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Inside NASCAR: Featherlite dreams, builds big

June 24, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Preeminent constructor of racing haulers for NASCAR evolves with sport

If you are going to dream, dream big.

That's how a company in northeast Iowa that began with fewer than 75 employees landed a contract to build a race car transporter for Richard Childress 19 years ago, a decision that ultimately turned Featherlite into the preeminent constructor of racing haulers for NASCAR.

When Conrad Clement and his two sons, Tracy and Eric, bought the Oklahoma-based company in 1988, it had 72 employees turning out livestock and horse trailers, with annual sales of under $20 million. They moved the business to Grand Meadow, Minn., then eventually to the small community of Cresco, Iowa.

"[Childress] was certainly -- and is still -- a man of his word. He said if we helped him, he would help us. And he did that. And we appreciate that still today and thank him for it. "

--ERIC CLEMENT

Want a real-life representation of Grant Wood's "American Gothic?" Cresco pretty much would fit the bill. A typical midwestern farm community of fewer than 4,000 people, it boasts a blue water tower emblazoned with the logo of the high school mascot, a county courthouse smack dab in the middle of downtown and the fairgrounds not more than a stone's throw from Featherlite's complex of construction facilities.

The winters are long and harsh. The summers are hot and humid. But Featherlite folks say the spring and fall are beautiful -- if way too short -- and there's some great trout fishing streams nearby.

The Clements had two goals for their company's future: to diversify and expand. And one of the ways to accomplish that, according to Eric Clement -- now the company's general manager and vice president for sales and marketing -- was to look at possible untapped markets.

"We had been race car fans all that time, stock cars and open wheel," Clement said. "We saw an opportunity to get into that business, looked at the racing from other than a fan perspective and it didn't take long to find out that Dale Earnhardt was the No. 1 driver and Richard Childress was the best car owner.

"So Conrad and Featherlite approached Richard to figure out what we needed to do as a company to get into that business. And that's still some of the basis of the way we operate -- and try to operate -- as a company today."

Gary Kriener was one of the employees selected to make the trip to North Carolina.

"I remember Conrad and Gary Ihrke, Don Fenske and myself," said Kriener, now interiors manager. "We flew down there and went to Richard Childress' shop, Roger Penske's shop for Rusty Wallace, and both of the Waltrips -- Darrell and Michael -- if memory serves me right.

"We went in and looked at their processes and their trailers and all that. It was a gift at that time to see what was out there and how it was put together. I started measuring and took some pictures and the rest is history."

Kriener said one of Featherlite's advantages was that both Childress and Earnhardt were familiar with the company's products.

"They both had stock and horse trailers at the time," Kriener said. "Conrad -- the ultimate salesman -- 'If we can do that, by God, there's no reason we can't be building these bigger transporters.' "

Conrad Clement could also offer something unique: Custom-designed and custom-built transporters based on each team's requirements.

"Conrad's idea was to take a trailer that wasn't a converted freight hauler and work it specifically around loading and loading of the cars and stuff down below," Kriener said. "And I think part of the allure to those guys was that they weren't 'canned trailers' -- this is what you got.

"I'm sure there were some options available, but when we started at different things -- length, height, width -- promises were made that we could do a better job. We can give you what you want."

Eric Clement said what his father offered to Childress and Earnhardt in 1992 still holds true today.

"It's simple," Clement said of the company's tenet. "What are your problems, and do we have what it takes to solve it? And is there a fit? They wanted stronger, bigger, lighter-weight trailers that could haul more equipment that were more durable and would last longer, would work when you wanted it to work, therefore requiring less maintenance.

"They wanted them to be nicer. Too many times people complain about getting things cheaper. They actually wanted nicer and realized it would probably cost more to do that."

When Featherlite delivered that first transporter to Childress in 1992, it went on the road for the 1993 season. And 18 years later, it's still in use. According to speciality sales manager Mike Galvin, it was used by Mike Allgaier to haul Justin Allgaier's late model stock cars around the midwest.

Not only was Childress more than satisfied with his new Featherlite rig, he helped the company earn new business. Richard Petty ordered one soon after, and by 1995 -- three years after the first transporter -- the company delivered No. 100 to A.J. Foyt.

"[Childress] was certainly -- and is still -- a man of his word," Eric Clement said. "He said if we helped him, he would help us. And he did that. And we appreciate that still today and thank him for it."

Even the sanctioning body started taking notice, according to Clement.

"Les Richter was the director of competition," Clement said. "Mike Helton ran the race track at Talladega and then there was Bill [France] Jr. and Brian was coming onto the scene and starting to lead the marketing effort.

"We met those people and they had a need and a desire to improve the lifestyle for their employees from a 'mobile circus' standpoint. As they moved their equipment around the nation, durability was as important to them as the teams. They were traveling the same amount of miles. They had a desire and need for nicer equipment. And we were able to work out a sponsorship agreement that Featherlite can afford. And we've maintained that [until] today."

Cabinets are installed in a specific order and to the customer's custom specifications at Featherlite.

