They say it’s the obstacles we overcome that determine if what we want is worth the fight. No one knows this struggle better than Venice Perno, owner of The Performance Cellar in Ontario, Canada. With a late start to the drag racing scene but grand visions of success, Perno’s journey has seen its fair share of speed bumps.
In 1990, Perno resigned from a secure job (with a pension, nonetheless) to open a speed shop that has gained the respect of many throughout the years. His renegade business plan with a specialization in drag racing led to his first car in 2000 and a distribution partnership with Keystone Automotive. Ralph Ruzzi, VP of Keystone Canada, says, “Venice is one of those customers who is a true partner in business. His feedback over the years has helped us identify areas we can improve and become a better supplier to our customers.” And that mentality has spilled over to the track.
Though happy his speed shop was finally serving as the driving force behind a racing career, Perno admits, “We made a lot of mistakes with that first car and there’s no point lying about it because those mistakes are clear as day to racers, so you might as well own it,” he affirmed. He expressed to his wife, Lorraine, that he felt like he was doing something wrong. “I’m being too hard on the car. If I really like drag racing, you’d think I’d win a couple rounds. I’m tired of strapping up after the first round,” he recalled.
Perno knew that in order to win, he must first change his approach. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
“Over the next few months,” he thought, “you’re going to take care of yourself, relax, and apply less pressure.” Within a month, Perno won a local race. Then a divisional one, followed by an IHRA race in 2008. “We started to gain a reputation to go rounds wherever we showed up. Not killer competitors, but still a hitter. Let’s put it this way, you weren’t excited to draw me first round,” said Perno.
New Outlook, New Plan
Before that title of consistent contender could dry like cement, “In September of 2008, I put the car into a wall and was right back to the soul searching again. As I was thinking through the approach, my wife stopped me and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, then you need to do it properly. I don’t care what you spend, how you do it, or how long it takes, but the one thing I heard when you were doing it the other way was I made a mistake. I just don’t want to hear those words.’ It stopped me in my tracks because how many guys get to go carte blanche like this?” said Perno. It took about three years to build his Mustang “because I’m a little OCD and just wanted it done right so, no matter what, it was always going to be right,” he continued.
A vision to win is the understatement of the century. “The first weekend at NHRA with the new car we set the 8th mile record. Two weeks later, we set the quarter mile NHRA record. After the season, I pulled it apart. In the spring, we went out and lowered the quarter mile record again. We raced it all summer—not many rounds because we were breaking it in, but we raced,” said Perno. “Then in 2013, we went to Ohio and took home a Wally in our Super Stock/CS class. It made for quite a good drive home knowing you showed up as fastest car in your class that day,” he continued.
But that sure didn’t stop Perno from pursuing improvements. “I took everything apart agin because we were going really fast and I wanted to make sure I could lower the record substantially next time. In spring 2015, we went to NJ and lowered the Super Stock/CS record to 9.23. At that time, there was nothing running a 9.23 and ours was the fastest record. Because of my quest to go faster, I broke three engines over the next couple years. It took a year and half to rebuild and get our bearings straight regarding the plan with our race program. I realized I needed to back off a little bit in order to get back to where we used to be,” he said.
And recalibrate, he did. Unfortunately, hitting the refresh button came with one more major setback. Soon thereafter, Perno’s car caught fire on a return road at the track. Though devastating, “Instead of putting the car in the garage and shutting the door, that Sunday night I had the engine and transmission out and was cleaning everything. We were back at Norwalk eight days later and qualified,” he said. “The goal was to just get back because if you don’t get back quickly, it could become a year again. The car is not as pretty as it used to be, but it got us back into the rhythm,” he continued.
I Can, I Will
More importantly, Perno knew he was in a safer spot to compete. This time, he had his sights set on a NHRA competition in his own backyard at Toronto Motorsports. Even more tempting, the track record was still open. “So, I went home and I’m taking everything apart, putting it back together, and I’m confident that we’re going to set that record with a happy and healthy car,” said Perno.
But it wouldn’t come without sacrifice. The race ran back-to-back with the U.S. Nationals and if Perno was going to break the record in Toronto and head to Indianapolis, then he was going to be closed at the shop for nine of 12 business days. “Losing volume in sales and spending money at the track hand over fist—that’s a big deal (for a business owner). Plus, it was a lot to orchestrate. I had to make sure that all my ducks were in a row and that my car could set the record at one track and get down the next strip,” he said.
No Grit, No Pearl
Come race day, the stars aligned and it was Perno’s opportunity to shine. The only thing more sentimental than setting a drag record is doing it at home. For him, it was a blissful feeling to do so in Toronto, where it hadn’t been done for over 25 years.
Coincidentally, there was little time to celebrate because Perno had eight hours to get to Indy and set up for the U.S. Nationals. “We made time trial on Wednesday. Something went wrong with the engine and we had half of it apart on Thursday. Friday, we won our class. And next thing you know, we’re getting the car ready to compete in Sunday’s eliminator series. I would have been happy to go 3-4 rounds, but we made it all the way to the 5th round where there were eight cars left out of 175ish,” he said proudly.
Hard Work, Respect
Even when Perno has every reason to bask in glory and celebrate such accomplishments, his humble nature instead has him busy thanking everyone who has been along for the ride all these years, especially his devoted wife. “You know, she gives up a lot so I can do this. We aren’t the nicest house on the block and we don’t have the best things, but she is happy to see me happy,” he said with a tenderness in his voice.
“It’s all about your perspective of the journey, you know—those who support you and the fact that you don’t quit,” he continued. “And I never quit anything. I may take a little longer, but I don’t walk away. I refuse to let a piece of metal beat me, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to accomplish what we have as a business and at the track.”
That drive and determination is exactly why Ruzzi supports The Performance Cellar. “We have worked with Venice for several years, doing what we can to help him and Lorraine accomplish their racing goals. His recent success has motivated many of our folks who follow his racing career,” he added. Perno, appreciative of having a distribution partner in his corner, affirms, “That Keystone sticker will always be on my car.”
It’s safe to say that Perno’s obstacles confirmed his dreams were worth the fight. But that battle can’t be won without a team mentality—a lesson he now pays forward through the continued success of The Performance Cellar.