Chassis, suspension systems expertly calibrated in Salisbury’s Morse Measurements shop

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2014

For an increasing number of successful auto racing teams, the road to victory circle includes a stopover in Salisbury at a small, quiet shop located in Speedway Business Park.
Operated by Bob Simons, Morse Measurements is a rarity in the world of chassis tuning and suspension and brake component testing, even here in the middle of NASCAR country. The hulking heart of the business is a K&C machine — a massive and expensive piece of equipment that yields minutely precise data about what’s happening to a vehicle’s chassis and suspension bits when it’s subjected to the fierce forces encountered at race speeds. A few automakers and tire companies have their own proprietary K&C machines — including the Toyota Racing Development chassis shop just down the road — but Morse Measurements is the only independent shop in North America that has one in captivity. For almost a decade, it’s drawn race teams and automotive parts makers to Salisbury from across the country, from Canada, from Mexico — even, a few years ago, from Australia.
A K&C machine costs about $3 million, and the going rate for test sessions is approximately $800 an hour. If that sounds more like a medical diagnostic bill than automotive work, you’re not far off the mark. Morse is more a research lab than a wrench-oriented enterprise. It’s a highly technical business, but in its simplest term, Simons says, the machine and the charts and graphs it generates boil down to a basic concept: “It measures which way the wheels are pointing.”
Simons and former partner Phil Morse launched the business here in fall 2005. Both men had race car engineering backgrounds. Morse was a Honda racing engineer and Simons was a former college engineering professor and race-team consultant who had worked as a development engineer at Delphi automotive systems. Living in Michigan at the time, they saw an entrepreneurial opportunity in the fact that many stock-car race teams — particularly those affiliated with brands like Ford or GM — had to make the long trek to Detroit to book time on the manufacturers’ K&C equipment.
“We were aware that NASCAR teams were traveling to Michigan for this kind of testing,” Simons said. “It didn’t take us long to figure out that we wanted to be in North Carolina.”
They looked at several potential sites in the region, including Mooresville and Concord, but ultimately settled on Salisbury.
Simons said it struck them as “a good, central location.”
Today, the shop is something of a family business, with Simons’ stepson, Leo Spencer, working as a test technician, and Jill Simons, Bob’s wife, managing the office. Devin Harris, a graduate of the motorsports engineering program at UNC-Charlotte, is a test engineer.
The K&C stands for kinematics and compliance, As the shop’s website explains, kinematics “is a fancy way of saying suspension geometry (toe, camber, etc.)” and compliance “is a fancy way of saying suspension stiffness (i.e. how far do things bend when road loads come up through the tires).”
Technically, the steel testing rig is known as a suspension parameter measurement machine, manufactured by Anthony Best Dynamics of England. Weighing around 14 tons and standing around 6 feet high, it has a massive, industrial-grade appearance. The test vehicle is positioned on top of it, and the vehicle frame is clamped to one part of the moveable testing platform. Sensors are attached to each wheel, connected by thin “strings” that feed back readings in tire and wheel movement to computer software. The tires rest on four separate pads with tiny metal spikes that grip the rubber. Electronic actuators move the car’s chassis through different planes of motion that simulate the forces vehicles encounter while cornering, braking, accelerating or high-speed downforce. As the force inputs change, Simons and others analyzing the readouts can discern how the chassis and various suspension parts are behaving.
Typically, Simons said, a test session may last a full day. Once the car has been positioned on the K&C machine and the initial testing loads have been dialed in, the numerical data being transmitted by the wheel sensors is projected onto one of the shop’s whitewashed walls, like a Powerpoint display, so that race crew members can view and discuss it in real time.
At the end of the test session, the Morse team puts together a test results package that includes the technical charts, graphs and other data generated during the session. There’s also a narrative summary that breaks the results down into less technical terms for the race crew’s non-engineering side.
What the race teams take away is hard data that helps them set up their cars for a particular track and gives a specific baseline from which to make adjustments. While there are other types of chassis testing machines, the K&C process takes vehicle dynamics to a deeper level. It’s 21st century race engineering — a far cry from the “seat of the pants” method in which race teams once primarily relied on drivers’ subjective assessments to try to refine a car’s handling.
In fact, Simons said, it’s a rarity for a driver to attend these testing sessions.
“It’s probably better if the driver doesn’t know exactly what’s happening with some parts,” Simons said, alluding to the violent forces unleashed at race speeds approaching or even exceeding 200 mph. While the ultimate goal of the testing is to shave precious increments off lap times, it also can reveal structural weaknesses. During one session, he related, a control arm broke on the vehicle being tested, a potentially catastrophic suspension failure had it occurred during a race.
“The machine creates an ideal, controlled scenario,” Simons explained. “If a component can’t stand up to the testing, you know it can’t withstand the stresses of racing on a track.”
NASCAR teams are his most frequent clients, but he also works with Indy cars and other competition genres, as well as automotive parts makers. Although the confidentiality agreement with clients prevents Simons from talking about specific race teams that visit the shop, his website includes glowing tributes from customers, including Richard Childress Racing and Transact Race Engineering Inc., which competes in various sports-car classes.
Here’s what Transact race engineer Jeff Braun had to say about the shop:
“I really don’t want the competition to know about Morse Measurements and what they do and how well they do it because I have been getting an advantage for years by going there. But they are such good guys and do such good work it’s time for the rest of the world to benefit from what they do.”
Although Morse Measurements had the only K&C machine in the neighborhood for a couple of years, that changed when Toyota Racing Development moved its chassis engineering shop here in 2007. TRD brought in its own K&C machine for use by its Toyota-sponsored race teams, as well as other chassis-tuning equipment.
Simons jokes that his shop would have been happy to accommodate Toyota’s need for K&C testing, but if there’s competition, it’s the friendly variety. When the county was considering an incentives package for TRD, Phil Morse publicly supported the venture, urging the county to do what was necessary to bring TRD to Rowan.
Now, Simons still seems somewhat in awe at the K&C convergence that resulted in one small city becoming a mecca for this type of esoteric chassis and suspension calibration work.
“Salisbury is probably the only place around with two of them,” he says.
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