From adversity to adventure, 71 and not quite done
From adversity to adventure, 71 and not quite done
(TOLEDO, Ohio – February 2, 2015) – In 2001, an accredited doctor looked Tom Berte in the eyes and told him he had six months to live. As it was explained, he had a serious and aggressive throat cancer with no way out.
“I was told to make my final arrangements,” Berte said. “I’ve never smoked in my life, and it just didn’t add up for me. So I went to the Mayo Clinic for another opinion. I finally got in to see him. He said, ‘Tom, you don’t have cancer.’ I about fell over in my chair. He asked me if I had any dental work done lately…I said that I had a tooth pulled, but the Novocain they kept trying to give me just wasn’t working. He told me I got some bad Novocain, which can look like cancer. He said the reason he knew is because he went through the same thing.”
One year later, Berte woke up and couldn’t see out his right eye.
“My regular doctor told me it was an eye infection. But it just didn’t feel right, so I saw an eye specialist. He said, ‘Tom, I hate to tell you this, but you’re going blind in your right eye. In six months, you’ll be blind in your left eye too.’ I went and saw a second doctor. He reiterated what the first one said…you’re going to go blind. I was sent to a neurologist, who went in with some new technology. As it turns out, the optic nerve in my right eye had gone bad, but I grew a new one around it. The doctors had never seen anything like it. I can see just fine now.”
Now rewind the clock back to the late 70’s.
“I fell down hard in 1979. I built and remodeled homes. Well, back then, the interest rates went to 20%. I lost everything. My home was sold off in a sheriff’s auction, and I went through a divorce. In 1981, I started life over. I got remarried to my current wife of 32 years, Lynn.”
Now fast forward the clock to 2015. Tom Berte, a completely self-made man, is at the helm of four very successful businesses and, at 71, races part-time on the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards tour, the second oldest active driver competing. He and his wife just got back from Paris. In two weeks, they leave for Brazil.
“I still work eight hours a day, or more…still do all the bidding for the jobs…all the financials. I spend my winters in Arizona. I go back and forth to Milwaukee every two weeks to check on business.”
And rest assured, there’s always plenty to check on once Berte gets off the plane. Berte’s four businesses are CGS Premier, Event Vehicle Leasing, All Safe Fire Equipment and Fire and Safety Tech.
“That’s what keeps me young…keeps me in shape. It forces that ‘don’t get old thing’. I’m lucky. My whole family is long-lived. My father was strong and sturdy to the very end…he passed away four years ago at 98. My mother’s still strong at 95. My grandmother lived to 100…all very active people.”
You can certainly put Berte on that ‘active people’ list.
“My wife and I started an insurance business…sold business insurance for Century Insurance. We were very successful…that’s how we were able to start up our other businesses. At CGS Premier we build vehicles for the advertising industry…about 50 employees…largest company of its kind in the country. We work with a lot of Fortune 500 companies. We cut out the insides of trucks and trailers and completely rebuild the inside. The trailers have stages that fold down for them to show their merchandise.
“We built a 53-footer for the NFL. It was out there for the Super Bowl. We work directly with the NFL. We’ve got a couple we did for General Motors on tour in Texas right now. We have some contracts with Verizon too, several others.
“In 1998, we wanted to set up our kids in business so we created the other businesses. We have a blended family of three boys and two girls. One child works in the White House…he’s been in the military (Army Corps of Engineers) for 27 years. Let’s just say he helps maintain proper conditions in the White House.”
Berte, who runs five to eight ARCA races a year for Venturini Motorsports, also has nine grandchildren.
“I have a couple grandchildren who are in their 20s now, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see some great-grandchildren come along pretty soon.”
At this rate, if the great-grandkids do come along soon, they’ll have plenty of time to see their great-grand-daddy drive on the ARCA tour.
“I actually started racing at Hales Corners (Speedway) and Fireman’s Park in Cedarburg (Wisc.) in 1977. In my very first race, I caught a rut in the dirt and took out the judges stand. They saw me coming and jumped over the side. I ran a 1957 Chevy in the sportsman division. Back then the sportsman cars were a step below the late models.
“I finally retired from racing…then, about 1990 I started going down to Andy Hillenburg’s school for fun. Then he said, if you go to ARCA, I’ll put you a deal together. I was 59 when I started by first ARCA race in 2002. I raced a couple times each year until about 2006, then I got hooked up with Venturini Motorsports. Now I’m running five to eight races a year. In fact, when Billy (Venturini) stopped driving, I was their only driver for a couple years.
“I own my own stuff, but Venturini Motorsports prepares it for me for all the races. I’ve got six races scheduled in 2015 – both Poconos, Chicagoland, Iowa, Kentucky and Kansas. My crew chief is David Ifft. I did order the new engine package for all the races. As long as my reactions hold up and I still have stamina, I want to keep doing it.”
It doesn’t sound like retirement is in the cards anytime soon for Berte.
“Taking it easy is not my nature. I’ve always taken risks. I grew up very poor. My father had business problems…we went many years where we didn’t have much. I decided very early in my life I wanted to be wealthy, so I geared my whole life to that goal.
“When I have time, I’m restoring a ’56 Plymouth Fury…do a little fishing…don’t have a lot of time, but I get out a few times a year.
“I exercise every other day…lift weights…do stamina exercises and reactionary exercises before the races. As far as the success I’ve enjoyed, it’s really only because I expect it from myself. Everyone says I should write a book. We only get one life that we’re sure of; I’m enjoying every bit of it.
“I fell down hard one time in my life; I don’t plan on letting that happen again. We’ve worked very hard for what we have. My wife and I raised a blended family – three mine, two hers. They all lived with us. We’ve raised all our kids without any serious problems.”
There just isn’t a lot of time for relaxing in Berte’s world.
“There are only two places I relax…when I’m in the racecar or at a movie theater. Otherwise I’m thinking about business all the time. When I turned 70 years old, I realized I had way too many things to accomplish. I figure I need another 50 years, so I’m going to 120.”
In Venturini Motorsports-prepared Chevrolets, Berte has made 50 career ARCA starts overall, finishing a career-best 13th at Pocono Raceway in 2007 and 13th again at Chicagoland Speedway in 2014. Berte also finished 14th at Pocono in 2010 and 2006, 15th at Pocono in 2014 and 2011, and 15th at the New Jersey Motorsports Park road course in 2008 and 2009.