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.
Is there friction?
“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.”