Contractor, Start Your Engine!

March 3, 2008
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Sheila and Bob Kaminsky stand in front of a few of the company’s distinctive tiger-striped vans.

HOMER GLEN, Ill. - One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning? Bob Kaminsky can do far better than that.

The owner of Air Tigers Inc. could be at a customer’s house in seconds flat. Only problem is he is not allowed to go such speed on the highway or side streets. Going over 100 miles per hour is only allowed on race tracks, where the HVACR contractor is getting quite a name for himself.

Kaminsky is looking to qualify for this year’s Indy 500, considered the greatest spectacle in racing. By day, the soft-spoken owner may be operating a residential HVACR business with his wife Sheila in the south suburbs of Chicago, but everywhere in between Kaminsky is attending to his second job (and love): professional racing.

“I began my racing career a little different than most drivers,” said Kaminsky, taking time out recently from his busy schedule. “I never drove go-carts or attended any racing schools. But I always loved great handling fast cars.”

The man is actually an accomplished Formula race car driver, with over 42 national championship race victories to his credit. He holds professional racing licenses with SCCA (Sports Car Club of America), IMSA (International Motor Sports Association), Champ Car, and the Indy Racing League.

“I’m probably the only heating and a/c contractor in the country that has an Indy car license that can go and do this,” he said, laughing.

DAD'S BLESSING

Kaminsky didn’t seriously consider getting into racing until he had a conversation with his dad. He came home one evening after a particularly difficult day at work, shortly after getting into the heating and cooling industry, and complained to his father. His dad asked what he wanted to do and Kaminsky said he wanted to race cars, “not knowing it’s virtually impossible unless you are born into a lot of money.”

His dad surprised him by telling him to go ahead and go for it. “That, coming out of my father, was very strange,” he said.

Not too long thereafter, Kaminsky joined SCCA, the sanctioning body that oversees most road racing in the country.

In 1997, after racing eight or nine years, he won a Formula Mazda championship, which got him an Indy car test. He earned his Indy car license, outperforming even the test driver who was supposed to set the benchmark for the would-be racers at a top speed of about 180 miles per hour (mph). However, Kaminsky was unable to find sponsorship at that time.

It’s been frustrating for Kaminsky to watch some of the drivers he beat go on to race at the Indy 500. He has had to watch each on TV, just because of a lack of funding. The budget to run a Formula Mazda car is between $40,000 to $100,000 per year, and for a Pro Formula Mazda, budgets exceed $500,000 for one season, he said.

“There’s not a lot of guys who get the opportunity to run at a high level just on talent,” he said.

But having logged 18 years behind the wheel racing, training, coaching, and making connections - and having placed in the top two at numerous national championships over the past 12 years - Kaminsky said it’s his turn to take on the big race this Memorial Day weekend.

“We are trying to get to Indy this year because of my age,” he said, as he turned 45 in January. “I’ve been racing for 18 years now. If we don’t get there soon, it’s going to be too late.”

He added with a laugh, “We’re probably going to be approaching AARP for the sponsorship real soon.”

Kaminsky’s race cars are available for speed enthusiasts to rent. The owner of Air Tigers provides all safety equipment and teaches them how to run the vehicles.

DETERMINED OWNER

Don’t put anything past this contractor. He did everything possible to create his contracting business. After receiving his degree from the College of DuPage in nearby Glen Ellyn, Ill., he started his career like most owners by first being a service technician for a local HVACR company.

“I spent five years with that company learning every aspect of the industry. I did service, installation, and eventually sales,” he said. “I would run service calls all day, then do sales calls until 9 or 10 p.m. The company I worked for even put a shower in the office for me so I wouldn’t have to go home to clean up before running sales calls.”

Eighty- to 90-hour weeks were routine for the enthusiastic learner. “I was young and wanted to learn everything I needed to in order to start my own company,” he explained. “When it came time to step up and start my own business, I had to trade my black Trans Am for a used Chevy service van.”

After a slight hesitation and with a slight smile, he added, “It definitely made it harder taking women out on dates in a service truck!”

But, nearly 20 years ago, he did just that: go on his own. And his hard work has definitely paid off as Air Tigers has a fleet of trucks, a loyal customer base, and routinely posts net profit margins well over 25 percent.

“I believe having great people working in all aspects of the company and providing fast, dependable service to the customers is crucial,” he said. “In today’s world, it’s no longer setting appointments. It’s how fast can you get there?

“If you have a good marketing program and customers in your area know who you are, you’ll be their first choice.”

Like a true race car driver, contractor Kaminsky is not fearful. His company’s name was originally Quality Comfort. The problem was, people just could not remember the company’s name.

Four years ago, after 18 years in the business, Kaminsky decided it was time for a change. He renamed his business Air Tigers. With help from a sign company in nearby Crest Hill, he got all of his vans painted to look like the jungle animal.

“Not everybody knows what we do,” he confessed. “They think the Brookfield Zoo is coming down the road.”

But the change has done him good. He had to hire three more service techs last year, bringing the company total to eight. They also have seven equipped service trucks on the road. “We fix every brand,” he acknowledged. “We know every brand. I’m a dinosaur in the industry.”

