From family’s Perry Hall auto shop to NASCAR, crew chief John Klausmeier finds his calling

At age 5, John Klausmeier would dismantle worn-out carburetors in his family’s Perry Hall auto shop to examine their innards. Now, at 37, he is crew chief for one of NASCAR’s top race teams.

As a kid, Klausmeier raced rusty old riding mowers at 10 mph around a banked dirt oval on his grandfather’s farm. Now, he builds sophisticated cars that roar down high-tech tracks at 20 times that speed.

Clearly, he has found his calling.

“I’ve reached the level where I want to be,” said Klausmeier, one of the youngest crew chiefs on the NASCAR circuit. “The job is like that of a head football coach; the work is demanding and it never stops. But you pinch yourself sometimes to make sure that you’re really doing what you love — and getting paid for it.”

A graduate of UMBC with a degree in mechanical engineering, Klausmeier runs Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford team in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs, a grueling 10-race countdown for 16 drivers to determine the 2018 champion. The second race is Saturday night, a 300-lap event at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.

Last week, at Las Vegas, Klausmeier’s driver, Aric Almirola, placed sixth — a credible finish even if this weren’t Klausmeier’s rookie year as a crew chief.

“A lot of my success stems from the fact that Johnny is doing a helluva job,” said Almirola, 34, a seven-year veteran who is having his best season (a dozen top 10 finishes in 28 races). “He’s really smart and an incredibly hard worker who leads by example. He doesn’t just talk the talk; he’s in the thick of it every day, coming up with new ideas, and our guys look up to him for that.”

Klausmeier, who rose through the ranks, calls the shots for the 30-man team composed of engineers, shop mechanics and a pit crew of five who, perhaps six times a race, are expected to gas up Almirola’s Ford Fusion and change all four tires — in 12 seconds or less. Crises test their mettle and that of the crew chief, who responds like a triage doctor at the front.

“Things don’t always go as expected, and you’ve got to stay calm and cool while cars around you are going 200 miles an hour,” Klausmeier said. “Last week [in Las Vegas], with 120 laps to go, Aric hit a wall and creased his right front and rear fenders. We banged them out and used duct tape. It was crude but effective.”

Last month, during a race in Bristol, Tenn., their car developed a pin hole in the oil line, spraying oil on the front tires and blowing smoke out the rear. Repair time? Five minutes. Almirola finished 31st.

“You can’t just crack hot lines right away; some are pressurized,” Klausmeier said. “It’s the fluke things that drive you nuts — and they only happen when you’re having a good race.”

Pit stops breed chaos, and it’s his job to settle both driver and crew.

“The big thing is to stay relaxed, speak in a monotone and coach them through it,” he said.

That he has done, to date.

“In a very emotional sport, Johnny stays even-keeled,” Almirola said. “He never gets overly worked up. There’s no doubt he’s passionate, but he doesn’t allow that passion to override his composure.”

The son of an auto repairman, Kalusmeier took to cars early on. Junked parts were his LEGOs, and he’d tinker for hours in his father’s shop on Belair Road.

“I wanted to learn how things worked,” he said. “I was six when dad took my brother Michael and I to a NASCAR race in Dover [Del.], and I remember the smell of the track, tires and exhaust. The cars were so loud that when they went by, the sound of the percussion made your chest pound. As a kid, you think it’s cool — and racing affects me the same way today.”

As a youngster, he bought eight-inch model cars and raced them on the kitchen floor and in the driveway.

“I’d pretend I was the mechanic,” he said. “Never had much interest in driving.”

In middle school, he puttered at the repair shop after classes, changing tires, oil and brakes. Klausmeier, who attended Calvert Hall, spent weekends honing his skills by helping friends who raced cars at Lincoln Speedway (Pa.) and Capitol Raceway, in Crofton.

“John has always been pretty car-centric,” Carl Klausmeier said of his son. “He’s always had toys with wheels; as he got older, they added motors and oil. I knew [racing] was his goal from that first trip to Dover, when I sat in the stands complaining about chunks of rubber flying off the track and into my beer, while he looked like he was watching the Super Bowl.”

