Part 2: Mainstream Success (Read Part 1 Here)
The use of Nitrous Oxide (N2O) was about to explode – literally and figuratively. Mike Thermos and his business partner Dale Vaznaian just got an incredible boost from a spread in Hot Rod Magazine, where they quickly learned the value of promotion and advertising. Now it was time to get involved in racing and expose the goods.
Banned by NHRA
The sanctioning body of big time pro drag racing feared the go fast product, and Don Prudhomme was a catalyst to the ban.
Thermos continues his story, “We went over to NHRA and in those days I was an old gearhead and I knew all the funny car guys and everything. So, they were dropping cylinders when they leave the start. They didn’t have the magnetos they have today. So we built kits for funny cars and we had ’em on Billy Meyer and (Kenny) Bernstein’s car, with Dale Armstrong and Blue Max. And we would just trickle in a little bit of nitrous and it would help light the nitro and the car would drop the cylinder because they were so rich. While we were doing all that and they went back to Indy. We’re getting all this good ink and everything and the company’s growing. Then (Don) Prudhomme shows up. I knew his mechanic, but I didn’t know Prudhomme at the time. And he shows up and he’s got a little bottle in the front of the chassis and he’s got it piped into the fuel pump.
“Billy Meyer comes running over to me and he goes, ‘what’s he doing? What’s he doing? Mike, is that your stuff?’ I had nitrous on Billy’s car. He would come in and bum nitrous all the time.
“I get it on Prudhomme’s car, he sees me, he comes over, and he goes, ‘I got it on the old man’s car now.’ And I go, ‘man, that don’t make sense, what are you doing? You’re faking everybody out with that thing in the fuel pump?’ ‘No, I’m freezing the nitro and it gives me a big step.”
“He goes and makes his run and he runs two tenths quicker than the field and (the fastest) in the history of the sport. And he hand grenades the pistons right out of the thing, at the thousand foot mark. But he comes back, he’s got low ETs and people are coming around the car. Indy, The Nationals, they want know, if they are going to start calling this thing the ‘nitrous nationals.’ This was great. I’m getting all this good ink. Even though every lap he keeps breaking it. Then all my other guys are going, ‘Thermos, what’s he doing? What we want to do that too.’
“I go over there and I say, ‘that don’t make sense.’ So, I watch him on the starting line and I get in there, inside the rope, and I’m standing a few feet from the track. And Prudhomme is in the car and they’re lighting them off for the next qualifying attempt. I watch (his mechanic) go to the bottle, a little bottle in the car, in the front, the chassis before they put the body down and the guy fakes putting it on. I watch his hand as it goes, like he’s putting it on, then he puts the body down and I just keep my mouth shut. Let’s see what happens. (Prudhomme) blows it up again and now everybody says, ‘it’s nitrous. He’s got nitrous, but it’s destroying his car every time it goes down the course. Then after the race, NHRA, I knew the kid that was the tech guy, we went to school together, and he goes, ‘Mike, they want to ban this nitrous stuff from NHRA.’ And we ask all the guys and they don’t know anything about it and it’s blown up the motor. Well then I step up and say, ‘He didn’t have nitrous.’ (They reply) ‘Oh yeah? Who are you? Oh, you sell nitrous? You’re biased! You’re going to tell us that.’ Anyway, they ban nitrous from NHRA.”
A blessing in disguise
The NHRA was the big show, but the IHRA needed a cool class to attract a bigger following. NOS answered the call. Pro-modified became a door-slammer major attraction for the fledgling series.
“But that was a blessing in disguise because we went over to IHRA. They needed support. They knew they were second string. And so we walked around in the pits and said, ‘the top sportsman classes are a bracket class, but look at the cars that are in here! These are all two-year-old pro-stock cars. And really, these cars have got some potential. Let’s see if we can put nitrous on.”
“So we put nitrous on them and they went almost a second quicker — and they didn’t blow up! They ran. We went 200 miles an hour before anybody went 200. So then I went to the management there, Ted Jones, and this was happening mostly back on that side of the Mississippi. Jones wasn’t sure. Finally, after about three months, he asked me if I would support it. I said, ‘yeah.”
“You dial in. You got 32 cars, you know what a bracket is. And then on Sunday they all race, but somebody gets a lead and they chase each other down. I said, these guys got faster cars for that. Buddy Ingersoll with a turbocharged Buick, a 57 Chevy, Bill Coleman, Charlie Carpenter, and all these real big engine Southern boys in 55 Chevy’s. So we put nitrous on and they started to really click — went a second quicker. So, I said ‘we’ll sponsor it, we’ll do a quick eight on Saturday night in front of the crowd. Let us have that time.’ Finally, Ted says, well, you go organize it. Go down there and get the look at the map and take the quick eight guys and put a show on at eight o’clock at night. It was an evening race and we did it and brought the house down.”
“There were some trick cars. So, then (Jones) says ‘okay.’ We gave him, I think, $500 to the winner and it started going and pretty soon it got bigger and bigger. Then they came to us and said, ‘we’re going to call it ‘pro modified.’ We’re going to have a 16 car show, it’s going to be at all our events and we’re going to go with that. So, we were behind it. We’d have 11 or 12 of the 16 qualifiers. We were on cloud nine. We were getting all the publicity and we knew racing hard enough that the guys out of the garages couldn’t compete, not only with the technology we were doing, but financially we would do ads ‘so and so wins’ spread in all the magazines in those days.”
