Fred Kiekhaefer describes the demands that racing places on marine drives, engines and systems this way: “It’s like motocrossing a fully loaded semi over the Continental Divide, only the mountains are moving.”
Kiekhaefer is president of Mercury Racing and a 1972 UW-Madison graduate with a master’s degree focused on engine design and noise control. He is the son of legendary entrepreneur, engineer and Kiekhaefer Corporation (later renamed Mercury Marine) founder Carl Kiekhaefer, but his path to the top of marine racing and manufacturing was anything but certain.
He started his education as a physics major at Ripon College, but finished his degree at UW-Madison after plans to attend MIT hit a snag.
“There was a brochure at Ripon that said I could spend three years at Ripon and two years at MIT and graduate with a degree from MIT,” he says. “After a couple of years, I went to ask about the transition and the staff looked at me like they’d never heard of it.”
The program had faded away, but Kiekhaefer managed to cut a deal with Ripon and UW-Madison to create a similar program. He met with Mechanical Engineering Professors Gary Borman, Phil Myers and Otto Uyehara. Having spent summers working in his father’s engineering department, he tested out entry-level engineering courses and went to work designing snowmobile engines.
“The core of my racing-design life really began under a mentor from Germany who was really good with pulse-tuned, loop-charged, two-stroke engines. His background was in motorcycles,” Kiekhaefer says. “I was told to adapt one of Mercury’s outboards to their first snowmobile engine when I was still a summer intern. I’m not proud of it because it became what is known as the ‘lead sled,’ the worst and heaviest snowmobile Mercury ever built.
“Just about the time I was to graduate, my dad had a blow-up with the people who bought his company. He quit. The only area in two-strokes where he didn’t have a non-compete clause was snowmobile engines. So he started another company to make snowmobile engines.”
Fred’s second effort, when he had control of design decisions in his father’s new company, resulted in twin- and triple-free air-cooled race engines that went on to win three consecutive USSA world championships.
His father landed a big contract with Bolens (owned by FMC Corporation) and built a factory in anticipation of the new contract. But a new FMC chairman and board voted against continuing in snowmobiles.
“Basically, they told us to shove it. I was already working on a next-generation engine, an inverted V-twin, which turned out really cool, but we never put it into production,” Kiekhaefer says. “We almost merged with Bombardier, but the economy was going in the toilet, so that didn’t happen. And I looked around and thought, ‘This is just dying.’ So I went back to business school at Northwestern and got an MBA in marketing and operations.”
Kiekhaefer went to work for a medical imaging company and followed his girlfriend, (then Carol Stafford) to Boston. Stafford served her medical residency at Harvard. He met her while at UW. She was the only woman in his engineering class. Stafford was dating a medical student at the time, but Kiekhaefer says a professor helped him steal her away by telling her he had a boat.
Kiekhaefer was having a great time exploring a wide variety of interests while consulting for Price Waterhouse. The company sent him back to Chicago, where he had just settled in when his father died. At the funeral, he had a life-changing conversation: If you want to run your father’s company, he was told, move quickly. He did, and soon found himself up to his neck in alligators.
“I acquired assets from my Dad’s estate, but because of the way he set it up, it was as though he was reaching out and swatting at me from the grave,” Kiekhaefer says. “The estate trustees were not able to fund anything. Minority shareholders were imposed on me. I was told to go find the money and they would dictate the ownership. I surprised the hell out of them and came back a day later with a bank commitment. It was a big move, a little gutsy, and in hindsight it was probably naïve. There was absolutely no reason we survived the first year.”
In debt from buying the company, and with no cash on hand, Kiekhaefer took a hard look at the business. What he saw was not pretty: A contract machining house and low-volume manufacturer of very specialized marine racing components, including a limited range of stainless steel propellers and a high-performance throttle control that was not profitable. Kiekhaefer called the employees in and told them the company had 30 days to turn things around or he’d have to close the doors. He wanted their ideas by the end of the day and a plan by the end of the week.
