The entrepreneur, known for his ownership of the Pay 'n Pak hardware stores and hydroplanes, was also an early investor in Emerald Downs.
Businessman David Heerensperger was known for being tough, but the sight of his hydroplane driver being severely injured in a crash made him feel like he was having a heart attack.
It was the 1982 Emerald Cup on Lake Washington and John Walters was racing Mr. Heerensperger’s Pay ‘n Pak against its fiercest competitor, the Miss Budweiser. Another hydroplane unexpectedly veered off course and crashed into the Pay ‘n Pak, going over top of it. Walters was ejected and floated facedown in the lake for nine minutes until responders got to him, he said.
The hydroplane’s owner, then 46, had already lost two drivers to fatal accidents. But the sight of the crash sent him to the hospital and off the sport for good. When Mr. Heerensperger was released, he went straight to Walters’ side. Doctors were able to restart Walters’ heart, but he had a broken back, head injuries, internal bleeding and broken ribs that had punctured his organs, he said.
Mr. Heerensperger kept him on the payroll for the four years it took him to recover.
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Mr. Heerensperger was best known for his competitive spirit, which fueled his hardware-business empires and investments in Thoroughbred and hydroplane racing. Friends remember him most for his quiet generosity.
Mr. Heerensperger died Sunday from medical complications at the age of 82, surrounded by family at his home in Bellevue.
“I’d like for people to know that he was more than just a suit and tie in the corporate world,” Walters said. “He had to wear this armor to be the tough guy and the leader of a multimillion dollar business. But I was fortunate to see the other side of David Heerensperger. Under that armor was the heart and soul of the kindest man you could ever hope to meet.”
A self-made businessman
Mr. Heerensperger was born in 1936 in Longview. His first jobs included pumping gas and doing inventory for hardware-store owner Stanley Thurman, according to his biographer and former Seattle Times reporter Gary Dougherty. Thurman gave him a loan to open Eagle Electric and Plumbing Supply in Spokane in 1959.
As Mr. Heerensperger worked his way up, he began sponsoring Spokane sports, including hydroplane racing, softball, drag racing, football, basketball, baseball, hockey and bowling teams.
In 1969, a merger brought Eagle Electric under Thurman’s Kent-based hardware store Pay ‘n Pak, and Mr. Heerensperger soon after became chairman and CEO. He moved to the Seattle area and began funding the city’s fast-pitch softball team, which won three national and two international championships under his leadership.
Mr. Heerensperger oversaw Pay ‘n Pak’s expansion and grew its annual sales to nearly $400 million before he was forced out in 1989 after an attempted hostile takeover. He went on to create a competitor store, Eagle Hardware and Garden, and Pay ‘n Pak shuttered three years later.
Eagle Hardware, which competed with chains like Home Depot, was “the Nordstrom of home improvement,” former employee Eric Goranson said. Mr. Heerensperger would walk through the stores to ensure the white-tile floors were polished, items were perfectly straight on the shelves and employees were experts on inventory.
The company had grown to 32 stores and 6,000 employees by the time Mr. Heerensperger sold it to Lowe’s for $1 billion in 1998.
After selling Eagle, Mr. Heerensperger tried to retire, sailing to the Mediterranean on a 162-foot yacht with an 11-person crew and personal chef, according to a 2000 Seattle Times article. But he returned a year later to launch yet another business, founding World Lighting and Design at the age of 64. Mr. Heerensperger’s friend and Emerald Downs founder Ron Crockett said this was one of the few unsuccessful projects the late entrepreneur had, as the stores didn’t meet sales expectations and closed after two years.
“He was a risk-taker of a high degree, always willing to take a chance,” Crockett said.
Hydroplane and horse racing
Mr. Heerensperger bought his own hydroplane in 1967 and immediately began racking up victories.
Hydroplane racing was extremely dangerous during this time, recalled Stephen Shepperd, who wrote a book on the Diamond Cup hydroplane races. It wasn’t until the 1980s that closed canopies were used, which largely eliminated the deaths of drivers, he said.
It was during a 1968 race with the Miss Budweiser that Mr. Heerensperger’s boat somersaulted, killing the driver. It was the sixth fatality in unlimited hydroplane racing in two years, Shepperd said. Another one of Mr. Heerensperger’s drivers died in 1970.
Mr. Heerensperger hired designers to make his boats safer and faster, which led to the 1973 Winged Wonder Pay ‘n Pak. The boat was more stable and did better on corners, Shepperd said.
“Back when he started, the boats were all made of wood. He brought the aluminum construction into the sport,” Shepperd said.
The piston-powered ’73 Pay ‘n Pak, white with a distinct orange stripe, set a world lap speed record of almost 127 mph on a 3-mile Lake Washington course. It’s now in the Hydroplane & Race Boat Museum in Kent.
Mr. Heerensperger’s team won 25 races from 1968 to 1982, including two prestigious American Power Boat Association Gold Cups and four Seafair races. President Richard Nixon personally gave Mr. Heerensperger a trophy in 1973, and the boat owner was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame in 1980.
After leaving hydroplane racing, Mr. Heerensperger focused his attention on Thoroughbreds. He was an early investor in Emerald Downs, which Crockett opened in 1996. He won 25 graded stakes races from 1995 to 2014, Dougherty said, and his horse Millennium Wind ran in the 2001 Kentucky Derby.
“He was a guy who could do most anything, to tell you the truth,” Crockett said.
Mr. Heerensperger is survived by his children Joe, Julie, Karen and Corey, as well as his brother Barton and fiancée Nikki Johnson.
Plans are still being made for the memorial service, which is expected to take place early next year.