Air Tigers’ service trucks are fully stocked with circuit boards, motors, gas valves, and more, “for absolutely every major brand,” he said. “Most service companies in our industry don’t invest in the proper truck stock to quickly service their customers,” said Kaminsky. “Your service department can’t be profitable if your techs are wasting time chasing down parts. Anything your company can do to manage time properly will drive your profits higher.”

BORN TO RACE

Speaking of driving, Kaminsky remembers the first time he strapped in for a race. “The first time I pulled on a helmet and strapped into a race car was in an SCCA Spec race,” he said. “At that time, that was the least expensive race car you could get into, and the most competitive class you could compete in.”

The Spec racer fields had 40 to 80 cars and the racing was fierce “so I had to learn my driving skills quickly.”

“My first race was at Indianapolis Raceway Park, which just so happens to be 10 minutes from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” he said. “On a Saturday morning, after getting off the track for practice, one of our team mechanics told my girlfriend and I that the Indy cars were qualifying for the 500. We went to the track and the first time I watched an Indy car scream down the front straight into turn one, I knew one day I had to run this race.”

That was 18 years ago. That girlfriend is now his wife. And, the desire to race at Indy is stronger than ever. “It’s been a long, hard road to get to this point,” he admitted. “After running Spec Racers, if I ever wanted to race Indy cars, I would have to drive open wheel Formula cars. So I bought a Formula Mazda race car and towed it all over the country with my service van.”

After Kaminsky won the Pro Mazda Championship, he earned an Indy car test with Brian Stewart Racing. He obtained his Indy license, but because he lacked funding, he couldn’t move up into Indy cars.

“By winning that championship, I had many other drivers that wanted to rent race cars from my team and provide coaching for them,” he said. “That’s when I started Kaminsky Racing. We now have a fleet of Formula Mazda race cars that do 150 mph. We use those cars for corporate outings and racing schools.”

He smiles when he says he uses his current car, a silver Ford GT with black racing stripes - or, “every guy’s dream,” as he described his car - for hot-lapping and for an on-track training car.

“It’s an awesome 550-horsepower, 205-mph beast,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “I’m also racing one of my Pro Mazdas in this year’s Pro series. It’s a 170-mph car very similar to a Formula One or Indy car.”

Kaminsky said many people don’t understand how athletic racing truly is. He played ice hockey for nearly 9 years, “and racing is hands-down more difficult,” not to mention much more dangerous. He said he tries to block out that last fact. He knows the risks, which is why he prefers that his children - Kasey, 10, or Colin, 8 - not go into racing.

During a race, a driver’s heartbeat reaches very high levels. Because Indy 500 is a three-hour race, “it’s very exhausting.”

“The main thing about racing is your concentration level has to be maintained so high for so long. You can’t make a mistake,” he said. “You’re either 100 percent on the throttle, or you’re 100 percent on the brake trying to slow the car down without losing control, without locking your tires. If you’re going to take a corner at 90 mph, you’ve got to take it at 90 mph. You can’t take it at 91. You can’t take it at 89.”

Sidebar: Sponsors' Requests

After watching others compete for the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kaminsky believes it is his turn to be a part of the action. “I have had to sit and watch many drivers that I personally coached, and other drivers I had routinely beat, go on to compete in the Indy 500. I feel that now it’s my turn. I’ve put in years of hard work that few drivers could ever imagine. I now have huge connections in the Indy racing community that I never had before.

“I have the experience behind the wheel. I know what it takes. We have the car, the team, and half the budget already in place.”

This is where he hopes readers of The NEWS join in his dream. He is looking for sponsors and contributions from the HVAC industry. He’d be more than happy to speak for the industry’s behalf.

“A large majority of contractors, service techs, and installers are huge racing fans and car nuts in general,” he said. “So companies in our industry, using an Indy 500 driver as their spokesman - that is also a contractor - is unprecedented! Who better to relate to the issues contractors are dealing with every day than a contractor?”

Kaminsky said he has “a tremendous number of contractors” already contacting him to find out how they can help get one of their own into the 500. “They want to know what products they will need to sell to have the opportunity to attend the 500, and how much equipment they would need to purchase in order to be invited to one of our driver school track days,” he said.

“We are currently talking with some manufacturers of the brands that Air Tigers sells and recommends, but no decision has been made yet as to which one we will be working with. As soon as we know, we will announce it right here in The NEWS and on our Website.”

If you’re a marketing manager in HVAC and you want to get your company involved, Kaminsky asks that you call and reserve space on the side of his Indy car. If you’re a contractor that would love to get into the driver seat of a high performance Formula race car at one of Kaminsky Racing’s driving schools or attend this year’s Indy 500 as a guest, Kaminsky asked that you contact his office to get put on the mailing list.

He admitted that he gave up on his Indy dream five or six years ago, but when he went to Carburetion Day at Indy last year, his heart pounded, and he knew he had to be a part of it.

To reach Kaminsky at Air Tigers, call 815-838-2934, or go to www.kaminskyracing.com.

Publication date: 03/03/2008

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