Ten Questions With Bret Voelkel

For this edition of Ridetech’s “Ten Questions With…” series, we’re breaking the rules by interviewing one of our own — Bret Voelkel. The list of past “10Q” article guests includes well-known car builders and manufacturers such as Troy Trepanier, Jack Chisenhall, Jim and Mike Ring, Rodger Lee and so many others.  A common denominator is that we always reach outside of the company for guests. It never occurred to us that Ridetech co-founder Bret Voelkel would one day make the list. If you haven’t heard, Bret and Sharon Voelkel have sold Ridetech to FOX Factory, Inc. — one of our company’s longtime technology partners. While Bret no longer works at Ridetech, he is anything but an outsider.

Bret Voelkel is a friend. He’s fun to be around, generous and light-hearted. At the same time, he’s decisive, pragmatic and anything but risk-averse. He treats everyone like family and treats his family well. While Bret has countless stories to share, you often find yourself in the middle of writing the next chapter. If you are hanging out with him, expect to spend a lot of time in the presence of horsepower, great food and like-minded people. In his world, you may also see the unthinkable. Examples include one-of-a-kind, stainless steel staircases, camshaft lamps and even a test track. For Bret, anything is possible. The path forward will likely resemble the road traveled thus far, except that there will be more of everything, especially innovation. Please join us in congratulating Bret and Sharon in their latest milestone. Congrats on the sale of Ridetech and best wishes for future endeavors! — Your Ridetech family

Street Machine Nationals
DuQuoin, Illinois, the epicenter of all things Pro Street, is only two and a half hours away from Jasper, Indiana. Shows in Indianapolis were even closer. Today, Bret regularly brings out his Pro Street Mustang for reunion events. Bret was inspired by builders like Scott Sullivan, Rick Dobbertin and Troy Trepanier but also counts those guys as friends.

Ridetech: What was the hot rod scene like growing up in and around Jasper, IN?

Bret Voelkel: It was typical small town stuff…a few Chevelles, Camaros, GTO’s and Mopars…the occasional Mustang. This was mid-late 70’s…the 4wd scene was just starting to get popular. The “lap” in Jasper was from McDonalds on the south end to Jerry’s Restaurant on the north end. No one in my family was into hot rods. My dad was a farmer. I learned about hot rods and muscle cars from my friends in high school. This was also around the time that the huge national shows like the Street Machine Nationals started in Indianapolis. That is where the fire was lit!

Bret’s first real build was a Street/Strip 70 Mustang called Mellow Yellow.  In this photo, we spot a Big Block Ford with a Predator carb, Cragar SST wheels and fat N50 x 15 tires.  Updates would come later. The car was painted Corvette yellow. We dig the snorkel hood scoop.

Ridetech: What was your first real ground-up car build and which project is your favorite?    

My first ground-up build was a 1970 Mustang. It was originally a 428 SCJ Mach 1 that I bought from a junkyard in 1980 or so for $400. I put a 429 Police Interceptor engine in it with a tunnel ram and a pair of Predator carbs. I was “big-time” in Jasper, Indiana. I fabricated and brazed new floorboards in that car…learned to do a lot of things on that car because I had no money. When I finally got it painted I had “Powered by Credit” lettered on the trunk lid. Took me ten years to pay off all the credit card debt I piled up building that car. My favorite project…? Probably the first 48 Hour Camaro. Instigated at a bar in Las Vegas on a dare, 10 months of intense planning and preparation, followed by 48 hours of even more intense chaos, culminating in a car that is STILL competitive on a national level 9 years later.  I’m going the have that car bronzed!

Here’s the Mellow Yellow Mustang with some updates including Weld wheels with skinnier front tires and two Predators on top of a tunnel ram. Back in the day, magazines full of mail order ads would draw enthusiasts to events where guys like Bret would greet you in front of massive display rigs.

Ridetech: Did you work in the Automotive Aftermarket industry before starting Air Ride Technologies back in 1996?

