Friday Feature: Offenbach Cooks In West
Recipe For Success In Business And As K&N West Car Owner
Jim Offenbach was standing over the huge, portable barbecue, gently turning choice cuts of beef as they browned on the metal grating.
He had already chopped the fresh salad, filled the bowls with side dishes and set out food for 100 or more luncheon guests.
There are certain sights, sounds and scents associated with a NASCAR K&N West Pro Series race. Colorful cars, thundering engines and hot brakes come to mind. But the cloud of steak-scented smoke coming from “Jimi Z’s grill” is perhaps the most popular.
Building a successful race team is not much different than creating one of Offenbach’s recipes.
“If you begin with good ingredients, handle them carefully, you end up with a good result,” said Offenbach.
It has worked for his San Francisco-based Golden Gate Meat Co., and it is working for his K&N series team.
Driver Michael Self is second in the championship standings, just three points behind leader Derek Thorn. He has notched a remarkable six wins in the past 16 races, including an early-season three-peat, and has become a threat to lead to the checker flag at every track the series visits.
The team exists because of a good steak. Make that a very good steak. The best one legendary NASCAR car owner Richard Childress had ever tasted.
Back in 1989, during a visit to the Sonoma, Calif., road course, Childress and Dale Earnhardt took their families to dinner at a local restaurant.
The owner and driver agreed that the meal they were served was among the best they had ever had, and asked to see the chef to bestow their compliments on his work.
But the restaurant’s owner said good meals begin with good ingredients, and passed some of the credit along to Golden Gate Meat Co., a family-owned business founded in 1931.
Childress was so impressed with the food that he asked if Golden Gate could bring 30 or so steaks to the track the next day, to feed a group of VIPs for lunch.
“I brought the steaks and Richard asked me to put them on the grill and do lunch,” Offenbach remembered. “We hit it off really well and after lunch we went for a walk and we watched practice from Turn 1. I was blown away. I had been running a car at a local short oval, but I’d never see anything like the (NASCAR Sprint) Cup cars on the road course.”
The next day Offenbach took Childress on a tour of local wineries and their friendship was sealed.
“He called again and asked me to come to California Speedway and cook for him,” Offenbach said.
Somewhere during the conversations, Childress asked the butcher to run some RCR drivers from time to time in select events in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, which then the NASCAR Winston West Series.
Since that time an impressive list of talented drivers have worn Golden Gate uniforms: Steve Portenga, David Mayhew, Jay Sauter, Ty and Mike Dillon, Ryan Foster, Blake Koch and Jason Bowles.
Portenga gave Offenbach his first victory as a car owner in the series, winning the inaugural race at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway. Portenga later owned the team for a time, when Offenbach left the series to expand his business holdings. He now has two shops in San Francisco and a third one in Santa Rosa.
“After about 18 month of ownership, Steve was happy to sell it back to me, but stay on as the guy in charge,” Offenbach said. Today, the former driver runs the competition side of the operation and serves as crew chief on Self’s car.
“He’s a great team owner,” said Portenga, who runs the operation out of his shop in Bakersfield, Calif.
While no team owner is going to write a blank check, “Jim told me early on that he doesn’t ever want to be the reason we lose a race,” said Portenga. “So he gives us what we need.”
In the beginning, it was what he could afford.
“When we started out, we had a couple of cars and an old trailer we called ‘old mustard’ because it was such an ugly yellow,” he said. “We laugh about it now, but at the time, it was the best we had.”
He said his boss leaves most of the team decisions to him.
“Jim knows enough about cars to know what we are doing and why,” he said, adding that the standard team joke is that whenever the team is struggling, Offenbach suggests “it needs more rear brake.
“Well, there is the one time he bailed us out,” admitted the crew chief. “We were at Roseburg, Ore., and we couldn’t get the car to start. We were trying everything, and nothing worked.
“Jim came by, leaned into the car, plugged in a loose wire and it fired right up.
“He reminds us about that from time to time,” he said.
Business pressures have forced Offenbach to back away from the everyday business of the team. Rather than stopping by the shop once or twice a week, he now gets to visit about once a month.
Offenbach still makes almost all the races, where he fires up the grill and sets the table.
He admitted that feeding 100 or more at every race can get expensive “but it’s what I like to do and it is good exposure for the company.
“Sometimes it is steak and sometimes something like lasagna,” he said. “The folks like fettuccini Alfredo and abalone. At Sonoma we did bison fillets.
“I figure a well-fed team, is a happy team,” he said, “and the officials and other regulars know they can always stop by and get something good to eat.”
His well-fed team sticks around, he said, with roughly 80 percent of the people who began with him still wearing the Golden Gate Meat uniform.
As team owner, he is also in frequent contact with Childress, who Offenbach considers both a friend and mentor. Golden Gate became an official RCR development team in 2007.
“I’m on the phone with Richard every Monday after a race,” he said. “We go over how things went, what we did right and what we need to work on. His people have been great technical resources for us.”
There may be no greater proof of the success of that relationship than Self’s victory at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East-West combination race at Iowa Speedway in May, where he became the first K&N West series driver to win the overall battle, ending an east victory streak that went back eight races in seven years.
Childress is keeping an eye on Self, who is scheduled to run a split season next year, with partial season in the K&N West series and in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Self is scheduled to be in a Childress truck with Golden Gate Meat sponsorship at Phoenix, Kentucky, Iowa and Las Vegas.
Next season, Offenbach plans to put Bobby Runyan Jr. in the K&N car full time.
“It’s great to be able to find young, talented drivers and work with them,” he said. “It’s great to see how they progress.”
“A couple of years ago Michael couldn’t even describe the difference between loose and push,” said Offenbach. “Now he’s winning races and he is in contention for a championship.”
All it took was the right ingredients…and a little seasoning.
A chance meeting in 1989 has led to a great friendship between Richard Childress and Jim Offenbach. Pat Brandon