Ron Hemelgarn first began making waves in auto racing in 1977, although he had operated Toledo’s Super Fitness centers since 1972. By 1977 he had bought a few health clubs in the Indianapolis area and wanted to get the word out about his fitness businesses more effectively.
“I said ‘I am going to sponsor a car in the Indy 500.’ It was a crazy idea. It cost a lot of money— money I really didn’t have. But I wanted to get everybody excited about the company down there (in Indy).”
The central Indiana racing hotbed wasn’t the only thing that inspired Hemelgarn; he’d loved cars since he was a kid. Sponsoring a car in that year’s Indianapolis 500 — a car Hemelgarn readily admits didn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell” of winning — wasn’t with winning as the goal.
“I remember being in the pits when a car went by with my name on it,” Hemelgarn recalls. “There were two gentlemen standing behind a chain link fence, and the guy said to his friend, ‘Hey, there goes my car!’ And I turned around and I said to the guy, ‘You own that car?’ And he replied, ‘No, I belong to that health club!” People want to be proud of what they do. And that sold me on the power of the sponsorship.”
Hemelgarn began building his fitness business with racing as a cornerstone. When he began receiving calls from fitness center owners from around the country, asking how they could get involved, Helgarn and his club members got excited about racing which culminated in 1984, when Hemelgarn officially started his own racing team, with a specific goal in mind, winning the Indianapolis 500.
“I decided, hey, I’m gonna win that race. And as my company grew quite rapidly. So we jumped in with both feet. And establishing a racing team was a lot tougher than I ever thought it would be, just trying to assemble people. Racing is truly a team effort, a lot of people making [sure] everything goes right.”
Led by driver Buddy Lazier, Hemelgarn Racing won the Indy 500 in 1996. “It was nothing more than effort equals results,” Hemelgarn said. “Nothing more than being determined, really determined— I’m going to do this. I’m going to do it. Very calculated. We have good partners, as far as sponsors, and those sponsors stepped up to the plate. And the next thing you know, we’re out there doing it.”
Hemelgarn Racing is still competing today, albeit on a smaller scale, running full-time in the USAC Silver Crown Series. Hemelgarn explains that he has to prioritize his time given everything else he has on his plate — seven grandchildren can keep him pretty busy. And, of course, there is Super Fitness, rapidly approaching over a half-century of service in the Toledo area.
“Across the entire country, there are only a few fitness centers that can say they’ve been in business for that long. I raised my family in this community, I’m very very proud of what we established. My members are the greatest asset of my business. They are the greatest, they’ve been with me all these years. We literally have members that have been with me for 48 years.”
I have always wanted to… “Be successful, and be involved.”
What do you admire in people? “Honesty.”
What is your pet peeve? “Dishonest people.”
What is something that most people don’t know about you? “I’m just down-to-earth.”
What are the words you live by? “Enthusiasm, determination, discipline. I look at problems as an opportunity.”
What advice would you give to the younger you? “Number one, be honest. Number two, know your talents. In other words, your strengths, your weaknesses. If you focus your future on what you enjoy, you’ll never have to go to work every day.”
What inspires you now? “Longevity, for one. To have good health. I have a wonderful family, a wonderful business. What inspires me? Just wake up every morning, go to work and talk to people.”
What’s your favorite food? “I don’t eat it often, but I always have it on my birthday, and that’s hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes.”
Favorite movie? “I watch movies, but only when I am on an airplane. … I love comedies.”
Who do you most admire? “The greatest inspiration in my life was my father. He was a friend, and a good advisor. That would be number one. I’ve had great friends who have been there through thick and thin. I admire people who are persistent.”