Lab Rats put the pedal to the metal
The brains behind Autosport Labs in Lynnwood race to prove their ignition systems work
“I just kind of raised my hand and said, ‘Look what I did,'” said Picasso, a software engineer by trade who's done a lot of work in start-up, dot-com environments.
The replies started rolling in.
“Hey, can you make me one of those, too?” fellow autocrossers and racers asked.
It was 2004, and Picasso and his wife, Kelley, found themselves soldering and assembling circuit boards by hand in the two-car garage of their Lynnwood home and selling the initial versions of Megajolt Lite Jr., a programmable ignition module that laid the foundation for their business venture, Autosport Labs.
The Megajolt module pairs with plentiful, inexpensive Ford parts to create a simple, reliable distributorless ignition system for less than $200 — several times less expensive than other aftermarket systems, Brent Picasso said.
Positive word-of-mouth locally and from online car enthusiast forums fueled Autosport Labs' steady growth as Megajolt won the hearts and minds of fellow shade-tree mechanics who just love tinkering with their cars.
“We're one of them,” Picasso said.
Kelley Picasso said Autosport Labs now has about 2,500 users from 25 countries.
“Our customers are just like us,” she said. “We get you because we are you.”
As the orders grew, the Picassos found their garage space shrinking as Brent Picasso added used machinery to automate assembly. There's a computerized plotter that applies solder paste to a circuit board, and a larger machine that does the same thing to multiple boards. There's the “pick and place” machine, which drops the capacitors and diodes onto the board before they go through the reflow oven and come out of the drag solder machine fully assembled and ready to put inside the aluminum case that's about the size of a couple of decks of playing cards.
While Megajolt is now in its fourth version, Picasso said it's really always in a beta phase since he makes constant software tweaks and improvements based on user feedback from Autosport Labs' online forums. It's as open-source as software comes, he said.
“All our products are in perpetual beta,” Picasso said. “We need users' feedback.”
Autosport Labs recently released its own data acquisition system, RaceCapture, for initial beta testing. It features a powerful 32-bit processor, four-axis accelerometer inputs, 17 sensor inputs and outputs, USB and GPS ports, and an SD memory card slot. It's flexible enough that it could become a full engine management system, Picasso said.
“We're targeting grassroots racers while breaking the price barrier,” he said.
In the pipeline for beta testing later this year is Megajolt 2, Autosport Labs' next generation ignition module, Picasso said. Like Megajolt Lite Jr., Megajolt 2 is an open-source system paired with stock Ford ignition parts.
Autosport Labs' continued steady growth, despite the recession, finally led the Picassos to move out of their garage and into space in a small industrial park off Highway 99 on 180th Street SW in Lynnwood in June. Now they don't bump into each other when they're on the assembly line. They even have enough room to hang a vinyl curtain to make the circuit board assembly area a “clean room” separate from the nearby aluminum milling machine.
Even more impressive, the Picassos have grown their business without going into debt. They haven't spent any money they didn't have.
“It's proof you can bootstrap a company,” Brent Picasso said.
The Picassos have limited their advertising exposure to Facebook, Twitter and online forums, but they do put the Autosport Labs name in front of potential customers as they test products in their two race cars.
Kelley Picasso is crew chief for their effort in two low-buck endurance racing leagues featuring dubious cars that cost no more than $500 to buy. They field a much-wrecked Mazda Miata (Labrat 1) in the ChumpCar World Series and a sketchy Merkur XR4Ti (Labrat 2) that finished the 24 Hours of LeMons surprisingly well despite a weak engine.
Autosport Labs vice president of marketing Scott Miller joined the business last August. The Picassos and Miller met while autocrossing in 2000 and he began co-driving with them in 2003. Together, for the 2004 season, they built an autocross car that used the first version of what later became the Megajolt Lite Jr.
Miller's proud of the fact that both cars have completed their races, despite serious setbacks. The Mazda was seriously damaged when it hit a tire wall at Portland International Raceway. The Merkur blew a head gasket the day before its first race at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, Calif. After a quick repair, Miller and the crew disabled one cylinder to keep the engine running. It sounded like each lap was its last, Miller said, but it finished 17 hours of racing respectably high in the order.
“We're going to keep racing to test our gear,” he said. “It keeps us close to the community” of racers.
Kelley Picasso loves the logistical challenge of endurance racing, especially since ChumpCar and LeMons teams tend help each other because they're often short-handed.
“It's competitive wheel-to-wheel racing, but there's also a great community feel,” she said. “This way, we get to showcase our technology, too.”