Cecil Beaton once said, “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” Venice Perno, owner of The Performance Cellar in Ontario, Canada, embraces this concept. And because of it, he’s living the dream.
Ordinary to Extraordinary
Perno’s path to fulfillment is a tale of ordinary to extraordinary. An intelligent man with a nose for books and impressive knowledge across the spectrum of speed and performance, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to find work. And though Perno discovered an appetite for the automotive industry at an early age—spending countless hours thumbing through the spines of historical and technical text—he didn’t grow up in a wrenching environment.
“I had a late start getting to the drag strip because there was no one in my immediate group that was part of that scene,” he said. Add to that, “There was no car in my driveway so everything I wanted (to have and accomplish), I had to do it on my own. Books, studying, and being an enthusiast on paper was an affordable way for me to get into this lifestyle,” recalled Perno.
The quest for a race car, that desire to strap in and burn fuel in a straight line—one could say it was a primal emotion for him. “It really came from deep within. It was something that I wanted to do (at my very core), even though I didn’t know exactly how I would execute,” he continued. Despite having no clear plan, Perno knew with every fiber of his being that one day he was going to be at the NHRA U.S. Nationals. It would require a full tank of willpower, a few changes in tune, and a backup charge of perseverance, but hell or high water, Perno’s vision was destined to become a reality.
High Risk, High Reward
First, and against his better judgement, Perno took a big risk. With the support of his wife, he resigned from a secure job and left a cushy pension to pursue ownership of a local speed shop. “I didn’t have guts early enough to damn the consequences. Somewhere in my 30s I thought, ‘We’re running out of time.’ I wanted to be drag racing and if so, I needed a better place to get my stuff than what was out there,” he said.
A New Beginning
Founded in 1990, The Performance Cellar has established itself as one of the premier speed shops in Ontario, Canada. Like many ventures in Perno’s life, his current success as a business owner more closely resembles a switchback through the mountains than the straight line of a drag strip.
“I came to the realization about 15 years ago that I needed to do something drastic to really separate me from my contemporaries,” said Perno. At the time, he was consumed with the notion that all speed shops essentially do the same thing. “We sell trinkets for cars… the same ring and pinion or pistons as anyone else. But what can I give the customer that is value-added beyond the price point? When it comes down to that question, it’s usually knowledge,” he continued.
Some of Perno’s deepest soul searching happened at this crossroads, a point in his life when he pondered the real reasons he flipped the store sign to “Open” each day, how he was conducting business up until that point, and his personal and professional interactions with those around him. “Drag racing. It always came back to drag racing,” said Perno. “Having fun… with it, the parts, the customers, the lifestyle,” he exclaimed, “and it was something people always asked me about. So, we stopped trying to do what everyone else was doing and focused on what we knew and what we liked because, honestly, you work harder when you like it.”
A Step Back = Two Steps Forward
A revised business plan took shape, one that defies accepted practice. Then again, it’s always been about the road less traveled for Perno. “I don’t need to be concerned with a website—I just need to be Venice,” he said. He admits that it took a while for people to get it, to really understand that what appeared to be a traditional brick and mortar speed shop from the outside was really equal parts inventory, consulting, and life at the track.
“In my business locale, I’m one of the go-to guys for info going down the race track. You can’t put that on a price sheet and what it does do, it allows me to remove price from the equation in a lot of transactions, whether it be consulting (in the shop), the purchasing of parts, or going to the drag strip to hang out and provide a professional opinion. It’s stuff I bring to the table that a lot of my competition doesn’t,” affirmed Perno. “I won’t be known as the cheapest guy. And I don’t want to be the price point. I want to be the knowledge point,” he continued. As such, it’s a certain pedigree of enthusiast that does business at The Performance Cellar.
It Takes One to Know One
“I’m an anomaly in this industry. Their race car hobby is my business. If I think someone is going down the wrong road, I’ll tell them. And if I don’t think it’s right for you, I don’t want anything to do with it. I’ve lost customers because of it, but I also earned a big reputation for being ethical,” explained Perno. This mindset means that no customer is just a customer. Perno, like a crew chief, is a true problem solver. He’s invested in racers and their vehicles of choice, and it gives him an upper hand in customer transactions.
“These guys don’t run me out of their pit space. As an enthusiast, I look their car up and down and if I don’t know how it works, I ask the customer for shared knowledge. Then I can take what I learned from a guy who turns corners and share it with a guy who goes in a straight line because sometimes if you can get just one thread that allows you to go faster, quicker, and more efficient…it’s worth it,” explained Perno.
A Customer Base Built on Trust
It took years to build such trust, “and you can’t just flip that switch one day and violate it; otherwise they’ll leave you as fast as they showed up,” he said. Today, the pluses and minuses of the shop books don’t motivate Perno as much as the spirit of the sport does. “I’m in a happy spot because money isn’t everything. So many of those financial wishes have back doors to trouble. At this point in my life, I’m not lazy, but I don’t need to double my sales for the sake of saying I doubled my sales. Ever since I let go of this premise that you need to make X to be Y, it’s been easier,” explain Perno.
The Performance Cellar Keeps Performing
His speed shop may be the backdrop to his racing career, “because that Mustang of mine eats money, you know,” said Perno, “but the hostile environment usually associated with racing cars, that’s not existent in my store.” There’s nothing but love inside The Performance Cellar—a love of parts, a love for the sport, and thy fellow racer.