By: JULIAN BENBOW on October 31, 2005

Oct. 31–Mark LaMaskin was 30 years old when he decided to leave the family business.

He went from more than five years of stable employment in his parents’ material handling equipment business to being an unemployed newlywed hanging onto the hope of turning his passion into his profession. Not to mention he and his wife had just moved into a new home, so that profession had to be at least marginally profitable.

“There was just a little bit of pressure,” LaMaskin said, reflecting on it all.

The large, one-room warehouse, the spray-painted office like Les Nessman’s on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” the 12-hour days, and six-day weeks are all easier to think about while sitting in a leather office chair checking e-mail from across the globe.

Everything from automobile advice to interview requests come through Performance Autosport in Rockville, because when people want to find out about Saleen Mustangs they know to go to LaMaskin.

“I just found my forte and it’s pretty cool,” LaMaskin said. “I’m kind of known as the Mustang or the Saleen guy and that’s pretty cool. It’s all pretty surreal to me. It’s kind of neat.”

He had been looking for a while after all.

He was never the cool kid, he says, never the jock. He was just the kid who would read the car magazines his dad brought home for him.

He pored over them, amazing considering the dyslexia LaMaskin battled throughout his school days.

The magazines satisfied his need to learn what made machines work. It was one of the few times he’d used reading to help him learn.

LaMaskin said he almost never cracked open a book in college. Instead he went to class every day with open ears and notebooks to earn his bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I wasn’t a straight-A student,” he said. “But I graduated.”

With the degree behind him, LaMaskin had something he could take into job interviews to show he was more than capable. But he said he didn’t need a piece of paper to tell him that.

“I think you are either a business person or you’re not a business person,” said LaMaskin, who has run Performance Autosport since 1998. “You either have the skills and you’re either an entrepreneur or you’re not. I don’t think there’s really any in-between.

“Just because you have a business degree doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good business person. A lot of the most successful people I know don’t have a degree in business. Business is in your blood and dealing with people is in your blood.”

LaMaskin can’t remember a day when he wasn’t working. He had his own car-detailing business in college. And while some of his buddies bolted for Cancun or Daytona for spring break, LaMaskin washed, buffed and shined about a hundred cars during the week.

“I could make $2,000 in that week and that would pay for my entertainment for the rest of the year, and none of the guys understood how I always had money,” LaMaskin said. “Well that’s because I worked my butt off.”

He hustled even in high school, working as a field representative for L&L Limited in North Carolina, running ads in papers, meeting with possible buyers and putting them in touch with the exotic car trader.

“I’ve always had a job,” he said. “I’ve never been the kid that goes to camp for the summer.”

What LaMaskin calls a natural work ethic is what allowed him to do things he never thought he would.

The 16-year-old kid with the “piece of crap” Monte Carlo is the man who has lifted the “scissor” doors of a Lamborghini Countach and tested all 400-plus horses.

More important, the spray-painted office now has walls, and the garage at Performance Autosport can fit some three dozen Saleens. (Saleen Mustangs are named for former race driver Steve Saleen, who in 1983 began Saleen Inc., a company that customizes Ford’s pony car for appearance and performance).

The business isn’t always profitable, LaMaskin said, but it rewards in other ways. “One month it’s great, the next month it’s down, the next month it’s great,” he said. “Our business is a fun business and it’s about being addicted to automobiles.”

The borders of addiction and expertise meet at LaMaskin’s shop on Plaza Drive, where customers come to ask about carburetors verses electronic fuel injection and authors such as Brad Bowling, an authority on Mustangs, come to pick up the history and chronology of the specially souped-up Saleens.

“We get a lot of notoriety,” said LaMaskin. “The business has definitely developed in the last seven years.”

Along with buying and selling cars, LaMaskin hired employees Don Rositch and Kevin Adolf as Performance Autosport moves into performance parts and tuning.

But even with the success, LaMaskin can’t help but think about what square one was like and why those 12-hour days and six-day weeks are still important.

“If you’re not there to watch what you created, it can crumble as fast as it was created,” LaMaskin said.

“Whatever you put in you’ll get back out and if you stop putting in and you don’t have a good foundation for something then it can go down as fast as it was built up.”

Trade Names is a regular feature about established Richmond-area businesses.