NASCAR today is televised industry. It’s also a metaphor for what made American business and innovation the best in the world for decades. In their joint-authored book That Used To Be Us, journalist Thomas Friedman and Professor Michael Mandelbaum talk about the country’s challenges, and how it’s the turns the economy takes, rather than the straightaways, that provide the opportunities for risk-taking. They quote John Doerr, who is, they write, one of America’s premier venture capitalists – an early backer of Netscape, Google, and Amazon.com: “You have to take risks when you are in a high-speed turn,” says Doerr. “Sometimes you’re going so fast and the turn is so sharp, your car’s riding on only two wheels. But, without risk-taking, nothing big happens.”
When a racing car is standing still, we can admire its curves and wings, we can marvel at the clever engineering, and we can pontificate all we like about power, downforce, and utilitarian beauty. That’s why some particularly fine examples find themselves hung on the walls of art galleries. But, of course, a racing car doesn’t make sense unless it’s traveling at 200 mph, which, ironically enough, is when we almost can’t see it at all, depending on how close we are.
Kids instinctively know that being close to a moving racing car is important, so they’re usually the ones who want to be trackside, where they can experience the shockwave of noise and energy as the cars pass.
I was at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday October 13th for the sixth-from-last race of the Sprint Cup season for 2012, and given that the outside temperature was probably around 50 degrees, I felt fortunate to have a bird’s-eye view of the circuit from the Stewart-Haas suite, several floors above the action.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is one of North America’s biggest spectator sports. Perfectly choreographed for a television audience, a NASCAR Sprint Cup race represents the highest level of this exciting sport – with 36 races taking place over a 10-month period. In terms of viewing figures, its popularity is second only to the National Football League.
Watching a race from the Stewart-Haas suite is a mildly surreal experience. During the rolling start, the 43 cars pass almost silently from one end of the floor-to-ceiling, panoramic window to the other. From up high, it’s difficult for an untrained eye like mine to spot any of the Stewart-Haas drivers as the parade rolls by. Fortunately, I had the chance to take a much closer look a few days later, when the team was back at its Kannapolis headquarters, around 20 miles northeast of Charlotte.
Haas Automation founder, Gene Haas, and three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart, jointly own Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). In the 2012 season, the team fielded three drivers: Tony Stewart, of course, Ryan Newman, and Danica Patrick.
The SHR headquarters is a long, rectangular building on the appropriately named Haas Way. The central part of the building is a cavernous space filled with racing cars in various states of preparation. Painted high on the walls are quotes and aphorisms by thinkers and leaders through history, intended to keep motivation and work-rate high, as if there were a need. To the right of the main workshop is the team merchandise store, and to the left, behind a glass partition, is the team machine shop, fronted by a red, special-edition Tony Stewart VF-1 vertical machining center. Unsurprisingly, every CNC machine tool in the shop is a Haas CNC machine tool. According to Brad Harris, machine shop manager, this definitely works in the team’s favor.
“It’s natural that we have Haas machines as opposed to other makes,” he says. “But, I’ve worked with other machines before I came here, and I can say first and foremost, Haas machines are versatile and reliable, which is precisely what our work demands. Having one make of machine with a single control helps scheduling. There are just five of us here, and between us we take care of all 12 machines. I think I also speak for everyone when I say, we’re proud to be a Haas shop.”
The Stewart-Haas machine shop includes eight vertical machining centers and four turning centers. “Four of the VMCs have four- and five-axis capability,” says Mr. Harris, “which means we can make pretty much whatever our car teams need, with minimum set-up times.
“Mid-season, modifications are happening all the time, sometimes due to NASCAR rule changes, and sometimes because an engineer or crew chief comes up with an idea to improve the performance of the cars. In all cases, they’ll want the part immediately. However, by the time the change has been through the engineering department and filtered through to the machine shop, there’s usually not much time left. As a result, every job is an emergency.”
The biggest machines on site are two VF-6TR’s with trunnion tables. There’s also a Mini Mill, a VF-2, and a VF-4 five-axis machining center, also fitted with a trunnion, a TR-210.
Like all race teams, SHR is reluctant to show most of the components it makes in-house close-up, especially when there are still another half-dozen races to go. One of the most recognisable parts though, is the shifter handle. Mr. Harris holds up an example from Ryan Newman’s number 39 car. It’s strong and lightweight, and features complex contours, which are partly for ergonomics and partly decorative.
“This was a fun, but challenging, project for us, as well as the engineers,” he says. “It was machined using our five-axis VF-4, which allowed us to create the part in just two operations. We make about 20 per year. Like most parts on the car, they get ‘mileaged’ out and are replaced. Even with unstressed parts like this one, we don’t take chances. We don’t wait for them to fail.”
Among other Haas-machined components at Kannapolis are the front spindle uprights, which start out as forgings with the spindles pre-machined by the supplier. From here, SHR mills the remaining features, of which there are many – several parts are subsequently joined to the uprights by welding.
“After fabrication, an assembly will come back to us, and we’ll finish the entire machining in a single setup, which means we won’t compromise precision or quality,” says Mr. Harris. “Precision is the biggest challenge, because of the close tolerances and somewhat awkward shape. We mount the part on the spindle snout in the trunnion on the VF-6TR. We rotate it and hit all of the features in one setup. It saves us a lot of time, and makes a really good component. One of the benefits we enjoy with the Haas machines is that they are very user-friendly, and downtime is extremely rare. We get great support from the local HFO.”
