Some months ago during a routine meeting here at SS we were informed that one of us would need to visit Germany for a week. Before I even knew the mission details I immediately volunteered myself for the trip. I have wanted to go to Germany for as long as I can remember as it is the birthplace of my surname and my father spent a good portion of his life living there. I didn't care if the purpose of the trip was to watch paint dry I needed to go.
Fortunately for me the agenda was rather kick ass. A trip to one of the most famous race circuits in the world, the Nurburgring, for the coveted 24 hour race as well as a factory tour of one of the leading suspension brands in the world, KW, were requesting my prescience. With my expectations set dangerously high and my suitcase packed dangerously light I embarked on a trip I won't forget for the rest of my life.
After a sleepless fourteen-hour flight I found myself making my way through customs in Frankfurt. After collecting my baggage it was time to stuff myself along with seven other journalists and all of our things into two VW vans so we could head immediately to the track. For once I was glad I didn't have a ton of photo gear with me as I likely wouldn't have the energy to move it. I had just spent half a day in an economy seat on an airplane so the two and a half hour drive to the track flew by.
When we arrived at the track I was blown away. There is an atmosphere that surrounded the event that was as strange as the weather patterns that cover it. For those of you that aren't familiar with the Nurburgring Nordschleife it is fourteen miles of hell. With the undulation, varying surfaces and sheer size of the course the demand required by man and machine to navigate the one hundred eighty six turns is second to none.
The key to being fast here is reliability and utmost attention to suspension tuning. The track was originally created as a proving grounds for German car manufactures and it is said that one mile on the Nordschleife is equal to ten miles on a normal road, under race conditions that figure is closer to sixteen. The secret to success is having a machine that can handle this type of stress and this place is KW's playground.
After setting up our home base at KW's trailer it was time to investigate the pits and get up close to the incredible machines. Endurance racing requires skill, total machine tuning and a pinch of luck. Unlike time attack races in endurance your primary concern is reliability, not outright speed. It has been said to finish first you must first finish. These cars are all built with this motto in mind and must have the performance to prove it, there is no room for error and no win here is ever a fluke.
Once we had gotten our fix on the pits it was time to eat. We made our way to a race team's pit area to get our grub on. The sun was finally starting to go down around 9PM, due to Germany's latitude the sky remains light much longer than I'm used to in LA. When we finished dinner some of the staff suggested that we go out to get a real taste of the Nordscliefe experience and we made our way to a fan-favorite corner known as Brunnchen. It was only then that I realized how insane this event truly is.
Dug in deep throughout the forest are motorsports enthusiasts who take it upon themselves to build makeshift cities in the woods. To try and describe the scene of the forest is asinine, even when you're there you still can't believe it. There are make shift night clubs, bars, scaffolding high rise apartments, fires, hot tubs and more. Setting up camp requires a commitment over a week prior to even find an unclaimed spot in the woods. It was estimated that over two hundred sixty thousand people were in attendance on race day, the majority of which were nestled in the pines.
After knocking back a few Bitburgers and snapping some fantastic shots of the night practice it was time to head back and get some rest for the day to follow. I had been up for close to forty straight hours but in the presence of this place I couldn't have felt more alive. I could only imagine how much more intense the actual race would be. That night I fell asleep to the soundtrack of race engines and sequential transmission whine replaying in my head.
When race day came we arrived at the track and I immediately made my way to the media center. The term media center is usually slang for a table with a few chairs and a water bottle if you're lucky. At the Nurburgring things are taken up several notches. On the second floor of the race tower is a room occupied by hundreds of seats placed in row after row with wireless Internet throughout. Food, drink, espresso, lockers - pretty much anything you could possibly ask for were available free of charge.
Next I made my way out of the media center for a quick tour of Ring Werks, the Nurburgring's on-site museum. Inside Ring Werks are all sorts of amazing displays including a Borg Warner turbo exhibit, a Getrag transmission exhibit and the newest installment - a suspension exhibit put on by none other than KW. It was becoming ever more clear exactly how big KW really was in Europe.
Once we finished our tour of the museum I shoved my keepsake Ring Werks card into my wallet and made my way over to the grid walk. One of the cooler things about most major forms of racing is that they include a grid walk where any spectator can get right up next to the cars. It was a total circus out there with over ten thousand people on the grid alone it was nearly impossible to get any form of an acceptable shot.
