I arrived at the track hopelessly delirious. There is an atmosphere that accompanies the twenty-four hours of Nürburgring as strange as the weather patterns that surround it. This magnificent piece of road was originally created to be proving grounds for German car manufacturers, and it is said that one mile on the Nordschleife (north loop) is equal to ten miles on a normal road, under race conditions that figure is closer to sixteen. The demand required by man and machine to navigate the one hundred eighty six turns is second to none.
After setting up home base at KW's trailer it was time to investigate the pits and get up close to the incredible machines that were about to do battle on the "Green Hell". 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. No win here is ever a fluke.
Simultaneously motorsports enthusiasts are dug in deep throughout the forest, taking 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 temporary night clubs, bars, scaffolding high-rise apartments, fires, hot tubs and more. These fanatics have been diligently preparing for this event for over a week. This is where the majority of the two hundred and sixty thousand spectators reside, nestled in the pines.
Prior to the race I found myself taking a tour of Ring Werks, the Nürburgring's on-site museum. Inside Ring Werks are all sorts of intricate displays covering all aspects of the vastly fascinating automobile 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 is in Europe.
Shoving my keepsake Ring Werks card into my wallet I left the museum and made my way over to the grid walk. Most major forms of racing 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. Expecting to achieve any form of an acceptable shot was downright ridiculous. In the midst of all the commotion, I was impressed with how genuinely interested and passionate German people are about automobiles.
Before I knew it 3pm snuck up on me along with the start of the race. When the cars, the track and the fans combine they create an event that could only be described as Nascar-meets-Super Bowl-meets-Burning Man. This is about as hardcore as race events get. The greatest thing about the Nordschleife is that it is one of the most photogenic places on earth. Throughout the course of several days I would eventually walk over five miles of the circuit only to discover there are simply no bad places to shoot from.
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 food, alcohol or some form of illegal substance. Everyone there is trying to have a good time, to my recollection most seemed 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.
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 - fortunately it was a successful end 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 top of a hill in a small town in the German countryside sits a massive cluster of warehouses. The sheer size of the complex is overwhelming, it takes you 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 Wohlfarth (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. During his racing days Wohlfarth 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 is a machine designed specifically to analyze suspension. Nearly every 7-post that exists is owned by an OEM car company or a Formula 1 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.
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 my tour of the race facility I was taken to the countryside to be driven down the very same road Klaus Frank uses to develop their suspensions. What I 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 sketchy 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 amazed. A 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. 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, spotless from floor to ceiling, only it's draped in Lakers colors. Parts are taken from raw materials and turned into complete suspension systems transported via conveyer system from one clean room to another 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 components.
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.