Nowadays, Klausmeier, who lives in Mooresville, N.C., dissects races from the top of the pit box, flanked by computers, revising strategies and speaking with his driver via radio.

“I try to talk to Aric on straightaways and not when he’s in a corner pulling two G’s and going 200 miles an hour,” he said.

“You might have little arguments, but it’s like a marriage — the driver is always right,” Klausmeier said.

Their alliance has blossomed, Almirola said.

“We don’t have to tiptoe around, or worry about hurting each other’s feelings, because we have mutual respect for each other,” the driver said. “Johnny doesn’t rule with an iron fist. He listens to people and is very open-minded, not set in his ways.”

Klausmeier’s knowledge has impressed Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

“I mean, he just gets more confident every week,” Stewart said. “I think the engineering background is really the biggest thing that makes Johnny so good right now and having an understanding of how the car works, why it works that way. It gives him the ability to make very educated decisions on what changes need to be made to the race car.”

Crew chief and driver often hang together away from the track. On off days, the two ride bicycles, along with several others on the team, sometimes pedaling 60 miles down country roads wherever the NASCAR circuit has taken them.

“You get to breathe fresh air and clear your head,” Klausmeier said. “We need a Zen-like sport outside of this pressure environment to balance out the chaos of racing.”

Employed by Stewart-Haas since 2009, he was lead race engineer on the 2017 Daytona 500 championship won by Kurt Busch. It earned Klausmeier a champagne shower, on the spot, and a ceremonial ring.

“It [the ring] is a bit gaudy for me, but really cool,” he said.

Though he shepherds race cars from start to finish, Klausmeier doesn’t drive sporty models himself. His first set of wheels was a Chevrolet S-10 pickup; he now drives a Ford F-150 truck.

“I do have a black 1968 Camero back home [in Perry Hall],” he said. “Some day I’ll fix it up, but right now, there’s no time.”

Married, he has a son named Cam, who wasn’t named for the hot rod engine.

“It’s short for Camden,” Klausmeier said. “We had our wedding reception at Camden Yards.”

Other Marylanders actively working in NASCAR

Derrell Edwards (East Baltimore), 26, is the tire carrier and jackman for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team piloted by playoff driver Austin Dillon, who captured the sport’s Super Bowl event – the season-opening Daytona 500 – in February. Edwards starred in basketball at Dunbar.

Shane Wilson (Edgewater), 32, was jackman for the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team driven by Kyle Larson, who is currently competing in the playoffs. An injury in August sidelined Wilson for the remainder of the season. Wilson attended Anne Arundel Community College.

Cory Baldwin (Severn), 27, is rear tire changer for the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota team driven by Regan Smith, who failed to qualify for the postseason.

David Charpentier (Havre de Grace), 59, is technical director for JTG Daugherty Racing’s two teams: the No. 47 Chevrolet driven by AJ Allmendinger and the No. 37 Chevrolet piloted by Chris Buescher. Neither made the playoffs. A Navy veteran, Charpentier is a graduate of the University of Maryland University College.

Brett McCutcheon (Barton, Allegany County), 31, is the front end mechanic for the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet team driven by Ty Dillon, which failed to make the postseason. McCutcheon attended Westmar High.


Patrice Banks’ Auto Repair Shop Is More Than a Business — It’s Her Mission

When Patrice Banks was an engineer at DuPont, she occasionally spoke to groups of girls to encourage them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM fields.

She found the girls incredibly smart, talented, confident and unafraid to learn new things. Seeing them embrace new subjects inspired her. It made her ask herself what she wished she knew more about.

Banks considered starting a blog to teach women to do some of the jobs they’d typically pay a man to handle. She asked women in her community what they’d like to learn to do themselves. Repeatedly, she got the same type of response. Women wanted to learn how to work on their cars and not feel clueless or taken advantage of when they needed to visit an auto repair shop.

Banks set out to find a female mechanic who could tell her what women needed to know about their cars. The problem was, she couldn’t find one.

So Banks turned to Google, thinking maybe she could find some helpful resources online, but her search was unsuccessful. When she typed “female mechanic” into the search bar, the first thing that popped up were stock images of bikini-clad women posing next to fancy cars.

