Tom Linder loves auto racing. He is very involved in the sport, not as a driver, but as a fan.
Realizing that race fans are loyal to businesses who support their sport, the Sykesville resident turned his love for motor sports into a marketing tool to promote and gain exposure for his employer, Miller Chevrolet in Ellicott City.
Linder has been around racing since he was 4. He attended Dorsey Speedway in Howard County with his father until it was closed in the early '80s. That forced him to travel to Hagerstown and Hanover, Pa., to enjoy oval track racing.
Five years ago, after graduating from college on a work-study course with General Motors, he decided on a career change. He left a position as parts manager at a high-pressure car dealer in Baltimore for a similar position in Ellicott City.
During this time, NASCAR Winston Cup racing was growing at a fantastic pace. Linder arranged to have NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt visit Miller Chevrolet for an autograph session.
Any doubt that the dealership had about the popularity of auto racing immediately disappeared when more than 3,000 lined up.
"It was a phenomenal promotion," said Linder. "It sent a signal to us that there were a lot of race fans in the Carroll/Howard County area."
At the same time, Linder started a NASCAR motor sports collectible and souvenir store as a section of the parts department he managed. It met with immediate success.
He had to enlarge the area twice. Now more than 400 square feet in the parts department is devoted to racing collectibles and is the largest of its kind in the Baltimore area.
Linder arranged to have the Miller Chevrolet parts department sponsor the Pennsylvania Sprint Car Championship at the Lincoln Speedway in 1992. Though the event was in Hanover, Pa., Linder noticed one time there that nearly half the cars in the parking lot had Maryland tags.
Shortly after that event, sprint car driver Dan Dietrich of Aspers, Pa., approached Linder for sponsorship support.
"Dietrich was in a tight battle for the championship and felt he could win the title with support from us," said Linder. "He is super aggressive on the track, but a stand-up gentle man off it, a real sportsman. He has the image we wanted to project."
Dietrich won the 1992 track title, and last year he responded with his second consecutive title.
This year, Dietrich will go for his third championship with Miller Chevrolet behind him.
Racing is a family affair for Linder. Linder is with the car almost every week and his wife Janet attends races, too. Their 19-year-old son, Tom Jr., who will be graduating from Catonsville Community College this spring, is a member of the pit crew. Upon graduation, he plans to transfer to York (Pa.) College to major in therapeutic recreation. The dealership owners, John and Robert Miller, also have visited the track to watch their car often.
Local racing is scheduled to begin next weekend, and the Miller Chevrolet sprint car will be in action on Saturday, weather permitting, at Lincoln Speedway and Sunday at Hagerstown Speedway.