Story and photography by Steve Baur
It’s no secret that to be successful in racing, one must continually innovate to improve performance and is ultimately what is needed to turn on win lights. Sometimes innovation requires an out-of-the-box thinker to see things from a different perspective, and find new approaches to old problems. Armed with a background in circle-track racing, Mark Menscer has done just that, and his work with the high-powered, small-tire drag cars has them going down the track faster than ever before.
There’s no denying that small-tire drag racing has more than it’s share of challenges. With the ability to make as much horsepower as one could want, racers and crew chiefs test endlessly so they can get their cars to apply as much of it as possible to the relatively small 275 or 315mm tire required for various classes.
Track prep has been a major focus for these classes, and Mickey Thompson even introduced a new stickier tire to help racers, but there are limits to what a tire and a track can provide, especially if you’re not using them in the most effective way. More recently, power management has become the latest focus, as tuners turn to EFI and numerous traction and timing devices to control the application of power, however, Mark Menscer’s new approach to the shock absorber and suspension tuning has played an enormous part in the recent surge in performance of small-tire race cars everywhere.
In just a few short years, Menscer Motorsports founder, Mark Menscer, has become one of, if not the, most sought after shock and chassis tuners in the country. That sort of respect doesn’t just come overnight.
“My family has been involved in racing all my life,” Menscer told us. “I was part owner in a dirt-late-model and needed shock information that I couldn’t seem to get. The natural course of action for me was to take it apart and learn it all myself.” Around 2004-05, Menscer was fully involved with his own shock development, and as he was running a lot of Afco equipment in his own vehicle, he became an Afco dealer as well.
“I got involved with Afco’s re-valving program and went to Indiana for training. I started working on other circle-track cars and did a lot of crew-chiefing,” Menscer explained. By 2007, the North Carolina native had a full-time shop running, and performed all manner of bodywork, chassis work, repairs, and updating. Having established a good relationship with the staff at Afco Performance Group, Menscer got an invite from Afco’s Drag Racing Product Manager, Eric Saffell to attend a drag race.
“We went to the NMCA race Indy in 2011. Eric was looking for a guy that would do this stuff,” Menscer recalled. “Afco had a huge network of people that tuned shocks, but they didn’t seem to be interested in drag racing. Part of my motivation also, was that I had a young business that I was trying to get off the ground; re-skinning and rebuilding cars is a lot of work for a two-man crew and not that profitable—making more money in shocks seemed like a great idea to me.” Menscer incorporated in 2007 and went full speed ahead. Gradually over 18 months between ‘08 and ‘09, his business turned to all shock development. “It took a couple of years before I was really able to make a living with the shocks,” he told us.
Seeing that there was a need for his services, as well as a business opportunity in the drag racing market, Menscer needed to wrap his brain around the elements of drag racing as they applied to shock and suspension tuning.
“My initial drag racing application came from a couple of radial-tire racers,” Menscer recalled. “I had to get dirty and help change transmissions, and I started building relationships in the industry. I was extremely lucky to have two of the big names in outlaw drag radial willing to take a chance on me—I was an unknown commodity at the time.” Those racers Menscer spoke of were Kevin Fiscus, who now runs Pro Mod, and Stevie “Fast” Jackson, who currently runs in Radial vs. the World and Pro Nitrous classes.
“I made some educated guesses at first,” Menscer recalled. “I didn’t really know what the theory was behind drag racing four-links; I was familiar with how they work in circle-track cars, but applying what I knew to a drag application given the tires they were using was trial and error. Kevin spent a lot of time and money doing crazy things so we could learn how to make radial tires faster. He supported me immensely and helped me grow my business.
Though power management is always present in any type of automobile racing, the approach was slightly different between what Menscer new from his background in circle-track racing and what he found in drag racing.
“Our power management was more or less non-existent in circle-track racing,” Menscer told us. “All of our power management took place in the driver’s feet and hands—it was always a battle to match the chassis to the track conditions. In drag racing, we’re trying to do the same thing, but we have lots of technical advantages that people can get in a rut with.” What Menscer is talking about are the various electronic aids for traction, timing, boost, and nitrous control that many have turned to in order to go faster.
