It was somewhere between the time that Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 and his son won the first of his seven championships that a couple West Coast motorcycle enthusiasts found a secret to more power.
Back in the 1960s Ken Johnson and Norm MacDonald were selling motorcycle parts from a shop in Riverside, California, and sponsoring a “factory” race team to promote their business.
In the never-ending search to improve performance, the businessmen designed a unique air filter that used treated cotton that could be washed, dried, re-treated and used over and over again.
It was called the K&N filter, named for the partners and their business.
Today the familiar script logo appears on every car that races in the East and West divisions of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, considered the premier training ground for drivers and crews looking to make it to one of NASCAR's three national series. Last year, Dylan Kwasniewski became the youngest NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champion at 17, while counterpart Kyle Larson won the East at 20.
Larson will take over the No. 42 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next year, and joins national series drivers like Austin and Ty Dillon, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ryan Blaney who have all recorded their first NASCAR wins in the K&N Pro Series.
The growth of NASCAR and K&N have similar story lines. Both are family-owned enterprises that began with an entrepreneur’s vision, which they nurtured to international prominence.
NASCAR is the nation’s best-known auto racing sanctioning body, which extends to Mexico and Europe. K&N grew to become the industry leader in manufacturing and marketing of its filters, and today—from a huge factory complex in Riverside and additional factories in England and the Netherlands—turns out a product line of more than 5000 items.
The two companies signed a seven-year contract for entitlement sponsorship of NASCAR’s top developmental series four years ago.
“It’s been a great experience for us,” said Tony Yorkman, head of sports marketing for K&N. “Between the drivers and our association with NASCAR, it has been about a perfect fit.”
The company has been involved in a number of racing series, but said the NASCAR effort has paid dividends far beyond their expectations.
“It is the one series where everyone, the organization, the teams and the drivers, have become enthusiastic supporters of the brand.”
K&N joined NASCAR about the same time that Jeff Nuckles added the K&N Pro Series East to the racing calendar at Columbus Motor Speedway.
Nuckles knows a bit about how to promote racing. The Ohio speedway’s office wall is decorated with plaques honoring the family as regional promoter of the year, along with one recognizing him as the nation’s top racing promoter in 2010. He is a third-generation operator at the family-owned track, begun in 1946 by his grandfather. A fourth generation is already involved at the oval, helping out at the bigger race events.
“The K&N name has been a great addition to the series,” Nuckles said. “We get signs, banners, merchandise and tickets to local vendors.”
The Ohio race promoter said having a national brand gives the series something special that helps attract race fans who may not show up for the local show.
“If you look at the pure racing events we hold, the K&N race is among the top,” he said.
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series had two very different beginnings. The West originated in 1954 as the Pacific Coast Late Model Series and later became the NASCAR Winston West Series. They were the same cars that ran in the Cup at the time and participated in Cup events when the series went west to tracks like Riverside in California and Phoenix. The East began in 1987 as the NASCAR Busch North Series and was simarly paired with the NASCAR Nationwide (then Busch Series) when it went north.
As the series evolved, the first major step came in 2003 when the two series were unified under one rulebook. This was a step in a broader strategic plan that included an emphasis on become a developing ground for new talent through a lower age limit for drivers and crews, common cost-effective rules, and cost-saving innovations such as the SPEC engine and composite bodies.
Camping World came aboard in 2008 and sponsored both of the series. When Camping World moved to the NASCAR Truck Series, K&N was a natural fit.
"One major goal was to create the premier developmental series as a stepping stone to our national series," said George Silbermann, NASCAR vice president for touring & weekly series. "The series provides an ability for racers on both east and west coasts an opportunity to compete, provides consistent and national branding, and a platform to showcase NASCAR's stars of tomorrow.
"From the entitlement sponsor standpoint as well as the broadcast standpoint, having an east and west coast series under one umbrella gives entitlement sponsor a true national footprint."
K&N's commitment provided NASCAR with a long-term partner, and K&N has built a strong short-track program. They've developed product programs for both tracks and teams, supported the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series with billboard and signage; signed on as one of the first current NASCAR partners to be part of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series contingency programs; and K&N's production air filters are reusable, supporting NASCAR's Green initiatives.
In addition to their entitlement sponsorship, K&N is an official status partner and contingency sponsor.