Determined to find the answers herself and fill a gap in the automotive market, Banks went back to school in 2012 to learn automotive technology. She was the only woman in her classes — and the oldest, a 32-year-old among recent high school graduates — but she didn’t let that stop her.

And now when she types “female mechanic” into the Google search bar, the first thing that pops up is her business: Girls Auto Clinic.

Changing the Face of the Automotive Industry

Girls Auto Clinic, Banks’ auto repair shop, caters to a predominantly female clientele. The business opened its doors in January 2017 in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia.

Banks says she prioritizes open communication and transparency, explaining to customers what work needs to be done in easy-to-understand terms. She describes the shop’s lounge as “a clubhouse for women,” with wine, coffee and refreshments available. There’s space to relax with a good book, an area to work on a laptop and a kids’ play section to keep the little ones entertained.

Banks also owns a nail and hair salon — Clutch Beauty Bar — adjacent to the repair shop so customers can be pampered while they wait for their cars to be serviced.

The shop isn’t just a haven for female customers. It’s also where female technicians can find their place in a male-dominated industry. Banks loved solving problems as an engineer and identified the lack of female representation as one of the biggest problems the automotive industry faced.

“If you really want to get this right, you gotta fix the root cause, and that is hiring more women,” she says.

Of the five auto techs at Girls Auto Clinic, four are women.

A New Beginning A woman mechanic instructs other women on car repair. Patrice Banks wants to empower women so they feel less stressed about taking their cars to an auto shop. Photos courtesy of Girls Auto Clinic

Banks says she didn’t grow up around cars or with a dad who was a mechanic. In fact, she says she was pretty clueless about cars. For the most part, she’d just turn the ignition and go.

“I made really stupid automotive decisions that cost me money,” Banks says. “I always felt like I was being taken advantage of and I needed a guy to help me if I needed to go to a mechanic or buy a car.”

She didn’t want other women to feel that way.

“I tell people Girls Auto Clinic is not an automotive company, it’s a female empowerment company,” Banks says. “I’m here for women. I started this company to help women, not because I’m a car enthusiast, because I wanted to own a repair center [or] because I like to turn wrenches. That’s not why I’m here.”

Banks hosts free car care workshops at the shop once a month from April to November to pass along her automotive knowledge to other women in her community. She’s also inspiring the next generation. She says her customers bring their kids into the shop just to witness women working on cars.

Banks says there’s a big push to get girls into STEM, but the focus is typically on coding, computers and engineering — not automotive technology. But many car systems today are run by computers, and she says there is a lot of STEM application involved in working with cars.

“I didn’t see the female empowerment side happening in the automotive industry like it was happening in other industries, and I thought, why not be someone who starts that?” Banks says.

The Future is Female

The doors of Girls Auto Clinic have been open for less than two years, but the business has achieved success in that short time.

The shop was awarded “Best of Philly” in the multipurpose garage category in its first six months in business. It has a five-star rating on Yelp, a 4.9-star rating on Facebook and a 4.4-star rating on Google.

Banks says people drive from hours away to visit the shop.

“Someone came from Toronto just to meet us,” she says.

Expanding on the brand, Banks wrote a book, “Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide.” She also does public speaking and has been in commercials for Ford and Lean Cuisine.

Banks said she often gets asked when she’s going to bring Girls Auto Clinic to other cities. She has received requests to open a shop in Los Angeles, Atlanta and just outside of Washington, D.C. Folks from Colorado and Ohio have also expressed interest.

Recently, Girls Auto Clinic launched a 30-day crowdfunding campaign to raise $100,000 to go toward expanding the business to new locations. Twelve days into the campaign supporters had helped raise more than 52% of the goal.

Banks’ dream is to franchise future locations, creating more female repair-shop owners.

“It’s incredible the impact that we’re having,” she says. “It just gets me really excited. It just motivates me to reach more women, to open more repair centers and start making this vision come true.”

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’d love to take her car to Girls Auto Clinic.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.


High-tech features, new materials boost car repair costs

Many new vehicles these days come loaded with all kinds of extras, including safety features that should help you avoid a crash.

Automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, forward-collision warning — the list goes on.

