For most of the drag racing season, Rob Wendland goes to the races.
This weekend, the races come to him.
"It's awesome," Wendland said of this weekend's NHRA Western Auto Parts America Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka. "It's great because I love the racetrack. Heartland Park is one of the best racetracks out there."
Wendland knows of what he speaks. An Oskaloosa native who grew up in Lawrence, the 31-year-old owns Wendland Performance Services at 730 E. Ninth. There, Wendland designs fuel systems and rear wings and consults with crews working on Federal-Mogul dragsters and funny cars, which formerly were known as alcohol dragsters and funny cars.
Wendland also rents out his services as a mobile weekend crew chief.
"I started the deal of a rentable crew chief," Wendland said. "I'll flow a fuel system, and they'll hire me at a certain race. They'll fly me in, and I have guys who work for me for crew services. It's a pretty cheap investment for an expensive piece of machinery. These engines are expensive, and it's pretty easy to blow one up. A weekend costs about $3,000. That's pretty cheap."
Wendland started in the business as a crew member, traveling with one car to every stop during the season. About three years ago, he decided to try to make it on his own.
"I had seen some things, different components that were way overpriced, like rear wings," Wendland said. "So I designed a rear wing that cut the cost in half. We couldn't build enough of them.
"There's nobody out there teaching you this stuff. It's the school of hard knocks. I make it less painful than learning the hard way. Guys can struggle for years at a time."
Wendland said Lawrence's Tim Baxter -- who drives a Federal-Mogul dragster named the Jayhawker -- was important to his early success.
"I helped to tune up their old car. I did a lot of consulting on it," Wendland said. "They really helped me get started with this business. It was a great learning experience. They just had their new car painted, and they put my name on it. Tim Baxter is like a best friend."
This weekend, Wendland is working with Bill Hynes, the Division IV points leader in Federal-Mogul dragster.
He'll also keep a close eye on Darrell Russell's dragster, which is sporting a Wendland wing.
And, of course, he'll keep tabs on Baxter.
"When a car I've worked on goes out and runs a good number, it's just like taking out a full-page advertisement," Wendland said. "The cars speak for what I do. A lot of guys make engine parts. I feel if everybody has the same parts, nobody's going to get the advantage of going faster. You're only going to be as fast as the next guy buying the same junk. We try to do things differently."
And so far it's worked.
Wendland started out, he said, in an 80-square-foot shop. He graduated to a 1,200-square-foot shop and now works in a 5,500-square-foot building that also serves as a general auto repair shop. He hopes to expand again.
"The automotive thing is going real well," Wendland said, "but the race car thing is going crazy. It's a good problem to have."
This weekend's races will conclude with eliminations on Sunday.