January 15th 2020
Exclusive! EPARTRADE 5-Question Interview With Joe Marko, HMS Motorsport
Joe Marko of HMS Motorsport in Mooresville, N.C., and Danvers, Mass., is a key "go to" person in the racing industry when it comes to driver safety, as well as driver personal comfort in the cockpit of a race car.
This savvy retailer and distributor has a 12,000-square foot facility, including a 2500-square-foot showroom in Mooresville, NC and a 2000-square-foot retail space in Danvers, MA. Marko opened his Massachusetts location 25 years ago, moving his headquarters to North Carolina for its central location to the racing community in the greater Charlotte area, in 2014.
The company began as a New England regional center for BMW performance parts, and Mustang customization, and has transitioned to become one of the industry’s leading safety equipment suppliers for drivers from pro to amateur. Marko and his company pride themselves at having first-hand experience with the products they sell. The company’s loyal customer base includes NASCAR Monster Cup, Xfinity, and Gander Truck teams, IndyCar, IMSA, SVRA, as well as many SCCA and Club-level racers and track day enthusiasts nationwide.
Tell us how you got started in motorsports?
Basically, I got started by selling BMW performance parts in Marblehead, Mass., where I lived in 1997. We had any accessories you could want for BMW, including the first roll bar for BMW Z3 Roadsters. In 1996, we found a seat belt made by the German manufacturing company Schroth Safety Products. We started selling their harness belts for track day and autocross enthusiasts. The company had a small sales office in the Boulder, CO where they also sold military seatbelts and seatbelts for aircraft.
In 1999, Schroth told us their US operation wanted to focus on the aviation industry rather than auto-racing, and make a move to Pompano Beach, Fla. So, they asked us if we’d take over importing and distributing their safety gear for motorsports - we said yes! In 1998 Schroth’s US motorsport sales were about $250,000. From our start in 1999 we have grown this to nearly $3 million total in annual wholesale and retail sales of Schroth motorsport safety products in the US.
What really brought safety equipment to the forefront in racing happened in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died. NASCAR driver Ryan Newman, and crew chief Matt Borland came by our booth the annual Performance Racing Industry trade show, and said they were interested in seat belts. I was there with Carl Schroth, showcasing Schroth’s newest line of European style racing harness belts. They were impressed enough to invite us to Penske Racing headquarters in Mooresville, NC to put on a demonstration for them. They liked what they saw and introduced us to Steve Peterson, head of safety for NASCAR at the time. Because of Dale Earnhardt’s death, there was a huge push to step up what they were doing in terms of safety. The initiatives put in place by Steve has pushed NASCAR to be the leader for driver safety in North America. This was the push that made us decide to focus solely on motorsports safety rather than vehicle brand specific performance parts and accessories.
HMS has worked closely with NASCAR and Schroth, over the years, supporting their efforts with sled crash testing, developing new standards for seat belts, and creating new belt designs and features. Our Mooresville headquarters, services over 90% of the NASCAR Cup teams and IndyCar teams with customized harness belts produced in our shop. We have individual “blueprints” for each driver – each belt customized to their specific size and design. We also distribute Schroth safety products to over 200 dealers across the US, Canada, and Mexico, race teams, and of course we sell them retail in our two stores.
Today, we offer everything from frontal head restraints, racing harness belts, fire systems, race seats, and helmets to racing suits, shoes, gloves, underwear, and roll bar padding - literally everything you can think of today for driver safety.
In addition to Schroth Racing Products, we are the official retailer for Fibreworks seats, and are the importer and distributor for Cobra Seats and Walero fire rated under ware both from the UK.
What is the most exciting thing to you about the motorsports industry today?
It’s great to see that driver safety is being taken far more seriously. The companies that we represent including Schroth, Fibreworks Seats, Cobra Seats, Walero base layers, and Lifeline fire systems, all offer products and technologies that lead the industry in their segments.
As the distributor and retailer of these new technologies, we have the responsibility to educate our dealers, race teams, and individual racers about these advancements, and how to use and install them properly. HMS has long been proud of our tradition of making safety presentations to sanctioning organizations, race teams, and car clubs over the years, on all topics of driver safety, use of equipment, and proper installation.
We helped many organizations such as SVRA, Formula Drift, BMW and Porsche Clubs, SCCA, and others to update their rule books; to mandate frontal head restraints, require adherence to either FIA or SFI standards, and to provide the basics of proper use and installation of harness belts, nets, and seats and other safety components. I co-wrote the current “SFI Seatbelt Installation Guide” with the late Dr. John Melvin.
It’s exciting and rewarding to see improvements in driver safety based on our efforts.
What motivates you daily in your job?
I’m motivated because I know we are making huge difference working with clubs and sanctioning organizations in terms of safety. We’re the national safety sponsor for the SVRA, for BMW Club Racing, and we also support our local circle tracks. I know we are helping to keep drivers safer from serious injury or death. We want every racer to enjoy the sport and be able to go back to their day job the next day.
What recent new technology or advancements in racing excite you most?
I am excited about the recent developments that our partners have put into production. There are always improvements that can be made with seat belts, frontal head restraints, fire rated underwear, seats, and fire systems. You just need partners who are willing to listen to your ideas and to put time and effort into new developments.
Schroth harnessbelts and frontal head restraints are the most advanced products in their segments today and they stand for themselves; they have the most thought and development behind them and offer the widest range of configurations to fit every type of racing. They’re used in over 60% of the world’s highest-level professional racing cars.
Schroth’s award winning SHR Flex frontal head restraint features an articulating collar that sits lower on the driver, below the helmet, and minimizes interference with the seat back or the need for a different model for different seating positions. Under load, the collar lifts and the tethers pull in a similar orientation as a HANS device, but many find it more comfortable.
Walero base layers (fire rated underwear) provides NASA developed technology that can reduce a racers average heart rate by 8 to 10 beats per minute, lower the rise if core body temperature, and reduce fluid loss by as much as 40% over a one plus hour race.
Fibreworks has developed carbon fiber seats for Sprint Cars and Late Models that are significantly lighter and stronger than the traditional aluminum seats. Anything that will improve safety is Sprint Cars is much needed.
We’re always looking for new technology in safety. Each time, it’s a long, tedious process to educate people on why the tech is useful and why it is great. You must show them, because even today, their main focus isn’t on safety equipment, it’s not their top priority.
What should everybody in the racing industry know about your company?
I think people don’t realize we have been the exclusive distributor for Schroth products for 20 years – if they have a Schroth harness belt, regardless of where they purchased it, it originated at HMS. We aren’t just a safety store; we customize safety for NASCAR, IndyCar, and every type of racing from our headquarters in Mooresville, NC.