Racing has been in Billy Vest’s blood every since he was a child — a passion shared with his father — which helped forge their relationship and make lifelong memories.
Now, the Waxahachie firefighter has taken that love for motorsports and developed it into business.
Vest and his business partner Dennis Bissonnette laid the foundations for their company Dirt Defender, which supplies automotive parts for dirt track racing, in 2013. Since that time, Dirt Defender has grown and is now selling its parts globally.
One of the signature parts Dirt Defender creates are plastic wheel covers. While on the surface, the part does not look that impressive, the product proves looks can be deceiving. It actually plays a key role in making a trip to victory lane.
“The thing with racing is you can’t just jump in a car and go. There is a lot to it. Suspension, shocks. You know, back in the day, you just ran some shocks right off the shelf,” Vest said. “Everybody had the same stuff. Well, now you look on the back of this car and there is a Penske shock. That is probably a $1,000 shock. One shock. When you are on the track, the track is made of clay and dirt. It is really, really soft and muddy. It is made to have a lot of traction. When you’re racing, the mud flies up and tries to stick in the wheel. It fills the wheel up. The mud will pack in here and fill this whole thing up. So you are carrying 150 pounds of mud and it vibrates really bad.”
Vest said the vibration could go throughout the entire car, causing stress on other parts. This could then lead to parts not functioning properly or part failure, which can be expensive. The problem, Vest noted, is that racers would have different sets of wheel covers that would fit only specific wheel brands and could not be used on others.
“Bassett Racing Wheels makes a Bassett wheel cover for their wheel. There are several manufactures that make covers for their wheel. So what happens is you never have all Aeros or all Bassetts. Whoever has a sale going on, you buy Aeros or you buy Bassetts unless you’re sponsored,” Vest said. “You end up with all these different stacks of wheel covers. They don’t say Bassett on them. So you don’t know what fits what. It just hopeful fits. We decided there had to be a way to make a wheel cover that fits all wheels.”
After talking with Bissonnette, Vest sold his landscaping business to help fund the part development and the production run. Questions had to be answered like where to find the plastic needed to make the part and who to contact to make a mold for the part and it took about two or three months to get the first 100 set of wheel covers made.
To get the brand out and noticed, Vest took a road trip.
“There is a race in Boone, Iowa in September called International Motor Car Association Super Nationals. Everybody that is somebody comes to that race. It could be 800 to 1,000 cars there that start racing on a Tuesday and end on a Saturday. They race every day from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. and it is constant until that Saturday. They work down from 1,000 to 24 cars,” Vest said. “So we decide we got 100 sets made. We took the wheel covers to the super nationals in Iowa and sold everyone of them. When I was at the Super Nationals, I was just learning social media. My phone wouldn't stop. Every time I started looking at Facebook I would have 200 more friends."
Vest knew what having the right part means to a racer, having been behind the wheel of a dirt track car and winning a championship in 1995. That first-hand experience is a valuable tool in his business, he said.
Vest said one of his earliest experiences in racing involved borrowing the motor out of his mother’s car and winning a race with it.
“One night me and Dennis were fixing to leave and go cruise the drag, and my dad came by on the street and had this car on a trailer. I was like, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. We are racing tomorrow. I just bought you a car.’ It didn’t have a motor or anything in it, it was just a shell,” Vest said. “My mom’s El Camino happened to have a 400 small block in it and was sitting at the shop. So we decided to pull the motor out of her car and put it into the race car.”
Vest said the feelings from that first race still ring true every time he has the opportunity to get on the track himself.
“You don’t want to eat. You feel like your going to throw up because you are going to be racing against 24 cars. You go out onto the track waiting for the green flag,” he continued. “ When you are on the track, you’re waiting to race. The yellow light is on and when that sucker goes off, you know the next lap is go time. It’s on. After the flag drops and you get two or three laps in, you get kind of settled in the car and your mind starts to think like normal. You start thinking regular thoughts when you start racing. You are still concentrating on racing, but your brain goes into this relaxed mode. Your nerves go away and it’s fun.”
Since that trip to the Super Nationals, Vest and Bissonnette have worked to refine their products, switching to different types of plastic that held up better and adding new parts to Dirt Defender’s catalog.
Dirt Defender even has some parts on current and former NASCAR driver’s dirt track cars. Some of the drivers who use their parts include Ron Hornaday Jr., Kenny Wallace and David Stremme. Dirt Defender’s parts are also featured on the car of a developmental driver owned by Tony Stewart.
The business sponsors more than 100 drivers with parts.
“I sponsored the guy who won the Super Nationals last year and the year before," Vest said. "So when he won the Super Nationals, his car is up there on the podium and people are cheering our wheel covers on the front of Dirt Track Magazine. So he gives me Kenny Wallace’s phone number. So I call him. I am like, ‘Hey Kenny, this is Billy, a small town fireman just starting this business. Wondering if you could run my stuff, plug me [or do] anything you could do to help. I am just a regular blue-collar guy but I could use help getting some marketing going.’"
Vest said after Wallace's response of, "Let me call you back," he didn't hear from him for two weeks.
“He calls me back and I am in the kitchen washing dishes,” Vest said. "When Kenny Wallace calls, it’s like Brad Pitt to me. So I answer and he says ‘Wild Bill what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am washing dishes right now. Not all us get to race all the time for a living.’ After we shot [conversation] back and fourth, told me to, ‘Send me a stack of those wheel covers. I’ m running them.’ I was like ‘You got it.’ He has got two of these dirt cars and tweeted it saying, ‘Dirt Defender just came on board. We have got this product. Check them out.’ My phone didn’t stop tweeting for like three days. People were just re-tweeting it. It has been pretty crazy.”
Dirt Defender continues to grow and the numbers back up the success of the company. In 2013, Dirt Defender broke even, but during its first full year of operation, the company had $100,000 in sales.
That number increased to $500,000 — a $400,000 jump — in 2015. The majority of those funds were reinvested back in the business to make it stronger and to help it grow, Vest said.
While Dirt Defender’s world is centered around the racing industry, it is also about giving back to others and making their dream happen, too.
“This guy from North Carolina, Jodi Saluter, has built three cars for me. He was working an everyday job, but his passion was that he want to build chassis. So we get to talking and he said this is really what he wants to do. I said ‘I will tell you what. We have been blessed big time. We always want to give back big time. I will tell you what, I will buy three cars from you. I haven’t seen what you can do, but I will write you a check for three cars if that will get you going, so you can start building cars,’” Vest said. “I said ‘Will that help?’ He says, ‘yeah.’ So I wrote him a check for three cars from our business. So that is what we did for that company. We helped him get off his feet.”
Vest said this success has allowed him to help others who might have not been given an opportunity otherwise.
Vest said the next step was whether or not to take the business to the next level by bringing in investors and making parts on a larger scale. While racing is one of his passions, Vest is going to continue bettering himself in his other passion as a firefighter.
He has served with the Waxahachie Fire Department for the past 11 years.
“I love what I do,” Vest said. “I am actually involved in two of the things that I love. Racing and fighting fires. It is really not about fighting fires, it is about helping people.”
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