Always since his youth, when he was growing up in New Zealand, Max Crawford wanted to build racecars. And he’s spent his life doing just that, but not quite as he imagined it as a youngster. Today you can find Crawford still working with his sweetheart and pursuing the passion of those early days.
Max and Jan Crawford, alongside daughters Trudie Capece and Catherine Wallace, and an extended family of employees, pour their collective efforts into making Crawford & Crawford Composites, Inc. a business that’s unique in more ways than one. Crawford Composites’ primary focus is the utilization of aerospace technology and materials to manufacture components for the auto racing industry. The operation is located just off N.C. 16 in Denver, in the heart of the rapidly developing northeast corner of Lincoln County.
Road racing is where the Crawfords got started and they’re still involved with cars that run in 24-hour events at Daytona and Le Mans. But in recent years, they’ve been positioning themselves for more involvement with NASCAR, the dominant form of racing in this region.
“NASCAR is the epitome of stability,” says Jan Crawford. “They’ve built a tremendous machine, and encompassed the whole series on a business relationship. Everybody associated with it can carry out the business plan. That signals stability, longevity. The bottom line is there has to be a return on investment. Some of the other series do not have that stability.”
In the mid- and late 1990s, the Crawfords handled wind tunnel model construction of Ford’s Thunderbird and Taurus. Most recently they’ve designed and created the carbon fiber wing for the rear deck of NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow in the NEXTEL Cup series, plus the end plates for those wings.
All along the way, the Crawfords have kept the family involved. Each family member contributes something to their projects that bears a personal trademark.
Max Crawford’s career in the auto industry began in 1966 in his homeland of New Zealand as an apprenticed mechanic. During the five year apprenticeship and his subsequent business with his wife Janice, Max built and raced a variety of cars in the New Zealand Open Saloon Car Association racing series. Late in 1979 Max accepted an offer to join Dick Barbour Racing, a San Francisco-based team competing with Porsche 935s in the American International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) series and the Group C World Endurance Championship.
Despite clinching the 1980 IMSA championship, Dick Barbour Racing was disbanded and Max accepted a position as crew chief with John Fitzpatrick Racing in San Diego. From 1981 until 1985, John Fitzpatrick Racing successfully campaigned a Porsche multiple car team in IMSA in America, and the worldwide Group C, gaining multiple victories and top five finishes.
During these years Max was given the opportunity to construct the Porsche K-4, which had an outstanding record in 1982 and 1983, including back to back victories at Riverside. With the advent and purchase of the factory-built Porsche 962s, Max began the development and application of carbon fiber and composite technology to gain a necessary advantage. By combining this technology and aerodynamic packaging, significant gains brought the first Porsche Can-am victory in 10 years at Elkhart Lake, Group C victory at Brands Hatch, and third place at Le Mans in 1984.
With the closing of John Fitzpatrick Racing, Max moved to North Carolina in 1987 as team manager of Bruce Jenner Racing and brought Porsche their first Trans-am win. At the close of the season Max elected to pursue his development of the composite technology and his interest in aerodynamics beginning a sole proprietorship which developed into the incorporation of Crawford & Crawford Composites, Inc., in 1996.
In the last 11 years Max has been actively involved in wind tunnel model development projects, among the more recent the Ford Taurus Winston Cup program. In 1989, he developed the composite bodywork for the GTO Mazda and in 1990, constructed the first American-made fully composite car for Mazda of America, the RX7-92P GTP car.
Crawford Composites has continued the construction of autoclaved composite chassis, lately completing eight chassis for the Riley & Scott IRL program in 1998. The company supplies parts and services to competitors in NASCAR (Winston Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck Series), CART, IRL, Formula Atlantic, USRRC, Professional Sports Car (WSC, GT1, GT2, GT3), NHRA, Champ Car and SCCA.
Max resumed an active association with sports car racing in 1995 when he returned as crew chief for selected races, this time for long time customer, Dyson Racing Team. Max has enjoyed several victories with the team, the highlights being the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winner in 1997 and 1999.
The Car of Tomorrow
The Crawfords will tell you that Max “runs the shop” and Jan “keeps the books straight,” but it’s really more sophisticated than that. They estimate they’ve spent in excess of $15 million in assembling the technology that allows them to bring their products from the drawing board to the racetrack in weeks instead of months.
Take, for example, the case of the wings on NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, which is one of the Crawford projects. The raw carbon composite comes in rolls. It’s stored in a large freezer, just below zero. Once a Crawford designer comes up with an outline, a giant digitized and computerized cutting table comes into play.
“It cuts in just 60 seconds what took us forever,” Max comments with pride. “We can do in seven days what in the old days would take us two months.” Then the material is heated and pressurized onto a molded form, which is in turn ground, finished and completed.
“We’re a little different, a little harsh here,” Max Crawford says. “So many of these young designers set up their computer and they’re ready to design the world. With us they have to design and make their own part. And, they have to put it in the scrap bin if they don’t get it right, and until they get it right.”
Head designer Andy Scriven is an Englishman who’s been in America 12 years. He started as chief designer with the Crawfords in 1999.
