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Engine Builder Profile:
JON KAASE RACING ENGINES
By Virginia DeMoss
If you had to boil down Jon Kaase's philosophy about running a racing business to a single word, that word would have to be "teamwork."
"Whether it's in sports or with my guys here in the shop, I'm real big on teamwork," said Kaase, whose brawny 800-plus cubic-inch engines have taken clients like John Nobile and Brian Gahm to 12 IHRA Pro Stock World Championships in a row between 1995 and 2006, along with another one for Rickie Smith back in 1982.
Kaase can't speak highly enough about his own team of machinists and assemblers at Jon Kaase Racing Engines (JKRE) in Winder, Georgia, or about those who keep the engines performing in the field. In fact, that reverence for people working together toward a common goal has led him into a unique sponsorship arrangement with IHRA for 2005. Dubbed the Kaase IHRA Pro Stock Tuning Challenge, it will pay out $500 to the car that records the best average elapsed time during qualifying at every IHRA national event. At season's end, at the World Finals at Rockingham, the program will pay $2000 to the competitor with the best average qualifying ET for the 12 Hooters IHRA Series national events.
The publicity is great, of course, since all participating cars will wear Kaase decals, and a click on the Kaase Pro Tuning Challenge logo on the IHRA web site will deliver visitors directly to the JKRE (http://www.jonkaaseracingengines.com) site. But Kaase, who isn't actively seeking new engine customers, sees it more as an opportunity to give something back to the teams that have supported him ... and to reward the consistency that comes with teamwork.
"To get the car to go down the race track the quickest or almost the quickest on all three qualifying runs, it's not just the driver or the engine, it's the team of guys working on it and making all the right calls," he explained. "These cars are really fussy, and it's all about those guys who are looking at the computer, looking at the clutch, trying to anticipate the temperature of the race track, and adjusting on it; all that stuff makes a difference. I just like to see really good teamwork."
Operating like a well-oiled machine, Kaase and his own team have racked up a couple of pretty impressive wins of their own recently, taking top prize in the Jeg's Engine Masters Challenge presented by Popular Hot Rodding in both 2003,2004 and 2008. The competition pits 39 top engine builders against one another, giving them some guidelines and a specified amount of time to construct a 410-inch small block engine that runs on 92 octane unleaded gas. The engines are then "raced" on the dyno to choose six finalists based on the average of three pulls. The procedure is repeated with those six to determine the overall winner.
Last year's event took place in the shop at Bill Mitchell's Hardcore Racing Products on Long Island, New York, where JKRE emerged victorious for the second year in a row, this time with a 408-cubic-inch Ford Cleveland engine that produced a high of 698.2 horsepower and 619.6 pound-foot of torque. The engine averaged 485.9 hp and 557.3 lb.-ft., which were added together to produce the winning score of 1043 points, 12 points above the second-place finisher.
The top slot carries $77,500 in prize money, plus the kind of publicity money can't buy, including TV coverage on Lucas Oil's On The Edge series on Speed Channel in January. The winning engine appeared on the cover of the February 2005 issue of Popular Hot Rodding, and it will receive additional coverage in future issues. "I underestimated the weight that thing carries," according to Kaase. "We've had probably 100 Pro Stock wins, but it seems like I've gotten more publicity from that than all of the other work we've done. It's a really neat deal, and it's been a lot of fun," said Kaase, who donated the engine to be auctioned off at the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, to benefit the Jeg's Foundation Racing for Cancer Research.
He also pointed to its value for his own R&D program. "Sometimes the best way to make our big engines run better is to look at smaller stuff - maybe motorcycles or the Engine Master stuff. If we get in a rut and can't get any more power out of the big motors, sometimes the best thing to do is work on something else."
Kaase told us his regular engine work has also benefited from some data acquisition equipment he bought for his dyno last August. "I thought I could really use it on the Engine Master project," he said of the $9000 purchase, "but it has really helped us on our big engines, too."
For 2005, Kaase plans to build up a Pontiac engine, something he has never done before. "I don't know anything about it and I have to figure out where everything goes. It's really kind of a neat deal to do something that's completely different than anything you've ever done," he said. "One of the things I like most about this business is learning new things."
The self-described "black sheep" in a family full of medical professionals, Kaase said, "I liked mechanical things from the time I was little, and I never gave it up. My dad is a dentist and I didn't want any part of that, although being a dentist and being an engine guy probably aren't a lot different - you're still working with high-speed grinders," he quipped. As often happens, the motorhead gene appears to have skipped the next generation, as well. Kaase has two sons, 21 and 17 years old, and the former is a school teacher and the latter is leaning toward a career in architecture.
