The disruptions caused by current shutdowns reach into every corner of the racing industry. RACER.com is sharing stories of how different entities in the sport are tackling these unprecedented challenges in a special series called The Lockdown Diaries.
When the motorsports world came to a halt in early March, it was the whole world stopping for Sparco.
Sparco designs and manufactures various safety equipment for NASCAR and other racing series. In NASCAR, the company handles fire suits, Nomex underwear, tops, bottoms, balaclavas, socks, shoes, and gloves. That includes shoes and suits for crew members who go over the wall on pit road and fueler helmets.
Sparco’s headquarters is in a very small village in northern Italy, Volpiano. Connie Larimore, the company’s motorsports director for NASCAR, describes its location up in the Alps as “a beautiful little community.”
Italy, of course, has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and the Sparco factory has been closed since March 16, meaning employees aren’t able to work on products needed in the NASCAR garage.
“This is all we do,” Larimore told RACER. “Sparco does not handle lifestyle gear; we do some office chairs and things like that which look like driver seats, but we don’t handle board shorts and flip flops. We don’t do any other stuff. We’re a safety company for motorsports. So, this is our livelihood for everybody over there and me here, and our IndyCar rep and our IMSA rep and others.
“So, basically, when you get to the point when auto racing stops, to us, that is the whole world stopping because it’s our world.”
Larimore serves as a Sparco liaison for teams and drivers within NASCAR, making sure the product gets to them on time, is up to date, safe, and the most technically advanced driver and crew suit on the market. When orders first come through to Larimore, they are handed off to a graphic artist who handles the artwork, and then the order goes off to Italy.
Today, Larimore is looking at two positives. First, and most importantly, no one in the Sparco plant in Italy has contracted the virus. Everyone is staying safe and abiding by the rules set forth by their government.
Second, although the company is unable to manufacturer any products right now, most of Larimore’s sales are made leading up to the Daytona 500 and will carry teams through the first six races.
“About 70 percent of the production is already done,” she said. “That leaves about 30 percent production for the rest of the year. It trickles in; it’s usually a pretty good flow, and it just depends on the area of which we are competing. You look at your higher-end races – the Brickyard, the second Daytona, Talladega. Those are high-end races that produce individual sponsors for drivers and teams, so they’ll come to us for a one-off suit.
“Right now, I have about 50 suits in play over in the plant that are in production to take me through probably the beginning of June.”
But, with the plant closed, production has slowed to a crawl. The minimal number of personnel who can get in the plant can move things down the line, but it’s at a much slower pace than usual.
“I think we’re OK,” said Larimore. “I have to say, our plant in Italy has been amazing by keeping us up to date on things.”
As of right now, the hope is that the Italy plant will be back up and running by April 20.
“By the time they open up, we’ll still be in quarantine (in the U.S.), so they’ll be shipping already by the time we get going again,” said Larimore. “So, everything should be caught up by the time this whole thing is done on the U.S. side.”
The biggest challenge and concern for Larimore and Sparco is not production, but getting the equipment into the hands of teams and drivers.
“We deal with an air carrier that does offer us 24-hour service, and that’s amazing. But if the product is stuck in customs, that’s not a good thing,” said Larimore. “That’s something we, unfortunately, don’t have any control over. It’s U.S. Customs seeing 20 boxes go by, and they pick one, and sometimes it happens to be a firesuit.
“It usually puts us back a day or two to get the product. But at the same time, I’ve never had something held by customs and not released. That’s probably our biggest concern right now, especially with things coming out of Italy and customs stopping it.”
However, Larimore did recently receive some boxes without incident and is keeping positive there won’t be any problems going forward.
“It’s challenging, but at the same time, we’ve kept such a great line of open communication between Italy and the United States that we all feel really good about it,” said Larimore. “The fact that everyone is healthy right now in Italy has been the biggest thing for us because we are like family. If one person goes down in that plant, that means there is the possibility of 300 other people going down. So, for them to all be healthy and safe at home has been great for us.”