Q&A: Strange Engineering’s Jeff Stange
Being born into a family business often takes one of two distinct directions: some embrace what their elders have built with their bare hands, while others choose to follow another path in life. For Jeff Stange, there was never any doubt about how he’d choose to earn his keep and for the president of Strange Engineering, manufacturing industry-leading race car components isn’t just a passion, but a way of life.
His father, Bob Stange, founded what would later become Strange Engineering in the early 1960′s, turning his side job as a machinist into a full-time business. His love for the sport and commitment to excellence forged a niche in the racing community that has made the Strange name virtually synonymous with the industry, and Jeff has followed right in his fathers footsteps.
The second-generation driveline and suspension stalwart entrenched himself in both the family business and the racing world from a young age. He would prove himself ready to take the reins and carry the Strange name into the future. We caught up with Jeff in Orlando, Florida, and took some time out to learn more about the man behind the Strange Engineering name that racers the world over have relied on for so many decades.
PowerTV: Strange Engineering is such a familiar brand to drag racers today. Hoe and where did your Dad get the idea for the company?
Jeff Stange: Like a lot of guys in the 1950′s, my father was a car enthusiast and he started making parts for himself and then for his friends - from complete chassis to chassis components. He really made a wide variety of parts, which was very common in that time period, because junkyard parts would just flat-out fail. A good friend of my father’s, Bob Summers, was out in California, and he actually worked with my dad, and helped him manufacture axles. Bob was already making them on out on the West Coast, so they started making axle shafts out here for racers in the midwest and East coast. From there, Strange really just grew from word of mouth, and here we are today.
PTV: So you were you literally born into the axle business and the racing industry?
Stange: Yes. I grew up right in the middle of it and I was always at races when I was a kid. After school, I’d go to the shop and hang out or do my homework there until my father was done at Strange, which was often pretty late. As the years rolled on, I got into other sports, but I was always around the factory and the people. So my interest was not only the racing and the love of the sport, but the manufacturing side of it, the care that goes into making products and the importance of satisfying the customer. Racing is a very now market, you know, our customers want their parts now and they want them right. They expect a lot and I was raised to make customers happy. So to me, because my father was always that way, his slogan was… “whatever it takes to satisfy.” Ptting your customer firstas always important at Strange.
PTV: Your last name is Stange (pronounced Stang-ee), but the company name is Strange. Now, what’s the back story on that?
Stange: In the 60′s and 70′s, as my father became better known in the industry, he had a lot of articles written about the parts he was making. Rather than putting Stange in the article, they kept writing “Strange” by accident. So everything was Strange Engineering and Strange this and that. So, when he incorporated, he named the business ‘Strange’ simply because it was easier than to fix the writers’ mistakes. It wasn’t a play on words, but just the fact that the name was misprinted so often.
PTV: You’ve taken over your Dad’s company – a company where you’ve literally grew up at – and really supercharged its growth. What have been your greatest challenges?
Stange: For me, it was the culture change. I went to a 4-year college and graduated in three years; so I went through school pretty quickly. I did have some offers to work for large companies like Hewlett Packard, but I decided that this – our family business – is what I really wanted to do. I guess the biggest challenge was the culture that was at Strange at the time, and changing that culture. As I grew into the business, I still performed different roles for three or four years - whether it was managing production, marketing or working with engineering. The main challenge was forming the culture into what it needed to be in order to grow. At that point – and this would’ve been around the early 1990′s – things were getting a little stagnant.
PTV: A lot of great companies in the racing world are hurting. Has the downturn in the economy had an effect on Strange?
Stange: Quite honestly, we run a pretty lean show, so we’re very generous with some of our expenditures. But, we’ve always run a pretty efficient ship manufacturing-wise. So for us, I didn’t really have to make many changes, but the economy did effect us. We were down about 6% in 2009, but this year we’re up about 6.5%. Strange kept a focus on new product development, because we knew that eventually we’d come out of it. At the time, we were looking to move to a bigger building, but we put that on hold. So, some plans changed, but we found ways to become more efficient.
PTV: Strange is a company deeply entrenched in racing history. have you raced since getting involved in running the company?
Stange: I did Frank Hawley’s drag racing school and the Bondurant School when I was in my 20′s, but I just kept myself involved in the family business and that’s really what I do twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I tell that to a lot of friends of mine that are chassis builders. I have no idea how they can run their business and race. I truly have a lot of respect for our racers, because it’s a lot of time and dedication to invest and I just couldn’t dedicate that amount of time to both racing and my company. I live and breathe Strange, which in some way is also living and breathing racing. I travel to quite a few races during the year, which I’ve been doing since I was 20. I still enjoy it, and while I don’t get to every NHRA race like I used to, I do try to get out there, to see our customers and see what’s going on in the market.
