, their careers, and their standards of living.”
In the classroom Bobb Vergiels received some maternal advice as he prepared to enter college. He knew how to prepare for a test, but he didn’t know how to change a car tire.
“My mom told me that I should know my way around a car,” recalled Vergiels, a spokesman for Monroe Public Schools and the public address announcer for the Detroit Tigers and Michigan baseball and basketball teams.
In January of 1971, Vergiels enrolled in an introductory auto mechanics class that Roush taught. On the first day of that class, Roush asked each student what he or she knew about working on a car.
“I don’t know anything,” Vergiels told Roush.
“What do you want to get out of this class?” Roush asked.
“I want my car to be nicely tuned,” Vergiels said.
“Well,” Roush said, “we can accomplish that.”
As his students worked on engines, Roush stood behind them, looking over their shoulders to examine their work. Sometimes he would offer advice. Once, when Vergiels was about to thread the wrong wire to a spark plug, Roush asked one question:
“Are you sure that’s the one that’s going to go there?”
It was indicative of Roush’s teaching style, and Vergiels’ final exam was hands-on. Roush instructed him to tune up the 1963 Plymouth Belvedere he drove.
“That’s the best way to teach,” Vergiels said. “He wouldn’t let me make a mistake, but he was very instructive and very patient.”
Bill Emery, a Sylvania resident and a local writer, took several automotive courses with Roush and said the classroom and the accompanying garage where students worked on the cars became a laboratory of sorts for Roush.
“One day he was [practicing starts] in the back of the garage, and the campus police caught him,” Emery said. “I think Jack looked at the police for a second and said, ‘Well, where do you take your squad cars to get worked on?’ There were four cops with two cars on campus, and they would bring their cars into the shop on campus for regular maintenance.”
Roush also displayed the roots of an entrepreneurial spirit. When Ford Motor Company would send Roush parts, such as an intake manifold or a carburetor — considered at the time to be cutting-edge technology — Emery said he would sell it to students instead of throwing it away or breaking it down.
“You could get parts from Jack Roush that you couldn’t get at a speed shop,” Emery said.
Roush, Emery said, was well-versed in the physics and engineering aspects of automotives, but his passion for racing also came through in the courses he took. When Roush wanted to relate a concept to his students, many of whom were novices when it came to navigating the internal parts of a car engine, he would use racing anecdotes to illustrate a point.
“He never talked about building his own shop, and I never thought he would,” Emery said. “I think he probably did it because he liked racing and it was emergent behavior. Jack Roush is, by nature, a generous man, and I’d classify him as a high-energy person. He decided that he would do this, and if it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t, he’d do something else.
“And it did work.”
Local, global impact
Don Kehrer took over Roush’s classes at Monroe County Community College and remembered the automotive engineering facilities that he inherited — setups that Roush established before he left the school to focus on drag racing and his engineering business — and the facilities that Roush eventually took over as he started his business.
Roush founded Jack Roush Performance Engineering in 1976 and grew it into Roush Industries, a global engineering company headquartered in Livonia, Mich. In July, USAToday estimated that Roush Industries brings in $500 million in annual revenue.
“He had one building with one dynamometer [a device that measures power or torque], and it was a pretty small facility,” said Kehrer, who has taught automotive technology classes for 35 years. “I’ve had contact with the company as it’s grown, and it’s gotten huge, there are so many different parts. It’s not just a racing company. It does a lot of research for production cars.”
Roush’s expertise, Kehrer said, came in the area of engine development and blossomed into a global brand. “He saw there was a need for people to do something other than working in auto service,” Kehrer said. “There were jobs in research and development that people could work in.
“Rather than just focusing on racing, he was able to grow his business a lot by diversifying. He’s able to have other businesses to bring in income and help with the racing aspect. If you look at Roger Penske, it’s the same kind of situation.”
In 2007, 19 years after Roush entered NASCAR competition with money from his engineering business and one driver, Roush Racing teamed with Fenway Sports Group to establish Roush Fenway Racing, a North Carolina-based team currently made up of six Sprint Cup and Nationwide drivers, including Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
In 25 years as a NASCAR team owner, Roush’s drivers have won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks Series championships, and Roush is considered one of NASCAR’s legacy owners, joining a group that includes Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, and Joe Gibbs.
Roush’s path hasn’t come without struggles. He survived plane crashes in 2002 and 2010, and in 2011, Roush Fenway Racing announced that it would lay off employees as part of the organization’s move to contract and sponsor three Sprint Cup cars in 2012 instead of four.
“When I started, I was one of the youngest people on any staff,” Roush said. “As I look back 40 years later, I’m one of the oldest people in my company that works every day.
“I’m able to bring back the history and rhythms of the economy for judgments at the board level, but I stand behind the younger people who have the opportunity to continue on with it. It’s been a transition, where I’ve given direction and motivation, initially, but now I’m more of historian and a motivational guy, giving people direction and encouraging them.”
Still, not everyone knows of Roush’s claim to fame nowadays; in a recent phone interview, Roush said it was his first press inquiry about his time teaching at Monroe County Community College.
Likewise, Vergiels didn’t even realize Roush oversaw one of the most recognizable stock-car racing teams in the nation until he was recently informed by a reporter. Until July, Vergiels only knew of Roush as his former professor.
Brink, however, recognized the role teaching would play in his colleague’s future.
“Teaching was not Jack Roush’s goal in life,” said Brink, an Ida resident. “It was a stopping point, a point where he could get his feet on the ground. But he had a passion for automotives, and it showed in his teaching.
“He had another goal for his life, and he accomplished that.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.