For race cars, life begins in the fab shop

Dave Ongie • Mar 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Part 2 of 5

In a past life, the building that houses Michael Waltrip Racing was a movie theater.

Even after the extreme makeover, “Raceworld USA,” as it is called, is still an entertaining place to spend an afternoon, and that’s exactly what Waltrip was shooting for.

Race fans can check out plenty of memorabilia in the lobby, including the No. 00 Toyota that David Reutimann used to win last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

For a few dollars, fans can head up the stairs and see Waltrip’s two Daytona 500 trophies as well as the trophy Reutimann won in Charlotte last May.

They can also stroll out onto a catwalk that stretches over the shop floor and watch the army of MWR employees as they service vehicles for three Sprint Cup teams along with the Nationwide and Camping World East cars supported by the company.

But the glitz and glamour of the main building seems miles away once you walk into the Spartan environment of the aluminum building out back.

This is the fab shop, otherwise known as the place where race cars are born. As an unrelenting din created by four different radio stations and various pieces of heavy machinery echoes off the walls, sheet metal and steel tubing come together to make the cars we see on the track each weekend.

Chassis 643 evolved as the tubing was welded into a roll cage in one corner of the shop while pieces of sheet metal were forged into a body in the opposite corner.

“We build these cars piece by piece,” said Jay Fabian, assembly leader at MWR. “We do as much as we can do here. By the time the cage is built, everything else is cut and ready to go.”

As the guys work on building what seems to be an endless inventory of chassis, a reminder of just how important their work is sits just a few paces away. What’s left of the No. 00 car driven by Michael McDowell during a harrowing wreck in qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway a couple years ago rests in the middle of the fab shop.

The only reason McDowell was able to walk away from the twisted pile of sheet metal was because of the sturdy roll cage that surrounded him on that day. For the guys in the fab shop, that was a major victory.

The process of building cars has to be a model of efficiency, especially at a place like MWR where the pressure to churn out completed racing machines for a multicar organization is as unrelenting as the noise that echoes through the building.

The schedule is tight, but the work done by the guys in the fab shop has to be precise as well as quick, especially given NASCAR’s new rules package that arrived along with the CoT.

“These guys beat themselves up over thousandths of an inch,” Fabian said. “It’s the same for the heavy fab guys as it is for the body guys — the box is pretty tight.”

Aaron Collins works under this pressure on a daily basis. Although the new rules have made his life tougher in one sense, the body NASCAR calls for on the CoT has made his job more consistent.

In the old days, the bodies on speedway cars and superspeedway cars were curved into a banana shape to get the spoiler out into the wind and increase downforce.

Now every body on every race car is the same, and Collins said that consistency allows him to be more efficient.

“With the CoT stuff, nothing really changes,” he said. “You can go quicker because you know what you need to have.”

With three full-time Cup teams operating out of the main shop, every day it seems like each of MWR’s teams needs a new car yesterday. Not only that, they need it to be a thousandth of an inch away from perfection.

By the time the chassis is finished, the body has also been assembled and the two are joined together in a third corner of the garage.

Even at this early stage, the car is measured using the same tool NASCAR inspectors will use to evaluate it at the track during race weekend.

If the body isn’t within the parameters NASCAR has set forth, it’s much better to find out about it in the fab shop than at the track.

When it was recently discovered that a car slated to take part in a test session in Charlotte had a nose that didn’t measure up, the guys had to cut the nose off it in order to raise it a thousandth of an inch.

Once the body and the chassis are joined, the car dances from finish fab, located in the fourth corner of the fab shop, to the body shop and back again. It stays in the body shop, located in the main building, for three shifts, roughly 48 hours, before returning to the finish fab station.

When the car goes to the body shop, it is basically just the chassis and the body, so it’s put on a rotisserie and rolled up into the big building.

Until this point, the metal used to build the car has been covered in a thin coat of residue to keep it from rusting. While the car hangs on a rotisserie like a cooked chicken, it is pressure washed, degreased and prepared for painting.

In the old days, Fabian points out, you had to crawl up under a car to paint it. Now the rotisserie allows the car to rotate freely so the bottom can be painted in a quicker and more convenient manner.

Once it returns to finish fab, things move quickly.

“It takes 13 people one day to finish it up,” Fabian said.

During this day, everything is added to the car so as to seal it from the outside in. The windshield is installed along with the back glass. The radiator and the splitter are also installed as the car is finally assembled.

With a fresh coat of paint applied, Chassis 643 is now well on its way to carrying Truex around BMS this Sunday.

Click here for Part 3.

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