Chip Lofton has an undeniable soft spot for the underdog.
That’s in no small measure because he was in the same position when he started Strutmasters two decades ago.
The newest of his company’s ongoing, limited-scale racing sponsorships was the Strutmasters.com backing of Justin Ashley. That faith and funding helped Ashley reach the semifinals at the recent NHRA race at Charlotte — Ashley’s Top Fuel debut.
“I’m just a starter, I’m just the ignitor, for sponsorship,” said Lofton, whose business is located in Roxboro, N.C., a town of fewer than 9,000 residents near the N.C.-Virginia line. “My goal is to become a small sponsor off to the side and some great, big-name where my name is right now, i would feel good about that. A lot of people think I’m just taking advantage of some people here, but I really want to try to help them get launched.
”If you’re not there (at the races), you can’t get a sponsor. You have to be there, and you have to invite people to come — and they will, and I will, for the other boys. They’ve got to fall in love with somebody, and Justin’s the kind of kid you can fall in love with and grab a sponsor.”
Lofton’s been helping small-budget racers for years, ever since Strutmasters began out of necessity, curiosity and some skills he picked up as a farmer who needed to repair a 10-year-old Lincoln Continental.
If that sounds like an unusual launch point for an industrialist, it is.
Lofton was a shoestring racer himself, a man who once owned a 426 Hemi-powered ‘41 Willys B/Gas entry in the late 1960s.
“I know I came from some tough places,” he said.
“Then you get married and have to put all that on the sideline. And hopefully, life is good enough to you that somewhere down the line that you can get back in it when you get your kids out of college and get all that behind you. If you get blessed like I got blessed and end up with a company like Strutmasters, you end up with a little bit of budget to work with.”
To understand why Lofton persists in helping further racers’ careers, one needs to know the story behind Strutmasters’ formation. It’s a wild tale, to say the least.
In the late 1990s, Lofton was homeschooling his children as the family lived on a 55-acre farm and raised goats whose milk it turned into goat cheese for sale at local markets. After two years without a vacation, Lofton decided the family needed a respite from its hard labor, so in ‘99 he purchased from a fellow church member the 10-year Lincoln, which was equipped with an air ride suspension.
On their voyage to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Lofton’s son Matt broke some bad news to his dad: The car’s sinking.
“I got the owner’s manual out, started looking at what could be wrong with that. I checked the fuses, checked the wires, checked everything, and couldn’t figure out what to do,” Chip Lofton said. “Now the car’s pretty much sitting on the bumper. I’ve got my family in there, going to Dollywood, so I’m kind of angry. I get mad and slam the door — and the car came back up. Well, we’ve got it fixed now. We’re going down the road, I hear my son go, ‘Dad, dad, the car’s going down again.’ We weren’t 10 miles down the road. … I got mad again, slammed the door, turned on the ignition and the car came back up.
“What I didn’t know was that that recycled the computer on the car. The computer realized it had a lot of leaks and turned the compressor off to keep from burning up the compressor, so the car would go down every 10 miles to Dollywood.”
When the family returned home, Lofton took the car to a local garage to get an estimate on repairs. Thirty-five hundred dollars, he was told, with no guarantee on the work for a car worth $1,900. So Lofton set out to devise a way to convert the Continental to a conventional suspension, and after burning holes in a few struts with his welding machine, he came up with a combination that worked.
It didn’t take long for word to get out what he’d achieved, and within a short time, he was approached by a man who begged him to fix the same issue on his car. Once Lofton did that, the news spread, and in short order, with an eBay ad and an 800 number, Strutmasters was up and running.
That “led to where we are today with over 450 parts for different cars. Lincoln, Cadillac, Lexus, Audi, Mercedes — anything that came with air ride, even some Volkswagens,” he said. “We basically convert the car to a conventional system like you’d have on your daddy’s car.”
Almost overnight, business doubled every month for two years, then doubled every year for five years. From no industry at all, Lofton had created one that now generates $200 million a year in sales.
Lofton’s business began in a 1,500-square-foot barn on the goat farm. He then moved Strutmasters into a factory of 15,000 square feet, then one of 220,000 to another of 556,000 — “That’s 10 acres under roof,” his flabbergasted father told him. Strutmasters is now headquarters in a modern facility of 75,000 square feet in Roxboro.
“Our only competition is coming out of China. Our quality control, our system is set up where we bring in parts and assemble everything here, and it’s quality controlled at about six different locations,” he said. “When you get something from China, it’s already in the box, and you’re the quality control because when you open the box, you’re the first one in America to see it.
“I never could’ve dreamed in a million years I could’ve done some of the things I’ve done because of what the company has allowed me to do, especially in the racing and knowing how expensive it is,” he added. “I guess I go back to when I was 20 years old and knowing it was very hard for a guy working a job to try to pull this off and go racing. As time went on, racing got to be TV kind of stuff and just really, really, really expensive to get in those kinds of classes.”
The business has helped him fund Pro Modified racer Wally Stroupe; Top Fuel competitor Clay Millican, whose first three NHRA victories came with Strutmasters sponsorship; Top Fuel racers Lex Joon, Audrey Worm and Ashley; and a number of short-track stock car racers, including his son, Matt. Virginia driver Timothy Peters finished sixth in the NASCAR Truck Series race at Daytona in 2006 with Strutmasters sponsorship, and Matt Lofton’s five top-five finishes in 2012 in ARCA competition included a runner-up showing at Talladega.
His aid helped Millican remain in NHRA title contention last year and earn a third-place finish. When Worm needed assistance to get to races that would’ve otherwise been short on cars — thus earning herself a guaranteed paycheck for the weekend — Lofton was there. Strutmasters adorned Joon’s car when the racer from The Netherlands came to America to compete.
“Parts is a huge thing. Buying and selling parts is huge, and buying and selling the right parts is a huge thing, and so is putting the right combinations together,” Lofton said. “Lance Larsen helped move (Joon’s team) along, and we’re getting better and better.”
Lofton understands better than many what it’s like to be short on money, whether on a personal level or as a racer looking to further a career. His father grew up in a two-room house on a cotton farm in Mississippi, and in the winter, the family placed sheets of cardboard against the walls to keep the chill from seeping in. His father was responsible for making sure that the fire never went out in the wood-fueled stove on which his mother cooked and which heated their meager home.
A head-on highway collision as a teen left Lofton’s father blind in one eye, but he memorized the eye chart in order to pass the test to join the Army Air Corps and become a World War II pilot. After the war, he finished college at Mississippi State, took a job with Shell Oil, and eventually wound up in exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Lofton’s father worked 39 years for Shell without missing a day of work, then retired to his farm that included two cows, a white one and a black one he named Daylight and Dark.
That’s the bloodline and work ethic that helped launch Strutmasters — the company whose founder continues to support drag racing like few others.