Feature: Mike Kloeber

By Jim Luikens

Mike Kloeber, like many of his contemporaries, grew up around racing. His older brother held 11 AHRA National Records at various times during an illustrious racing career. His father and another brother raced as well. This is the story of Mike Kloeber who was the only person in his kindergarten class that knew all of the words to the national anthem because of the years he had already spent at race tracks.

By the time he was 12 years old Mike knew what he wanted to do with his life, he wanted to become a race car driver. After working on the crews of Jeb Allen and Gary Beck during his teens he signed on as a cleanup guy for the Super Shops Funny Car, one of the premier cars and teams in the sport at that time. Then just nineteen, he was paid the princely sum of $150.00 a week during the season for his efforts.

But that was just during the season. In those days there really was an off season and Mike kept a machine shop job to see him through until it was time to go racing again the next year. From the Super Shops team he moved on to the legendary Candies and Hughes team where he serviced the clutch and did bottom-end maintenance at the track as well as being their truck driver.

A stop at Jerry Ruth’s team was next before moving on to the Tom McEwen team where he was number two behind crew chief Bill Schultz. The next few years were round-robin for him, and quite typical of the way the sport worked in those days, as he went back to Jerry Ruth’s in 1984. He followed Bill Schultz to Dale Pulde’s in 1985 and headed back again to McEwen’s with Schultz in 1986.

At the end of 1986 Mike’s merry-go-round career stopped for a while when Don “the Snake” Prudhomme hired Mike away from the McEwen team to be his crew chief starting with the 1987 season. This was Mike’s first time at the number one position and he stayed with the Snake’s team until the 1990 season. Mike then chose to make a highly unusual decision and stepped back from racing for a bit.

The Snake was at the top of his (driving) game and no other team was willing to help Prudhomme’s team when it was already one of the best teams on the circuit. Mike knew what he didn’t know and he also knew that drag racing tuning was evolving to a new, higher level. Since no one was willing to answer his questions he was going to have to get a whole lot smarter on his own if he was going to stay in the sport.

He chose to go back to school to study aeronautical engineering. He reasoned that specializing in aircraft maintenance would be a good engineering path because he would learn from the inside out and, literally, the ground up. His schooling went smoothly for two years and then, as it always does in racing, happenstance brought him back to the drag strip. Rusty Restino, Len Seroka and J. E. Kristek combined in a perfect-storm sort of way, and faster than you can say drag racing Mike found himself helping prepare Len Seroka’s car for the NHRA Denver event.

Despite having only two weeks until race day Mike was able to improve the car enough to qualify but not qualify very well. Even with these limited results he realized that this was where he needed to be. He decided he had to go racing again and immediately quit school. Contacting old friend Bob Brooks, he learned of an opening with the Jim Epler team, which had recently released Lance Larsen.

Locking himself in a garage he set about changing everything on the Epler funny car. Doing most of the work himself, he was justifiably proud when the team won Pomona to start the next season. Things continued well for the team until Jim ran out of sponsorship money and was forced to park the race car. Mike then freelance tuned for the next year before going to work first for Gary Clapshaw and then the Tommy Johnson, Jr. team.

From there he traveled to the Sequent Computer/Royal Purple/Rug Doctor team of teenage racing sensation Christen Powell where he stayed for two years. This was followed by another two year freelance period when Team Scandia folded. At that time the NHRA ran an event called the Winston Invitational that was open to previous NHRA event winners. Because of this Christen Powell was automatically seeded into the show and Mike suggested to Casey Powell, her father, that they put together an entry since Christen was guaranteed a starting position if she showed up.

Unfortunately, Mike never made it to the Bristol event when a bleeding ulcer intervened. Meanwhile the Powell team was having as terrible a weekend without him as he was having back in Baltimore. However, later that same year his current team owner, Peter Lehman, went racing and the rest, as they say, is history. Mike has been responsible for more than 20 wins and three championships during his tenure at Lehman Racing.

As the crew chief and team leader Mike always tries to teach reverence for the sport of racing to his new charges. This starts by having every new recruit taste nitromethane so that they know what it is like on a first hand basis. Ironically Lance Larsen, yes the same Lance Larsen that he followed at Jim Epler’s, has joined the Lehman team for the 2004 season as his assistant.

The addition of Lance is designed to pay several benefits. The chief benefit is to take some of the work load off of team driver Clay Millican, who houses the car near his home in Tennessee between races and works on the car with the crew every day. In addition to freeing up some time for Clay this should also allow Mike to spend more time working with performance parts manufacturers on new components.

Mike is quick to acknowledge his long term relationship with parts manufacturer Pete Jackson. Pete is a certified rocket scientist in Mike’s eyes and he enjoys exchanging mental gymnastics with Pete. Although nearly every moment of his time is spent thinking about the Lehman team, Mike is a devout Formula 1 fan who faithfully roots for the Ferrari team through their lean times as well as their dominant position in the sport today.

It only took Mike four months with the Super Shops team to extinguish his driving aspirations. Fortunately he found his true calling turning wrenches and developing race strategy. With 25 years of experience, a solid work ethic and a stable employer like Peter Lehman the future is very bright for Mike Kloeber.