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Fabricating In Today’s Race Shop

Veteran race car builders describe some of the newest equipment they recently added to their shops in order to keep quality and safety top priorities in their vehicles.

By Andy Heintzelman

Rickie Jones of Quarter-Max Chassis and Racing Corp., a division of RJ Race Cars in Galesburg, Illinois, was not shy when asked recently about the benefits of owning quality fabrication equipment.

Quarter-Max and RJ have all the standard tools one would expect to produce drag race cars and components: TIG welders used particularly with its high-end chromoly tubing and other race products; MIG welders more typically used for mass production of its mail-order parts; tubing notchers and rollers; sheet metal brakes; chop saws and cold-cut saws.

Jones noted how Appleton, Wisconsin-based Miller Welders’ new units with digital dials have been a welcome addition at Quarter-Max. They have several of the Syncrowave models.

“Before, you had a big manual dial that you had to turn with an arrow on it (to adjust amperage),” Jones said. “When you’re welding real thin steel—lightweight steel that we’re trying to construct these cars out of—five amps could make the difference between getting a nice, penetrating weld on a piece of .023 steel or blowing through it. That’s hard to fine-tune with a manual dial.”

With digital, if Jones wants one more amp, “I click up one arrow.”

Quarter-Max uses pneumatic brakes and benders, Jones noting the experience of his operator in making the most of that equipment. But one of his next investments might be a CNC tubing bender or maybe even a CNC brake to bend sheet metal.

Jones recognizes the value of technology through his company’s use of a CNC waterjet cutting machine. It was a “huge investment,” but one that, along with other in-house capabilities, has paid dividends in time savings and control. Prototyping has benefited, too. “A lot of times we make a prototype, take it out to the vehicle, see how it fits, see how it’s going to work, and then go back and maybe make some changes before we do a production run,” he said. “That’s real valuable to have it on location.”

Jones’ best advice: Invest in quality equipment that’s going to help get the job done. “Those machines are very expensive; some are hundreds of dollars an hour to operate,” he said. “You’ve got to figure that into your hourly rate. If it’s down, it gets very costly.”

Michael Weney of S&W Performance Group in Spring City, Pennsylvania, spoke about fabrication advancements through the years that have helped his firm produce drag, off-road, road racing and other race cars and parts, and perform other specialty fabrication work. A number of the changes have come about in welding.

S&W purchased one new MIG and TIG welder each from Cleveland, Ohio-based Lincoln Electric in the past five years to work with material up to one-half inch thick. “New welders are so energy efficient that, at a point in time, they actually pay for themselves just in energy savings versus some of the old stuff,” Weney said.

S&W uses gas lenses for better welds, and Pyrex cups for better visibility, especially in “tight” areas. Also, some pedal welders have been changed to hand-heat control. “If you’re crawling around inside a car, you don’t have to try to reach a pedal,” Weney said. “It’s not new technology, but it’s a little more efficient, and easier for the fabricator.”

Another process that’s been around for decades, but that improved greatly for S&W with the purchase of a computerized welder with pulsing capability from Lincoln about 10 years ago, is the spray arc process. The high-voltage spray arc turns the wire in a MIG operation into liquid as soon as it leaves the contact tip, and you can see it cut into the metal and nicely build up a weld, we were told. But it always had to be done “in position.”

“As soon as you tried to weld down an edge, the weld puddle would just fall onto the floor,” Weney said.

The pulser, meanwhile, sends a wave up, but also pulls a wave back down, giving the metal just a second to solidify. “On a rear housing, we can start on the top and go right down around and come back underneath, and the weld won’t fall off,” he said. “You see very good penetration, and there’s zero cleanup.”

On other equipment, S&W chose waterjet cutting over a laser because of the ability to cut materials beyond metal, including rubber gaskets and glass, and even things like ceramic tile.

“I’ve cut eight-inch-thick hardened gears with our waterjet,” Weney said, a feat that belies what even the manufacturer promotes.

Another key part of S&W’s operation is its Plasma Tube Processing Center. It can accept six pieces of 24-foot tubing, picked up individually to be cut to the desired length by a plasma torch. “It’s way more efficient and way more accurate than hand-notched tubing,” he said.

Weney explained S&W’s approach to equipment selection, which involves extensive research. “We try to size the equipment for what we’re going to be doing and what we think we could potentially do in the future,” he said.

They’ll talk to the manufacturer, of course, but also customers. “Nothing against salesmen, but they all love their product and it’s the best on the face of the earth,” Weney said with a laugh. “But in the end, there are other pieces out there and they’re good, too. Talk to the people who are using the product; that’s where you really learn.”

Fabricating In Today’s Race Shop

Advances in fabricating and welding equipment through the years have helped performance businesses produce improved race cars and parts, and perform other specialty fabrication work while offering ample time- and cost-savings, among other benefits.

Performance Racing Industry