Chip Lofton is the common denominator in the riddle of how drag racers have benefited from colicky children, a herd of goats, Tennessee’s Dollywood theme park, and the NASCAR experience.
The owner of Strutmasters.com has shared his plenty with more than a dozen NHRA racers across seven pro and sportsman classes. And what has enabled him to do that, he said, is failure.
“I should write a book on failing forward,” Lofton said. “I have to make mistakes to learn things. I’ve failed most of my life, but I’ve always failed a little bit forward.”
Failure seems like a harsh call, for every step backward turns into a huge leap forward for the 71-year-old businessman from Roxboro, N.C.
Two of his and wife Sharon’s three children – who happened to be just 14 months apart in age – developed colic at the same time as babies. Through extensive research, the Loftons discovered the benefit of goat milk to cure that discomfort. A few years later, when Sharon Lofton was homeschooling the children, she thought it might be fun to have a few goats as pets.
I see potential in these people, and I like to watch them improve and find their potential. A lot of these guys just need parts.”
“I was always seeing the commercial side of it,” Chip said. Because he was so impressed with how goat milk rid his children of colic, he decided to raise 75 goats and can goat milk and tout it as the cure for the childhood condition. They did well, becoming North Carolina’s leading producer of goat cheese. Even today, Chip called Sharon “the best goat-cheese-maker who ever walked the face of the Earth.” He said, “I turned it into this big commercial thing. Then my goats all got sick with a disease, and it was costing me $400 a day to feed them. And I had to milk them for a year to prove they were disease-free. We lived in poverty for probably about 10 years.”
Then while taking his family for a vacation to Tennessee’s Dollywood theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains, the car broke down. Rather than wallow in self-pity, Lofton not only repaired the 10-year-old used Lincoln Continental’s suspension system with salvaged struts. He saw a need for his suspension conversion kits with the business he was attracting online through eBay, so he began his new Strutmasters.com venture in his old 1,500-square-foot goat barn. Soon he outgrew that and moved into a 15,000-square-foot building in town and later into an old textile mill with 220,000 square feet. To incorporate his and son Matt’s racing team, he found a 556,000-square-foot building. (By comparison, Don Schumacher Racing’s shop covers 150,000 square feet.)
Together he and Matt learned the NASCAR ropes before Matt settled down to be a husband, father, and operator at the Strutmasters.com plant.
“It was a great part of our lives that we did together,” Lofton said, adding that it was pretty commendable “for somebody that milked 75 goats every day for seven years, made goat cheese, and stayed broke all the time.”
Ultimately, Lofton built a 75,000-square-foot facility for his manufacturing plant that has state-of-the-art equipment and tools. And the success of the business is what allows him to be active in the drag racing community, passing along not just some of his extra earnings but advice and encouragement, as well.
“What I try to do for these guys is try to give my impression of what a sponsor would expect you to look like.”
And he has told more than one racer, “You don’t look like that. You need to clean your hauler. You need to do this, and you need to do that, make things look a little better around here. It’s not so much how fast you run. It’s what you look like. If you’re looking for sponsorship, it has to be clean.”
When Lofton – who has an extensive history of involvement in other motorsports series – first emerged on the drag-racing scene, he established himself as a sort of patron saint of struggling teams. After an association with Stringer Motorsports, he supported ambitious new Top Fuel driver Audrey Worm and longtime racer Wally Stroupe’s Pro Stock effort.
Team owner Don Schumacher has referred many times to his seven-team conglomerate as “a cast of characters.” But Schumacher has nothing on Lofton, who has more than twice as many racers under his Strutmasters.com funding umbrella – in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Modified, Mountain Motor Pro Stock, Super Stock, and Competition Eliminator.
Lofton has a sizeable investment in Justin Ashley’s Top Fuel program at Davis Motorsports, with top billing on Ashley’s dragster – one he predicted will carry the 25-year-old to rookie-of-the-year honors and a victory before the season is out. Also in the NHRA’s headliner class, he is contributing to “American Dream Tour” architect Lex Joon and to Doug Foley with his newly re-launched Foley and Lewis team. In Funny Car, Lofton is helping full-timer Terry Haddock and part-timer Dave Richards.
