Perry’s full-service auto repair garage was one of the unfortunate buildings hit by the April tornado and was deemed condemned soon after the storm.
Perry said the 32 year-old establishment was then leveled and rebuilt from the ground up, a process that took eight months to complete, leaving him and his staff in quite a shock.
“The most secure part of my life was my work, my business, and suddenly it was gone,” said Perry about his ini-tial reaction to the loss. “When we got down here (after the storm), I wasn’t worried about me so much as I was the guys that work for me and the customers. I take pride in the fact that I’ve spent my life building a business on being honest and trustworthy. I have a lot of customers that really depend on me, so I was worried about them.”
Ironically, the answer to his problem arrived with a phone call from one of his long-time friendly competitors just down the street. Perry said Mark Teter and his daughter Lindsay of Teter & Company called with an offer to open their doors to the displaced mechanics and allow Cotton to run his business alongside their own.
“They took us in and gave us full reign to do what we needed to do for our customers,” said Perry. “It inconven-ienced him, it really did, but they literally kept us from being in a soup line somewhere. I’ll be forever grateful. In the end, the great thing was that we all became really good friends. They treated us like family. It’ll never be the same between us.”
When asked about his motive for making the call, Teter said the decision just seemed to come naturally.
“We’d done business with Cotton on and off over the years, so when we heard what happened to him, we figured he was going to need some help,” said Teter. “Some people would question the wisdom of bringing a competitor into your own business, but it just seemed like the right thing to do, to help people when they need it. We all helped each other. Who knows what the end result will be, if some of our customers end up there or vice versa, but we’re going to work together forever and we will always help each other and be a team.”
Along with his indebtedness to the Teters, Perry said he was very grateful for having some of the best customers in the world. Probably 95% of his clients are “second generation,” a fact of which he’s very proud and doesn’t take for granted.
“I built it through trust,” said Perry. “I’m willing to earn it and keep it earned and not take it for granted. I try really hard to cater to all my clients, and I want to continue to do that to this younger generation.”
Perry, who turns 65 next month, said although he’ll be retiring, he plans to stick around and keep tabs on his loyal customers and hand over the reins to Jamie, his son and partner who has been well groomed for the job. Even his 11-year-old grandson Dylan is eager to get in on the action one day and has “claimed a desk” in the new place.
“I’m going to enjoy coming and going and having a little more freedom,” said Perry, “but I’m never going to leave here as long as I’m healthy. I’m not going anywhere. My car will be parked out front, but I’ll probably be spending a lot of time out back in the other garage.”
Perry is quite ready to get back to submerging himself in the other family passion: racing. His reference to the “other garage” is a racing garage located behind the regular repair shop where he and Jamie build and work on their racecars. Jamie is currently a frontrunner in his famous “P4” (Perry 4) car around the dirt track circuit, but Perry himself has an impressive collection of honors as well, including “Best Driver in the World,” and a recent spot on a popular car industry’s 60th anniversary top ten list of memorable racing moments. In 1993 he was in-ducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
“For years, I worked a regular job on Monday mornings,” said Perry, “then went and raced against professionals all over the place. I was just a little bit ahead of my time. My passion now is watching my son race. This has been my dream for him to come back to work and take over and to bring a racing program here. I’m so sorry the tornado de-stroyed homes and lives, I truly am, but I have to say this whole experience turned out to be a real blessing for me. I’m a happy person. I love my life.”
Cotton’s Service Center
261 Nashville St.
Ringgold, Ga. 30736
Hours: Mon through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Owners: Cotton and Jamie Perry