CLEARWATER, Fla. — Julie Herring wanted to make a few extra bucks on the weekends. So she and a partner bought a limousine. Herring washed it, gassed it, and drove friends around for a fee.
That led to a regular spot – "Julie the Limo Driver" – on a morning radio show. Calls started coming in, business began booming, and the partners bought more cars and limos.
Twenty-four years after that first purchase, Julie's Limousines and Coachworks Inc. has 20 vehicles. She has driven presidential candidates, rock stars, and high-profile athletes – as well as taking kids to proms and couples to their weddings. Herring, who went solo in 1995, has 10 office workers and mechanics, and 25 drivers.
It's been some trip. Like the day years ago that rock star David Lee Roth bolted out of the car and started sprinting down the Howard Frankland Bridge. Diamond Dave had grown impatient during a traffic jam and bolted as if Sammy Hagar had just climbed in beside him.
Herring has since cut her 80-hour work weeks down to 20.
The 45-year-old is undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. It's a disease she knows all too well. Her beloved dog Won-Ton died in her arms on Herring's birthday in November after battling cancer.
Still, she finds ways to keep smiling and to keep the wheels on her company rolling. She pulled up a chair in her office on a recent afternoon to talk about limos, life, and the challenges of both.
Q: Tell me about that first limo.
A: It was an Armbruster/Stageway six-passenger stretch, a great drive.
Q: How did a weekend moonlighting gig turn into all of this?
A: In meeting people, I ended up getting a spot on "The Ron & Ron Show" on WYNF FM as "Julie the Limo Driver." They would have contests on their radio show, which was so popular, with crazy themes like "Bald-Headed Dream Date." And girls would call in saying they loved bald guys to win. We had a blast! And I would drive them on the date.
The publicity helped us grow. Ron Diaz and Ron Bennington knew everybody. People still call in here and say, "I used to listen to you on 'Ron & Ron.'" I was on from about 1985 to 1993. I drove the limos until 1995 and then focused on the business side.
Q: I hear you've driven U.S. presidents?
A: Actually, only presidential candidates. Rudy Giuliani rode with us when he was still in the race.
Q: Who are some of the famous folks you've driven?
A: The whole Van Halen group, Whitesnake with David Coverdale, Tommy Franks, Norman Schwarzkopf, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Alstott, pro baseball players Steve Carlton and "Dutch" Darren Daulton.
Q: What's your best driving story about celebrities?
A: We were going from a Tampa radio station back to the Don CeSar hotel and got stuck in bad traffic. David Lee Roth jumped out of the car on the bridge and said, "Later! See ya." He just started running. We caught up to him two miles later, and he was all sweaty. I rolled down the window and said, "Get in the car." He said, "OK! Let's do it!"
Q: Are you already booking for the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa?
A: Yep. We're half-booked right now. We'll be renting 55 vehicles to meet the demand.
Q: What's your best non-celebrity driving story?
A: The guy who was drinking too much and insisted on getting out of the limo unannounced during his bachelor party. I kept telling him that I had to open the doors – that it wasn't safe. I finally kicked him out, and he had to follow us the rest of the night in a cab.
Q: When did you learn you had cancer?
A: I had a cold I couldn't get rid of in July 2006. It was lung cancer. I needed radiation – which included whole brain radiation – and chemo, and had a tumor in my left breast removed. I'm in my seventh round of chemo, taking three weeks on and then one week off. They are real happy about my progress.
This isn't for chickens, I'll tell you. Lung cancer is an aggressive cancer and a tough one to fight.
Q: And your dog had cancer at the same time? That was more than most people could handle.
A: Yeah. She was my sweet baby – just the cutest little Chinese crested hairless dog. She made us laugh every day when she sang in this high-pitched howl. It broke my heart, and I still cry for her.
Q: Were you a smoker? When did you quit?
A: The day I was diagnosed. I smoked 15 years. If you smoke, give it up! I heard that, too, but figured it wasn't me who was going to get cancer. I was invincible.
I was told that one-in-five with this live one year. And I was told that one-in-20 live two years.
Q: And one and a half years later, you're still here.
A: I'm beating the odds every day. I know it's scary, but I am going to be OK.
Source: The Tampa Tribune