Bill Skillman and son Drew still recall in vivid detail the peculiar chain of events that triggered their now decade-long investment in NHRA Drag Racing. It began, innocently enough, the day they took delivery of a pair of Cobra Jet Mustangs at their Indianapolis-based Ford dealership.
“When Ford first came out with the Cobra Jets in 2008, we wanted to order a couple,” Bill recalled. “We missed out on the first year because some dealers ordered 10 each, and the rest were gobbled up by collectors. We’ve always been a performance dealership, first with Saleen and later with Roush Performance. I thought they’d be a great addition. About a year later, we finally got our hands on a couple of them. I was out of town, and when I came back, the cars were gone. As it turns out, Drew and my father [Ray] took them to the dragstrip. Dad had been a racer in the late 1950s and early 60s but hadn’t done much since then.”
“I’d never been down a racetrack in anything; not one time,” Drew added. “We went out with these two Cobra Jets; nine-second cars, and they were stick shifts. We had no idea what we were doing. We struggled to just get down the track. We had all kinds of clutch linkage issues. It didn’t take long for us to abandon ship and get a couple of newer cars with Powerglide [automatic transmissions]. We eventually got a truck and trailer and started racing, and we went out and got our asses kicked. We thought to ourselves, ‘How hard can it be?’ Even though we struggled, the hook was set.
“Dad told me to go out and have fun for a year, but then I needed to get back to work at the dealership,” Drew said. “Then I won, and that screwed up all those plans.”
Drew Skillman didn’t just win. He made NHRA history. At the 2012 Southern Nationals in Atlanta, Skillman, just 24, collected his first two Wallys minutes apart when he won the Stock and Super Stock titles. All told, there have been 39 doubles by 24 different drivers, but no one before or since has doubled-up to win their first two races. Quick to deflect praise, Skillman credits the advice of 100-time national event winner (and teammate) David Rampy for fueling his success.
“I still have a hard time believing that happened,” Drew said. “It was just one of those days where everything went right, but David is the whole reason why I won. That was the first race that he was helping us, and he taught me how to win. He is a man of few words, but when he speaks, you’d better listen. Since then, I’ve changed almost nothing in my routine. I still use David’s advice, so I’m not going to repeat what he told me, but it was like a light switch being turned on.”
Skillman was immediately branded as one of Sportsman racing’s up-and-comers. Later that season, he won the Division 3 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk, and he followed with four more wins in 2013. At the end of the season, he finished a single point behind Justin Lamb in the battle for the Stock national championship. By then, the Skillman fleet had swelled to at least a half-dozen race cars with Skillman joined on track by his father and grandfather, racing primarily in Comp, Super Stock, and Stock.
Racing is just one of the things the Skillman’s do as a family. Collectively, they operate the Skillman Auto Group, a chain of 20 new and used automotive dealerships based throughout the Indianapolis area. Behind their Ford dealership sits a large building that houses an amazing collection of hot rods, muscle cars, classics, and other automobilia, including a vintage carousel that came from the Hulman-George family at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Vintage Corvettes, Shelby Mustangs, 1960s Super Stock cars, classic Sprint, Midget, and Indy cars; you name it, the Skillman collection probably has it, and Skillman is quick to point out, “Everything in here is for sale.” The building also includes the team’s race shop, but even at 50,000-square feet, it seems cramped, so an expansion is forthcoming.
“You might have noticed that our family doesn’t do anything half-way,” Drew laughed. “When we get into something, we push all our chips into the center of the table. That’s just the way we are.”
Though synonymous with Indy, the Skillman families’ roots are in Owensboro, Ky. Ray began his career in used-car sales and spent his spare time hot rodding vintage autos. At 16, he bought his first car, a ’50 Ford Coupe, which he quickly converted to Chevrolet V-8 power. In 1979, Ray moved his operation to Indianapolis, building Oldsmobile, GMC, Mazda, and Mitsubishi franchises. Today, the Skillman Auto Group features 11 different vehicle lines sold at 20 different locations. The company employs more than 900 people.
At 77, Ray remains very much in charge of the business, but Bill is the face and voice of the Skillman Auto Group. In the Indy market, he’s seen on television more often than the Kardashian sisters. It’s hard to find a local television network or radio station that doesn’t air Skillman commercials where Bill, with his unique Kentucky accent, pledges to “Stack ’em deep and sell ’em cheap.” The advertising campaign must be extremely effective because in 2018, the Skillman group sold more than 26,000 units making them one of the most successful automotive groups in the country.
“I definitely get recognized, but it’s more my voice than anything,” Bill said. “It comes through whether you like it or not. It might be annoying to a lot of people who are not Southerners, but my father started advertising on radio and TV, and it’s effective. We are the largest local advertiser in the Indianapolis market. Our dealerships are family-owned, and we want people to know that. We want them to know that we are not a corporate-owned business.”