NASCAR has its origins in the era of prohibition, when bootleggers would distribute their illicit liquor throughout the Appalachia region of the eastern and southern U.S., using the fastest car and driver combinations they could find. NASCAR was born, therefore, of cultural innovation – a means to circumvent government-imposed restrictions on the production and consumption of alcohol. The bootleggers were using technical innovation to make their cars faster and more maneuverable. When prohibition eventually ended, the innovators were having too much fun to simply call it a day. What subsequently grew was a sport that would eventually generate billions in annual revenues, and create even greater wealth across the tens of thousands of individuals and businesses in its orbit. As Friedman and Mandelbaum point out in their book: Over the years, government has often played a significant part in helping launch a new wave of innovation – one way or another, then got out of the way.
The second stop on my short tour of NASCAR’s homeland was Hendrick Motorsports (HMS), around 5 miles south of Stewart-Haas Racing, in Concord, a stone’s throw from the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
HMS was formed in 1984, and is one of the winningest teams, with 10 championships in the Sprint Cup Series, alone. NASCAR fans will already know that it was through HMS that Haas Automation originally came to the sport, initially as a sponsor and supplier of CNC machine tools. In 2002, Gene Haas founded his own team, Haas CNC Racing, in partnership with HMS. What is now SHR’s number 39 car was, in fact, Haas CNC Racing’s number 60 – its original entry in NASCAR’s top series.
With the advent of SHR in 2002, the partnership between the two teams evolved, and to this day, SHR uses HMS engines and chassis, and the HMS machine shop on its 100-acre campus is almost entirely Haas.
HMS builds more than 550 engines per year, with many of these leased to other NASCAR teams. The various engine and chassis parts are made on a variety of Haas CNC machine tools, including VF-2 and VF-6 vertical machining centers, ES-5 horizontal machining centers and TL-25 turning centers with C-axis, sub-spindles, and live tooling.
“We have four Haas ES-5 machines on campus to machine cylinder heads and intake manifolds,” says Larry Zentmeyer, engine shop coordinator. “We also use them to rework exhaust seats, and retrofit older designs with new ones.” Each of the company’s ES-5 machines is fitted with a Haas HRT210 rotary table and tailstock, to support the long parts.
As well as SHR, Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines and parts to several other teams, including Earnhardt Ganassi, Phoenix Racing, JRM, and Turner Motorsports.
HMS cylinder heads are machined using the Haas ES-5 horizontals. These complex parts start life as semi-finished castings supplied by Chevrolet.
“Enough material is left for us to add valve-train and rocker stand features,” explains Mr. Zentmeyer. “There’s also plenty of material left for us to come in and port the exhausts and the intakes, and there is also some machining required in the chamber. Basically, there is hardly a surface on the casting that we don’t machine in some way or form. Machine operators like Mark Thomas have Siemens NX systems alongside the machines where they prepare programs.”
“Each month, we machine around 12 sets – that is, 24 heads,” says Mr. Zentmeyer, “which means the machines are always busy, but not so busy that we need multiple pallets or pallet-changers. The ES-5’s do the job very well, indeed.”
The HMS engine shop also custom-fits its pistons to each cylinder block. “We’ll use one of the VF-2 machines to do final machining work on the piston tops,” says Mr. Zentmeyer. “This way, we can get the tolerances and fits exactly as we want. On average, we machine around 20 piston sets every week.”
As well as cylinder heads and pistons, Hendrick Motorsports also makes and supplies high-volume parts and components like alternator cages to famous-name suppliers, such as Bosch. “Many parts for use in road vehicles are cast. We machine the same parts from solid billets, so they’re stronger and more durable. If we used cast parts on the race cars, they wouldn’t last more than a lap or two, because of the temperatures and the vibration.”
A few laps after the start of the Charlotte race, I put on my coat and took the elevator down to where the stadium touches the upper edge of the banking. The air was cold and laced with excitement. As close as possible to the no-man’s-land between the seats and the wire safety fence were the kids, precisely where they always are (where I would have been as a 12-year-old), bundled-up in down jackets and ear-defenders, accompanied by long-suffering moms and dads.
It’s only down here, at this level, that you can really appreciate the speed of a stock car, and the courage of the drivers as they slide through turns and jostle for position, just inches from one another.
Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book has the subtitle What went wrong with America – and how it can come back. The authors describe how the country’s legal framework enabled those who were prepared to innovate and take risks to succeed personally – and eventually build the greatest economy on Earth. They list the greatest threats to America’s position in the global economy, and they make recommendations for how those threats can be mitigated.
Motor racing sometimes gets bad press in our environmentally conscious times, but educators and industrialists still recognise its enormous potential to inspire future generations. Those kids, enthralled by the noise, color, and spectacle of NASCAR races in Charlotte and elsewhere around the country, may not grow up to be the next Tony Stewart (or even his crew chief), but they may just grow up with an instinctive appreciation of risk and the role it plays in private enterprise. And, if they apply that understanding during their working lives – if they’re comfortable enough with the idea of risk that they start their own businesses, register patents, or invest life-savings to buy capital equipment – then that’s how America will find its way back. They won’t want to stand around and admire what previous generations have done before them. They’ll want to experience the economy flat out, in a power slide, while fighting for a place on the winner’s podium.