Born and reared in Cleveland, Ohio, Kaase began drag racing at the age of 16, primarily in super stock style classes with his 1966 Comet and 1968 Mustang. He started working for an engine builder in high school to learn the trade, "mostly so I could work on my own stuff," he said. He continued to race until about age 22, meanwhile earning a degree in mechanical engineering. "I just never wanted to get a job as an engineer. Actually, you use hardly any of that in this business," he said of his college training. "Except for maybe a metallurgy or machine shop class, none of it applies."
At the age of 23, Kaase made the decision to move to Atlanta to work for legendary drag racer "Dyno" Don Nicholson. "That's where I really learned the rules of the road, met a lot of people in the industry, and got acquainted with the manufacturers," said Kaase, whose web site features a "Dyno" Don Gallery as a tribute.
Kaase struck out on his own in 1979, moving a few times before purchasing his current digs in an industrial park about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta. Although he lives closer to the city, lower property costs in rural Winder allowed him to purchase two acres here. "It's a nice little area, and there's not much crime," said Kaase, who uses his two-hour daily commute to think over projects and ideas, which he has started to record in his own web blog.
Kaase designed the 8000-square-foot building to the specific needs of his business. "I've been in a couple of different places, and you're always thinking about what you would do different if you had your own place," he said. There's a large open space in the middle of the shop, with big garage doors on both sides of the building, so that race cars or 18-wheelers can drive in one side and out the other. "We can bring three or four race cars inside and pull the engines, and they're not close to any of the machinery or metal chips or anything," explained Kaase, who said guys who drive the various team haulers sometimes stay on the property in their rigs for several days or a week while their engines are being serviced.
The shop has a 45x15-foot assembly room with four work stations, while the extensive array of machinery, including four Bridgeport vertical mills, Sunnen hones, both Tobin-Arp and Sunnen rod machines, Serdi and Storm Vulcan head machines, a Rottler boring bar, etc., is arranged in an open area at one end of the building. Nearby is a welding and grinding room; a parts washing room with a long, custom-made stainless steel sink; a storage room for engines on carts; and a spacious 225-square-foot room to house the SuperFlow dyno.
Upstairs is a large mezzanine for parts storage, and at the front of the building are the offices and a homey kitchen where the team usually lunches together. "My guys got me a grill for Christmas," Kaase said proudly, "and today we barbecued chicken for lunch. I like to grill at home, so I've been teaching all these guys to cook," he added, laughing.
Kaase is proud of the cleanliness of the shop both inside and out.
"It's a real nice looking place. People judge your work by what your shop looks like. They can't see the inside of the engine, but they can see what the outside looks like, and they can see what your work habits are. We cater to the high-end. These guys are racing IHRA Pro Stock, but most of them own their own companies and are pretty well-financed. We've got to look good for those guys."
- Jon Kaase
Kaase's main equipment purchases recently have been various sensors for the dyno, which are allowing him to gather more and more information. "Almost too much, sometimes you find out things you don't want to know," he joked.
He's careful not to overextend on big purchases, which he sees as the downfall of many shops. In fact, much of his machinery has been purchased from other businesses that have failed. When he buys new, "I buy things one at a time and get them paid for," said Kaase, who admitted that he loves to go to Machinery Row at the PRI Trade Show "and lust after all that stuff."
Kaase has not taken the plunge into CNC equipment for porting cylinder heads, noting that "One of those pieces of equipment costs probably as much as everything else in my building." And as the machinery has proliferated, he has also noticed something of a price war on ported heads. "It's gotten so that the price of a CNC-ported head is not much more than one that's not cut, that's just cast. I wouldn't really want to compete with that," he stated. "We don't do enough heads of the same type at this point to invest in that equipment, but someday it will probably happen, especially since the equipment is coming down in price, too." Often, he fabricates some of his own specialized tools. "I love to make things out of metal," he said. "Today I'm making a long reamer that goes down into a cylinder head and cuts for clearance for pushrods; it's the final tool for doing that."
While a lot of new technology originates in Kaase's shop, he said most advances are built on what's going on in racing. "It's like a big gossip community," he said, laughing. "Some of what we learn we come up with on our own, but the rest of it is what people tell you someone else has done. We also learn some from the media; once in a while you'll see things in the magazines that you had no idea existed. And the PRI Show is an awesome deal for learning new things. I love that and can't wait until it goes to Orlando. I also went to the SuperFlow Advanced Engine Technology Conference in Colorado a few weeks ago for the first time, and I don't think I'd ever want to miss that again. You come away with a surprising amount of knowledge. Between that and the PRI Show, those are two of the best things you can do."
