Picture this for a second. Imagine you're a kid who grew up in the Baltimore as a massive NASCAR fan. Your family always got all-access passes for the races at Dover International Speedway; you were brought up around cars; the whole sport is in your blood.
Now imagine that after nearly 30 years of living and breathing gears, you find yourself in your first race as a NASCAR crew chief. Your team has been having a good season, but you could really use a win to put yourself in position to compete for a championship.
As the race is winding down, you have an opportunity to pick up your first win -- in your first race as a crew chief. But your engineering background tells you your car is short on fuel. You and the former series champion driving the car are going to have to get creative in order to figure out a way to get to the finish line before the gas runs out.
"The way the race played out, it was very nerve-racking," Perry Hall, Md., native John Klausmeier said. "We were gambling. When we made our last pit stop; we knew that we couldn't make it to the end of the race. We were going to be five laps short on fuel."
Obviously, this story is real. It occurred June 6 at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. Klausmeier (a 1999 Calvert Hall grad) has spent more than a decade as a race engineer. But due to a suspension handed down to regular crew chief Tony Gibson, he was working as a crew chief for the first time in his career on Kurt Busch's No. 41 car.
To understand the significance of the moment, it might help to know a bit more about Klausmeier's background.
"Our family has a repair shop (Klausmeier & Sons) there on Bel Air Road in Perry Hall," the Stewart-Haas Racing engineer said. "So cars have always been an interest to me. I started watching racing probably in the late 80s, just as a kid, just really enjoyed it. Then on the weekends, [I] would help out some guys up at Lincoln Speedway and at local tracks. It just really was something that I just liked to do as a hobby. All this is taking place during the evolution of technology in NASCAR, where engineering was becoming more and more important. So I decided to go to University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and get my mechanical engineering degree. I was hoping to get a job in the NASCAR industry as a race engineer."
Klausmeier had a connection that would help him. Fellow Perry Hall native Jay Gerst had worked at the family's auto shop, and Klausmeier had helped him with his cars on weekends. Gerst was about 6 years older than Klausmeier, but he was already working in the business with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Gerst was able to help Klausmeier get his own start in the sport.
"I started interning at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. while I was going to UMBC," Klausmeier said. "In 2002, I would do a semester at school, then a semester down in Mooresville, North Carolina, at their headquarters. I just bounced back and forth until I graduated. When I graduated, they offered me a full-time position, so I worked there for six years. Then when Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. left to go to Hendrick Motorsports, I kind of saw the end was near for that company, so I moved over to Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Stewart's team, when they started in 2009."
Klausmeier's background in engineering helped him become a race engineer. A race engineer, of course is ... well ... um ... actually ... I'm going to need Klausmeier's help to explain.
"It's not very easy to explain," he said.
Oh great. Can you try?
"The easiest way to explain it is [that] it's pretty much just the science behind what the car is doing. So I'm responsible for bringing all the tools and data together and giving the crew chief a recommendation on what I think we should change to make the car handle the best."
Klausmeier also explained the race engineer role is basically a step below the role of crew chief. So when Gibson's suspension was handed down the week before the race at Pocono, he knew he'd be sliding in. (In fact, Klausmeier told me that an opportunity to move into a crew chief role with Stewart-Haas could be coming in the next couple of years.)
So that's how he got there. A lifelong car person. First race as a crew chief. Fuel issues late in a race in which a win could really help your title chances. How did it all work out?
"It pretty much went as well as it could have went," Klausmeier said. "We knew that when the opportunity came up, we had to capitalize on it. That was the motive behind the call. Let's do that, gamble on the fuel."
Busch deftly navigated the final laps, coasting as much as possible and even turning his engine off in turns to save gas. Some fortuitous caution flags helped to get the car just past the finish line.
"The car sputtered on the burnouts [during] the celebration," Klausmeier said. "It was basically within a tenth of a gallon."
So what was it like for him to find himself in the winner's circle as a NASCAR crew chief?
"It was huge," he said. "I was in victory lane, and I looked up and my parents were there. They drove three-and-a-half hours up from Perry Hall to Pocono. They didn't tell me they were coming. I guess they didn't want to make me nervous. But sure enough they were there, and it was cool for me to be able to celebrate that moment with them and for them to see what we sacrifice everything for and all of the hard work and how it pays off."