“Guys didn’t understand their four-link and weight transfer at the time. Shocks have become a big part of the conversation now—they’ve always been a conversation in the upper echelons of racing like Pro Stock. It’s extremely healthy for the sport to have it in the lower categories now.” Despite Menscer’s efforts and advances in this area, he himself has had to learn the technological side of power management so that he can better serve his customers.
“I can’t tune a race car, but I’ve had to learn to understand the cars and make sense of a customer’s data. Sometimes you can look at the data and find things wrong with the power delivery rather than the chassis.” Menscer also explained that you still have to find how much power the racetrack will take, you have to build a tuneup that you think is close to what the track can handle, and then you can prepare the chassis to accept that much power. “It sounds very simple, but there are a whole lot of ifs and maybes.”
Keep in mind that this sort of advanced analysis and vehicle tuning doesn’t just happen once a weekend or even once a day at the track. Most extremely competitive teams are making chassis adjustments every round; the top teams take advantage of everything they can do to get the power to the racetrack.
As word of Menscer’s success with a number of high-profile Radial Wars and Outlaw has spread, there have been many racers with far less horsepower that are turning to Menscer for advice and products in hopes of improving performance in their racing program.
“We’ve been involved in NMRA Coyote Stock and NMCA NA 10.5, Ultra Street, and some local classes,” Menscer told us. “What we found is when you take horsepower out of the situation, you have to focus more on the chassis—there is no power adder, or there may be limits on its use to where you can’t add performance in the back half. You have to focus on the early part of the run as much as you can. It’s kind of painful for those guys in a way, they end up in a situation having to spend money on chassis components rather than adding horsepower.” Sure buying suspension parts may not be as fun, but it still translates to quicker elapsed times and that can put you in the winner’s circle.
Having experience on a wide range of vehicles and applications at this point, one thing Menscer made clear is that there are no hard and fast rules for what combination a particular car needs.
“A race car reacts to torque and every combination needs a shock that will accommodate the torque and power level to get the optimum performance out of the suspension system. Even with cars in their own class, different engine combinations need something different.” This line of thinking has also proven that more expensive options aren’t always better, especially when it comes to choosing canister shocks over a regular set of double adjustable ones.
“That’s a big gray area. I’ve struggled with that to really define the lines; I’ve had four-second cars that needed a twin-tube to work, and cars with far less power that need a canister shock,” Menscer explained.
Menscer Motorsports main forte is in its custom-tuned shocks, which are run on a shock dyno to verify they are working as intended.
“We dyno everything we build. It’s an interpretive science or art if you will. You’re testing the shock at different shaft velocities on the dyno. Every kind of suspension configuration needs a different shock valving. You can take a four-link car on a big tire and the valving for that versus a car that races on a radial tire are very different. You’re ultimately managing the tire in a drag racing application, though.”
That last piece of information has become the biggest challenge for Menscer and his staff.
“In the small-tire stuff, we have customers that racer on a 275 radial one weekend and then on a slick the next weekend, “Menscer said. “We try to create a valving in the shocks that will work with both of those, as well as a tuning menu for them to go off of. A lot of that has to do with racing being regionally influenced. Parts of the country may not have a lot of racing and the racers have to travel to different places and run different classes. We try to help them make the transition from one tire to another and be competitive. The really, really fast guys focus on one thing and do it really well.”
Making the same set of shocks work with both bias-ply slicks and radials presents a formidable challenge, even for the most dedicated shock tuner.
“The radials dead hook and run no wheel speed at the hit; that is the challenge of the radial tire,” Menscer explained. “The slick has to have some wheel speed, otherwise it grabs the race track, becomes deformed, and you go into tire shake.”
Balancing track testing with product development at the Menscer Motorsports headquarters in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is also a challenge, especially when one considers that Menscer is hitting 20-25 events a year.
“It seems like the events we go to are larger events and it’s a lot of time away from the shop. We do full support at about 10 events per year where we bring the service truck and build and re-valve shocks on site. Some events I’ve been hired to be with a particular race team for that event.”
The fairly aggressive event schedule combined with an increasing demand for his products is a tall order for Menscer, as he only has one other full-time employee aside from himself.
“Craig Sheffield would come in part time and help me when he wasn’t working at his Dad’s auto repair shop,” said Menscer of the guy holding down the fort when he’s away. We met through circle track racing; I had helped him and his father with their dirt-late-model program. We also have a couple of floaters that come in and out that help us use some of our engineering assets. My wife, Ally, and Craig’s wife, (??) help out on the paperwork end. We’ve resisted the urge to allow it to grow too fast and big.”
