Furniture Mogul Shifts Gears to Nascar Circuit
By Mike Chambers (BA-90)
Photograph courtesy of the Denver Post
Visionary businessman and NASCAR team owner Barney Visser has fond memories of UNC. He attended the school in 1970 and was a defensive lineman on the Bears’ football team. He met a lifelong friend in assistant coach Vince Zimmer, and he was introduced to his wife of 41 years, Carolyn, a 1971 UNC graduate.
But what the Furniture Row owner remembers most about Greeley was the care and comfort the city provided upon his return from Vietnam.
“UNC was a great place to come back and get your head straight from Vietnam. Not a huge amount of anti-war resentment,” Visser says. “Laid back. Some guys came back to major cities and had real trouble.”
The GI Bill paid for Visser’s education, but it didn’t last long. During his first year in Greeley, he lost his scholarship for taking 11 credit hours in the spring, one fewer than the minimum to remain eligible for athletics. He dropped out and returned to Denver, his hometown, to mow lawns for the summer. Ultimately, he dove into the furniture business, establishing Furniture Row, which has 75 centers nationally. And he introduced Denver-based Furniture Row Racing to the southeastern-dominated NASCAR in 2005.
“Apparently I couldn’t add to 12,” Visser says with a laugh. “I really wasn’t cut out for school.”
And he wasn’t going to miss playing football.
“I got to play enough to know it wasn’t forme,” he says. “After I got some of the= anger and frustration out about Vietnam, I didn’t have the enthusiasm for it that I might have had.”
Visser’s enthusiasm was retail, and he introduced the world to big, poofy pillows in the 1970s (Pillow Kingdom) and water beds in the 1980s (Big Sur Waterbeds). Ultimately, he created or bought Sofa Mart, Oak Express, Bedroom Expressions, Denver Mattress Company and The Linen Shoppe and created Furniture Row.
In 2000, shortly before he began his trail-blazing NASCAR team, Furniture Row Racing, he authored a book about his experiences in the war: “Vietnam: Fresh, Positive Insights for All Who Suffered Loss in the Vietnam War.”
Barney and Carolyn have raised seven children, reside in Cherry Hills Village and are approaching their 41st anniversary. After establishing Furniture Row, Visser semi-retired and needed a hobby that didn’t include golf. He bought a race car that had been used at Colorado National Speedway after seeing it listed in a newspaper ad. Visser had never been to the short oval north of Denver, or even been behind the wheel of a race car, but once he had, he was hooked. He met a local legend, driver Jerry Robertson, and, with the blessing of Furniture Row’s marketing department, began to pour millions into a race team that made its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut in 2005.
This year, with driver Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing is the first single-car team to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, the 10-race playoffs consisting of just 12 drivers (13 this year). The team is the only one of its kind based outside the Carolinas, and every week it uses a truck that transports fabric for Denver Mattress to deliver engines, chassis and parts from North Carolina to team headquarters in north Denver, at the 34,000-foot warehouse formerly known as Big Sur Waterbeds.
Visser owns two private jets and gets himself and his team to the races in style. He said he used to make about 80 percent of the races but now makes almost all of them because he knows the little team that most people used to laugh about can now win.
“I never understood why they said you couldn’t do it,” Visser says of creating a NASCAR team in the West. “To me, it was just transportation, and I felt like we could attract good people to Colorado, and we have.
“The fact that I’ve proven people wrong doesn’t really mean anything to me. Just knowing that we can win every time we can go to a race track — really knowing it — is just huge for me. It adds a lot of thrill to the game. It’s a lot of fun.”
Visser attended Denver Christian through his junior year in high school, and then transferred to Thomas Jefferson High School, which had split sessions at the time. He went to school from 7 a.m. to noon and then worked at a nearby Safeway from 1 to 10 p.m.
After volunteering for Vietnam in 1967 and serving as a paratrooper rigging parachutes, he used the Army GI bill to attend UNC, where he walked on to the football team, despite not playing in high school.
Visser became lifelong friends with Zimmer, who died in 2005 at age 66.
“He was worth the trip up to Greeley alone,” Visser says of the defensive line coach. “Great guy.”
Visser is considered a great guy in the NASCAR pits.
“Barney Visser is one of the finest and most committed men I have ever dealt with in this sport,” says Richard Childress, president and CEO of Richard Childress Racing, the team Dale Earnhardt and other famous racers drove for. “He has brought a lot to this sport.”
Childress and Visser are unofficial partners through a technical alliance, which includes technology sharing, engineering and research development provided to Furniture Row Racing by Richard Childress Racing.
“The strong team he has assembled out in Colorado (and) seeing them make the Chase for the first time this year shows how successful this partnership has become,” Childress says. “I believe we’ll have similar success in 2014 and beyond.” NV