PTV: You literally grew up at Strange. What kind of jobs did you have as a kid?
Stange: Before I was ten, I was already helping out with filing and things like that in the office. By the time I was thirteen, I was working at Strange on a regular basis during the summer. I did everything from digging ditches outside, to cleaning the bathrooms and the shop – you name it – whatever it took. Then I graduated into broaching and milling using an old, redundant mill. I just did a lot of odd jobs and grew my knowledge in a hands-on way. Plus, it was good money during the summer for a kid and I really enjoyed the work and just being involved with cars and my Dad.
PTV: What are some challenges that you often experience in the R&D phase when you work with racers and chassis builders in the field?
Stange: I think the key for us is to get people that we can really trust. We have a lot of people that we work with. For instance, we do a lot of work with Warren Johnson and it’s important to have a person that gives you feedback as he does. Not just complaints, but legitimate feedback and suggestions. Its very important for Strange to work with people out there, really racing our parts because we’re not on the racetrack ourselves.
Engineering-wise, we have a tremendous amount of expertise, but we’re not at the track day-to-day, actually racing. We go to races and speak to racers - the best feedback we get is from racers and chassis builders. Our growth comes from these relationships and listening to what they have to say, and that provides us the path that Strange needs to follow.
PTV: What role do you personally play in the development and design of new products?
Stange: I have more of a marketing background, but I’ve picked up a lot of engineering knowledge over the years. My father did a lot of engineering, although he never went to school for it per-se. But we both have a lot of hands-on experience and, of course, a staff of engineers. But if I see a market that I want a specific product for, I’ll lay out what I want that product to do and provide some conceptual ideas. As it progresses, I certainly work with the engineers on a lot of the details. I look at Strange products like jewelry – I want them to not only be functional, but I want them to look like a race car part.
PTV: Do you enjoy the technical side of the business?
Stange: I love it. It’s always funny with our engineers, because I’ll do my research and come in with these new ideas that they’re unaware of, ususally in the manufacturing and design processes. I definitely love the engineering side. We used to work near Northwestern University and I’d go over there and buy mechanical engineering books to read, but now with the Internet, I can go online and get a wealth of information. I certainly don’t have the mechanical talent that our engineers have, but I think that part of the business is fascinating.
PTV: You make race parts, street parts and everything in between. What’s involved in the design of something as extreme as a rear end for a Top Fuel Dragster?
Stange: Honestly, it is not a profit maker at all. Fuel racing is really a love and one that my father had with those cars from growing up with them in the 60′s. Really, for Strange, its a process of nonstop research and development. A true race car part is something that’s always on the edge, because you want it to be as light as possible. And sometimes we step over that edge. But for safety’s sake, we try to stay well ahead of any safety issues, so that if we did have a failure, it wouldn’t be a catastrophic one. As well, a lot of the processes and technology that we use in those products trickle down to others that we manufacture.
PTV: Nitro racing is a dangerous business; for the racers, officials and even the fans. Is there some inherent risk for a manufacturer like yourself to be involved?
Stange: There is, but there are so many customers in the nitro ranks that we have connections with, that we don’t want to just walk away from, and that’s what keeps us involved. It’s really not about the money, but the people that use our products having faith and trust in us. It’s also to continually advance our sport. We’re always looking at ways to handle situations where a lug nut might be left loose, something isn’t torqued properly, a wheel isn’t seated, or the lugs are starting to elongate. We actually have a new lug design that’s going to be mandatory in the NHRA next year and we’re hoping to push that through for Pro Modified as well.
None of us like to see catastrophic failures or harm to racers and fans, but these are race cars and things are going to break. I don’t think there’s any miracle cure, so we just have to keep making things better, as we have for the past 45 years. People in this industry are becoming more pre-emptive. As far as safety goes, I’m always pre-emptive. I’ll never take off that last quarter-pound if I don’t believe it’s structurally sound.
In any industry – even something as passion-driven as auto racing – heading up a major company can often become a case of pencil-pushing and bean-counting, with more interest in the bottom line than the product. If you spend just one moment with Jeff Stange, you will quickly find he is anything but. He is passionate about every facet of the business, the advancement of technology in the sport, and continuing the tradition his father built. It is a true labor of love for the sport and the people within it - a determination and commitment to excellence that is sure to carry Strange Engineering well into the future.