Not many members of the SEMA Hall of Fame made an early career contact in a city jail while waiting to be exonerated, but that’s how Nate Shelton met Bill Casler of Casler Tire Service, who was not only a friend but also instrumental in Shelton’s future. As a young football player at Chaffey Junior College in 1969, Shelton used to make a little side money by selling reconditioned appliances for his dad at the Ontario swap meet in California. One weekend, he also helped out a couple of buddies by transporting some tires to the swap meet. Shortly after the sale began, however, the Ontario police arrived, cuffed them all and hauled them off to jail. One of his buddies ultimately confessed that the tires had been stolen from an area of tire stores but also cleared Shelton of any wrongdoing. Casler arrived as Shelton was checking out with the desk sergeant. Casler Tire Service pioneered the use of recapped cheater slicks, and some of the tires had been stolen from the shop.
When told the full story, Casler admonished Shelton to stay out of trouble but made the other two sweep out his retread shop every day after school to pay back what they had stolen and sold. The pair got to work around old Junior Stockers run by people such as Ed Holman, Gary Hooker and Wiley Cossey, and Shelton visited the site to check out the cars, also developing a good relationship with Casler. When Shelton was discharged from the SeaBees in 1972, he answered an ad for a “locator rep” at Hooker Headers, and Bill Casler once again walked in at a fortuitous moment. Casler, who owned a large portion of Hooker, recommended Shelton to the human-resources folks, and one of the most illustrious careers in automotive specialty-equipment history began.
“Hooker was quite a good training ground for me and quite a few other people in the industry,” Shelton said. “I went from being a locator rep, which is basically the guy who followed a vehicle to the design shop, to writing the instruction sheets to running the technical department and then sales manager.”
During the succeeding years, Shelton held jobs at such diverse companies as Cam Dynamics, Koni Shocks and VDO, returning to Hooker as director of sales and national sales manager in the mid-’80s. In 1987, he made another life-changing move when he joined K&N Engineering in Riverside, California.
“It was a pretty small air-filter company in 1987,” he said. “We did about $4 million that first year. They were big in motorcycles and wanted me to take them into the automotive business. We put together an automotive program and built the company into a $100-million-a-year corporation in about 14 years. I was eventually offered an opportunity to acquire part of it and become more involved.”
He led K&N Engineering to four PWA Manufacturer of the Year awards, working hard to create operational systems and build the business.
“It’s probably been repeated so much that people don’t like to hear it, but we always said that the customer is king,” he said. “We did everything we could to make our distributors as profitable as we possibly could. We kept in mind that we were in business for the core performance customer rather than for the mass merchandisers or the volume retailers. The core PWA warehouse distributors were the guys who built our business. We were the first company to win four Manufacturer of the Year awards. That said a lot about where we had come from and what we had accomplished.”
While at K&N, Shelton was instrumental in the development of high-flow air filters and cold-air intakes, and he is “the father of the fuel-injection intake kit” and the inventor of the X-Stream Filter Lid. Many of those innovations are among the first and most popular modifications made in the automotive performance arena today. In addition, he and the other K&N principals were responsible for creating some of the manufacturing processes and machines that are unique to the air-filter industry. “We had to build them ourselves,” he said, “because they didn’t exist anywhere else.”
Shelton sold his interest in K&N in 2002 and thought he was going to retire, but then he started a rep business, S&S Marketing. By June of 2005, he had hooked up with Dubin Clark & Company, a private equity group, and they put together a deal with Brian Appelgate to buy B&M Racing and Performance. They subsequently purchased McLeod and Hurst and are still looking for other opportunities. Shelton now serves as chairman of the B&M Automotive Group that is headquartered in Chatsworth, California.
His resume of participation in SEMA’s organizational structure is also phenomenal. Shelton served 12 consecutive years on the association’s Board of Directors; was chairman of the board for two years; served on the SEMA Business Committee, Manufacturers’ Rep Council (MRC), Hall of Fame Committee, Warehouse Distributor of the Year Committee and Scholarship Committee; and chaired the Unfair Business Practices Task Force. He was one of the founders and was the first chairman of the Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council (MPMC). He was the PWA Person of the Year in 1994, the SEMA Person of the Year in 1998 and received Northwood University’s Automotive Aftermarket Management Education Award in 2001.
In addition to Casler, Shelton credits Neil Gates and Tom Cates as instrumental in the development of his career. He said that Gates, who ran the design shop when Shelton first started at Hooker, gave him his love for the business, and he said that Cates, who was the general manager at K&N, taught him about the higher levels of business.
“Both of them were guys who were in the business just because they loved it,” he said. “They cared about what they were doing and wanted to be involved, and I have a great deal of respect for them.”
Shelton works to maintain that respect, but also to retain his perspective about the joys of work and family.
“It’s easy to get full of yourself when you’re successful,” Shelton said. “I think the most important thing you can learn about business is being yourself. Don’t be something you’re not. Sometimes you can get so busy playing a part that you’re not doing what you should be doing. People can see right through that.”
In 2007, Shelton celebrated his 38th year of marriage to his wife Jeannie, exchanging vows with her on July 20, the same day that men first walked on the moon. He takes great pride in his 36-year-old daughter Kimberly and 35-year-old son John, who add to this extremely enjoyable phase of his life.
“I’ve got a wonderful wife and a wonderful family,” he said. “I’ve had a great career, and I can take a little different approach and look at things a little differently now. I enjoy what I’m doing, and I love the industry. This award is the greatest thing that could ever happen to me, because it assures me that I can continue to go to the SEMA Show, see my buddies and be there for that Hall of Fame luncheon. This industry is all I’ve ever done, and I just hope I can continue to be a part of it.”
Obviously, the industry shares in that desire.