Chamber names Mast Motorsports
as its Medium Business of the Year 2015
By Bruce R. Partain
CEO, Nacogdoches County Chamber
He would eventually design engines that could hurl a vehicle several hundred miles per hour.
But a twelve-year-old Horace Mast first had some serious questions about smaller metal objects.
Aluminum baseball bats.
"I wanted to know what made them tick," Mast said. "Why they changed every year. I grew up in the age where the performance of these bats was at its peak. Every year someone was designing something new. I had an opportunity to meet one of the engineers from Louisville Slugger."
A trip to the Louisville Slugger design center included batting practice, but young Horace brought back more than tips on hitting a curve ball. He was impressed with the engineering design and "how someone could take an idea and implement it into something useful in the real world."
He admits that this revelation did not translate into immediate results in the classroom at Nacogdoches High, where he graduated in 2001, or Texas A&M, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 2005.
"School was not my favorite interest whether it was high school or college," he said. "High school came easy to me, and college was a bit more of a challenge. I really didn't get into my studies until I was approaching my junior year. I stumbled on to a race car program at Texas A&M. I could take some of my basic knowledge and implement it into something I thought was exciting, which was designing an engine for a race car."
The Formula SAE competition attracted 75 university engineering teams from all over the world to compete in Fontana, California.
"It was a senior design project," Mast said. "I was in charge of the engine team. We won first place."
In the middle of the grueling weeks leading up to the competition, the idea that this might his life's work hit Mast like, well, an aluminum baseball bat.
"During the project, I got very passionate and found other people very passionate about the design and what we were doing," he said. "It was really in the muck of the long hours and working with a team of people to achieve a goal I decided I really love doing this, I think I'm good at it and I'd like to continue doing this in my professional life."
Mast Motorsports started in 2008 in Nacogdoches, and now employs 15 in Texas and 6 in Michigan.
Because of its innovation and economic impact, the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce has named Mast Motorsports its 2015 Medium Business of the Year.
General Manager Chris Durrett describes the early days, when the company operated out of one of John Mast's buildings in downtown Nacogdoches.
"The company started as a controller-based manufacturer," Durrett said.
Engine controllers are the wiring, computer and harness to run electronic fuel injection systems.
"We were building the engine management systems for GM, Dodge and Ford engines," Durrett said. "It quickly took off in the General Motors LS market, and we decided to focus on that."
The LS is the 1997-2014 Generation 4 GM small block engine, ranging from 4.8 to 7 liters and used in GM trucks, Corvettes and Camaros.
"We designed a controller that allows you to put any new engine into almost any older vehicle," Durrett said. "We've got people putting them in airboats. Then we got into building our own engines and making our own cylinder heads."
One might ask if the maximum stock powerplant GM offered, the 505 horsepower Corvette engine, wasn't enough ponies under the hood.
The answer would be, "no."
"Our base engine starts at 505 and goes up to over 1,000," Durrett said. "We are building four engines for a gentleman in Dubai and those will generate 2,200 horsepower each. He's putting them in sand buggies, for recreation. They have a pretty big desert over there."
Customers worldwide include amateur speed enthusiasts to professional race teams. "We did engines for the Brazilian NASCAR team," Durrett said.
"It's for guys in sand buggies and average Joes with muscle cars like the first generation Camaros," Durrett said. "We build engines for a company called Detroit Speed. They are one of our better customers - they build and manufacture suspension systems for older muscle cars. They run our engines in all their test cars - they have about six."
Base engines start at $14,000 and go to $45,000-plus.
"The customer's imagination and budget are the limit on that," Durrett said.
The engines are a hit.
"We built 157 hand-built LS engines last year," Durrett said. "We are one of the leading LS engine manufacturers in the world. I don't know of any others in the world that do more, from the ground-up using all new components. We'll do more this year."
New programs for Mast Motorsports include a cylinder head and intake manifold for a crate engine used in the ARCA series, which uses veteran NASCAR vehicles. "The cars have a new engine that is an option to all the drivers," Mast said. "We designed the cylinder head and intake manifold that allow those engines to make all their power. In fact, our engines have swept every race of season so far."
Mast gives credit to those who work with him, and others supporting his dreams.
"The employees are a group of special guys," he said. "They are the most important people in my life, in my family and my wife's lives. They are highly-skilled group of people from Texas, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Iowa. They are skilled craftsmen, dedicated and passionate about what they do. They have helped us grow our name, our brand and our product."
The young engineer is running full-throttle on enthusiasm for a new venture - Mast Powertrain.
He has spent half of his company's eight years "working solely on OE projects, special engine projects, and clean sheet engines designed specifically for the industrial on-highway market."
Rather than big engines built for thundering entertainment, these are workhorses designed for efficiency.
"These include the generator sets that run on propane and natural gas that go from 30 to 170 kilowatts," Mast said. He is designing engines for "fork lifts, lift trucks and street sweepers. Anything that's industrial that has an internal combustion engine, as well as medium duty trucks and school buses."
That territory is well-traveled by others. How does Mast break through with something special?
"We've been very successful in designing a product that better fits the application," Mast said. "Let's take an engine. The same engine that Chrysler, GM or Ford might make for their one-ton trucks, they've been using them for years in buses and other applications. That doesn't mean they are best suited for those applications. We designed an engine that is application specific, instead of adapting other technologies."
While many of the Powertrain programs are still in development, Mast is proud that components he designed for a multi-fuel generator engine have been in production for two years. A related propane-powered engine is slated to go into volume production for use in International school busses. "You'll see propane-powered International school busses coming off the line at the rate of thousands per year using the parts we design and manufacture here in Nacogdoches," Mast said.
The implications for Nacogdoches are huge. A growing technology-based company paying high wages improves a local economy.
"We are an engineering company," Mast said. "So we have skilled employees. For a medium-sized business our average payroll is significantly higher than others here. We focus on skill sets that are not normally found in a town this size. Most companies like ours would be near Detroit or in California, where all the Tier One's like TRD and Toyota have their technological centers to do the work we do here."
And the best is yet to come.
Mast said he feels "very confident there'll be new and bigger projects launched from here that you would not believe could have been launched by a small group of people out of Nacogdoches, Texas. "