Issue Date: Volume 4, Number 6
Components: Taking the checkered flag
Don Wilkinson, Associate Editor
KRC owner Mel Kluhsman stands in the company's
display floor featuring an array of awards and high performance
racing products manufactured by KRC including those unseen in the No.
10 NASCAR stock car from the Busch Series 2000 driven by Scott Riggs
and Jeff Green.
Kluhsman Racing Components: Taking the checkered flag
Don Wilkinson, Associate Editor / Joplin Business
Journal February 06, 2009
LOCKWOOD, Mo. — Mel Kluhsman Jr., owner
of Kluhsman Racing Components, can't help but smile every time he
watches a stock car race, whether it's on a local track or on the
NASCAR circuit. It's not just for the love of the race …
it's because his company's products are under the hood of those high-performance
machines or used by the pit crews where the outcome of the race is
often decided in fractions of a second.
Kluhsman, a 1982 graduate of Pittsburg State
University with a degree in engineering manufacturing, started the
company in 1983 at his father's farm shop about 0.25 miles away from
their current location. "We had two shifts going down there
until 1987-88 and then started putting this building together in
'89." The company moved to their new two-acre,
16,000-square-foot manufacturing location in 1990, which is on the
site of his grandfather's original home.
Peak employment reached 25 but Kluhsman said he
has cut back to about 17, not because of drops in demand but because
of better high tech equipment that does not require as many hands to
operate. "We are producing more now with fewer people. But as
our growth is increasing, our labor is coming down some." Many
of his first employees were hired right out of the vo-tech school in Lamar.
"We run two shifts here with a quite a bit
of sophisticated equipment. Wages in the last 10 years have doubled
here, less people, but I really count on those people because they
are very good at what they do," Kluhsman said. "Being here,
I don't have a good labor pool unless they come from Joplin,
Pittsburg, or Springfield, so I must pay better wages to get them
from there." One of the employee benefits includes the
opportunity to attend NASCAR races.
Kluhsman sends employees to races not just to
watch, but to be there as a KRC product representative and be
available as technical advice to the racing teams.
When the business started, it was roughly 25
percent racing parts. "Today we are 75 percent racing and that's
about where we want to keep it," Kluhsman said and with that
shift, KRC has gained tremendous respect and market. "There is a
downturn in NASCAR right now, but the key is coming up with new parts
including a new throttle pedal stop," Kluhsman said reaching
across the table to pick up the prototype.
"We came up with this about a month ago
because right now, the industry just does not have a good stop. It
goes under the accelerator pedal to keep the driver from pushing it
too far and breaking or bending the throttle linkage." Kluhsman
said the design allows the pit crews to adjust the stop from the
firewall side without having to crawl into the cramped cockpit. The
design installs quickly, reduces added throttle linkage strain, and
allows for rapid adjustment in the pits.
"I still don't know just how we got into
critical parts but we come up with innovative things all of the time.
We get that into the chassis builders, and we've already got two
builders on that product (the accelerator stop) just within the past
three weeks. But that's one part of 650-700 different parts."
Normally, it takes a year or more to get a design
out of the development/testing phase and into production. "The
first one never works. That stop took only five different models,
which wasn't bad, but a lot of items may go through 10-12 prototypes
to get where you need it. It would be nice to get it on the first
try, but when you in design, you are used to failure."
Kluhsman picked up another KRC designed product.
"Here's a quick-disconnect throttle linkage that we came up with
on a napkin in a motor coach coming back from Charlotte (N.C.),"
he said with a wide grin. "I wish I had that cocktail napkin today.
"I do a lot of work in my garage working on
my race cars, coming up with ideas and they start out like this"
holding up a sheet of notebook paper with sketches and notes.
"I'll fool with it for a while to get angles and such right
before I put it into the MasterCam program to get it an exact product design."