During the financial crisis of 2008, many dealerships went out of business, but the Skillman group expanded by several stores, thanks in large part to Ray’s longtime business philosophy of maintaining low debt and reinvesting profits back into the business. Had the Skillman’s not been prepared to weather the storm, its likely that they would not have had the resources to go racing in 2010.
“As bad as the economy was 10 years ago, we didn’t lay off a single employee,” said Bill. “I’m proud of that and proud that we were actually able to find opportunities and expand our business.”
As someone who sells a fair share of Mustangs, Camaros, and has a thriving performance parts business, Skillman is also quick to debunk the myth that America is no longer a car culture.
“We are absolutely a car culture,” Bill says. “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday still holds true. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Factory Stock class has become so popular. It’s not only great entertainment, but the average guy who has one of those cars on the street can relate to it.”
By 2015, Drew figured that he was ready to try his hand at Pro Stock, or at least that’s what he was told.
“Why did we get into Pro Stock? Because we’re ignorant,” Drew jokes. “Actually, we met the best salesman on Earth, and that’s [Elite team owner] Richard Freeman. He talked us right into Pro Stock. At first, we were going to start off doing eight races, and for some reason, it became 22. We didn’t go to Sonoma or Seattle the first year, and my grandfather’s logic was that Erica won the championship the year before doing that. Like I said, we’re a family of extremists; we weren’t going to do this at anything less than 100 percent.”
It would be hard to argue that Skillman wasn’t properly prepared for the ultra-competitive nature of the Pro Stock class. He reached the final in his debut in Pomona and won in his 18th start in St. Louis. He ended the season with a win and three runner-up finishes and was rewarded with the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as NHRA’s top rookie driver.
“I owe a lot of credit to [then teammate] Erica Enders; she taught me how to drive a Pro Stock car,” said Drew. “I remember my first pass, and it scared the [expletive] out of me. On the first day, we just worked on burnouts and 60-foot runs. I pulled it out of low gear so early because I just wanted it to stop doing what it was doing. It’s still amazing to think that I went to the final of my first race.”
For four years, Skillman chased the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock championship. He left the class following the 2018 season but not before compiling a very respectable record that includes seven wins in 16 finals, including the 2017 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, seven low qualifiers, zero DNQ’s, and a 121-87 record in elimination rounds.
“I do not regret anything in my racing career in Pro Stock,” said Drew. “Pro Stock is a fantastic class, but for me, it ran its course. I wish I had won a championship, but I had a great career for the limited time I was in the car. We had a competitive car right off the bat, and I had a chance to win every race I was in. I lost way more races than the car ever did.”
The Skillman Pro Stock operation has been replaced by a pair of Cobra Jet Mustangs for the SAMTech.edu NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, and also includes a variety of Super Stock, Stock, and Comp entries. Ray was injured in a high-speed accident in Las Vegas at the end of 2016, but that didn’t slow him down one bit. He ran a handful of events last season and figures to do so again this season.
So far, Factory Stock agrees with the Skillman team. Bill kicked off 2019 with a win at the NMCA event in Bradenton, Fla., over fellow car dealer Carl Tasca, and Drew followed with a dominating win at the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. The Skillman’s ran in the second round of eliminations with Drew winning by just a few thousandths.
Bill went to the final of Super Stock at the 2016 Auto Club NHRA Finals before losing to Dan Fletcher, but anyone who has paid attention to his driving should realize that his first NHRA win is coming and likely sooner rather than later.
“I blew it in Pomona; that was a race I could have won,” Bill said. “I had a killer car. My blue Super Stock car prints tickets, but I can’t seem to catch a break. Sometimes, it seems like everyone I run has a killer package. Then I was the king of red-lights for a while. I still want to win races, and I want to win a championship. Hopefully, both Drew and I can do that. If you watched us race in Gainesville, you know that we aren’t going to lay down for each other.”
As for Drew, after running 6.5s at more than 213 mph in his Pro Stock car, he doesn’t feel that the 7-second Factory Stock car is in any way a step backward.
“These cars are not boring,” Drew said. “They actually make more power than our Pro Stock engines. Ford certainly did their research when they built these [Cobra Jets]. They’re stable and smooth, even on a 9-inch tire. This class reminds me of what Pro Stock was like in the 1970s, with all the brands out here. I also get to race with my dad, and the [seven race] schedule works for me. I’m doing more with the business, and I’ve got a baby on the way, so I can’t be gone 18 weeks a year. These cars are a lot of fun to drive, and they look just like the cars we sell in the showroom. It’s safe to say we’re vested.”