Racing into a new business venture

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February 6, 2020

It’s the usual story:  Start racing go-carts at age 11, become a star NASCAR driver by your early twenties. Then open your very own used car dealership.

Melissa Fifield is doing all that — melding her love of racing, her need for a flexible schedule, and her skill as a car salesperson into a new business she launched last summer in Sanbornville, NH on Route 16, Pine Knoll Auto Sales, with help from the NH SBDC.

Melissa started attending car races—including NASCAR events at the Loudon Speedway— with her father, Kenneth Fifield, when she was five or six, and says she also loved four-wheelers and snowmobiles as a kid.  “I loved speed,” she explains.

She began competing with go-carts at 11 years old and announced that she would one day be a NASCAR driver.  Since 2014, she has competed in NASCAR, and today races in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.

“I have always loved cars,” Melissa explains.  “I had always worked on cars and loved all of that. I worked at a bigger, franchise dealership for four years—in sales—and got acquainted with all the departments.”

So, when the opportunity arose to start her own business, and to lease a former town garage for the space, Melissa jumped at the chance.

First, however, she had to seek counsel and advice. Family friend and former Executive Councilor Joe Kenney referred Melisa to Beno Lamontagne, NH Division of Economic Development, who then brought in Stewart Gates, NH SBDC business advisor. Stewart helped Melissa build out her business plan in order to obtain a business loan, to develop “sell sheets,” and to figure out realistic numbers. 

“I had a small business plan sketched out,” she says, “but it was not anywhere near where it should be.”

Stewart went through the plan, added cash flow projections, and helped her with all the income and expense calculations.

“We met in person, we did multiple emails and phone conversations,” she said.  “He would spend as much time as I needed with him if I didn’t know how to get a certain number that he wanted.”

“He just really helped me figure out if what I was planning was realistic,” Melissa said.

Turns out she didn’t need the financing after all. She now works with companies who purchase the vehicles for her dealership, and she then has a certain amount of time to sell them. It’s a little bit like consignment.  “Though I didn’t have to do a large loan, it was so good to go through that business plan exercise.”

She was grateful that Stewart helped her see what capital she needed to start the business, and how to do balance sheets.   “Those were really great tools to be able to calculate what exactly to expect.”

Having applied for and received her dealership license, Melissa opened the doors to Pine Knoll Auto Sales on August 10, 2019. 

“It’s been going well,” she said. “We’ve been getting more recognition in the area; they know we’re here, and we’ve got our website and Facebook spreading the word.”

Melissa and her father are both well-known figures in town.  Kenneth was the police chief for many years and, since her NASCAR fame, Melissa has worked on public safety programs about safe driving and “making good choices.”

To find her cars, Melissa and her father attend car auctions and choose cars that don’t need a lot of work. They will sell for $2,500 to $3,000, and “are decent and something that everyone can get into.”  Her inventory is great for kids who need their first car or a seasonal car, and trucks. “We have a wide range of options here, including some collector cars.”

Her father helps with the paperwork at the dealership, and Melissa’s mother steps in when Melissa has to be away for NASCAR events.  In fact, Melissa’s racing career is what drove the need for her own business.  She requires a flexible schedule to accommodate the NASCAR racing season, which runs from March through October. Melissa will race in events up and down the Eastern seaboard.  “Usually I’ll need to be gone on weekends, and we’ll close the dealership or my mother will help in those situations.”

When Melissa fulfilled her childhood dream of racing, at the age of 13, she says, “It took some convincing to get everyone on board.”  Namely, her mother was little nervous about the whole thing, but it has become a family affair. Her father attends every one of her races, while her mother stays behind to hold down the fort. 

When she became a NASCAR driver, she needed a race team and a car.  When she wins a “purse” in her races, it all goes to pay for the car expenses. She says she runs her race team like a business. “It’s obviously a little different, but with the racing team, I worked with marketing partners and learned to be a salesperson,” she said. “Many on my team are volunteers, but I manage them and I’ve chosen them.  I have that experience and I intend to bring it into this dealership.”

She hopes to return to Stewart soon for more advice.  She’s wants to expand the car detailing aspect of the dealership. The NH SBDC advisors have been “a huge benefit,” she said.  “They’re really able to coach you along in the process. Dr. Gates was so patient, whether it was a silly question or not. I can’t get over how helpful he was.”

Melissa Fifield is one of only two women driving in NASCAR and was awarded the "Most Popular Driver" award for the last three years it has been held. She is a spokesperson for New Hampshire Highway Safety working to keep drivers safe. She was recognized for those efforts by Governor Sununu and earned a Congressional Citation. Watch one of her safety videos.