Super Scrapper: Forrest Lucas

Tony Valainis

Three months before the glitz of Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Forrest Lucas settles into his parked motorhome as the junior and modified karts buzz demonically around Las Vegas Motor Speedway's off-road course. It's the first program after star driver Rick Huseman died in a plane crash, but the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series has drawn a big crowd of stoked young people, many wearing the Lucas Oil Products logo somewhere on their bodies. The company's logo is also on the camera helicopter, on the water truck and the grader that groom the track between races, and even on a radio-controlled model a kid plays with near the grandstand. The Lucas Oil Productions rig is on-site, recording the action for later broadcast on any of several networks, including Lucas's own newly acquired fixer-upper, MAVTV. Lucas is looking splendid in a nicely detailed burnt-orange shirt and sharply creased black Wranglers. An Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl XLI watch adorns his left wrist. The slight stoop in his posture betrays the fact that he'll turn seventy on February 25, yet Lucas shows no gray hair. He flashes an alabaster smile when I present the quart of Lucas Heavy Duty Oil Stabilizer that I'd purchased for $10 at Pep Boys and repeat what the counterman said: "It's good stuff. It works. They have good additives."

His hazel eyes light up. He tilts the white plastic bottle away from the window's glare and regards the red-and-blue labeling. Along with a couple other elixirs, this is the product that Lucas and his second wife, Charlotte, have built their fortune upon since 1989. He developed them as a way of extracting maximum performance from his own fleet of fourteen moving trucks. Getting out of trucking and into the retail market then seemed obvious. So he drew on sales experience that started during his youth in southern Indiana, peddling Cloverine Salve and earning his first BB gun as payment. Gathering together a few bottles of his oils, he went door-to-door at truck stops and independent auto-parts stores, guaranteeing to take back any unsold inventory.

Since then, things have worked out pretty well. In 2006, Lucas signed a shocking $122 million, twenty-year deal for naming rights to the new Indianapolis Colts stadium. "People hadn't heard of Lucas Oil," says Tom Zupancic, who was the Colts' senior vice president of sales and marketing at the time. "It was confined more or less to the auto-racing world." As startling as the deal was, Zupancic says there wasn't any naysaying from Colts fans. Meanwhile, the effort Lucas put into decorating the stadium's main entrance, Lucas Oil Plaza, with a Lucas Oil-sponsored ocean-racing boat, a pulling tractor, an aerobatics biplane, a motorcycle, and various racing cars dazzled everybody and "set the benchmark in decor." Hearing this assessment, Lucas can't help but agree. "I kind of did," he says.

Besides their stadium suite, the Lucases have five homes in four states, including former Conseco chairman Stephen Hilbert's lollapalooza: the thirty-six-room hilltop chateau in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel that Lucas picked up for $3 million in cash at a 2010 auction, a high point of what he calls his "scrapper mentality." Meanwhile, the Lucas Cattle Company operates a profitable Simmental-breeding operation on more than 15,000 acres near Cross Timbers, in central Missouri. Twenty-five miles away, in Wheatland, the Lucas Oil Speedway, a three-eighths-mile dirt oval, has been joined by Lake Lucas, a purpose-built drag-boat course that Lucas says cost "a few million" to build and sets a new standard in the sport.

Although Lucas Oil is now involved in stick-and-ball sports, boxing, and soccer, motorsports is "the cornerstone of our marketing," says executive vice president Bob Patison. The Lucas Oil logo was first applied to a sprint car, driven by Ricky Logan, in 1989. Then the teenage son of the owner of a NAPA shop in Little Rock, Arkansas, Logan is now Lucas Oil's distributor in New Zealand. About 700 racing teams, including a dragster Down Under and a superboat on the Mediterranean, currently have Lucas Oil sponsorship, Patison says. There are stock cars, sprint cars, modifieds, motorcycles, midgets, buggies, tractors, trucks, planes, and perhaps even a hot-air balloon drifting over Tucumcari, New Mexico. Lucas Oil is the title sponsor for several racing series. "They're at every track you go to," says Robin Miller, the Speed correspondent who goes to almost every track. "The thing that's interesting about Lucas -- I don't think anyone realizes what kind of reach he has."

The two-week run-up to the Super Bowl will consolidate and crystallize the diverse conceptions about Lucas Oil. "Nobody associates the Super Bowl with dirt under the fingernails," says Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy who follows automotive advertising and brand-building initiatives. "This will proliferate the brand in a whole different marketplace."

Despite emerging on Super Sunday's stage, and despite a lineup of more than 100 products with annual revenues in excess of $150 million, according to Forbes, Lucas Oil remains a closely held outfit with a minimal management structure. "I still write the labels on all the bottles," Lucas drawls in his baritone croak, a voice that seems to emanate from a drain inside Hoover Dam. He points to the quart of Heavy Duty Oil Stabilizer. "If you read this, everything that counterman needs to know to sell this oil is on here. How much to use -- it's all written here, and it's written in fifth-grade English, no big words. I know if the people start reading something and they come to a big word they can't understand, they'll quit reading and set the thing down. I've had to make very few changes in any of this."

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