LIVING THE DREAM: Bill and Anne Lee with one of their race cars and the First Bank mobile ATM at Bill Lee Race Cars in Palmetto.
PALMETTO Boy sees girl. Boy meets girl. Boy musters up enough courage to ask girl out.It takes a little while, but the girl accepts a date. Some 30 years later, boy and girl are sitting in the thriving business they have built together, flipping through a scrapbook and pointing out the pictures of some of the young lives they have touched. Bill Lee sums it up in one sentence. "It all started with a dream," he said.
That dream is now spread over 10 acres alongside U.S. 41 North in Palmetto --- site of Bill Lee Professional Automotive Services and Bill Lee's Race Cars. Lee manages the shop. His wife, Anne, who is the executive vice president and retail president, Florida, for First Bank in Bradenton, is the shop's owner and president.
Together, they have specialized in building race cars and building lives, and doing so with their roots entrenched in the local landscape. The Lees' ties run so deep that one of the buildings the business uses for storage was once the house where Anne was born and raised. Anne's parents owned the tract of land where the business sits, and one of the streets running near the shop used to be named Anne Lynne Road, in honor of Anne and her sister. In fact, it was an interest in automobiles that brought the two together. Bill used to work at the same dealership where Anne went to purchase parts for her father's gas station. One day, she caught his eye. "I told the guy I was working with, 'You see that girl over there? I'm going to marry that girl,' " Bill said. "He goes, 'You don't even know her name.' And I said, 'Go ask her her name.' "
It took six months, but Anne finally agreed to go out with him. "On our first date, we started making wedding plans," Bill said. The couple, who lives in Ellenton, has been married for 30 years, a union that crossed into the business world, too. Born in Alabama and raised in Sarasota, Bill always loved racing. Anne wanted to pursue a career in banking. So each one did. Then in 1983, they purchased a tract of land from Anne's family and began running the shop, constructing drag-racing cars to ship all over the country, repairing cars and stockpiling trophies in the lobby of their main shop. It's family-owned and operated --- just like they wanted.
"I had a dream of having a one-stop shop --- something I could do forever," Bill said. "Not affiliated with any company . . . a private shop." Bill runs the business --- but is quick to point out that Anne, who still has her first car (a 1967 Mustang) is the furthest thing from a silent partner. She bought the couple's first race car and has purchased approximately 30 since. "I give him a little nudge here and there," she said.
One of Anne's biggest ideas came about when she was wondering how to make ATMs more mobile. So she scribbled something on a napkin, Bill and his crew went to work in the shop and voila --- two vans, donning First Bank colors and the bank's logo, each equipped with four ATMs, were created. The vans are taken to places such as pumpkin festivals and bike rallies, and are occasionally dressed up for parades. And since the vans can run on generators, they can be used in the event of an emergency --- such as if a big storm leaves the area without power. That is what the Lees take the most pride in --- what they do for the community. And their greatest impact came in 1992. The Lees' oldest son, Bill Jr., 24, has heart and lung problems that prevented him from playing sports such as baseball, basketball and football. "But he could drive," Bill said. The National Hot Rod Association had implemented a junior drag-racing program for kids. So Bill, with the support of then-Sheriff Charlie Wells, implemented the idea in Florida.
"We'll teach them young where to go fast and how to go fast properly," Bill said. "And maybe when they get their license, they'll remember that. And they'll take their cars to the tracks instead of racing them on the streets." Bill teaches the kids how to drive on the grounds of the shop, and when they are ready, they take their cars out to Bradenton Motorsports Park twice a month. What began with a handful now numbers close to 50 locally, and, according to Bill, thousands around the state. Racing teaches kids math and science. They learn how to mix different fluids. They see the results of gear changes. "It's an incredible thing," Bill said.
Bill Jr. has gone on to win more than 100 trophies from racing cars and motorcycles. Yet in following his parents' lead, he donated them all to Boys and Girls Clubs and youth groups. At this year's awards banquet, the Lees are going to have a drawing for a new car, with all the proceeds helping the racers get to this year's division finals in south Georgia. "Some people have a harder time traveling to those events," Anne said. "But we want the kids to go and have a chance to race." Their community involvement stretches beyond that. Bill sits on the board of governors at Manatee Technical Institute, and has been involved in myriad organizations --- be it with the Rotary or a number of advisory committees. The shop is a certified safe place. Children from a nearby bus station are invited in when it rains, and the Lees have a kitchen on location, supplying kids with anything they need, such as a warm coat or a snack. "I lost my dad when I was 8, and ever since then, I've wanted to set an example," Bill said. "We want them to know there is a safe place where they can go." That means more to the Lees than the shop. They want to give to the community, make a positive impact --- and impart the same kind of happiness to others as they enjoy themselves.
"We're just living the dream," Bill said. Bill and Anne Lee Age: Bill, 53; Anne, 50. Local residence: Ellenton
Occupation: Bill is the manager of Bill Lee's Professional Automotive Services and Bill Lee's Race Cars. Anne is the president and owner of Bill Lee's Professional Automotive Services and Bill Lee's Race Cars, and is the executive vice president and retail president of First Bank in Bradenton. Birthplace: Bill was born in Alabama and raised in Sarasota; Anne was born and raised in Palmetto. Family: two sons --- Bill Jr., 24, and Wesley, 16.