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Issue Date: Volume 4, Number 6

Kluhsman Racing 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," Kluhsman said.

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.






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