“And the nitrous started to come up and we probably had 90% of the market. So we kept going and the warehouses like Summit started buying. We had 35 people working for us. We bought a building right down on the runway of Orange County (John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California). We were cooking and none of the big companies came after us because they thought it was kind of black magic and blew up your engine. They figured they didn’t want to get that stigma. So they stayed away.”
Holley Comes Knocking
It was 1999 and NOS was selling like crazy, but then a suitor, in the form of a conglomerate of aftermarket parts, made them an offer hard to refuse.
“We didn’t care. We were just a bunch of crazy hot rodders and we had nothing to lose. Let’s just grab the ball and go up field. It kept going and going. Finally, Holley came to us and we were doing, Oh God, almost $15 million a year. Pretty good for a couple of yahoo drag racers. But we were putting a lot back into the industry though.”
“Holley offers a ton of money for it. Well, shit, maybe we should sell it. I was about 55 years old. So, we sold it, and had a ‘do not compete’ for five years. They gave me a consulting agreement for two years. So I flew back to Bowling Green (Kentucky). They moved everything back there. I tried to tell them how to run it, but corporate was too strong, typical corporate deal. They pulled all the midway off with all of the freebies and all the sponsorships — and that’s what drove it. I mean that’s a stronger market. Anyway, the sales went in the tank.”
They parked NOS now in the garage. They don’t even hardly advertise it anymore. They bought other companies and it’s this big conglomerate now. And when they bought us, they had sold the program for $150 million and they bought Earl’s, they bought Hooker Headers. They bought all these. They always bought the top companies. They bought nitrous, but then they bankrupted it and they all got 10 cents on the dollar, some five or six years later.”
Thermos starts Nitrous Supply
Never one to sit still for long, Mike Thermos started a new nitrous business – and is right back at it.
“But then they regrouped and they sold more and they keep doing that. (Holley) came to us, bought it and we sold it and literally I waited out my five years. I was still a gearhead. I still pursued it, you know, not fighting. We were set now financially pretty good. But I love the drag racing and the guys and we came out with new products that I invented so to speak. I couldn’t sit. My wife was driving me crazy sitting at home for five years. I just wanted to get out of the house, Jesus!”
“So, I opened this little place (Nitrous Supply) up, we had 50,000 square feet down there right on the runway. When Holley paid us, we went down the bank, we owed like two and a half million bucks on it and we just paid it off, paid the note up. We ended up selling the building for like $9 million. All of the sudden our accountant tells us, ‘well you have capital gains.’ What? How much? So we bought a whole mall kind of deal down there right by where we were on the corner. It’s just all leased out and we got a management company.
“I did Nitrous Supply as a kind of a hobby. What happened is we got into refills. The bottles are getting filled right now. I got about seven or eight speed shops all the way up to Riverside and all the way up to Beverly Hills that sell nitrous and they buy the stuff. The truck comes and they load the bottles. They’ll load about 50 bottles on and they, and then they sell it to the guys for refill and the off-road guys.”
The Fast & The Furious
NOS would become a household name through the popularity of The Fast & The Furious franchise, Thermos and his partner had sold the company to Holley, but were still instrumental in putting the product in the movie.
“Universal called and I said, ‘tell them to piss off.”
“I said, they’d been getting stuff from us. We did Sylvester Stallone’s car, the Merc, and all they showed was a little switch going on. Nitrous didn’t even have our logo or nothing. And we gave him two kits. He had two cars cause when one came down, they’re useless. We did all the cars on the Dukes of Hazard. People didn’t know they had nitrous. We just take carburetor off and go put it on this car. And it could be a stock engine and it still picks up 125 horses. At Universal Studios, where that was shot, they had shallow areas to get the ramp speed up. Those stunt guys are all bunch of nuts anyway. They were going for records, how far they could go through the air. But we didn’t get any real publicity out of it, so I kind of turned off to it. So Universal said, ‘well, we want all these kits and we’re going to do this and we’re going to rotate the earth.’ I said, look, I’m not trying to make money off you, but I’m not going to lose money. We’ll give you a deal on all the kits.”
So, they spent like about 20 grand and they got bottles and they got everything. We outfitted the cars and went up there and it’s all Paul Walker and all that. Then SEMA called me. Well, some people at SEMA and they go, ‘Mike, you know, we’re a little worried about this movie because it’s going to show drugs and shooting them up, guns, street racing and all that. Well, yeah. You know anybody up there were a little worried.’ Well we got invited to the preview at the Egyptian and 30 people from SEMA got invited. So they called me and said, ‘come on, we want you to come up cause it’s got Nitrous.”
“So we go up there, sit in the audience, watch a movie, I’m laughing all over the place cause everything is NOS and I’m getting the biggest kick out of it and I don’t even pay attention to all the drugs and the shoot him up. So, we meet in the lobby afterwards and everybody’s looking at me. ‘What did you think?’ Are you kidding me? I said that was about half a million dollars worth of publicity. Well we didn’t know it was going to be a B movie that moved into the A category. The phone went crazy. We had just sold by the time the movie came out and we had a call monitoring system that we had just bought because we were getting a lot of calls and I had like four or five techs. They were getting 1000 calls a day.”
Mike Thermos continues to go to the office every day and still attends races. Nitrous Supply is based in Huntington Beach, California.