Bret Voelkel: I didn’t go to college or anything like that…my family didn’t have any money for that. I worked a series of $6-8/jobs around Jasper until 1987 when I helped a friend move to Clearwater, Florida. While there, I found 3 jobs in 2 days and relocated there the next week. While in Florida, I was hired by an outfit called World of Performance in Orlando. They handled product displays for the NHRA circuit with companies like MSD, Auto Meter, B&M, Aeroquip, and Ram Clutches. So in the course of 4 months, I went from making $8/hr delivering paint to being a tech rep for MAD and Auto Meter at the drag races. After doing that gig for 3 years, I was hired by Blower Drive Service in Whittier, CA to handle their motorsports display rig. I ran that program from Jasper from 1990 till the end of 1994 and went to 20-25 events per year. I met my future wife Sharon in 1993 and got married in 1995. By then, I had spent 8 years on the road, 300 days per year.  My goal was to NOT do that anymore. I ran an SK tool truck in Jasper for about 1-½ years. Sharon and I then started Air Ride Technologies in April of 1996.

Pro-Touring 67 Camaro
Four fat tires are better than two. While Bret cut his teeth building street strip and pro-street cars, the pro-touring bug took hold. One of Bret’s all-time favorite cars is the 48 Hour 67 Camaro.  The car has continuously evolved. Today, it is one of the most capable, well-rounded hot rods on the planet.

Ridetech: Have you always been into cars with four fat tires like pro-touring machines? Or did you start out as a street/strip, drag race enthusiast?

Bret Voelkel: Like most people, my first exposure to racing and hot rods was drag racing. I did a little of that in the ’90s, but never got serious about it. My introduction to serious handling performance was when I treated myself to a Bondurant Driving School in 2004. After that, I was intent on showing the world that air suspension was just as capable as traditional coilovers in the handling department. That’s how we came to host the first three Street Challenge events in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2007, we hosted the very first Goodguys Autocross event in Nashville, TN. Now that series is 23 events strong and has influenced a whole strong segment of hot rodders!

Ridetech staff photo
Here’s an old staff photo along with Air Ride Technologies’ very first customer, Dale Dombrock and his street rod. Dombreck had brought the car to the shop for updates. Many of the same faces still work at Ridetech.

Ridetech: What is it like working at Ridetech? Tell us about the people, cars and whatever else comes to mind.

Bret Voelkel: 23 years after starting the business, you pick your head up and realize: You have this awesome group of people you get to work with, all this equipment, all these great customers, and a whole roster of cool products! At the time, you really don’t think much about it. It seems normal. It only looks unusual from the outside. Now, all of a sudden…we have sent our baby off to college, so to speak. Sharon and I are thrilled about it, and know we made a great choice with Fox, but there will always be some level of reminiscing about when it was just a few of us changing the suspension world. When you spend the majority of your days with ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, and like-minded people, it’s hard to call that “work”! I call it a blessing.

1970 Buick GSX Racing
Bret’s 1970 Buick GSX started out with air suspension as shown in this photo.  Bret has always been eager to prove the viability of airride as a performance option.  His yellow Buick rides and drives like a new Bentley Continental GT. If Bret ever offers you a ride in this GSX, don’t pass it up.

Ridetech: What cars do you have in your personal collection right now? Can you name a favorite?

Bret Voelkel: Although the collection is much smaller than it was a few years ago, it’s getting a bit more varied. I’m starting to narrow the range down to my true favorites. My original air suspension car, the orange and white 1970 Pro Street Mustang, a 1968 Bonneville, a couple of 1970 Chevelles, a pair of 69 Mustangs, a 2016 Porsche GT3RS, a 2015 Corvette Z06, a 1998 C1500, a 1969 Z28 Camaro, the Gen 1 48 Hour Camaro, Gen 2 48 Hour Camaro, the Track 1 Camaro and a 1957 Chevy truck on airride. My favorite…it still has to be my 1970 GSX. That car really does nothing wrong. It’s cool, fast, quiet, handles and rides better than a new Corvette…it just fits me. It will be the last to leave.

HRIA Bret Voelkel
 Bret Voelkel was inducted into SEMA’s Hot Rod Industry Alliance HRIA Hall of Fame in 2018. At the time, he was only the 25th entrepreneur to join the club. Bret is flanked by Tammy Holland from Comp Performance Group and BJ Elmore who now taken over the reins of Ridetech as Vice-President / General Manager.

