Welding to Win with Joe Gibbs Racing

Welding to Win with Joe Gibbs Racing®

Courtesy of Lincoln Electric

In suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, a recently completed 150,000 square foot steel-and-glass white structure is home to Joe Gibbs Racing. Hidden along a tree-lined parkway of unmarked office buildings in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, lies a brand new steel-and-glass white structure that could be home to any number of corporations in any industry.

But through the main door it becomes clear that this is something more than an insurance agency or software firm. It’s home to Joe Gibbs Racing®, bejeweled in trophies, racing jackets and display cases literally filled with artifacts from the nation’s fastest growing sport.

Past the receptionist, across the main lobby, an observation deck overlooks one of the most advanced auto shops in the world. Through a panel of high windows is a conspicuous absence of grease stained floors and stray tools. Instead, the vast open space of more than 150,000 square feet shines in pristine white and better resembles an operating room than a fabrication shop.

TIG welding on one of Tony Stewart's NASCAR Nextel Cup cars.It’s a virtual racecar laboratory, where engineers work side-by-side with master fabricators to create the fastest machines possible within the guidelines established by their sport. Those team fabricators, in turn, rely on the welding experts at Lincoln Electric® for welding equipment, access to emerging welding technologies and training for recommended techniques using the most exotic base materials.

“Most people don’t realize that we build a separate car for each race,” explained Mike Logan, a fabricator for Gibbs Racing. “We’ll have 12 to 14 cars ready each season, and more if there are bad wrecks.”

Along the main wall behind Logan sit half a dozen No.20 orange Home Depot® NASCAR® Nextel® Cup cars, all in various stages of completion. Each one is meticulously hand built for 2005 NASCAR® Nextel® Cup winner Tony Stewart to race throughout the 2006 season to defend his 2005 Championship title.

Some 200-plus craftsmen at Joe Gibbs Racing® work 40 to 50 hours a week year-round building cars for Gibbs’ three Nextel® cup drivers. Each car is designed and fabricated to the unique requirements of its intended track, race configuration, speed and driver.

But long before the rubber hits the road, fabrication consumes roughly 950 man-hours on each car, not including the 500-horsepower engines brought in from outside. About 95% of NASCAR® racecars are TIG-welded by hand.

Vast open space of more than 150,000 square feet shines in pristine white and better resembles an operating room than a fabrication shop.

Hundreds of individual parts are cut, welded and machined by hand, from the chassis and frame to suspension and drive train. The bodies are painstakingly shaped to reduce wind drag. They are tested in multi-million dollar wind tunnels and then reshaped again.Most top shops demand that the quality and technology of each component meets the high standards established by the aerospace industry. About half the parts are carbon steel and many are aluminum in a wide range of thicknesses and joint configurations. Some rare parts are titanium, where NASCAR rules permit.

TIG welding is the preferred arc welding process for aluminum in NASCAR® and Lincoln® Precision TIG® welders are the preferred tools for the job at Joe Gibbs Racing®. Joe Gibbs Racing exclusively uses TIG and MIG welders from The Lincoln Electric Company. In turn, Lincoln is recognized as an exclusive NASCAR Performance® partner.

Many TIG welds in NASCAR® are performed out-of-position. Distortion is always an issue, especially with aluminum. However, using Lincoln’s pulse systems controls heat input in the weld to minimize that distortion, many top NASCAR welders say. In some instances, fit tolerances must fall within 1/1000ths of an inch, and distorted aluminum contours cannot be tolerated, said Shane Love, chief fabricator for Joe Gibbs Racing, who oversees production of Stewart’s cars.

Shane Love, Chief Fabricator for Joe Gibbs Racing.“Lincoln’s pulsing mode is great for this,” he said. “Nothing else on the market can touch it. I wouldn’t work with anything else.”

The tolerances and standards are imperative both for performance and weight, Love added. While NASCAR imposes weight restrictions for cars, the trick for fabricators is welding the strongest joints possible without unnecessarily increasing weight.

“Every ounce matters,” said Dennis Klingman, a welding teacher to NASCAR fabricators with Lincoln Electric and chairman of the National Education Committee with the American Welding Society. “At almost 200 miles per hour, these cars are pushed to their very limits. They have to be strong for safety, but they need to be light for performance. They’re right on the edge. Every weld has to be perfect.”

TIG welding with the Precision TIG 375.The cars built for Stewart are no exception. Defending the title, he and his team of fabricators know that even a single imperfection could mean a race – or worse, his life. Most welds are inspected visually, X-rayed or tested with magnetic particle inspections.

“Quality welding is the main issue with these cars, and there is very little margin of error,” Love said. “They need to look good and perform even better.”

Nearly all welds on Stewart’s cars are made with The Lincoln Electric® Precision TIG® 375 – a machine designed for welding specialty alloys and aluminum in a variety of TIG process applications. It’s a favorite tool for many in the aerospace industry, as well, for the same reasons.

Plasma cutting using a Lincoln Pro-Cut.The Precision TIG features Lincoln’s MicroStart™ Technology for a smoother, more controlled arc and better starting arc performance. With MicroStart, welders can more easily establish a stable arc at low amperage levels, even down to two amps.

“The start is really nice,” Love said. “And that’s very important for the overall quality of these welds. I also love the AC Auto Balance® to give me the right amount of cleaning vs. penetration, used together with the pulsing mode, for maximum control on aluminum.”

The Precision TIG 375 provides full function capability for setting pulse frequency, background amperage and percent peak versus background time. The easy to understand control panel, along with the AC Auto-Balance and Micro-Start technologies that do their work without intervention, make fabrication simple for the wide range of welding work in this shop. Local Lincoln technical engineers backed by a technical team back at headquarters also lend their expertise to optimize machine settings for the toughest applications.

“The guys at Lincoln are constantly looking for a better way to do things,” Love said. “And for our purposes, they are on the cutting edge of this stuff. They do a great job of working with us here in the shop to make us better welders.”
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