Staying in the Race
New facility allows Medieval Metalwerx to expand and pull ahead of competition.
Growing up in a racing family in Mapleton, it was weird for Jesse Olson if he wasn’t spending a weekend at the track. Whether it was him, his brother, his dad or his mom, someone was always competing.
However, he was just as excited about gunning it down the tracks in Arlington and Fairmont as he was about fiddling with his car’s throttle or suspension at home. Screwdriver or wrench in hand, he always wanted to find ways to make the vehicle work better, drive smoother, go faster.
“I would say I was a born engineer. I was always tinkering with something,” he says. “My dad is an owner-operator truck driver, so we were always working on the semi. And then his passion was building street rods. So since I was born, I’ve been immersed in cars in one fashion or another. And it kind of goes with the family, I think. We all have a kind of tinkerer mentality. It’s just kind of my nature.”
After years of using his engineering skills and passion for racing at different companies, Olson opened Medieval Metalwerx. Known in the racing world as Medieval Chassis, the company lives up to its slogan, “Go Medieval on the Competition,” by producing high quality products that have generated national interest.
At the company’s Mankato headquarters, workers program computer numerical control machinery to cut metal tubes with a laser and bend them into any shape imaginable. They produce parts for their own cars and for other chassis makers, but they also manufacture parts for outdoor recreation, agriculture, furniture and military uses.
“For us, the passion isn’t just about the chassis,” Olson says. “It’s about all the other parts that we make here.”
When Olson started Medieval Metalwerx in his garage more than a decade ago, he didn’t plan to build a 30,000-square-foot workshop. He didn’t plan to expand from producing race car chassis into making custom metal parts for other industries. He didn’t even plan to leave his full-time job. He simply planned to stay busy.
“In 2004, when we actually established the business with the state, it was like, ‘Well, I’ll build a couple cars here or there just to keep me occupied,’” he says. “And it wasn’t any more than that at that time.”
However, Medieval Metalwerx continued to evolve and expand, requiring it to move into its new, larger facility in August 2017. The company had to add equipment and employees to keep up with business. It now includes Olson and his wife, Dana Olson, half a dozen full-time employees and three part-timers.
“Until 2015, it was basically myself and one other full-time employee and a couple part-time guys. That’s really all the business could sustain as far as the timeframe that we could produce cars throughout the year. We have an on season and off season as far as producing cars, so we were just maxed out at that,” he says. “We really had to take it to the next level with the equipment and the facility to expand our workforce.”
Building race cars was the original goal for Medieval Metalwerx. After all, racing is a large part of Olson’s and his family’s story. It was something he did as a kid, and it’s how he and his wife met. They first crossed paths at the International Motor Contest Association’s Fall Nationals in Hays, Kansas. Now, as their kids — Mackenzie, Kendyl and Degan — grow up, it’s a part of their lives as well.
“They’re really into racing too,” Dana Olson says. “They love going to the races and being a part of all of it.”
Jesse Olson continues to race partly because he enjoys it and partly because it helps him in designing new products. Before any other racers use a Medieval Chassis part on their cars, he personally tries it on his own.
“I use myself as the testing for any changes that I want to do or any products that I want to put out there. I’ll be the mule to make sure it works properly and it’s durable and all that,” he says. “It has value for the customers when the customers know, ‘Oh, you drive that race car that you’re trying to sell me? So you’ll know when I call you and say I’m having this problem where the car feels like this.’”
Medieval Metalwerx sells between 30 to 40 chassis each year, but each of those is at a varying level of completion. Some customers simply want a powder-coated frame, because they would like to do most of the work. Some want a turnkey car that has been entirely assembled, tested on a race track and dialed in. Others want the car to be somewhere in between, not just the skeleton but not quite complete. The prices typically range from $5,000 to $30,000.
“Most of the clientele that we cater to are on the higher end, so we do more of the cars that are pretty close to them just putting a motor and drive line in,” Olson says. “They make their money doing their work or owning their business, and we do our work. We usually have those types of people versus the person that just buys a chassis and does everything else.”
Racing is important to Olson on a personal level, but on the business level, it made sense to expand into other products that he could make with the same tools. Chassis orders are largely seasonal, so manufacturing other products creates more stability year-round.
“We saw a void in this area where we could fill with the equipment that we have. So that’s where we are today,” he says. “We invested in a tube laser, a CNC bender and some ancillary equipment to go with it to support the chassis side but also to do contract manufacturing.”
Like race cars, the CNC tube laser and bender are precision machines, so the entire operation relies on fine tuning. This is right up Olson’s alley.
Because he has always loved to tinker, it was a natural step for Olson to pursue a degree in automotive engineering from Minnesota State University, Mankato, after high school. What he liked about the program was that it didn’t lean too heavily on only book smarts or only practical application. Instead, his professors presented a mix of the two aspects. They focused on how to think and look up information, rather than constant memorization, he says.
“We learned about systems and how the physics and the chemistry gets applied to stuff you might use day to day in one fashion or another,” he says. “That was a huge one for me, and I still use a lot of that information day in and day out.”
Olson went to work at Redline Snowmobiles and Arctic Cat after graduation, where he focused on improving suspension on snowmobiles. But although it provided useful experience, it wasn’t his dream.
When Olson started Medieval Metalwerx in 2004, he and his family were living in Thief River Falls, where one of the main Arctic Cat campuses is located. However, as his business continued to grow, he moved it out of his garage and into a facility in Mayer in 2007. Things really took off after Medieval Chassis cars won the national IMCA tournaments in 2010 and 2011, and the company needed to expand again. The recent move to the Mankato facility brought Olson closer to his roots, near his hometown and his alma mater where he still keeps in touch with his former advisor.
