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Fort Mill racer has merged business with pleasure

Dreams nurtured at a Fort Mill home garage and the parking lot of Knights Stadium have become a reality bigger than Jonathan Bennett could have ever imagined.

Using the household stove and refrigerator, Bennett launched his composite materials business in the family's garage. In two weeks, he designed and fabricated a laboratory container capable of surviving the intense heat of microwave ovens.

Today, Composite Resources, off Lakeshore Boulevard in Rock Hill, is completing a $3.5 million, 60,000-square-foot expansion. The company employs about 100 people.

On the stadium parking lots, Bennett raced a Miata coupe and a Volkswagen Sirocco around pylons, learning that timing and touch are just as important as speed when it comes to winning.

On Oct. 1, Bennett's CORE Autosports racing team - CO from composite and RE from resources - won the team title in the American Le Mans endurance race season in the LMPC division. Team drivers Gunner Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez tied for first place in the LMPC drivers' standings, while Bennett and co-driver Frankie Montecalvo placed second. It was an impressive debut for the first-year team.

"We got lucky," said Bennett of his business and racing successes.

His dad, Richard, said it is serendipity - "being at the right place at the right time."

"He always has the magic touch," the father said of his son.

There is also some serendipity when it comes to business and racing. For years Bennett has kept the two separate.

From the parking lot at Knights Stadium, he moved to the Sports Car Club of America, which holds various road-course racing. He gradually moved up in SCCA racing, competing in faster and more costly cars.

By 2003 he was setting track records and winning multiple national amateur championships.

In 2008, he advanced to semi-professional IMSA Prototype Lites Series, emerging as the highest-ranked rookie for the 2010 season on the strength of two pole positions and sixth place finish overall.

His philosophy has been: "I work so I can race."

Now, the composite business and race teams are coming together in one facility.

The composite shop and its machinery are the "perfect backend for a race team," said CORE Autosports team manager Morgan Brady. "There is machinery you can't afford to have full time and it is a great fit for team operations."

The result is that Composite Resources has adopted the racing team as its mascot. The employees are becoming fans of endurance racing, and the sport has become a morale booster for the company, Bennett said. The enthusiasm is evident when the cars' parts are brought to the shop floor after races, needing repair.

"When the crash damage comes in, the spirit is 'let's get this done,' " said Ralph Brown, Composite Resources' general manager.

And it's not just for the CORE Autosports cars. Other teams are now contracting with Composite Resources to make their repairs too.

Cars, cars, cars

Growing up, Jonathan "always had a car in his hands," said father, Richard. "It was cars, cars, cars. We couldn't get him interested in other things."

He got his driver's license at 14 - the minimum age in Arkansas at the time. But the family moved to Connecticut and he had to surrender the license. As a compromise, his parents enrolled Jonathan, then 15, in the Skip Barber Driving School at the Lime Rock Park, home to a 1.5-mile road course with an up-and-down terrain.

It was his first, but not his last, ride at Lime Rock. Bennett and Montecalvo finished 10th overall in the Northeast Grand Prix held there July 9 that lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Richard said he tried to support his son's racing interest, but Bennett remembers it differently. When high school graduation approached, Bennett wanted to become a race car mechanic, the first step toward becoming a race car driver. His parents, he said, told him he was going to college. The compromise was that mechanic became mechanical, as in mechanical engineering studies at the University of Connecticut.

"I was not a good student, but a good tinkerer," Bennett said.

Coming out of college he compared the entry-level salary of a race car mechanic to other entry-level jobs.

"Rather than working for nothing, I decided to take my degree and head to a boring cubicle. Take the funds I made and take myself racing," he said.

He started with DuPont, where his father had worked, and then went to BASF, where he started learning about composite materials - Kevlar, graphite and fiberglass. At the time BASF was doing work for defense firms, reengineering products such as missile nose cones with composites. "The work was fast paced," Bennett said. "What would take Boeing 48 months took us four months."

After BASF he went to work for CEM in Matthews, N.C. His first task was to develop an alternative to the laboratory containers in use. They couldn't stand the heat of microwaves and would explode.

From his work at BASF he knew they could be made of composites, but lacked the production facilities to build them. His boss said he would hire him as a subcontractor and give him $3,000 to develop the containers. Bennett accepted the offer.

Soon after making the containers, CEM decided to make them in-house. The decision made Bennett realize he needed more than one product to be successful - "you can't be the Rolling Stones with just one hit," he said.

