For Clearing the Head, Beats Fishing
Two brothers from Pelham own and run a $20 million HVAC business weekdays, but on about 20 weekends a year you’ll find them on racetracks across the Southeast, including a few NASCAR Xfinity Series races.
Roger (left) and Bobby Reuse share not only their family business but also their love for auto racing.
For most people, the daily drive involves dealing with crowded roadways and trying to avoid erratic drivers. It is a necessary evil required to start and end the work day. For brothers Bobby and Roger Reuse, however, getting behind the wheel of a car and driving in traffic is when the fun begins.
The Reuse brothers own Pelham-based Alabama Controls, along with their cousin Chuck and three non-family members. The company — which provides control units for HVAC, lighting and security systems for commercial properties — was founded in 1975 by their father, Clayton Reuse, and has grown into a nearly $20 million business with five offices and 47 employees.
It isn’t the commute to and from work that excites the Reuse brothers. Rather, it is the weekend drives that they make. But instead of taking a relaxing ride through the countryside, the Reuse brothers are bumping fenders and making passes on racetracks in Montgomery, Pensacola and beyond.
“When you get inside a race car and pull the seat belt tight, everything gets really quiet and you get really focused,” says Roger Reuse, 49, who has been racing since he was a student at Auburn University. “It takes everything else away. Your focus is only on what you’re doing.
“When you’re sitting at your desk, the phone is ringing, the Internet is going, the TV is on, there’s all this noise. In the car, you put on your helmet and it gets really quiet and you forget about all those other things.”
The Reuse brothers picked up their passion for auto racing from their father. Clayton Reuse competed at the old Birmingham International Raceway in his spare time during the 1970s and early ’80s, and later helped work on cars for Chelsea native Stanley Smith, who spent several years racing in NASCAR’s top series.
“As early as age 3 or 4, I have memories of being at the race track,” says 45-year-old Bobby Reuse. “I remember the excitement of hearing the engines, the speed, the camaraderie, all that stuff. We both grew up in it, and it just becomes a way of life.
“Our dad’s passion for racing came to both of us so easily. We always wanted to work on the cars in the garage and go to the race track. It was just a natural progression that we would go from helping work on cars to driving them ourselves.”
Roger feels much the same way. While their cousin Chuck prefers the quieter pursuit of fishing, Roger says he and Bobby simply could not get enough of the sights, sounds and smells associated with auto racing.
“We would beg our dad to let us go with him,” Roger says. “It was such a rush to go see the races. For some people it was going to football or baseball games. For us, racing is what our father took us to, and it was what we always dreamed of doing.”
The only problem was, racing at the highest levels of the sport is expensive, and nobody in the family was willing to risk the growing business at Alabama Controls for the longshot chance of making it big in NASCAR. So the Reuse brothers have been content to live life in the slow lane during the week, and keep auto racing solely as a weekend pursuit.
“A lot of people in racing spend everything they have to be able to do their passion,” Roger says. “Our dad was the kind of person — and he passed it on to me and Bobby — where there was a certain amount of money he wanted to spend on racing, and that was it. He didn’t want it to affect our business or our family.
“We love to race, but not at the level where we are going to spend everything. You can spend a lot of money on it. There are people who will borrow money and hurt a lot of people when it goes bad. They go out of business. We never wanted to jeopardize our business or our homes.”
Instead, the brothers have tried to use their hobby to promote their business. For example, they recently took one of their race cars to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers convention in Dallas and had NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and longtime Alabama resident Bobby Allison in the trade booth with the car. On another occasion, they did a product showcase with Lennox and placed Lennox logo decals on the hood of the car.
“When you have that car there, it’s interesting to some people,” Bobby says. “It’s a real conversation starter and a great centerpiece for those kinds of events. So we’ve tried to tie racing to the business side of things the best we can, with these sponsorship appearances.”
Over the past two years, the brothers have received a small taste of big-time racing. They have teamed up with NASCAR driver and car owner Mike Harmon of Birmingport to compete in three road-course events in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which is the second-highest level of NASCAR, behind only the top-tier Sprint Cup Series.
The races have taken place in New York state, Ohio and Wisconsin. And while the Reuse brothers were unable to truly challenge the top-dollar teams on the circuit — the best finish has been a 24th-place showing by Bobby last year at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — they have had plenty of fun and also gained some attention back home.
“It’s amazing the number of people who have called up and said, ‘Was that you racing?’ They didn’t know we were doing that,” Roger says. “There are still people who are shocked to find out what we do. And the people who do know will call on Monday and say they were cheering for us.”
The two brothers combine to race approximately 20 weekends a year. Most of the races take place at either Montgomery Motor Speedway or Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, though over the years they have competed at tracks throughout the Southeast, as well as at the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham. In addition, Bobby’s 25-year-old daughter, Shelby, has been racing in Montgomery for the past three years.
“It’s just something we really enjoy doing,” Bobby says. “If I was sitting on a lake with a fishing pole, I’d be thinking the whole time about what was going on at work. But with racing, you can’t think about other stuff. You get zoned into what you’re doing and tune out the rest of the world. At those times, you never want to do anything else.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.