Bo Butner, the 2017 series champion, and John Gaydosh/Beaver Motorsports (which includes a couple of sportsman racers, including team owner Mark Beaver) give Lofton a stake in the Pro Stock class. It’s a deal that’s in cooperation with Shane Tucker. Lofton’s reach in Pro Stock Motorcycle starts with Scotty Pollacheck and his two teammates, three-time champion and Matt Smith and his wife, Angie Smith. Matt Smith’s father, three-time Pro Modified champion Rickie Smith, will race with the Strutmasters.com banner all season, as well. Johnny Pluchino’s powerplant in his Mountain Motor Pro Stock car comes from Lofton’s pocketbook.
In the sportsman ranks, Strutmasters.com has befriended Dan Fletcher, another three-time national champion who happens to have 104 victories, and, on a more limited basis, Ed Federkeil.
With his expanded presence throughout the sport, Lofton no longer helps just the teams trying to gain traction.
“By having Bo [Butner] and Rickie [Smith], it upgrades the whole program,” Lofton said. He’s aware people have said, “Strutmasters, they just find those guys that can’t get down the track.”
He had a response to that: “Well, guess what – we got [several] guys who can get down the track a whole lot.”
Lofton said, “I like to take somebody and help move them forward. You don’t have to do that with Bo and Rickie, but they have moved everybody else forward. They make everybody think, ‘Well, wait a minute – if that guy’s sponsoring them, he must see something in these other people.’ And I do. I saw plenty in Audrey. I see potential in these people, and I like to watch them improve and find their potential. A lot of these guys just need parts.”
He has been approached about taking on an even bigger role in the sport, but he has turned down any deeper involvement.
I like to take somebody and help move them forward. You don’t have to do that with Bo and Rickie, but they have moved everybody else forward.
“I’m not a big player. I’m really not a big player. I seem to find people [for whom] a little bit more money gets them over the hump and they can show up and make more runs,” Lofton said. “I think it’s good for them, it’s good for NHRA, and it’s good for my company to be on TV.”
As with any community or venture that relies heavily on marketing partners for funding, drag racing has its own element of empty materialism or sense of greed. But Lofton has his own system for deciding in whom to invest.
“One thing that I’ve learned,” he said, “is you’ve got to figure out the dynamics of the person and the team, what they’re up against. Do they have a business of their own that’s making money? Is this a hobby? Or is this how you make a living? If it is, how do you do that?”
Moreover, not giving into any ego-feeding temptation to operate his own team is no problem for Lofton. He has had his fill of racing ownership. He was part of a group that owned stock car’s Hooters Pro Cup Series. (“That was a mistake, but I owned it,” he said.) And he helped son Matt Lofton in his racing pursuits in late-model stocks, ARCA, and finally in the NASCAR Truck Series from 2006-2012. He won a race in 2007 and had three podium finishes in 2012.
“I owned his team for awhile, then I made him start his own team so he could learn business. He had to rent a building, hire a crew, and build a car. (Today Matt Lofton is retired from racing and operating a StrutDaddy’s Complete Car Care center.)
Chip Lofton talked about “the beauty of being a sponsor instead of a team owner” and said, “People say, ‘All the money you’re putting out there, why don’t you just have your own team?’ No no, no. All I have to do is get on an airplane and go to a race – or not go to a race and watch it on TV…or go to the race and have a great time and stand at the line and have all that fun stuff going on. But if you own your own team, man, you’ve got to stay with it. It’s 24/7. You’ve got to keep going and keep going and keep going. And you have all the responsibility and liability of all that stuff. Instead of knowing the dynamics of a driver or team owner, you have to know the dynamics of everybody on the team and deal with all that. I’d rather be a sponsor.”