In March 1995, Bennett quit his CEM job and opened Composite Resources. He started the firm in a 2,000-square-foot building.

It wasn't long until neighbor Ralph Brown joined him. The two had met in a model house at the Feathertrace neighborhood. Brown, who was working for Continental Tire, was soon racing radio-controlled cars with him and then working for him.

"He is a straight-shooter, no funny business," said Brown. "I took him at his word. We watched every nickel we spent."

Bennett still followed his racing interests, "but he never spent money on racing when money needed to be spent on the shop," Brown said.

Composite Resources earned its reputation by taking someone's idea from concept to production.

"That's all Jonathan," Brown said. "He can see a concept in his mind and have an idea how to get there."

The products that helped create Composite Resources' reputation are, said Bennett:

The laboratory container for CEM.

A composite housing for Celgard which replaced heavy steel cases.

The Combat Application Tourniquet, which has Velcro straps and injection molded plastic parts. Composite Resources has made thousands of the simple tourniquet for the military.

A Kevlar shield for a mine-sweeping vehicle that can detect hard-to-find plastic mines and improvised explosive devices. The Kevlar shields protect the electronic equipment used to detect the mines.

The successes not only allowed Bennett to build a new facility, but to steadily increase his racing, "going from a four-figure budget to a five-figure budget, and now a seven-figure budget."

Bennett's commitment to racing caught Brady's attention in an unusual circumstance. Brady was working out at a Charlotte gym wearing a T-shirt from the American Le Mans series. Bennett asked him if he was a race fan. Brady said no, he was in the racing business. A visit to Composite Resources convinced Brady to accept Bennett's offer to lead his team.

This year CORE Autosports ran all nine races of the American Le Mans series. The team fielded two ORECA-Courage FLM09 cars. "It's like Indy cars with fenders," Bennett said.

Each car is powered by a 430-horsepower Corvette engine and a six-speed gear box. The cars cost about $400,000. Engine rebuilds are about $20,000 and the Michelin tires are $2,500 per set.

"The cars are very physical to drive," said Bennett, 46. "In the last 12 months, I'm in better physical shape than I was in high school."

Race speeds can hit 175 mph, but average speeds are much slower as the cars compete with three other divisions on the track at the same time. All the races were held at road courses.

"Racing is a game of risk management," said Brady, the team's manager. "When do you pass a slower car, that's a hard skill to teach."

Bennett's engineer-like approach to racing made him a good driver, Brady said. "He had a very measured approach ... slowly increasing speed and risk levels."

The result was the car driven by Bennett and Montecalvo, who lives in New Jersey, had consistent finishes among the top 10. The other car, driven by Jeannette and Gonzalez, had "high highs, low lows," Brady said.

It wasn't until the final race of the season, at Road Atlanta, that CORE Autosports had its highest of highs.

The 10-hour race is a test of reliability, Brady said. "You want to be there at the end."

CORE Autosports was battling Genoa Racing of Zionsville, Ind., for team and drivers' titles.

On the 114th lap, problems with the left axle and driveline sent Genoa's car to the pits for repairs. Later, problems with the power steering and engine belt issues sent CORE's No. 6 car driven by Jeannette to the pits. Both cars returned to the track.

Late in the race, Bennett tried to avoid a spin in front of him. He missed the car, but was struck by a following car. Trouble with his reverse gear sent him to the pits for repairs.

Bennett and Montecalvo turned the No. 5 car over to Ryan Dalziel for the final laps. He came into the pits for a splash of gas, where he was hit by a faster car. He tried to add a couple of laps to the team's total, but the car was too severely damaged.

The final results were CORE's No. 6 car with Jeanette and Gonzalez, 30th; Lux and his co-drivers of Genoa, 34th; and Bennett, Montecalvo and Dalziel, 35th.

The outcome resulted in a three-way tie for best driver among Jeannette, Gonzalez and Lux. CORE Autosports nipped Genoa Racing by one point for the team title.

The biggest surprise, said Brady, came when they announced second place in the drivers' standings. Bennett and Montecalvo took second because another driver with more points did not have enough racing time, Brady said.

The team and drivers' results meant Bennett had to make a speech at the banquet - the last place you would expect to find him. He's not the best people person, said his friends. But the speech went by quickly, like a road-course lap.

The driving success was vindication of sorts for Bennett. Racing, he said, "has given me direction" and the passion he has for cars extends to business and the rest of his life.

"It's important for people to have passion," he said. "It makes life more interesting."