Since KRC developed the new linkage, they have
sold close to 3,500 annually. "This is a $59 product (retail)
that has been fairly successful for us. We send some of the pieces
off to have them anodized, but it's all made here."
Part of Kluhsman's success comes not only being a
crew chief but from time-motion studies he does at the track during
the race, watching the crews working on the cars. He talks with the
crews about what would make their job easier, safety, and faster then
brings that information back to office and starts designing product.
"We are coming up with these efficiencies
all of the time, then send them off to the guys. They install them
and do the testing," Kluhsman said has he pulls out a picture
sent back by a crew chief showing his installed product.
"When all of that is done, there is really
nothing left to do with it so I move on to the next one." The
next job was on the production floor and not scheduled for release
for a few months, but it involves redesign of a stud bolt to
facilitate installation/removal of a critical engine part.
"For us to make it in this world, we have to
be very innovative and diversified. That is the only reason we are
still in business, about 25 years this year. I'm not telling you it's
easy, but I never know where the next idea is coming from. I get an
idea and we run with it – it might be good or not so good.
For every five we come up with, 15 may not sell."
KRC holds numerous patents on their commercial
and racing products including six on the design of their new throttle linkage.
"We bring in raw materials, do the design,
get the prototypes tested, make changes, produce a final product,
apply the bar codes, skin pack it then ship out to 65 retailers. From
infancy to on- the-store-shelf. We have our purchasing, marketing,
graphics, controller, quality control, supervisors, technicians
– it takes all of these people to run the company,"
But where did this interest in racing begin?
Kluhsman said it started when he was five years old. "My parents
took me to the fairground in Springfield to watch the stock car
races. My folks got me a go-cart when I was nine Then, I got me a
stock car at 16 and raced until I was 22 or 23, mostly the dirt
banked tracks at Bolivar, Monett and Nevada.
While attending Lamar Vocational Technical in
high school his interest grew. "Of course, I lived on a farm
where I had to do a lot of welding. I got to use the shop because dad
didn't mind. He was of the opinion that as long as I was working in
the shop, I wasn't out getting into trouble."
Kluhsman's younger brother took auto mechanics in
school so that worked really well for both of them. "During high
school we worked on the racecar and I could machine some parts."
He went to work at McNally's in Pittsburg right after high school
making nuclear valves. "I worked 48 hours per week and they
helped put me thorough engineering school at PSU."
Later on, he had an eight-year stint as a
"gas man" for on a truck team where he gained valuable
experience about racing that carried into the start up of his
business. He discovered during that time that listening and learning
from the experts was a very valuable asset.
"Here's the truth, I you want to be a better
golfer, then play with a better golfer. If you hang around a lot of
intelligent people, sooner or later, you'll get the message."
Since graduation and business start up, Kluhsman
has become involved with PSU on the engineering advisory committee
that included his company, Boeing, Raytheon, John Deere and two
others. In addition, he was named Outstanding Alumni in 2001 and
lectures frequently at the Four State Teachers Conference.
The Busch car in his display room is a prized
addition to past Vern Gould Days at PSU, where automotive technology
students had an opportunity to put the 500 horsepower car on the
dynamometer and study the results. Kluhsman says it's his way of
giving back to the university.
"They get a kick out of that because not too
many have been to NASCAR races."
NASCAR is the largest spectator sport in the
country, and Kluhsman has been fortunate to be a part of that in many
ways. When asked if the business has been fun, he had this to say in closing.
"Yes, and I get paid for this! But I do get
to have a lot of fun because I get to meet the best people
everywhere. The racers like to see me coming because they know I've
got something new to them to try. Everybody wants to go fast, and
that gives me a purpose in life.
"And if somebody hadn't kicked my butt when
I was little and kept me on the stick, I wouldn't be where I am today."
For more information about KRC, visit their Web
site at: www.krcracing.com, call their office at (800) 814-5745 or
stop by the shop at 478 W. Dade 142, about 2.5 miles southeast of Lockwood.