Advanced safety features have helped reduce fatalities for those behind the wheel and their passengers, and features that help vehicles avoid pedestrians have the potential to cut into the dramatic increase in pedestrian fatalities in recent years. 

But what happens when these ever-more technologically advanced vehicles crash? Experts say the cost to repair all that technology could be hefty.

John Van Alstyne, CEO and president of I-Car, a nonprofit focused on vehicle repair education, recently provided a jaw-dropping figure during an appearance on Autoline, an industry-focused program, to repair a “left front corner hit” on a Kia K900: $34,000.

“The Kia K900, for example, has a ton of technology around the front and the corners of that vehicle,” Van Alstyne told host John McElroy, who sounded, not surprisingly, stunned by the figure to repair a luxury sedan, which lists for about $51,000.

A Kia spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the repair figure.

While other experts cautioned to be careful of focusing too much on that particular figure because of the wide array of variables involved in a vehicle collision and repair, it’s clear more technology can add to the cost of repair.

In its 2018 “Crash Course” industry trends publication, CCC, which provides vehicle repair cost estimate services, made that case, noting a 2 percent increase in average repair costs from 2016 to 2017 to $2,927 on top of a steady trend of yearly increases beginning in 2010.

“Growth in electronic vehicle content — items added to address vehicle safety or convenience — also add to the overall cost and complexity of repair and the need to understand (automaker) recommended repair procedures,” according to the publication.

Not only are more parts needed, but additional labor is required for resetting, calibrating and scanning operations, it said.

“The average it takes to fix a car is going up,” said Dan Young, vice president of sales and marketing for AsTech, a Plano, Texas-based company that provides vehicle scanning and diagnostic services. “There’s just so many systems that are being installed on these vehicles that operate in the modules and sensors.”

Advanced driver assistance systems, for instance, may employ radar, cameras and other technologies. With most automakers pledging to make automatic emergency braking systems standard on new cars by 2022, the complexity inside most vehicles will expand. 

“Minor fender benders now damage sensitive safety components located in bumpers, side mirrors and fenders, increasing the number of vehicles needing sensor calibration and repair,” according to information supplied by Young.

He noted that the technology is expanding beyond luxury vehicles.

“It’s a dramatic shift change in the speed with which this advanced driver assistance system technology is being placed on high-production, low-cost vehicles,” Young said. “This type of technology is going to help someone avoid accidents, (which) is great, and it’s going to reduce the frequency once enough of these cars get into the mainstream, but at the same time, once these cars do get involved in a collision, that’s where, I think, the challenge is from a severity standpoint.”

Dean Fisher, chief operating officer of Carstar, which operates a franchise network of independent collision repair shops, said fixing collision damage is a multilayered process, providing as an example the case of a side mirror with blind-spot monitoring that must be removed. 

“When you remove the mirror from the door to paint the door handles and everything, you may have to recalibrate the security system, the interlocking system in the vehicle and the blind-spot monitoring,” Fisher said. Simple repairs, such as painting a bumper, might need additional work to ensure safety systems are functioning properly before the vehicle is released.

“If you paint over the sensors, you have just changed the trajectory of that sensor,” Fisher said.

Repairs that might have cost a couple of hundred dollars in years past can now cost substantially more. Fisher referenced the once relatively modest cost of replacing a headlight. 

“With LED and xenon and then adaptive headlights, where it actually turns a corner with you as you’re turning … those headlights can move in the range of $800 to frankly $2,000,“ Fisher said.

Expanding use of materials such as high-strength steel, magnesium, aluminum and carbon fiber in vehicles, as well as design changes to better safeguard occupants during a crash, such as crumple zones, can also complicate the repair process or require full replacement of vehicle sections to meet automaker recommendations.

Fisher offered the example of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided mechanic deciding to space vehicle welds closer together during a collision repair in an effort to strengthen the vehicle.

“What you may have done is disrupt the ability for the car to crash in the way that it was designed to … crumple. In other words, you’ve made the car stronger than the manufacturer wants it to be,” Fisher said.

Such factors highlight the importance of following automaker guidelines for vehicle repair, the experts said, and paying the necessary price of safety.

Contact Eric D. Lawrence: Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.

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