The team cut out racing engines and quit making controls. A contract with Outboard Marine Corporation was behind schedule and over budget but his crew turned it around and produced gearcases of such high quality that OMC extended the contract until its own centers could match the quality. That extension gave Kiekhaefer time to develop a profitable line of marine accessories and gain a commitment to develop a racing stern drive. And to marry Carol.
But the turnaround threatened to stall when the company’s European distribution partner missed payments on the stern drive program and stopped returning calls. Kiekhaefer was forced to return to the bank for financing. He got the money, and brought Stern Drives by Kiekhaefer to the market. The product attracted enough customers, but Kiekhaefer knew that to build credibility, he needed a racing team to adopt it.
The foray into racing was anything but smooth. First, a European team improperly mated the drives to Lamborghini engines and had so much trouble with the engines that it could not showcase the drives. Then, a U.S. team mated the drive to a boat plug. It was 50 percent heavier than it should have been. A third team was having trouble getting competitive speed out of their boat. Kiekhaefer could not figure out why — until he overheard a racing mechanic on the phone.
“He said, ‘We just have to tell them what we did!’ The mechanics had used smaller turbos without telling anyone,” Kiekhaefer says. “So we caught them out and they used the bigger turbos to get the boat competitive. We took that boat from a slug to 1988 world champion.
The company’s success in sales and racing over seven years attracted Brunswick Corporation, which purchased Mercury Racing in 1990. Kiekhaefer stayed with the company to facilitate the merger and help to grow the new business. He has been there for 21 years.
In that time, the technology has changed dramatically. The first marine racing systems were based on engines built in Detroit in the 1940s and 50s. They evolved with aftermarket hot rod kits until teams were pulling 1,200 horsepower from an engine designed to produce 300.
“We did a pair that got close to 2,000 horsepower,” Kiekhaefer says. “They only lasted eight minutes. But that’s what people were doing. They run them, hung on and prayed a valve didn’t come through the side.”
Today, the engines are designed from the ground up for racing. They have become so powerful that racing organizations are imposing limits to reduce speed and lower the risk of crashes.
Understanding and advancing racing technology is an intense game “where cat and mouse meets Sherlock Holmes.” Crews watch each other closely to get a leg up on the competition — and each observation can spark a whole new area of inquiry and experimentation that moves the entire industry forward.
For example, when a team from the Middle East partnered with U.S. engineers who specialized in drag-racing transmissions, the result was a system that substantially lowered parasitic losses. “They walked all over everyone,” Kiekhaefer says. “This brought stern drive losses in line with surface drive losses. People started to say stern drives had too much drag, but it was about parasitic loss.”
Kiekhaefer’s team went back to the drawing board and with the help of consultants, produced a dry sump version of their own. It didn’t truly dry sump and it didn’t have a remote tank; instead, it used a pump on the nose of the prop shaft to spot oil gears. It reduced the gear-case oil volume to 20 percent and eliminated the need for a remote tank.
“Our joke was ‘How do you keep 20,000 pounds of canaries below the weight limit on 10,000 pound rig? You have to bang on the trailer to keep half of them flying.’ So that’s what we did with the oil, we kept half of it circulating and moving around inside the drive so the drive housing itself became the dry sump. As a result, we didn’t need a tank or the complexity of our competitor. It’s a dry-sump drive without a dry sump. It had way better drive efficiency, I was blown away because I had no idea we had that level of losses. We didn’t have the tools to do the analysis back when it was an independent company.”
Kiekhaefer says the trends are clear for offshore racing. The company’s quad-cam, four-valve platform was born of the realization that power is still increasing, and Detroit-iron-based engines will not keep up because automotive displacement continues to decrease and the valve train in pushrod engines is the weak link. He says the rocker arms fly off pushrods and valveheads.
“It’s all just radical, off-the-edge stuff, because when you’re running a race boat, it’s not like running a race car where you back off for the corners. It’s the most brutal environment. You’re just all out, all the time, pushing a condominium through the water.”
Carol and Fred Kiekhaefer have a home in Middleton. Carol Kiekhaefer, M.D. Ph.D. is a post-doc research scientist in the DeLuca lab at UW and just published in the December issue of Clinical and Experimental Immunology.