“I had to learn to run the milling machine, and I didn’t even know how to turn it on,” he said, remembering. “The good thing is, when you have to go out and make the part yourself, you consider the way you approach the job; you want to make it easier on yourself while still doing the things you want to do from a design standpoint. It also makes you aware of the cost of the item,” he adds. “You can design a $10,000 bracket that’s unfortunately supposed to cost $10.
Racing is very selective. At the end of the day people will buy the car that’s winning. If it doesn’t win, people won’t buy it. It’s hard to design a car to be fastest, but on a budget. That’s the trick. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it,” smiles Scriven with hard-earned experience.
The Car of Tomorrow might appear to be simple, Scriven says, but don't be fooled. Even the endplates are more complicated than you'd imagine.
“We had to devise a way to A, make them; B, make lots of them; and C, make them at a price for NASCAR,” Scriven explains. “It took quite a bit of work to satisfy those requirements.
“Each job gets the same amount of care and attention. Sometimes you get as much satisfaction out of a small part that’s well designed and well manufactured as you do out of a whole car,” Scriven points out.
Testing for many of Crawford Composite’s parts is done in wind tunnels like the one belonging to Penske Technology Group in Mooresville and General Motors in Detroit. Testing on the track frequently means Virginia International Speedway in Danville, Va.
As for the wings on the Car of Tomorrow, Jan Crawford says the practice wings are supplied directly to the various NASCAR teams that run the NEXTEL Cup series, and those teams test individually.
Family Work Ethic
Even the most advanced technology cannot take the place of some old-fashioned work ethic. The Crawfords family’s North Carolina experience started with 5,400 square feet in nearby Grassy Creek. The house and the shop were all one structure then.
“We worked 80-plus, sometimes 100 hours a week,” Jan and Max recall.
“When we started out it was not uncommon to work right through 12, 14, 16, 18 hours,” Max says. With this type of leadership, Crawford Composite’s 40 employees know what to expect when it comes time to make an all-out push to meet a production deadline.
Most of the core group that started out in Grassy Creek is still part of the team in Denver. Composite production manager Toby McCall began his training at the Grassy Creek facility 17 years ago.
Due in large part to his early training in an apprenticeship, Max has developed a company apprenticeship program in which a high school student can learn and earn his or her way to full-time employment.
J.C. Stephens from Fred T. Foard was the first graduate of their program and is currently working part-time while pursuing an engineering degree at N.C. State. Kory Jarrett is another of that group and is working as a fabricator. Nick Beaver from Catawba County graduated from Bandys High School and is studying for a two-year associate degree in industrial engineering at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory.
Beaver says he wants to own his own business someday. “I’ve got my foot in the door, and I’ve got a leg up on the competition, I’ll say that,” he says.
“Not many colleges can educate people as well as this program does. It’s been an eye-opener as far as how challenging some of the jobs can be, and how the racing industry works and what all goes on behind the scenes,” Beaver continues.
A Family That Works Together…
Daughters Trudie Capece and Catherine Wallace grew up in the business, and each plays a role in what goes on at the Denver complex.
Trudie Capece, 31, is the general manager of Howard Motorsports LLC, a car racing entity of the Crawford Group. Howard Motorsports competes in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series in their Pontiac Crawford DP03 cars. Husband Peter Capece, a Denver attorney, is a fly-in race crew member for the Howard Team.
Catherine Wallace, 29, is an aerodynamicist and test engineer for Crawford Race Cars, a division that builds racing machines for the likes of the 24-hour events at Le Mans and Daytona. She’s married to sports car driver, Andy Wallace, an Englishman.
Having business and family life intertwined doesn’t appear to bother this group.
“We have lots of meetings,” Max says with a little smile. “It’s not an issue for us. We all have very, very strong personalities.”
While both daughters were in college, there were some informal reviews done at the end of the summer, and these provided what Jan Crawford described as some of the most learning and telling moments.
Mom and Dad, of course, came from an era when input from the children wasn’t sought and backtalk wasn’t tolerated. But this “review dialogue” meant everyone was able to participate without fear of reprisal.
“If it’s your family, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, the hell with it,’” Trudie says. “You have to work it out. We have a very supportive environment.”
Just like what happens out on the race track, working in the motorsports industry has alternating episodes of triumph and frustration, with no guarantees as to the final outcome.
“Persistence is the key,” says Trudie. “You can’t give up. You have to keep pushing forward. In this business it can be feast or famine. So what you have to do is have the foresight to take in projects that get you through the famine. That way, when the feast comes, you can pursue what’s in your dreams.”
Even though Jan and Max Crawford are closer to 60 than to 50, even though they’ll celebrate a 35th wedding anniversary next year, it appears they aren’t about to even flirt with retirement.
“Obviously we’re not done growing,” Max says. “We’ve got some plans of what we’d like to do in the future.” Just what those might be, he’s not quite ready to lay out on the drawing board.
“I don’t see Max ever stopping,” says Jan. “On his list of things to do, as fast as he crosses one off, he sticks one on the bottom of the list. He’s just never stopped.”