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.”
The slogan above the logo adjures the user to “Keep that engine alive.” What the instructions don’t say is that just rubbing the bottle brings forth numerous genies. The “100% Petroleum” contents are intended for pistons with lousy rings but also for brand-new engines; indeed, the Stabilizer “cools and quiets;” neither four-banger nor “high performance” powerplant is excluded from the benefits; diesel or gasoline, it’s equally effective. Smoking, knocking, and oil consumption are hereby cured. Easier starting, better mileage, more power, and less pollution are achieved. Motorcycles (“especially Harley-Davidson”), air compressors, and lawn mowers receive particular commendations. Manual transmissions, axle differentials, and four-wheel-drive transfer cases will derive a boon.
I repeated these avowals to a friend who’s a chemical tribologist, that is, someone who studies friction and wear. In her specific case, she designs lubricants for use in the process of drawing wire. She heard all of Lucas’s claims and rolled her eyes before spouting a viscosity-index improver’s choo-choo-train name. (This compound’s molecule looks like two stick people dancing the fox-trot.) Besides viscosity-index improvers, the functional classes of oil additives include dispersants and detergents; together, they comprised 68 percent of the global lubricant additives market in 2010, when manufacturers spent $10.3 billion on 3.7 million metric tons of the substances, according to Lubes’n’Greases magazine.
So what about Lucas Oil? I failed in numerous attempts to elicit comment from recognized experts. Edward Salek, executive director of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, declined to be interviewed but did point out in an e-mail that Forrest Lucas’s STLE membership expired in 2008. Lucas attributes the
industry establishment’s reticence to a bias against uncredentialed interlopers.
His formula is the best-kept secret since the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Lucas explains how he perfected it. Occasionally drumming the knuckles of his clenched fist on the small tabletop, he describes being a layman chemist. (He graduated from North Central High School in tiny Ramsey, Indiana, where there was no chemistry department.) Prowling around chemical junkyards in the Los Angeles area between 1988 and 1990, he looked at defunct companies’ partial barrels. Ultimately, the proprietor of one of these junkyards called his attention to a particular unit. “The barrel was all rusty and the paper was pretty much wore out on it, but I was able to read enough to know that this had to be the best part of the oil in a synthetic form,” he says. After buying the barrel, he liked the results from test batches of his engine treatment. “It worked out much better than what I had. Then I made some for transmissions. I made the products, and then to be on the safe side I started trying to chase down somebody who knew what it was really intended for.”
Over the next couple months, he spent his spare time “calling this big company.” He remembers finally reaching a scientist who asked, ” ‘How in the hell did you ever get ahold of me?’ He was the guy who developed the product, and everything I was using it for was what it was made for, but nobody would buy it because it was expensive and hard to work with.” To solve the latter problem, Lucas built his own blending equipment. In all the years since, the formula with his secret additive has never changed. Nor has a competitor discovered it. Not even spectrum analysis reveals the properties. “They can’t find out what we’re using. It looks like something else.”
Of the unlikeliest roads to the Super Bowl, none has ever led through a chemical junkyard nor skirted Kirchhoff’s three laws of spectroscopy. But having arrived for the occasion, Lucas will be ensconced in the bargain chateau that’s often used these days for charitable events. “It’s just been a real boost to the 501(c)(3) economy here in Indianapolis,” says Zupancic, the longtime Colt. “Forrest has been incredibly generous with his time and allowing them to use the mansion.”
The two weeks beforehand will be busy. Lucas says he and three others forked out $1 million each toward the $25 million the NFL wanted in order to bring the Super Bowl to town, while 126 other donors made up the rest. Lucas will host them for a party. “All the donors and their top lieutenants are coming out,” he says. Well, maybe some sergeants and privates, too, because 1200 people are expected. The Colts are having their own shindig in Carmel before Super Sunday. And friends and relatives will join the Lucases there to watch the game. Given his scrapper mentality, what message would he share with his guests? “Everybody’s a little bit of a chemist, everybody’s a little bit of an inventor, if you put a couple of things together.”
Feet to the Fire
During our interview with Forrest Lucas, we quizzed him on a number of terms and topics.
“It’s a racing oil, for the most part.”
General Motors’ bailout
“I am totally against government bailouts of any kind, against government spending money to help any private company in any way, shape, or form — agriculture or otherwise.”
Polyalkylmethacrylate (the secret ingredient??)
“That is…my chemist could tell you exactly what that is, and I should know. We have an acronym for that. It’s not something we use a lot of. I know we use some of it.”
“Well, they — Federal Trade Commission — they do check a few things. I’m not against them. They try to keep everybody’s feet to the fire and make sure everything’s OK. It’s not a problem for us. We have had them check our stuff before. They’ll go to the store and pick up a bottle and check it. You won’t even know about it unless there’s something wrong.”
“Good cars. Toyota is a Lucas Oil sponsor. I think the whole idea of battery-powered cars is…a lot of tech went on there, and I don’t think a whole lot came out of it for all that was spent on it. It’s something for the future, but we’re not there yet.”
Andy Granatelli (the man who made STP famous)
“Andy Granatelli! You know, he’s a great guy. Good person. He really helped make racing.”