Ten years ago, Steve and Becca Bertok took a leap of faith.
Becca, a Lexington native, grew up in a family of rally car racers and knew first hand the addictive nature of road racing. Her father; Julian Watson, is a former rally driver and Becca went to her first race at four weeks old.
Steve had twenty years of experience selling automotive parts and salvage, and wanted to own his own automotive business. So together, the two started Panic Motorsports, selling parts and building rally cars for themselves and others from a garage in their back yard in West Columbia.
“It finally came down to taking that leap,” said Becca from the company’s present garage near Columbia Metropolitan Airport in rural Lexington County. “Steve left his job on a Friday and was selling parts on his own within the week.”
Why did they name the company Panic?
“No reason,” Steve said. “A bunch of us were just hanging out and came up with it. Bar napkin.”
The business’ initial focus was on parts sales to individuals and race shops across the Southeast. After months of market research, Steve planned to focus almost exclusively on parts for Mazda Miatas.
The Sports Car Club of America’s “Spec Miata” racing class has been the hobby club’s largest since its inception in 2000.
“They are great handling,” Steve said of the cars. “They’re sturdy and there are a lot of them. Mazda made a million of them by 2009.”
‘$32,000, ready to win’
In 2002, Steve built his first Spec Miata. After earning his competition license and starting to race himself, he was hooked.
With strict requirements for building the cars, the Spec Miata class equalizes performance, making a driver’s talents that much more important, Steve said.
“If you can win in Spec Miata, you can win anywhere,” he said. “And there is nowhere more competitive than in the Southeast division.”
In 2006, Panic turned into a business, building cars for enthusiasts nationwide.
The cars cost “$32,000, ready to win,” Steve said.
Within a year, the Bertoks hired a part-time employee and rented an old shop in South Congaree to hold their expanding business. By 2012, they had moved to their present 4.5-acre location in West Columbia with a large shop and room enough for their growing race car stable.
We handle everything – race strategy, radios, driver coaching, pit stops
Today, the company has four full-time employees and two part-time employees.
In addition to building cars for others, the Bertoks own several Spec Miatas for personal use and rentals. But most of the 15 or so cars under their roof are client owned, built and maintained by Panic’s staff.
Panic delivers the cars to tracks up and down the East Coast and the Midwest, traveling more than 30 weekends each year. The tracks include Sebring International Raceway in south Florida, Virginia International Raceway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Watkins Glen International Raceway in New York.
They can even serve as pit crews.
“It’s called an arrive-and-drive program,” Steve said. “We handle everything – race strategy, radios, driver coaching, pit stops. For the bigger races, the client might even get lucky and Becca will feed the drivers and crew.”
Panic now has 20 racing clients.
‘I like coming to work every day’
The company also rents for $450 a day a race car that can be driven on monthly open track days at Carolina Motorsports Park and other tracks. All-day track fees at Carolina Motorsports Park in Lancaster County are $250, and drivers – anyone with a driver’s license, regardless of skill or training – get six to eight 30-minute sessions on the road course, Becca said.
Panic also tests its cars at the Lancaster County track and Virginia International Raceway.
Panic has “a handful” of regular track-day clients who drive just for fun, Becca said, as well as “a host” of customers who use the company to service their street legal Miatas. The company’s parts business also delivers online sales worldwide.
For her part, Becca handles the marketing, web site maintenance, T-shirt designs, race car graphics and the overall “look” of the company.
The couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Marilyn, wants to follow in their footsteps.
“She wants to be a race engineer and a zoologist,” Steve said. “At least this month.”
Steve said starting his own business was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I like coming to work every day,” he said. “Most people can’t say that.”