Roots run deep

Maybe they weren't with Featherlite from the beginning, but Kriener and Galvin are as close to the company's roots as they come. They both started on the assembly line in the mid-'80s, constructing livestock trailers.

"How many scars do you want to see?" Galvin said. "When we were on the plant floor, if you needed something bent, you'd strap it onto a table and bend it with a hammer. If you needed it cut, you threw bear grease on a Milwaukee electric drill."

"What we try to do is build our own test bed that we can try our ideas on, and that's our own Featherlite trailer. And then we'll apply what works for us into the other units. From an engineering standpoint, that gives us new toys that we can try."

--DARVIN BLOHM

"There was a lot of material cut with a 7 1/4-inch circular saw," Kriener added.

"You were hoping it couldn't kick back and you wind up with 12 stitches in your knee or cut your ear off," Galvin said.

"The technology and the processes have really changed since then, and are changing all the time," Kriener said. "I look back at what we build today and back then. We were pretty rough around the edges then. But it was comparable to what was in the industry.

"That's the one thing you can never rest on is your finish. You've constantly got to be working on improving that. With the feedback from the sales guys and the customer, it's an ongoing process."

There are four plants on the Featherlite property. One handles small components, while another deals mainly with refurbishing and upgrading current rolling stocks. The largest is where all the exterior framing and electrical work is completed.

Plant 3 is the size of a large aircraft hangar, with several production lines running in parallel. There are at least two overhead cranes on tracks, and there's the ever-present sound of metal being sliced, ground, drilled and hammered by many of the company's 400 employees.

At the start of the line, a new transporter is beginning its journey. One worker is on a ladder, busy drilling holes for the rivets that will hold the aluminum exterior to the frame.

"When we start one of these, we put together a floor plan, see how we want the layout to be, pick all the colors and that good stuff -- and then we start building it," Galvin said. "We start with a pair of axles and build everything around those axles.

"This trailer will sit in this building for, on the average, three weeks. At that point, it'll be a shell that can go down the road. We bring it out of this building, we water test it to see if it's as airtight and watertight as it possibly can be. And then we run it over to our interiors building and start putting the fun stuff in it, if you will."

Galvin pointed at the split axle configuration -- called a "10-1" because it's 10 feet, one inch between the center of each axle -- and said it allows for better distribution of the weight. The Department of Transportation has a hard and fast limit of 80,000 pounds for each transporter, so weight is one critical component. Another is durability.

"With that [configuration], you can haul 20,000 pounds per axle," Galvin said. "A lot of the freight trailers on the road, the tires will be together. It's called a closed tandem. With that setting, you can haul 34,000 pounds on the grouping. So with the spread, you can distribute the weight throughout the trailer better and you're less likely to be overweight on your axles than with a tandem setup."

This particular transporter is being built on spec, according to Galvin.

"It's a Truck Series trailer so you can fit a Camping World truck up top," he said. "We normally try to keep one of these units in our inventory at all times. If a team gets a sponsorship and they need a trailer, we can roll them into something fairly quick.

"We're building this one ourselves to take around. We've got two trailers that are on the road basically all the time. One is in the NASCAR pit area every weekend. This trailer will go anywhere -- from some of the NHRA, the Outlaw Sprint Car events, the IRL. It'll sit in the Nationwide garage at some of the events. And we utilize it for some of our shows and things."

Other transporters in Plant 3 are further along in the process. A stack of large aluminum sheets are loaded on a dolly and lifted into place by two workers on the ground and two on the car deck to create the interior floor in one. Another is getting fitted with air conditioning ducts and the wiring needed to run the generator and electrical systems.

"Everything's pre-wired," Galvin said. "All the air conditioning runs are done in it. I've never had the guys figure how many miles of wire go into a trailer, but that's one thing that the electrical guys have done a good job in the last seven or eight years is getting better at making sure there's no sharp edges throughout the trailers.

"Everything's labeled at both ends. It's a lot easier then to trace [electrical issues] and get a good finished product at the end. All of the nitrogen lines are run through for the pressurized air systems. Some of them, depending upon the series and the customer, they'll put air compressors in. They're all tested for a determined amount of time to make sure everything is working, both on shoreline and the generator side of things."

Once the trailer completes its trip in the exteriors building, it's road ready. At that point it makes a round trip to an off-site painting and graphics facility before returning for all the interior work. Galvin said it's also an opportunity to give the new transporter a test drive.

Although similar in scope from the outside, each NASCAR hauler is made to a team's specifications and preferences for the inside as Featherlite takes pride in their ability to evolve and adapt with the times.

Changes and challenges

The interiors department, housed in one of Featherlite's original two-story buildings, is a plant which has undergone several remodelings and expansions over the years. All of the cabinetry is custom-made on site, and there are stacks of different thicknesses of plywood in racks and bins that run from floor to ceiling. It's all done on a huge, computer-aided cutting tool that takes exact measurements from project engineer Darvin Blohm's blueprints.

