Mike Zusin never went to business school. His business plan wasn't exactly orthodox. Then only 22 and lacking any formal mechanical experience, Franklin, Tennessee's Zusin appealed for a small business loan to fund the facility that would house the start-up that, technically, existed only in name, and would rest on the same plot of land in which he lived-smack-dab in the middle of the woods. An infallible formula for a thriving automotive specialty shop this did not necessarily appear to be. As it turns out, formulas don't mean a damn thing.
In three years, Zusin's Track.One Motorsports has gone on to serve as a figurehead among greater Nashville's shop scene. Despite (or arguably because of) Track.One's backwoods locale, motorheads of all makes seek out Zusin and company's mechanical and fabrication prowess. In the time it would've taken the 25-year-old business owner to earn an MBA, a self-taught Zusin outgrew his 2,400-square-foot facility and has since begun scouting new locations to accommodate Track.One's swift growth and budding customer base.
Starting a Shop
MZ: My dream in high school was to build a car and get it featured in a magazine. After I did that, I felt accomplished, and I wanted another challenge. That was the shop. I've always wanted to do it. It's kind of a dream job. I had recently completed my Civic and put maybe 600 miles on it. Track.One at the time was just an idea-it had a name and a sticker. I was working as an electrician, and then the economy went under and I got laid off. I ended up working at Acura washing cars for eight bucks an hour and I couldn't stand it. I said, "Screw it. I'm just gonna go for it." So I left that job and parted out the [Civic] to start Track.One.
MZ: My family allowed me to build on their property to keep my overhead low. I built most of it myself. The shop is literally in the woods. Pretty much seven days a week for the past three years I've been trying to make this shop work. Working in construction, that helped. I wired the whole place myself. My dad helped me with a lot of the carpentry. I had friends come help. It's not huge, but it's perfect for what I needed to get started.
MZ: I took out a small enough loan to where it was like, OK, if this doesn't work, I'm paying off maybe a new Cadillac. That's the way I looked at it. There was risk, but it was safe risk. I made myself debt-free by parting out the Civic to where the only debt was for the business. I went in with no business experience at all, mostly driven by the fact that I wanted to make it happen no matter what it took. It's been a learning experience these past three years, but we're still going strong.
MZ: Honesty. That's the biggest thing. And trust. One of the main reasons I wanted to open a shop was [because] back when I had my Civic, I spun a rod bearing. I didn't know anything about cars, so I took it to a shop that somebody recommended to rebuild my engine. They ruined it. Ripped me off. That was the last time I took anything I owned anywhere. I'm sure a lot of people feel that way nowadays-they don't trust shops or mechanics. I always thought in the back of my head that if I did it, I'd do it differently.
MZ: Every client we've had come through the doors, I've become friends with them. I usually give them a little tour of the shop, tell them my background, how I got started-just talk with them, make it more of a personal experience rather than a business experience. With these kinds of cars, people have a big attachment. It's not just something that takes them from A to B. They're passionate about their cars, and we want them to trust us to work on them. I'll go out of my way to make sure each of my customers is happy. I'm in this to be a part of the industry and make some sort of impact. That's really what's helped us grow. We have a lot of repeat business, a ton of great clients. Just from word of mouth, we've been able to grow quite a bit within the last three years.
MZ: It's not really a nine-to-five for me because I'm always working. I used to be in the shop all the time, but now I've got a great crew. I'm mostly in the office all day, making phone calls, ordering parts, handling accounting, marketing, and advertising. Every once in a while I'll go work on something, but now I've become so busy with everything going on in the office. Running the business, that's my main focus. There's got to be a full-time CEO; there can't be a part-time CEO and a part-time technician. It doesn't work. That's just something I've learned from other business mentors.
MZ: One of my business mentors told me that to run a successful business, you've got to have a lot of great hands, and I do. I like to recruit people to work here rather than them come to me. I've met so many people throughout the years when I was building my car and traveling throughout different parts of the country. My head mechanic, Dan Hamilton, he moved down from Maryland in March. I'd been talking to him on and off for the past three years about him moving here. He was an NSX specialist up north-a great tech; he works on everything. A couple of months ago I hired a fabricator who moved here from Chattanooga. It's just us three.