With over a decade of shock and suspension tuning in the books, Menscer Motorsports now concentrates 100 percent on shock development. Most of the company’s focus is on circle track and drag racing, but Menscer pointed out that they do shocks for all sorts of vehicles.
“We try not to get too hung up on one market place. It’s always interesting to see what’s new and you are always learning. You don’t want to deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn something.” That said, the drag racing market keeps him plenty busy and plenty challenged from a creativity perspective. His most recent project is a four-way-adjustable shock that is set to debut soon, and the line to buy them will likely be longer than any Black Friday rush.
“We’re in this crazy segment of the market where everyone is going faster every week. When you think you know what you are doing, a racecar will step up and kick you in the nuts. You have to be willing to criticize your program if you really want to go fast. We come in Monday morning expecting to ball up three or four sheets of paper trying to figure something new out.”
Figuring something new out is what Menscer is extremely good at, however, and that is partially why racers from coast to coast and beyond are clamoring for his help.
“What Mark has done with radial racing and what he is doing with Pro Mods; he’s brought it to a whole different level,” noted Jason Rueckert, VP Racing Fuels Midwest Regional Manager and Radial Wars competitor. “I was one of the first three cars he worked on. Mark doesn’t only know the shock stuff, he knows suspension and his theory is so far above us common racers. He’s never going to be content to sit back and be happy—he’s always innovating. We’d still be light years behind if he wasn’t involved.”
Key to the Menscer’s success is his driving urge to innovate. Not just another wrench turner done good, Menscer’s creative engine has been running since day one.
“I had great parents. They never discouraged me from doing anything. They just said don’t get killed or put yourself in danger, but do what you want to do. I don’t think they ever conformed to social standards about what your kids should do. It was about being productive happy children.”
Whether it’s regarding Menscer’s innovations in shock theory or the myriad of other interests you can read about in the included side bar, being productive is an understatement for this relatively quiet and humble, 37-year-old from North Carolina. “It’s hard to beat the industry I’m in now. It challenges my creativity. It’s always changing and there is always a need for better faster parts.”
The Mark Menscer You Might Not Know
As fascinating as it is to discuss shock and suspension theory with someone as knowledgeable in the subject as Menscer is, we also realized throughout the interview that his interests go far beyond any racetrack, and that his knowledge on those topics are just as impressive if not more so. Here are some things you might not know:
• The son of a small trucking company owner and literature teacher, Mark was inspired by his father’s guitar playing and started playing guitar at the age of six. His remarkable talent with his Fender SRV guitar had him working as a traveling musician straight out of high school. “We opened up for B.B. King and Patti Labelle, and I also worked as a studio musician for a while.” Radial-tire racer and friend, Jason Rueckert, keeps a pair of acoustic guitars in his race trailer so they can “jam together during rain delays, make up songs, and have a good time.”
• Aside from being a shock builder, Menscer lives on a small 100-acre farm where he raises his prized Hereford beef cattle. “They’re super gentle, and are like pets. I have a 2,000lb bull that lies down and lets you scratch him behind the ears.
• Menscer’s father owned a feed store and as a result, Mark founded an exotic animal rescue business. After staring down an adult male lion to claim a plastic bag that had become a toy, Mark survived being charged and swatted at—and he walked away with the bag.
• With a deep love of Africa, Mark went on a field trip there to document the Wildebeest migration. Having started his own commercial photography business at the time with a friend, Mark picked up some other jobs while there that landed him in the custody of the Somali authorities. “We had a brush up with a road-block and some people with some guns that wanted to detain us for a while. I didn’t really have the authority to be where I was. We were being nosy. It could have ended badly.”
• Mark’s interests have led him to dabble in furniture construction and other wood working, as well as large-scale, stained glass windows. He is also deeply interested in astronomy and astrophotography, often spending hours at night taking pictures of deep sky objects such as other galaxies and supernova remnants.
• Self-admittedly, Mark can’t drive very well and doesn’t get behind the wheel of anything remotely fast. “I can’t drive a hot nail in a snow bank. That’s why I don’t race. You couldn’t tie me in one of those racecars. I don’t even like to drive go-karts. I do well to drive myself to the track. I have a very healthy respect of things that go fast; I’m mostly afraid of them. “