Jews in the Land of Disney: Entrepreneur Les Neumann, racecar driver at 60+
July 24, 2020
How does a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx grow up to become a racecar driver? Meet Les Neumann. He now lives in DeLand, is semi-retired and races on the Vintage Race Car Circuit. This is no small potatoes - he is nationally ranked.
It all started in 1954 when Neumann's mother's cousin married a girl from Hungary. While on their honeymoon, they toured the Morgan Motor Company plant in Malvern, Worchester, England, and ended up buying a car and having it shipped home to the states.
"Back then the Morgan's were dirt cheap," said Neumann, who was only seven years old when he saw the car and knew that he had to have one.
Neumann always enjoyed speed. His father used to take him to the races around New York, Long Island and Queens.
"It's not often when you can turn a boyhood dream into a reality," he said. That dream included racing at some of the most storied tracks in the country. "There were times when I was behind the wheel, listening to the tone of the engine, planning my next move when I had to pinch myself that this was real and I wasn't dreaming. It's hard to describe the rush of adrenaline when you've got your foot to the floor, pushing for as much speed as the engine would give you and hoping for just a little bit more," he described.
Neumann's first sports car was a 1972 Mercury Capri. Produced by the Ford Company of Europe in Cologne, Germany, and designed by Ford of Britain, that Capri was marketed as an economical sporty coupe, retail price at the time, $2,300. The car was Neumann's first foray into his life-long fascination with sports cars.
Neumann had no experience working on automobiles. He never worked in a garage and never went to school for it. To date Neumann has assembled a multitude of cars using his vast creativity and ingenuity to learn on his own. Neumann said it was because of his wife, Joan, who was the one who "literally," gave him a push on one fateful day that forced him into learning to repair his cars and ultimately become the shade-tree mechanic he is today.
After the Capri, he bought a Triumph TR4A for $300. It was in a British racing green exterior color with chartreuse shag carpet.
"The car never started, so I had to jump start it all the time. One day I had Joan get behind me in her AMC Hornet to give me a push start. Problem was, she started 20 yards behind and the impact smashed the back end and she knocked off my rear bumper and trunk. Everyone was laughing. But it got worse. She was pushing me again after we gathered up all the parts from the ground, we came to a 'T' in the road, I turned right and she turned left, which then took off the left rear quarter panel. I didn't have the money back then, so I learned to put it back together myself."
Sports cars were Neumann's hobby, but he had to support himself and family. Neumann developed a software/hardware system that allowed companies that were going public to follow a template and his company would then typeset and print the offering prospectus. It grew into a multi-million-dollar a year printing business.
Neuman cashed out of the business by going public with his software program in 1983. He learned once again by himself how to raise venture capital by taking a company public by doing the multitude of prospectus for his clients.
However, there were other complications that developed.
"During this time Joan was diagnosed with lymphoma. At the same time one of my partners and my plant manager were admitted to the hospital with the same diagnoses. I was about to close the deal and go public with my company, at the same time she was admitted to the hospital. They allowed me a room next to her hospital room to set up a desk and two phone lines. After she was admitted it took three days for me to close the deal, but I had no choice. Thankfully, Joan recovered, but my partner and plant manager both died. And yes, I do believe there was something in our plant that had caused the cancers," Neumann said.
The company thrived and Neumann purchased a 1979 MGB. They drove that little car everywhere with daughter Tracy squished in the back. The Neumanns moved back to New York to take care of their ailing parents in 1989.
After his parents had passed, he was broken hearted and moping around his father's basement when a good friend came over. His friend owned an advertising agency in the Empire State Building.
"Shortly after, I put on a shirt and tie and interviewed [with the company]. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but using my background in innovation and product development, they offered me a challenge to transform traditional paper and physical cosmetic sampling into a fun in-store electronic experience," Neumann said.
He developed a kiosk that used a virtual reality system and a digital camera. "The camera would take a picture of your face and the software would instantly map your face as to where to apply featured cosmetic products on your face on the screen. The system included the release of a fine fragrance so you could smell as good as you looked and be able to purchase the products directly from the kiosk," Neumann explained. The system was featured in Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor and other high-end retailers.
It wasn't until 1997 when Neumann found the car of his dreams, a 1964 Morgan 4/4, under a tarp in Clifton, New Jersey. The Morgan was a project that took seven years to complete. And what does one do after spending seven years restoring a vintage sports car? Put it on a racetrack.
For 10 years the Neumanns volunteered as safety workers at Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut. When Neumann turned 60, Joan gave him a gift enrollment to the Lime Rock Race Track Racing School. Neumann said, "I was hooked. I was done!" At 60 he began his racing career. Neuman found a 1966 MGB racecar, and joined the Vintage Sports Car Association and went out on the racing circuit.
His first race was in Virginia. "I did okay when I first began, however, there was this one race that changed everything."
He was racing against Porsche 911s. "I was the only British sports car on the track and I was being teased. Up till that race I would hold back, but the way I was looked down upon I had something to prove. I then began passing all the cars and ended up winning. After winning that race, something clicked in me and I was turned loose."
The Neumanns traveled all over to race in Watkins Glen, Pocono Raceway, Daytona, Sebring, Pocono, Virginia International, New Jersey Motorsports, to name a few and as he progressed he began to go faster and faster.
"The only regret I have with racing is that I didn't get serious about it when I was much younger. But, it's great to scratch a big thing off your bucket list and live to tell the tale. We're not done yet. In addition to the MGB racecar, which I am in the processing of an engine rebuild, we still have two sports cars: a 1979 MGB that we've owned since 1984, and a 1964 Morgan, which we treasure. We love touring with the top down and getting the thumbs up from passing motorists. They keep us young and involved. I could be buried in my car and no one would be shocked."