LOUDON, N.H., September 20, 2001 - Some race cars are known by their numbers - 43, 24 and 3, for example - while others are known for their primary sponsor, like the Coors Light Dodge, the Caterpillar Dodge or the Dodge Dealers Intrepid R/T. One of the earliest and best-known examples in the second category was the K&K Insurance Dodge.
>From 1966 through the early 1970s, the K&K Dodge was driven by several of the sport's best, including Bobby Unser, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett and Dave Marcis. The car had its greatest success with the late Bobby Isaac, but throughout its run the car benefited greatly from the stewardship of crew chief Harry Hyde and sponsor Nord Krauskopf, both also now deceased.
A formidable competitor, the K&K Dodge won more than 40 NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup races, set 28 land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and set a new record for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Most important from a sponsorship standpoint, the race car accomplished its mission of helping K&K Insurance become the leading insurer in motorsports. According to Larry Kattman, a long-time K&K financial advisor and Krauskopf friend, it all started when Krauskopf returned home to Fort Wayne, Ind., having seen stock car racing in the South after World War II.
"Mr. Krauskopf and some friends checked out a local track in Fort Wayne that handled sprint cars," said Kattman. "After scouting out the idea, they sponsored the first stock car race in the Midwest in 1948." Getting a full racing grid was a problem in the early years, so they invited drivers to bring their cars in off the street. "Mr. Krauskopf and his wife both drove stock cars in the late 1940s and early 1950s," continued Kattman. "He drove stock cars around the Midwest and she participated in the powder puff derbies.
"Motorsports insurance was hard to come by in those days," continued Kattman. "For tracks, insurance was very expensive, and for race car drivers it was almost impossible to get. So Mr. K came up with the idea of a benevolent fund." A pit fee was charged for each race and a fund was built up to between $20,000 to 25,000. Success came quickly and the new group began sanctioning races at other tracks in the local area. However, disaster struck in the form of a major track accident and the fund was wiped out over a period of two weeks.
"Mr. K thought his idea of spreading the coverage over many tracks, making it an insurable risk, could be a worthwhile business venture," said Kattman. "By adopting stringent safety rules - blockhouse for the starter, heavy wire mesh in front of the grandstands, heavy guard rails around the outside and inside of the track, for example - and having the tracks inspected each year to assure the safety devices were in place, Mr. K was able to sell the idea for an insurance package to the Interstate Insurance Co. His group sold small insurance packages beginning in 1952."
Krauskopf founded a corporation with the mission and focus on the racing. The business would capitalize on Krauskopf's racing knowledge and experience, not only as a promoter, but also as a participant. He understood the risks and implemented safety precautions so the business could be an insurable risk.
Krauskopf also saw the marketing potential in stock car racing and decided to use that potential to build the business. Having one of the top cars in NASCAR with K&K Insurance on the car, he thought, would be the best way to advertise the agency. Every track in the U.S. had films of the major races and specifically the Daytona 500. With K&K's car in the race and the logo on the side, every track owner would have to take notice.
Krauskopf and K&K Insurance started sponsoring a car in the NASCAR Grand National Division in 1966. To make sure it was noticeable, Krauskopf tipped the cameraman across from the pits to show his Dodge every time it pitted. The sponsorship idea was an instant success as the business expanded over three times in the first couple years. Not only was it a good business decision, it allowed Krauskopf to be involved in something he loved, at the highest level of competition.
Because many races in the early days took place at fairgrounds, the company was soon asked to insure state and county fairs, as well as other special events. That took the business into other sports and entertainment events and venues, including Super Bowls and college bowl games. The momentum established in the early days of NASCAR continues today. K&K insurance is now the fourth largest managing general underwriter in the U.S. and the leading provider of specialty insurance to the sports, leisure and entertainment industries. Although the insurance they provide to the motorsports industry now accounts for only about 10 to 15 percent of the company's overall premiums, they remain the largest market for motorsports, insuring about 60 percent of the country's short-track facilities and about 85 percent of the major speedways. The company also insures about 65 percent of the teams racing in the major series.
When he first decided to try a racing sponsorship, Krauskopf knew his first step must be finding the best chief mechanic in the country. He must not only be a chief mechanic but also a good politician. Krauskopf was later quoted as saying, "It takes a lot of savvy to run NASCAR, and you can't have a hot-head running your team. His (the crew chief's) knowledge has to include the aspects of all the tracks, what car they would run, the rules of NASCAR and how far you can push them."
Harry Hyde had the attributes Krauskopf was looking for but he talked to Hyde for a year before the final decision was made. Hyde had been racing some of the best cars in the Midwest for 20 years. Krauskopf laid it right on the line to Hyde, said Kattman: "'If you're willing, I'm going to give you the biggest education you've ever had.' Harry said he was and the venture was on its way."
Krauskopf set a five-year plan for winning the top NASCAR title and picked the number 71 for the car so Hyde and everyone else on the team would remember the goal.
After analyzing the racing potential of the top cars, the decision was made to contact the Dodge people to see what arrangements could be made. They explained their five-year plan and said they knew there would be endless hours of effort involved to attain their goal. They said they would like to have the Dodge people support them since it would fit the image Dodge was presenting to the public in selling its hot street cars. Agreement was reached and the first Dodge cars were built for K&K under the supervision of Ray Nichels and the Dodge engineers.
According to retired Dodge engineer George Wallace, one of Harry Hyde's strengths in the early days was his willingness to learn. "(Dodge engineer) Larry Rathgeb spent hours with him basically driving the motel room bed around the racetrack trying to explain the forces on the car," said Wallace. "Rathgeb would say the bed is the racecar and we're turning this way and the forces go like this," continued Wallace. "The post on that side of the bed gets heavier and the ones on this side get lighter. Eventually, it worked out and Harry was a true believer."
Krauskopf's five-year plan started on the superspeedways because that's where the money was. Gordon Johncock and Earl Balmer ran the car in 1966, and Bobby Isaac took over in 1967.
"At that time, 32 of the season's 47 races were on short tracks," said Kattman. "Mr. K and Harry Hyde knew they needed short-track points to win a championship so they picked Bobby Isaac for his success on short tracks."
In 1968, the K&K team ran all the races to learn the various tracks. In 1969, the team made its first full attempt at the title. Bad luck stalled the drive and the team finished fifth. In 1970, everything worked well and the championship was won a year ahead of schedule.
Although the NASCAR Championship was achieved over 30 years ago, the memories linger at K & K and its many customers. Veteran employees still talk about going to nearby Michigan International Speedway and meeting in the infield of the first turn to cheer on the K&K Dodge. "It was a great thrill as the employees felt attached to the car and wanted it to win, or at least perform well," said Kattman.
Memorabilia from racing is prominently displayed in the lobby of the company, including the 1970 NASCAR owner's championship trophy and an extensive collection of photographs showing the No. 71 Dodge. K&K Insurance still owns the 1970 championship short-track Dodge Charger, which was responsible for 11 victories during the championship season. The car is currently on display at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum in Talladega.
The winged Dodge Charger Daytona from 1970 was donated to the Museum in Talladega and is also on display there. The car is maintained in good running condition and occasionally takes a parade lap at tracks and road courses in Europe and the United States. Fans still stand and cheer when the driver raises his foot off the accelerator and the bellowing noise of the engine backfiring overcomes all other sounds. It's one of the few things that ever backfired in Nord Krauskopf's involvement with NASCAR.