For Blohm and three other engineers who handle Featherlite's transporters, there are two major constraints. One is the size: 13 feet, six inches tall, 102 inches wide and 53 feet long. Two is the 80,000-pound weight limit.

"Unless somebody comes out with a new suspension or a new axle, we're basically confined to that same box," Blohm said.

But within that box, Blohm's only other limitation is price, one reason why the company hasn't fully embraced composite materials.

"People want to look at that, but it's been cost prohibitive to really advance that," Blohm said. "We've used it where we can. Weight is a big thing for the NASCAR folks. They put in 10 pounds and we try to take out 10 pounds.

"That's been a challenge for us, is to stay ahead of that. As fast as our manufacturing processes change and as fast as the equipment changes, [it's important] to stay up to the speed with that because of the weight."

The biggest evolution Blohm's seen in the 15 years he's been at Featherlite has to do with an increased emphasis on mobility at the track.

"They're doing a lot more pit carts, so our cabinet designs have changed," Blohm said. "Where we used to, in years past, keep more into the trailer, they're actually putting more of that on carts. So they can take it right into the garage area."

Galvin appreciates the time and effort Blohm and his staff put into their custom designs, because at the end of the day, what the teams can pack onto a transporter could mean the difference between a satisfied and unsatisfied customer.

"We try to get with the teams and find out how much the motors are going to weigh, how much the crash carts are going to weigh," Galvin said. "The pit carts that you run around with all the time, they weigh more than the cars any more.

"So we have to find out where they want to put that and we design the trailer around that. It's more than putting a lot of material and aluminum together. You've got to work hand in hand with the teams to find out where this is going to be the best fit. We're very good with working with the teams on that. We've been doing that since 1992."

Another major change is what teams use for keeping in communication. Every transporter now has satellite capability.

"Back in the old days, you used to run old Sony TVs and fax machines and all the space and weight that took up," Kriener said. "Now it's all gone. Flatscreen TVs -- 42 inch -- [are] pretty prevalent out there. And computers. If you used to have a chair with one TV, that was pretty much the standard. Most all of them now have three, four, five -- in the lounge and different parts of the trailer."

"And they set them up for so many different things," Galvin added. "One monitor will be set to a guy's laptop with data, another on timing and scoring, another is hooked up to satellite TV and another may have weather information on it. They can switch all that stuff around internally on the trailer by flipping a few switches."

In addition, as NASCAR has implemented different chassis requirements -- for example, the new Nationwide Series car in 2012 -- it's had an effect on how Blohm can design transporter space, particularly when it comes to head room. When the upper deck has to expand two inches, that takes away two inches down below.

"Our upper deck heights have had to change to account for the wickerbills and everything they put on the cars," Blohm said. "That challenges us in our deck heights and our header heights for rollup doors and such.

"Obviously, we always have to [make sure] the cars can fit in. Some teams will let some of the air [in the tires] out, they'll do different things that way to get them in. But we try to set them up so they'll go in freely and not have any issues that way."

That transporter moving up the assembly line in Plant 3 could be destined for some radical updates, Blohm said. Featherlite engineers are exploring the idea of perhaps adding solar panels and LED lighting in future upgrades. But first they want to test it out on a spec trailer.

"What we try to do is build our own test bed that we can try our ideas on, and that's our own Featherlite trailer," Blohm said. "And then we'll apply what works for us into the other units. From an engineering standpoint, that gives us new toys that we can try."

Won and done

Fit and finish. Weight. Durability. Those are all important factors in maintaining Featherlite's position in the NASCAR garage. But at the end of the day, the folks at Featherlite remember there's a bottom line.

"You want the customer to be happy in the long run, because with NASCAR, let's face it: You've only got one chance to get it right," Kriener said. "The [teams] go out 42-45 weeks in a year. They don't have the opportunity to bring the trailer back to get it worked on or tweaked."

And they pride themselves on who has made the trip to northeast Iowa to see the staff in action.

"It's a Who's Who of the people who have come through there: Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt, A.J. Foyt, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Jeff Gordon," Kriener said.

"Earnhardt used to come here about every year," Galvin said.

"He liked walking through and looking at all the stuff," Kriener added. "I only had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman a couple of times on and off the track, but he was pretty down to earth."

Did you ever expect it to get this big?

"No, never. I had no idea," Kriener said. "When I started with these guys in the spring of 1982, coming in off the farm, I went 'Whoa, this is a pretty big building.' We started building aluminum stock trailers, which was new technology at the time. And we went along for a few years, building aluminum stock trailers, then got into the horse side of it. When the Clements bought the company is when everything took off and the sky was the limit."

For Eric Clement, it's a partnership that works.

"We love NASCAR," Clement said. "I don't know how many of our employees exactly are NASCAR fans, but many of them are. They have a favorite team, they have a favorite driver. It's probably something along the line of 70-75 percent.

"Not only is it fun to work in this segment, but I think our people enjoy it because it gives all of us a sense of satisfaction and gratification to see the Featherlite haulers on the road and on the television. It's just a lot of fun."

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