One of the more bewildering things I discovered while at the track is how genuinely interested and passionate German people are about automobiles. It's like there is this built in hereditary predisposition to be completely obsessed with cars. I guess it's rightfully so considering that Germany is the birthplace of the automobile, but this respect for cars is something I wish were more common among Americans.
Before I knew it 3pm snuck up on me along with the start of the race. And so began the most incredible event I have ever been lucky enough to photograph. The cars, the track and the fans combine to create an event that could only be described as Nascar-meets-Super Bowl-meets-Burning Man. This is about as hard core of a race event as you can get.
As I finished shooting the start of the race from the grid I knew I needed to get back to where the real action was - the forest. Being that the track is some fourteen miles long it would almost kill a person to have to move around it on foot. Fortunately there was an extremely well devised system of media shuttles (more VW vans) that at a moments notice could be on site to transport photographers.
Entering the woods on race day is a life altering experience. It's almost impossible to navigate your way around the campsite without being offered alcohol, food or some form of illegal substance. Everyone there is trying to have a good time and most seem to be thoroughly succeeding. As much as I would have loved to party I was there to shoot and I had no idea if I would ever be given this opportunity again.
The greatest thing about the Nordschleife is that it is one of the most photogenic places on earth. Take it from me the guy that walked over five miles of the track only to find that there are simply no bad spots to shoot from. A lot has to do with the track layout, which is prized by most drivers as being made up entirely out of difficult corners. There is no place for a driver to rest on this track and all of these twists and turns are a photographer's dream.
If it weren't for the end of the race I'd probably still be out there shooting. They say all good things must come to an end and what an end it was for KW. Over sixty cars in the race were running KW suspension resulting in wins in eight classes. While the rest of the competition had to sit and scratch their heads at how this was possible I would spend the next few days at the KW factory learning exactly what makes their suspension work. On the outside KW looks like a cross between a Costco and Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory. The sheer size of the complex is overwhelming and it took two days just to see it all, it's amazing to think that a little over a decade ago the company was just coming into existence. Thanks to a very dedicated, involved and down to earth owner/CEO, Klaus Wolfarth (KW), KW has become the race suspension powerhouse it is today.
It should come as no surprise that Klaus has a history that stems from auto racing, specifically old Opel Kadett racers. You couldn't find a nicer guy if you tried and he would be more than happy to spend a day shooting the shit with you about cars. Along the way Klaus met KW's head engineer, Klaus Frank (KF). Frank has an inherent uncanny ability to tell what a car is doing just by using his senses. His "butt dyno" is right more often than it's wrong, especially when it comes to suspensions.
Every suspension that KW makes is driven down a twisty, bumpy road by KF to be evaluated. It is in this manner that the majority of the fine-tuning process is completed, it might seem archaic but KF is no form of ordinary human. When Frank is happy the car is placed on KW's state-of-the-art 7-post machine. The 7-post a machine designed specifically to analyze suspension. Nearly every 7-post that exists is owned by an OEM car company or a Formula1 race team with KW being the only exception.
When a car is placed onto the machine four massive hydraulic posts toss the vehicle around to test the frequency at which different components harmonize. This technology puts a large gap between KW and the competition although KW probably doesn't need it. As Klaus Frank jokingly put it "the machine simply validates and quantifies what my butt says." Although he may have been laughing the staff at KW takes Frank's butt very seriously, they estimate that 95% of the tuning comes from Klaus and the final 5% is tweaked to perfection via technology.
Before we peered into the production side of the factory we were invited to come take a look at the race-only facility where Klaus Frank and eleven other employees do the majority of their work. In respect to the rest of the property the race development side was just a shack, a shack that's still larger than many aftermarket suspension companies entire base of operations.
The sole purpose of the race group is to service KW's racing clients (there are lots) and develop new and better ways of achieving suspension excellence. It was in this facility that I realized I know nothing about suspension. In a matter of minutes I went from excited to confused to a vegetable. Granted I actually have a fairly good understanding of all things suspension, but these guys are on a whole other level.