Ridetech: What was it like receiving an HRIA Hall of Fame Award at SEMA?  Were you surprised?

Bret Voelkel: Surprised? LOL…I thought I was safe from any awards last year because my wife was back in Indiana [so I thought]. In reality, they had her stashed backstage about 50 feet from me. If I had called her cell phone I would have heard it ring!  For those who have won such awards, no explanation is needed. For those who have not yet, no explanation is possible. There is no simply better experience than being publicly honored by your peers.

1969 Mustang autocross wheelie
Bret’s silver 69 Mustang served as his first autocross car. The new crop of sticky street tires provided surprising levels of grip. Never one to think small, Bret worked with Goodguys Rod & Custom Association to help them set up their first autocross event.  The program is still going strong.

Ridetech: How did you get involved with autocross? ..and how does it help the hot rod hobby as a whole?

Bret Voelkel: My first high-performance driving effort was Bob Bondurant’s driving school.  I was hooked instantly.  Racing sure beats sitting around in lawn chairs listening to “Do-Wop” music.  We set out to encourage others to share in our fun.  We race to compete and win, but also to put on a show for the spectators and raise awareness for our products and pro-touring, in general.  I’d say we have succeeded.

Here’s a final render of Bret’s latest project. He bought a service station in Ireland, Indiana. In his youth, the shop served as a Texaco gas station and DT Auto Repair. The sentimental structure will be completely refurbished, then house Bret’s ever-changing car collection.

Ridetech: We heard you bought a vintage gas station. That’s not your typical collectible item. Why did you buy it and what are your plans?

Bret Voelkel: That was a happy coincidence. It happened near the end of the Ridetech acquisition process. I knew I was going to need some alternative car storage after the Fox acquisition. I had my eye on that building for the last couple of years. I spent a fair amount of time in that place growing up during the ’60s and ’70s when it was DT Auto and a Texaco gas station. I wandered in there one Friday afternoon at about 3:30 and by 5:00 we owned the place. I didn’t even have time to tell Sharon until it was done! We’re going to refurbish it to make it reminiscent of its past glory as an old auto repair shop/Texaco station. It will be my personal shop and office. It’s big enough to store 12-15 cars with some workshop space and of course, an adult beverage area!

Bret Voelkel Director of Innovation Fox Factory
We can’t say much, but know that Bret Voelkel will still be working for a living. As Fox Factory’s Director of Innovation Bret will work with a crew of engineers and visionaries on a wide range of forward-thinking projects. In other words, he’ll still be playing with cars, trucks and radical parts.

Ridetech: What do you think the future will look like at Ridetech? …and can you tell us about your new job with Fox Factory?

Bret Voelkel: My new position is Director of Innovation for the Fox Factory Powered Vehicles Group, which includes Ridetech. I get to focus on inventing new products, developing new technology, and cross integrating products and technology across all of the Fox companies. It’s like I’ve won the lottery! I am very excited about the future of Ridetech and its people. They now have opportunities and resources that Sharon and I never even fantasized about as the owners of Ridetech. If you think we have been innovative before…you’ve not seen anything yet!

Chris_Smith_Bret_Voelkel
Here’s Bret Voelkel and Chris “Smitty” Smith after Ridetech’s big 2019 Daytona Ultimate Street Car GTV win. Smitty will be completing Sharon’s Chevelle in the near future. No doubt, their collective gears are turning about future projects.

BONUS QUESTION: If you had to drive from Maine to San Diego in a hurry, what would be your vehicle of choice and who would you take along as your co-pilot?

Bret Voelkel: It would be myself and Chris Smith in a late ’90s 2 door Tahoe with a supercharged LT5/8L60 drivetrain and complete custom Electronic Shockwave air suspension. …and I would be his co-pilot 😊. Chris and I have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of miles together over the last few years traveling down the road optimizing the RideTech motorsports program. We know when to talk (which is most of the time) and when to not talk. We stay awake with a constant exchange of new products and tuning ideas. It never gets old. We’re also both truck guys and we know exactly how to make heavy, long wheelbase, high center of gravity vehicles ride and handle better than new Z06 Corvettes. …not that I’ve ever put any previous thought into such an endeavor.

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