The motorsports world lost a great one Tuesday.
Perennial entrepreneur and racer Robbie Pierce lost his life while scuba diving off the Bonaire Island in the Caribbean. The owner of famed off-road racing vehicle builder Jimco, Pierce will also be remembered as the business mind behind the growth and development of the MasterCraft and Impact Safety brands, companies that elevated the safety of racer and crews around the world. He was 63 years old.
I watched his 2018 Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame induction video again, wanting to have a piece of my longtime colleague and friend. In typical Robbie fashion, the production didn’t include him speaking at all. He was humble to the core, and even shared on many occasions how much of an unexpected honor being inducted into the hall represented to him. Instead, besides off-road icons like Rob MacCachren and Frank DeAngelo, the video including glowing remarks from Sam Schmidt, Parnelli Jones, David Ragan, Tony Schumacher, Martin Truex Jr. and Antron Brown — names far outside off-road racing circles. His legacy extended that far.
In real life, he was a jolly, teddy bear of a human, armed with a charm and smile that resonated with everyone he met. Nicknamed “Pooh Bear” by his closest friends (more about that name shortly), his persona masked a truly gifted craftsman, businessman and passionate racer. He was always generous with his time and resources, helping so many racers and teams to increase their safety while also donating to many programs and causes that would move the motorsports world forward.
No matter the circumstance or conversation, my remarkable friend always felt more comfortable saying that he was “just a welder.” He could, in fact, weld anything and everything to perfection, with some of his aerospace work still out in space circling the planet. A native of San Diego, he later revolutionized the golf world by developing a way to mass produced welded titanium golf club heads.
Pierce purchased the legendary MasterCraft brand in 1999 to continue the company’s mission of keeping the off-road community safe via high quality seats and belts. In the years that followed, MasterCraft took a leadership position in the sport by improving suspension seats and adding safety nets, tie-downs, tool bags, occupant restraints and even a customized line of driver suits.
While those moves were profitable, an even bigger success and personal pride came in the form of MasterCraft Defense, a division of the company that became a recognized government supplier to the military. MasterCraft’s suspension seats and restraints were used by the U.S. military in combat vehicles, with independent testing showing that they could reduce the impact of IED blasts by 84 percent. It was this development that concurrently allowed him to fund his Trophy-Truck desert racing and Pro-2 short course programs.
With the help of sports car/off-road racer PJ Jones, in December of 2010 the native San Diegan leveraged the success of MasterCraft to purchase Impact Safety from Bill Simpson, a struggling enterprise that provided helmets and driving suits to a wide variety of professional motorsports. Bolstered by Pierce’s business acumen, all the brands under the Impact Racing corporate umbrella capitalized on constant product development, enhanced technology, and immersive marketing to grow sales and industry influence to record levels. The strategic move also exposed Pierce to a far larger motorsports universe that included NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and NHRA.
While all of this made for very strong business, Robbie’s heart forever stayed in the off-road world. It was an endearing fact to him that his sport was a foundational tent pole to the entire Impact Safety brand, as many desert, short-course and rock racers and teams were happy to become earlier adopters of better safety equipment being sold by one of their own.
“Being back in Indiana and around all the top teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and the NHRA, including Andretti Autosport and Hendrick Motorsports made me appreciate this sport even more,” he once shared with me during one of our many lunch meetings.
“Really? How,” I asked.
“Because I realized that they are not better than we are,” he responded. “Nor do they have the passion that off-road racers do. I have much more respect now for what a Rob MacCachren or Ryan Arciero or Robby Gordon does because it’s just hard work and an uphill battle. And I would stack up the technology that’s in a Trophy-Truck against anything except Formula 1. It’s amazing. Make no mistake about it, off-road racing, especially desert racing, deserves to stand right alongside the rest in terms of stature, technology, and history.”
By June of 2017, Pierce saw an opportunity to return to his beloved Southern California base full time, selling Impact Racing and its associated brands (MasterCraft Safety and MasterCraft Defense) to Italian-based Sparco S.p.A.
Less than a year later Pierce bought his dream company, Jimco Racing from veteran fabricator and champion driver Mike Julson. Based in Santee, Californian, Jimco is one of the most successful manufacturers of off-road racing vehicles in the world. A true American success story, Jimco was born out of passion and enthusiasm; eventually seeing its talented craftsmen build and develop more than 500 race cars, trucks and UTVs and hundreds of victories and championships around the world.
Pierce was a fierce Jimco loyalist, one who also purchased Jimco’s very first Trophy-Truck in 2007. “Robbie was just a TIG-welder when he started and parlayed his love of motorsports all the way to today’s announcement,” Julson explained at the time. “We like to say that Robbie bleeds Jimco blue, and his heart and soul is 100 percent in it. You gotta have that first.”
Robbie went on to enhance the Jimco legacy, including befriending Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Bobby Patton. The two raced together, with Jimco building Patton an incredible pre-run truck as well as a newly completed all-wheel drive unlimited Trophy-Truck that Pierce raved about driving. (see video below)
However, the timeless Robbie Pierce story is how he got his adopted nickname. It was a during a “test fitting” of a Class 10 Mirage limited buggy, one that requires entry via a hinged roof panel. Mirage founder Bill Varnes was there to make sure that his admittedly pleasantly plump friend would fit into the car before a race.
As Pierce told it: “The phone rang, and Bill leaves me by myself. I tried to get in, but I slip and fall into the car headfirst. It was one of those embarrassing moments when you look around and hope nobody saw you. I was upside down and my feet were sticking out of the top. But Bill comes back, sees me while laughing his ass off and asks how I am doing. I told him I felt like Winnie the Pooh getting into the honey jar. He told this story to everybody and the name kind of stuck.”
Just before the recent holiday we enjoyed what would be our last lunch together. We laughed about this story — again. Robbie was also a trusted advisor about all things business and life, and he shared that he had reached the point in his life where things like travel and scuba diving would be become more of a priority.
“I love the business of Jimco but I hate spending the day finding bearings and bolts,” he said. “I can’t tell you about it yet, but I have a plan for the company with a really well-loved family in off-road racing that allows me to continue the Jimco legacy but open up some free time too.”
Right after he purchased Jimco, I asked him about what the most looked forward to returning to the sport that always mattered most to him.
“Oh, that’s easy,” he answered. “Just being back within this entire off-road community and watching the first Jimco’s being built as part of the company. This is no fad, and it’s something so many people around the world carry such a huge passion for. I have been fortunate in my career to build things that matter, whether it’s seats for the military that are helping protect soldier’s lives or safety equipment doing the same things for racers. Outside of family and friends, to most of us this thing we do is the highlight of our lives. It matters.”
No Robbie, it was you that mattered.