KF explained how and why KW suspension works so well. The majority of what he said is beyond the comprehension level of a nuclear physicist but in a nutshell it really all comes down to simplicity and innovation. While competitors are making vastly complex systems that require a rebuild after one race, KW is often exceeding performance levels with a design that can last a whole season without requiring a rebuild. What that translates to for us is a suspension that can handle the stress of daily LA street driving. Coming into this trip I always had the impression that a suspension could either handle well and ride like shit or be smooth as glass with tons of body roll. KW proved that with the right amount of know-how you don't have to compromise. After our tour of the race facility we were taken to the countryside to be driven down the very same road Klaus Frank uses to develop their suspensions.
What we didn't know was that one of the cars was to be a tuned Evo X driven by P-WRC rally driver Uwe Nittel. The road was twisty as hell and covered in a smorgasbord of terrain changes, definitely not an ideal surface for a modified car. As we rocketed up the hill, half the time sideways, I was blown away. For starters I couldn't believe it was possible to drive this road nearly as fast as we were and secondly it felt like I was riding in a luxury vehicle while moving at the pace of a racecar. The perfect combination of spring rates and shock valving yielded an amazing ride. There was very little body roll yet the dampers were able to soak up bumps, dips and potholes as if they weren't even there. Although I wasn't driving the car I could easily tell from the passenger seat that the car was a pleasure to drive while allowing oversteer if requested - a trait not commonly associated with an Evo. Now that I knew how the suspension worked and felt it in the flesh it was time to see exactly how it was made. Inside the factory is almost exactly how you would imagine a stereotypical German facility would look, only it's draped in Lakers colors. It's almost spotless from floor to ceiling, there is a proper tool and workstation for every job and the entire process is cataloged electronically - ensuring that KW knows exactly when and how your suspension was made. Almost the entire suspension systems down to the smallest parts are machined and assembled in-house, only outsourcing a small handful of parts.
The process begins with the strut bodies that are machined from raw tubing. Once the cutting is complete any additional pieces like brake hose brackets or lower mounting points are then welded on to the bodies. In the same area the strut rods are spun on a lathe to desired lengths and thicknesses. Any other raw materials are also handled here before being shipped via conveyer system to the assembly warehouse.
In the assembly warehouse the raw materials are transformed into complete damper units. This is where a KW suspension turns into the unique system it is. The magic of how KW coilovers work so well all comes down to a very small, simple and effective valve. It's this tiny piece that separates KW from the rest. Once the valve is installed into the strut body the shock piston can be put onto the rod and installed.
At this point the damper begins to form a shape that is easily recognizable as car suspension. The body assembly makes its next stop to be filled with shock oil. When the tech receives the shock they scan the bar code. The computer system then recognizes it and allocates the appropriate settings to an oil gun to ensure the shocks are filled with exactly the right amount and type of oil. After filling the shock it's sealed and pressurized before being sent over for quality inspection.
Every shock that KW assembles is immediately tested on a shock dyno to ensure perfection. If the shock doesn't match up to the settings in the computer it is disassembled and checked for flaws then reassembled and retested. Immediate testing allows KW to nip any problems in the bud preventing additional work later or a disappointed customer. It's this kind of on-site quality control that enables KW to stay a step ahead.
The assembled dampers then make their way over to another warehouse, again by conveyer, where the final assembly is completed. At this stage the dampers are fitted with bump stops, spring perches, springs, upper mounts and anything else required for completion. A computerized parts elevator brings any necessary parts bins to the workers at their command. Once the final assembly is complete the KW and ST (or other brands they produce) suspensions are boxed up and read to go out to you, the consumer!
While I was certainly blown away by the build process of KW suspension I was almost more surprised at the manufacturing for ST components. The two suspensions share far more parts in common than they have that are different. The same people make them on the same assembly line with the same attention to detail. Minus a couple of features they are essentially the same suspension at a fraction of the cost.
The Germans have a much different philosophy when it comes to tuning cars, over there it just has to work. They don't care about flashy bolts or fancy lights. It is with this mission statement that a small company with a few guys, a road and a butt dyno has radically, almost paradoxically, changed. They are now possibly the largest and most technologically advanced aftermarket suspension company on the globe. There is no doubt in my mind that KW and ST products are the real deal. They. Just. Work.