How 5 Dallas CEOs Feed Their Need for Speed
In car-conscious North Texas, some successful execs are nearly as revved up about their rides as they are about their companies.
Tasting the Joys of Speed
Javier Gutierrez is one of the highest-profile restaurant CEOs in North Texas. His landmark eatery called Javier’s is a hot spot for the rich, famous, and industrious. Typically, one of the pieces of eye candy in front of the restaurant is his latest exotic car.
Gutierrez began to play with cars as soon as he was old enough to get behind the wheel. His career even includes working for a year with the Pontiac division of General Motors as its assistant car distributor for the Southwest region.
But it was his financial success as a restaurateur that allowed him to really feed his hunger for exotic machinery. Since Javier’s opened its doors in 1977 with the unique cuisine of Mexico City, its fame has spread nationwide.
The passion for cars never left Gutierrez, though. He’s owned unusual models like the Lotus Europa and rarities such as a Lamborghini Miura. “The Miura was the most beautiful thing since women,” he says. “But you could only afford to drive it if you didn’t need to get where you were going.”
Today his stable includes a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, two Formula Mazda sports cars, a Porsche Cayenne, a Swift 008 Formula car, a Maserati Grand Turismo, and a RUF Porsche. He hopes someday to add a McClaren F1 to the list.
“I enjoy driving at the track, and get an adrenaline rush from being in a real race car on a real circuit,” Gutierrez says. “I [also] enjoy driving my sports cars on group tours.”
While some might be content to lead one company, Larry Freeman revels in variety. The real estate magnate, restaurant owner, and insurance executive is involved with six businesses. And, with 20 cars, including the ’59 Cadillac convertible he’s pictured with here, his passion for vehicles is as diverse as his commercial interests.
“I started collecting with a torch-red 2001 Corvette,” Freeman recalls. “However, I didn’t actually start out to collect—it just happened. After getting the Corvette, I was fortunately in a position to buy other cars, and I just never sold anything.”
The way he happened on to another of his autos had a twist. Freeman won first prize in a raffle for a ZR1 Corvette, it seems. Unfortunately, not enough tickets were sold for the promoters to acquire and award the car, so he received a $15,810 consolation prize instead. At that Freeman’s wife encouraged him to buy a 2000 Ferrari 360, which ignited his passion for collecting multiple vehicles.
“I like performance vehicles, as demonstrated by the Shelbys, the three Corvettes, the Ford GT40, and the Ferrari in my collection,” he says. “I like the cars of the ’50s because they are from the time before I left home. I love the colors, and I think the designs have stood the test of time.”
Enjoying the Risk
A third-generation insurance executive, Chris Hilton is entrepreneurial by nature. Four years ago the University of North Texas graduate founded Pinnacle Reinsurance Intermediaries LLC, where he serves as president and CEO. Pinnacle specializes in niche program and reinsurance placement and writes about $300 million in premiums annually.
Hilton describes himself as “Type A,” and his vehicle collection reflects his high-octane personality. His current car stable includes an Aston Martin DB9, a 605-horsepower Audi S6 (with nitrous), a camouflage Hummer H2 SUT, and a BMW 650i convertible. The one car he still longs for is the legendary Ferrari 288 GTO.
Hilton’s thirst for speed also extends to two-wheeled machines. He proudly boasts a Ducati Streetfighter S, a BMW K 1200 S, a Victory V92C chopper, and an Arlen Ness BMC chopper. He enjoys driving the motorcyles on rallies and taking them to shows.
Though European iron dominates his auto collection, that wasn’t always the case. “The first car I bought was a 1966 Mustang hot rod,” he recalls. “It was also the worst car I ever bought. I’d keep extra alternators in the trunk and had to change them out before school on multiple occasions.”
Whether it’s a bike or a car, Hilton says he enjoys vehicles that are fast and unique. “I feel that what you drive represents who you are,” he says.
Life in the Fast Lane
Fast cars are literally Dawn Stokes’ life. As the so-called Chief Accelerator for a company called Texas Driving Experience, she’s immersed in fast cars every day.
Though she comes from a family of auto enthusiasts, Stokes didn’t start her career with vehicles. She spent 18 years in medical manufacturing as an executive with a Fortune 100 company, where she oversaw a $250 million division. But Stokes was caught in a corporate “reduction in force” in 2003 and, instead of finding another job, put her savvy to work for herself.
Stokes eventually took her teen-driver education company and turned it into a full-time business. Her Texas Driving Experience teaches new drivers life-saving techniques; it also provides executive entertainment and fleet and safety training.
For Stokes, TDE gave her the chance to fulfill a need for speed that began with a 1963 Monza Spyder Corvair that she bought in 1974—and still has in her garage. “I bought the Corvair right before my 14th birthday for $595,” she says. “It had a habit of throwing and breaking fan belts. With a conflicting midnight curfew and a party at the lake, I found that pantyhose was a suitable emergency replacement to get me home on time. [That was] my first lesson in keeping extra parts on hand for old cars!”
Stokes’ first car has been joined since by several other high-performance autos, including a 2001 BMW M5, a group of C5 Z06 Corvettes, and a pole-winning 1998 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Busch Car.
Seeking Out the “Wow” Factor
As the founder and chairman of architectural/interior design firm Frederick Merrill & Associates Inc., Frederick Merrill is passionate about what he calls the “wow” factor. From the internationally acclaimed restaurants, clubs, and hotels his company has designed to the vehicles he enjoys, everything must possess the ability to impress.
A car lover since before getting his driver’s license, Merrill has owned some of the most fantastic creations on two and four wheels. “My first car was a 6-cylinder Ford in the 1950s,” he says. “I customized it with a full race engine, special paint and bodywork, exhaust, and interior. If I saw something new in the hot-rod magazine, I had it done to my car.”
After the Ford, his father bought Merrill a 1957 fuel-injected Corvette, brand-new. He made the car fly by “blueprinting” it with upgrades to the engine, and won two national-class drag-racing titles as a result. He went on to own Thunderbirds and custom Harleys but, in the late 1960s, a decision to buy a Rolls-Royce—the first of four he would own—proved to be a milestone.
“I was looking at a used Rolls, but didn’t think I could afford it,” he recalls. “My mother said, ‘If you buy that car, it will change your life.’ She was right. It did.”
His collection grew so large over the years that he had his own car wash installed. Eventually, though, he downsized to a current model Bentley GT and a Jaguar XJ8. Says Merrill: “I get great satisfaction from owning beautiful things.”