The Growing Pains
MZ: It's starting to hurt us now. We're quickly running out of room. It's completely full. I've got a decent amount of parking, but we're running out of space. Certain parts companies and metal suppliers won't deliver here because it's a residential address. I don't have high-speed Internet. I can't get it, which is something I hate, especially with trying to upload pictures and videos. My only source of heat [is] a wood stove in my office. If it's 20 degrees outside, it's pretty much 20 degrees or 30 degrees in the shop. It's definitely roughing it. It's just progression. We started off small; we're slowly getting larger. When I started, it was great because it was kind of like a safety net. With the overhead being so low, if we had a slow week, it didn't really matter because I didn't have to make that much money to run the shop. Now, with two full-time guys, things have changed.
MZ: This has definitely been our most exciting year. Right now I'm in the process of talking with some investors, someone to help me get to that next level. I really need to get into a storefront location. If we can't handle all the work that comes into this location, that's a bad thing. There are a lot of things limiting us growing right now where we're at. I'm happy I started [here], though. If I was leasing a shop, I could've easily gone under during the start-up phase. I've learned so much over the past three years. I'm ready to take the next big risk.
MZ: I was helping out with a local drift car and we went out to this new neighborhood with maybe five houses in it, making sure the car worked before this big event, drifting it around the cul-de-sacs. There was a guy outside watching who apparently thought it was awesome. My friend told me the guy was from Spike TV. At the time, I didn't think anything of it. This past summer I was like, "I'm just gonna go over there." He said he'd been looking for us after he saw us there. His name is Jim Cozzie-the executive vice president of RTM Productions (PowerBlock TV). I mentioned the import industry to him, how it's always been stereotyped on television, how it's never been properly displayed. Overhaulin' tried to build a Civic, HorsePower [TV] tried to do a Civic, but they didn't really know what they were doing. All you see on television is muscle cars and four-by-four trucks. You never see much import stuff. That's what I was pitching him. After showing [RTM] our work, they were blown away. We brought Dan's Integra over and they couldn't believe it. They'd never seen a Honda that sounded like that, that looked like that. So we're building Dan's Integra [for the show]. My whole goal with starting Track.One was to do something for the import industry, to help it grow. Now, with this, I'm able to do that.
The Bad and the Ugly
MZ: There have been some hiccups, but for the most part I can't say there have been any bad projects. The most pain-in-the-ass project we did was an LS1 swap in a BMW E30. We do a bit of everything. When I started, I kind of bit off more than I could chew. I took on more projects than one person could handle. I let people in who were trying to help but didn't. They used me. It was a big learning experience, realizing who my true friends are. Learning time management, learning to not do too much or say yes too much. It was just way too much to handle. It was a pain then, but we made it work. Despite the stress of worrying if I was gonna make enough money to support my first employee, [Dan used] his experience with NSXs to bring in tons of different cars, [like] GT-Rs. We've [even] had Ferraris here. I never would've thought this little shop in the middle of the woods would get these kinds of cars in and do the work we do. It always surprises people when they come here for the first time. When you drive by you can see the green roof and a little fence way off in the distance down this gravel driveway; you'd never think of what's inside and what we do here. It's kind of nice being out here, quiet out here in the woods, secluded, which a lot of our clients like. But like I said earlier, it's time to make a move.
MZ: I've got a '93 RX-7 that we're going to be building later on in the year for HorsePower TV and hopefully unveil it at SEMA 2013. As far as Honda stuff, I know one of Dan's builds that he'd love to do is a K-series NSX. We're all about the crazy builds. I'd still like to rebuild my old Civic exactly how it was before because I never got to enjoy it. I never really finished it. That still kind of bugs me. Once I'm able to get to a place, financially, where I can afford to do so, I'm gonna track down a Civic. It won't be the same one as my old one, but that's fine. I just want to try to get it back to how I had it, finish it, enjoy it, and keep it as a memory of how I got started.
MZ: This year is gonna be a big year for us. It'll cement our name, hopefully, in this industry. I hope other people can be inspired from what I've done, to kind of risk it all. I don't want to live with regrets in life. I hope I can inspire other people to just go for it. I've realized that nothing's impossible, as long as you're willing to work. Nothing's more rewarding, despite the hours, despite everything. It's more than just a business. It's my baby [laughs]. It still brings a smile to myself every day. The best part is when [the customers] pick their cars up and how excited and how happy they are. I love it.