"While NASCAR is K&N's largest commitment, they have shown strong support to motorsports as a whole, demonstrating their true passion for the industry," said Bob Duvall, NASCAR senior director of business development.
K&N’s role with the series is one that extends beyond that of many sponsors.
“They want to be sure everyone has everything they need,” said Bill McAnally, a team owner who also promotes races in the series. “I don’t think they’ve ever not been receptive to a request for something if it meant what I want to do also promotes their products.”
Gene Price, whose drivers have won the past two K&N West championships, said the company makes a great partner.
“They give us everything we’ve ever needed,” said Price, referring to products for the teams’ trucks and other rigs. “We’ve never asked them for something that they have not delivered.”
K&N’s Yorkman said the company’s involvement with teams has allowed the manufacturer to develop and then field test new products before they hit the market.
“These guys all run big rigs down the road, and the teams really take great care of their equipment, so we provide them filters and then get them back after they have been used, in order to see how they have performed,” he said. “It’s been a great test lab for us.”
Price said the agreement has been good for both his racing operation and K&N.
“While they have been very supportive of us, we’ve also worked with them,” Price said. “We’ve turned over our shop to them for photo shoots and I’ve hauled our cars to be on display for them at shows and other racetracks. The relationship has become more than sponsorship. It has become a friendship.”
Rick Gdovic, who fields a team in the K&N Pro Series East feels much the same as Price about how teams and sponsors can work together.
“K&N helps us, and we need to help them,” he said. “We need to show them why they should come back year after year. It is the kind of effort that self feeds.”
“They are an important part of what we are trying to do. Given the cost of fielding a car for the entire season, having a high profile national sponsor is just so important to what we are doing.”
The filter company doesn’t limit its involvement in the series to just drivers and race teams.
Dodson is NASCAR Team Relations Director for the NASCAR Technical Institute, a part of Universal Technical Institute.
The school helps train young mechanics and engineers for careers in NASCAR.
“One of the things we do is build engines for teams in the K&N East series,” he explained. The students have had an impressive record of success.
Thirty percent of the races in the series are won with student built engines, Dodson said. The winning engines last year powered Kyle Larson to the NASCAR K&N Pro-Series East Championship.
“The K&N guys were at the track and we began talking about our program,” Dodson said. “We invited them to come by the school and take a look at what we do.
“Once they got a good look at the program, they decided they wanted to become part of it,” he said.
Beginning this year, K&N will be providing filters for all the student-built engines and all the other vehicles used in the program.
“Probably the biggest contribution will be their technical expertise,” Dodson said. “The company is constantly working on improving airflow and fuel management for better mileage. They will be working with our instructional staff and what they learn will be passed on to our students. It’s a great addition to our program.”
Developing new talent—either holding a wrench or holding a steering wheel—is an essential part of the K&N series.
Harry Scott, co-owner of Turner Scott Motorsports, said his team looks at the K&N series as the ideal finishing school for young drivers and team members.
The Charlotte-based racing operation already fielded successful teams in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series when it decided last year to also compete in the K&N East program.
“We really saw the need to be able to help develop that rich pool of young talent that we weren’t getting exposed to in the other series,” he said. “We knew there was a lot of really good drivers out there, and we wanted to become part of their success.”
So far, they’ve been pleased with the results. The partners signed 2012 K&N Pro West champion Kwasniewski to lead the Turner Scott assault on an East coast title, and Kwasniewski has responded by leading the championship battle.
“The K&N brand helps us market the teams to sponsors,” Scott said. “What we would like to be able to do is sign up those sponsors for young drivers, and then have them build up a family relationship and follow them as the drivers move up to the bigger series.”
Yorkman said K&N became involved in the NASCAR Pro Series because it was looking for a vehicle to expose its products to fans of stock car racing, and said the success of K&N’s involvement has led the company to consider expanding its involvement into other NASCAR venues.
He said it is hard to quantify the return on the company’s investment.
“We look at things like website traffic, random feedback and the simple ‘feel good’ response K&N gets from its exposure.
“One of the things we’ve noticed is the number of contacts we get from people who think it’s a K&N series rather than a NASCAR series. We’ll get emails complaining about drivers or incidents on the track. Obviously, they recognize our brand as being very involved in the sport," Yorkman said. “People are very passionate about the racing. For us, that’s a great feeling to be part of.”