Although Medieval Metalwerx has moved and grown, the workplace retains a family environment. Most of the day, three Great Danes and a Yorkshire Terrier wander the shop between naps. The radio blares Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic rock tunes across the large, open warehouse. During breaks from school, the Olsons’ three children are often around, taking rides down the shop on their bikes or keeping watch over the laser cutter. It also helps that several employees actually are family.
“My brother is the shop manager, my sister works here and [so does] my wife,” he says. “It’s all family here, so we have a lot of fun. We treat everybody else like family, too.”
The Olsons like to allow employees some flexibility in their schedules. It’s no problem to leave early one day to do things with the family as long as that employee makes up the hours another day. The goal is for people to be happy to work there, according to Dana Olson.
“I want people to wake up in the morning and want to come, not feel like they have to go to work,” she says.
This is the kind of workplace Jesse Olson has appreciated ever since one of his first jobs at a family friend’s welding shop. Although the people there did a number of different jobs, no one pretended to be any more important than anybody else, and the amiable atmosphere left a distinct impression. “They all ate lunch together, and it was one big family and a lot of fun,” he says.
Olson carried this idea into his role as an engineering manufacturer at Alumacraft. Different managers took different approaches, but he wanted everyone to know that in the end they all had the same goal.
“I always had the mentality that there’s nothing in this company that I haven’t done or won’t do,” he says. “I’ve scrubbed toilets. I’ve swept the floor. I wanted to be the leader that basically is out here getting his hands dirty.”
It is still a fairly recent concern for Olson, because for many years he was the only one getting his hands dirty at Medieval Metalwerx. The company’s transformation in recent years from a hobby that one man could do in his garage to a multi-person operation in giant commercial workshop has been impressive. However, looking ahead to the future, Olson expects things to keep growing.
The plan is to keep expanding each aspect of the business. Olson would like to win more manufacturing contracts for tube bending and laser services as well as put more time into designing new cars and products. It’s important to him to grow both parts at an equal rate.
“Everyone always focuses on the chassis side, which, obviously, is the fun side. The equipment is there to support that, but the equipment is at the cutting edge of the manufacturing industry side, too,” he says. “That’s our focus going forward — using this equipment to do our thing in the racing industry, but then also using this equipment to better those industries that we’re serving.”
Fix the First Problem First
Jesse Olson uses his experiences with racing and engineering to improve Medieval Chassis’ products and invent new solutions to help other racers. But one of the biggest struggles when troubleshooting a problem is figuring out whether it’s the cause or the effect.
A common problem on race cars, for example, is called the “push-loose condition,” Olson says. This occurs when the car is headed into a turn, but instead of turning, it tries to keep going straight. That’s the “push” part. Once the car turns, the front end catches on the track and swings the tail end wildly to the left. That’s the “loose” part.
Both parts are a problem, but it’s impossible to fix them unless you tackle each one in the order that it occurs. This was an issue race car guru Mark Bush, the founder of AFCO Racing, always pointed out, according to Olson.
“He said it best: It’s the trip-and-fall effect. You don’t want to fix the fall; you want to fix the thing that tripped you,” Olson says. “Probably the toughest thing for racers is to get them to understand we have to fix that first thing before we can go on to anything else.”
Wins, Word of Mouth Provide Best Advertising
Growing up around local racetracks, Jesse Olson knew the old Nascar saying: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” However, it wasn’t until he started his own company that it really hit home.
A big win can boost sales for a car manufacturer, and Medieval Chassis saw a bump after two of its cars won the IMCA Stock Car National Championship in 2010 and 2011.
But finishing in first doesn’t just prove the car and its parts are high quality. It also gets those in the racing world who are looking for the hottest, fastest equipment to spread the word about the manufacturer. And racers, Olson says, are talkers.
“You could spend $100,000 on advertising in newspapers and whatever, and it wouldn’t do a bit of good,” he says. “It’s all about one racer saying to another, ‘This is a good product.’”
Driver Goes Medieval on the Competition
Few people have as much experience with Medieval Chassis cars as Justin Remus. For the past three years, Remus has driven the company’s house car at races across the state. Between 40 to 50 nights each season, he sits in the driver’s seat, pushing the equipment to the limit.
What he appreciates most about working with Olson and the crew at Medieval Metalwerx is their ability to look at things from a racer’s perspective and make improvements quickly.
“There’s that willingness to work and listen to other people’s ideas that you don’t get everywhere. There’s several manufacturers out there that have their directive in mind and that’s all it’s going to be,” Remus says. “With this [Medieval Chassis], there’s multiple different ways that the interaction is built to that specific chassis and that specific customer.”
The company doesn’t manufacture on a large scale, but every car they build is put together with incredible quality, according to Remus. This is a big step up from other cars he has driven.
“I’ve been in several cars that you can keep making changes and keep making changes and it doesn’t really seem to affect the chassis itself,” he says. “In these cars, you can have simple adjustments that improve the car quickly, and the finish on the car is immaculate.”
Although some other companies’ cars haven’t met safety standards in recent years, Remus has never had a doubt about the car he drives.
“There was a big deal that came through this year where some manufacturers were reducing the thickness of their steel in safety areas. Well, those corners aren’t cut with a Medieval car,” he says. “The measures and everything is correctly done. Whereas with some manufacturers, you don’t have the consistency from one to the next.”