Gary Stanton built his first go-kart at age 13. Today, at age 71, he has an international following of winning race teams who pay him to build high-performance engines for their cars.
“We have no customers in Kentucky,” Stanton said. “We ship everything to Australia, New Zealand, California, New Jersey, Canada.”
Stanton is well-known in the racing world. Drivers such as Al Unser Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have driven for him, and his Stanton Racing Engines shop in Nicholasville has won victories and championships for sprints and midgets, which are cars that run on oval dirt or paved tracks. In 2001, Stanton was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Iowa.
2015 was a good year for Stanton Racing Engines. The company’s website lists lots of first-place winners who drove Stanton engines in midget and sprint races across the country. Several of those first places came with teams using Stanton’s SR 11 midget motor.
“You get to gloat a little bit,” Stanton says of the string of victories. “You feel satisfied that you beat ’em with something you created.”
But for all the name recognition Stanton has outside Kentucky, few recognize his name within its borders or in Nicholasville. That’s fine with Stanton, who prefers to work in peace without gearheads coming into the shop.
“We weren’t even in the phone book until a couple of years ago,” he said.
When people hear the words “Stanton Racing,” they sometimes mistake it for a thoroughbred operation, said Beth Stanton, Gary’s wife.
“Well, no, it’s horsepower,” she corrected.
The Nicholasville shop has three dynamometers to measure the torque (turning force) and power of the engines built there.
“I love engines. I love the sound of them,” Gary Stanton said. “I always wanted to know what made them run. From day one, I was a car nut.”
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Stanton grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. As a young boy, he showed an interest in mechanics.
“I know my mom got a lot of complaints from other kids’ moms because I would take their bike apart and didn’t put it back together,” he said.
When he was 13 he built a go-kart by using old bed rails for the frame.
“I had a paper route and every time I had 10 bucks I’d go buy a wheel or buy a chain. I think the biggest expense was a centrifugal clutch. I think it was $13. A hardware store had it.
“It was a thrill to actually get in it and take off and go someplace under power,” he said. “It was a feeling I’ll never forget. It was like freedom. I could go anywhere I want.”
Stanton’s family moved to Phoenix, Ariz., when he was 15. As a young man, he was a drag racer at Beeline Dragway outside Mesa, Ariz., which is now closed.
In the late 1960s, he was asked to build a sprint car engine. He went to a sprint car race and got hooked. He began building sprint cars and engines under the name Stanton Racing Products.
Being a race-car manufacturer kept him busy flying to races in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Tennessee each weekend. He sold that business in the mid-1980s, and he and his wife moved to Central Kentucky. He doesn’t travel as much as he once did, preferring to stick close to the business and the couple’s Mercer County home near Herrington Lake.
Stanton opened the engine shop in Nicholasville in 1988. It once employed more than a dozen people but since the 2008 recession has slimmed down to four employees, including Stanton and his wife.
Since 1995, Stanton Racing Engines has had a relationship with Mopar, the parts, service and customer care organization within Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, to build engines for performance street cars. The company builds hemi engines for Chrysler; the name comes from the hemispherical combustion chamber with a domed cylinder head.
Stanton also supplies midget engines to Toyota-sponsored teams.
Beth Stanton said her husband can be a demanding employer.
“He expects a lot,” she said. “A motor can cost $35,000, so if you screw up on a motor it can cost us a lot of money, plus customers get real unhappy about things like that if they’re in a race.”
Stanton acknowledges that to work in his shop “is tough.”
“I get mad about stupid stuff,” he said. “I get mad about fingerprints. I get mad about grease on the door. I get mad about not cleaning up – more than I do about you blowing up a motor.”
But current and former employees speak highly of Stanton.
“He’s definitely taught me a lot, such as treat customers the way you want to be treated,” said Erik Milholland, 35, a current employee. “He’s been in racing for so long, he knows how people want to be treated. His work and his legacy speak for itself.”
Former employee Rusty Wagoner said Stanton “is the best person I’ve ever worked for. If you had anything that was not work-related but family-related, he would say, ‘Go do that first.’”
People remember those things. Even Jeff Gordon, with whom Stanton had a parting of the ways on the sprint car circuit in the late 1980s, didn’t hold a grudge. When Gordon retired from NASCAR racing in November, he invited Stanton to join the occasion. They talked about old times.
Beth Stanton said she met her husband when she was a “trophy girl” at a track handing out trophies to drivers. They have been married 30 years, and she now acts as the office and business manager for Stanton Racing Engines.
“Seriously, he’s a genius,” Beth Stanton said of her husband. “I could say, ‘Gary, would you go build me an ark?’ or anything, and he could have it done. He could build or design anything.”