Like many engine builders of his stature, Kaase is often asked to try out manufacturers' new products, or to participate in development. He has also been involved in scores of projects with enthusiast publications, a source of both knowledge and good publicity.
People Make the Difference
More important than his equipment or anything else is the people he has working for him, according to Kaase.
It's not just their talent, but their attitude, You won't find a finer group of guys anywhere, I just can't say enough about them.
- Jon Kaase
Project Manager Cliff Moore not only works on the engines, but handles sales and the office. With the company 16 years, he arrived at age 19 as a Engineering and tech school student looking to do work study. His expertise was in computer programming for CNC equipment, and even though Kaase didn't have any of that machinery, he stayed on to become a top-notch engine builder. "He wears a lot of hats and can do anything in the shop," said Kaase.
The chief engine builder is Ron Baker, who does most of the new engines and some rebuilds. An old teenage friend, Kaase talked him into moving down from Ohio ten years ago. Kaase stressed Baker's importance as he said, "Our senior member has the ability to tackle any job in the shop with the vigor and speed of a 20-year-old." Chris Howe has been with the company an equal amount of time, and Kaase described him as "my cylinder head department," adding "he is a super good hand-porter and can do any facet of cylinder head work.
The shop's two newcomers are Greg Brown and Roger Szabo, on the job about five years. "They're both good, all-around engine guys," noted Kaase. "Greg is from Vermont and had a lot of previous experience with race teams. We've taught him how to build engines our way and he's doing really well.
"Roger retired from GM in Detroit and came down here to live with his son and daughter-in-law, and they race a car. He doesn't actually have to work because he has such a good retirement, but he has worked out great. The guy just brightens up the place when he walks in everyday. And I guess you could say he's the ultimate employee, because he brings his own health insurance with him," added Kaase, laughing.
"The good thing about these guys is that they either can or are learning how to do every single aspect of engine building. It's not like we have one guy who hones blocks all day and one who does assembly. Everybody can do everything and they don't get bored that way. When I'm doing things like the Engine Masters, there are times when I don't help them at all. They can pretty much run this whole business on their own," he said.
"With Ron or Cliff, I can say, 'We're going to build this brand-new engine. It's an 800-cubic-inch Ford, the parts are coming in, let me know when it's ready to crank.' They can about do everything, and my other guys are getting there. They really care what the stuff looks like and how it runs. They know it's a reflection on them, so they try to make it the best they absolutely can," he continued. "Their hearts are really in it, and they do a great job, even though I work them to death toward the end of the summer. In fact, Roger always jokes that they're going to start this business on their own and call it 'Almost Kaase's.'"
Shifting the Focus
If you drove up to his shop, "You wouldn't have any idea whether we were a bread company or a race engine shop," said Kaase. "We're almost like the Skunkworks or something. We don't have signs up; we don't really want people stopping in to look around." There is no storefront, and no plans to add one.
However, the company has a very high profile on the Internet, with a dynamic web site that outlines the company's engine program, and sells parts, proprietary tools, and cylinder heads. Realizing that there's more to a site than just posting it on the web and waiting for customers to flock into your virtual store, Kaase had his built and maintained by experts. "The guy who looks after it knows all of the tricks that move you up in the ranks in searches. I had no idea how intricate all that was," admitted Kaase. "He knows how to get us up in the standings, so that if you search for 'Ford Cobra Jet head' or 'Ford Hemi race engines,' a lot of times we'll be on the first page, and there may be 900 pages."
Position also has a lot to do with site traffic, which Kaase's gets a lot of, too - as many as 200,000 hits a month. "This year we did a lot of sales of things that have nothing to do with our race engines, which was probably almost double what we did the year before. I think we have kind of a cult following," he added. "There are a lot of Ford guys out there, and I think some of them probably click on the site every day to see if we've changed anything."
While the shop does engine work for approximately 12 Pro Stock teams, all of them are out of state. Kaase or one of his men travels to all 12 of the IHRA events. Only Rockingham and Richmond are drivable without losing too many workdays, although one of Kaase's employees began hauling engines back and forth to some of the races last year. "Sometimes they'll pull the engines out after a race and Greg will haul them back, so we gain a couple of days working on them," he explained.
Kaase told us the shop builds four or five brand-new Pro-Stock engines a year, including Dodges and Chevrolets, as well as Fords, but maintains more than 25. "The big ones won't do more than about 30 drag strip runs before they have to come back and get a lot of parts replaced.
The new arena that Kaase's shop has moved into consist of engines built with their own products, including the P-51 and the new Kaase Boss Nine cylinder heads." We are enjoying working with the guys building Hot rods and restorations with the new products, Its great to see so many Big Block Ford enthusiast out there".- Jon Kaase