Posted in  Exhaust, Tech Stories

The Schoenfeld Headers Story: The Beginning

Schoenfeld Headers (1200x675)

By Ben Shelton

From dirt floors to industry domination, the story of Schoenfeld Headers is the epitome of the American dream. More than 40 years after its formation, the family-owned business continues to grow and thrive. With a foundation firmly based upon customer service, Schoenfeld Headers is genuinely an industry leader.

The Schoenfeld Family in Victory Lane in 1970 (1125x905)

Don Schoenfeld in Victory Lane with his boys early in his career.

In this two-part series, we are going to explore the fascinating history of this Van Buren, Arkansas-based success story.

Long before Schoenfeld Headers was even remotely an idea in the back of his mind, the company’s patriarch, Don Schoenfeld, was elbows deep in the racing world.

“All the way back in 1965 I worked for a local engine shop, and they had an old car sitting out back,” Schoenfeld recounts. “I was itching to get behind the wheel, so I worked up a deal with them, and they let me drive it. I guess you could say the rest is history.”

He quickly expanded his racing career and moved on to compete in everything from Go Karts, to Modifieds, to Late Models. The credentials of his successful resumé weren’t limited to any one surface, as he was an ace on both dirt and asphalt.

“We had both dirt and paved ovals within reasonable proximity of my Arkansas home, so it gave me a lot of opportunities to race on both surfaces early in my career,” Schoenfeld says.

Schoenfeld also is quick to credit his success on asphalt to the way he had to drive on dirt.

Left to Right - Doug - Dennis - Don Schoenfeld  (675x1200)

From left-to-right, Doug, Dennis, and Don Schoenfeld.

“Back in those days, we just had drum brakes, so you had to really sling the car around on dirt to help scrub some speed,” he remembers. “Knowing how to drive that way allowed us to run the car a little freer on the pavement side, while still maintaining some car control. This made us a lot faster.”

Schoenfeld has a lot of fond memories from his racing career, but one comically sticks out.

“I beat Larry Phillips, once…. when he broke,” Schoenfeld declares with a laugh. “In all seriousness, we enjoyed a lot of success and met some great people along the way. That’s my favorite memories.”

While Schoenfeld burnt up the race tracks on the weekends, he worked as a mechanical engineer during the week for the Whirlpool Corporation. Designing refrigerators was not where the personable Schoenfeld wanted to spend his long-term professional life. Somehow, someway, he wanted to find an avenue that would allow him to work full-time in racing.

His gateway to working in racing, would ultimately present itself in the most random of occurrences.

“I was at an auction in 1974, where they were selling the company that had built headers for my car, so I decided to try and buy some of the equipment to build my own stuff. There really wasn’t a company that specialized in circle track headers in those days,” Schoenfeld remembers. “This other guy ends up buying the whole company and everything with it. He doesn’t really want to mess with running it, so we struck up a deal for me to run it for him.”

Schoenfeld manufacturing facility (959x348)

Warehouse Stock (1200x675)

For roughly a year, he ran the company for the gentleman who won the auction, but soon, Schoenfeld had the opportunity to buy sole possession of the header business.

“Again, the guy who won the auction really wasn’t interested in the header business, so I was able to buy him out,” he explains. “People ask all of the time if I was nervous about taking on such a big task, but I really wasn’t. My dad had a blacksmith shop, and I had already been in the Go Kart business, so we had some experience in running a business.”

In 1974, Schoenfeld Headers was officially born. It operated in an old factory building in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The facility was humble to say the least. In fact, it had dirt floors.

Schoenfeld, along with a couple of employees, began fabricating headers for use in racing, and they also performed other random racing projects to keep the company afloat. Their initial specialty was 180-degree headers for pavement cars.

Business quickly began to grow, and by 1976, the company was on the move — literally, to a 5,000-square foot building in town.

“Don [Schoenfeld] can be humble about what led to the company’s rapid growth, but to everyone around him, it was pretty obvious,” notes Schoenfeld Production Manager Mark Brailey. “From day one, Don knew what racers needed because he was a racer too. He’s always had an uncanny ability to connect with people. Add that in with the great customer service and products that he offered everyone, and it was a recipe for total success.”

Schoenfeld raw materials (1200x675)

Not only was the size of the company growing, but their areas of focus were expanding, as well. In addition to building headers for pavement racing, they also began producing exhaust products for dirt racing. This expansion came as many of the pavement tracks in the South began to either close or switch to dirt.

With Schoenfeld Headers’ repertoire expanding, so was their clientele. Not only were regional standouts running their products, but some of the nation’s best racers began to join their winning team.

“Having guys like Larry Phillips, Bobby Allison, and Mark Martin use our products early on really helped put us on the map,” Brailey reminisces. “Then when Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, and Rick Ferkel started using our products in the Sprint Car world, it opened all kinds of new doors for us. Similarly, in the Dirt Late Model ranks, Freddy Smith and Billy Moyer were pivotal clients for our company.

“The bottom line is that in racing, people want to run the same products as the guys who are winning. And man, oh man, did those guys win.”

The year 1985 was another of transition for Schoenfeld Headers. While much of the pavement racing in the proximity of the company’s Arkansas location was waning, Schoenfeld found its core base of customers was situated in Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan. As a result, the company relocated to Riverside, Michigan.

The decision to make the move was further reinforced by the fact the Schoenfeld family was from the area.

Schoenfeld manucturing (1200x675)

Schoenfeld Headers’ operational time in Michigan would be short-lived, though. Factors that included labor costs, harsh winters, and employees’ families wanting to go back home resulted in the company relocating to Van Buren, Arkansas, in 1987.

Business continued to boom for the company, and it became apparent that regardless of location, Schoenfeld Headers was going to continue to thrive for decades to come. Not even a 1995 fire that leveled the facility could slow down their momentum. The buildings were quickly rebuilt, and the company continued to forge ahead.

The scope of work also continued to grow. From Mini Sprints to Sprint Cars, Midgets and Late Models, dirt or asphalt, all the way up through the world of Truck and Tractor Pulling, and even Marine, Schoenfeld Headers could produce exhaust products for anything with an engine.

Schoenfeld Headers 2 (1200x675)

While Schoenfeld’s vision continued to spur the company’s growth, his family became more and more involved in the day-to-day operations. While one son, Dennis, stayed busy working in the NASCAR world, his other son, Doug, became very involved with Schoenfeld Headers.

By the early 2000s, Doug began to spearhead many of the company’s daily activities. While he assumed the helm, Don stayed active within Schoenfeld Headers and continues that role today.

dyno 1

In 2004, the company grew once again as it moved into its current location in Van Buren, Arkansas. That’s the point where the second part of the story of Schoenfeld Headers will begin in the next edition of OneDirt.

Now boasting more than 60,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse facilities, the future for the industry leader in exhaust applications is bigger and brighter than ever.

For Don Schoenfeld, it’s all a dream come true.

“Starting this company from scratch and building it into the country’s, if not the world’s largest circle-track header manufacturing facility, is definitely what I’m most proud to have accomplished,” he says.

Source: Schoenfeld Headers,

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