DC Sports Exhausts the Possibilities

Pipe Dreams

Every generation has its vehicle of choice, the one every hormone-addled, high school gearhead just has to have. It is the epitome of cool, the picture of performance.

Back when fuel conservation was a non-issue, Detroit muscle cars from the Big Three were all the rage. Monstrous V-8s were a must, and straight-line performance was the measure by which they were judged. The more cubic inches the better, and the more fuel you could stuff into those cubic inches the more power you could squeeze out. The secret to higher performance was a fist full of dollars, a good set of wrenches and some bolt-on horsepower.

Then came the fuel crisis of the ’70s and the ever-tightening EPA regulations of the ’80s. No longer politically correct or environmentally friendly, gas-guzzling hot rods were pushed aside by economical imports from Japan.

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Each year, the shrinking noose of environmental regulations forced automakers to employ increasingly complicated and expensive means to satisfy governmental pipe sniffers. But as the price for clean air continued to rise, advances in close-tolerance manufacturing and precision machining techniques – once the realm of limited-production vehicles and race operations – brought the cost of high performance down. Seemingly at odds, these two objectives soon reached economic parity and became practical in a production environment.

Enter the ’90s. No longer content with gutless econo-boxes, the American public in general, and next-generation gearheads in particular, once again demanded performance, but this time they also wanted economy and a little sense of environmental responsibility.

Japanese automakers responded with vehicles that not only boasted high performance, but did so with style and refinement, all while running cleaner and more economically than ever before. Thus was born the Sport Compact car. These vehicles featured race-bred technology wrapped in affordable packages, and nobody did it better than Honda and Acura.

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Despite the performance these vehicles offered straight out of the box, it still wasn’t enough. Ego driven one-upmanship, combined with the desire to stand out from the rest of the pack, created an instant market for products to make them faster, better handling and more stylish.

Seeing a rapidly growing customer base that was largely untapped by U.S. manufacturers, Darrell and Darrick Contreras formed DC Sports and stepped into the aftermarket fray. Their specialty? High-performance exhaust headers for Hondas and Acuras.

Headers are historically one of the easiest and most economical ways to boost engine performance. As an added benefit, this same modification usually adds to the “style” aspect of the vehicle by altering the sound.

The Contreras brothers had been building exhaust components for the motorcycle industry for some time, manufacturing high-performance product for the likes of Yoshimura and Pro Circuit Racing. But they wanted more control over their own destinies than this private-label work allowed.

With DC Sports, they were able to take their future into their own hands. They cut off their private-label work and focused exclusively on manufacturing their own product for Hondas and Acuras.

“Our very first part,” says Darrick, “was a header and exhaust for American Honda’s race team. They were running their own CRX race program at the time, and bringing in some headers from Japan, but they wanted to source out the headers here.”

The grapevine led American Honda to Darrell and Darrick’s door. Having established themselves as a high-quality supplier through their work for Yoshimura and Pro Circuit Racing, they were a natural choice. And Honda wasn’t disappointed.

“When we made the first part,” notes Darrick, “they were really surprised at the quality and workmanship, and that just opened up a whole new door. That’s basically how DC Sports started.”

DC’s product line continued to closely follow the Honda race program. “The next car they chose to race was the Prelude,” says Darrell, “and I purchased one in ’92 to help R&D product. Then we just kept doing another car, and another, and going through the line.”

Then came Acura’s flagship NSX, a Ferrari-eating two-seater that was a racecar wolf in street-car clothing. Again, DC was the natural choice to prototype the exhaust for Honda’s racing effort.

What made DC Sports stand out was the quality of their product. “When we started making our very first header,” explains Darrell, “we wanted it to be really high quality in order to meet Honda’s tolerances. At the time, the parts from our competition were very crude – they had flame-cut flanges. We were the first to implement CNC-machined flanges and drill all the holes rather than flame-cutting them out. When we gave them to Honda they said, ‘Man, what a great idea. You guys do a really nice job all the way through. Everything is very precise.’”

But there’s a difference between building one-off prototypes for racing and manufacturing enough product to meet the demands of the general public. Darrell and Darrick soon found themselves overwhelmed with orders.

“When we started building our own headers – at that time it may have only been five or ten a week – we continued to have the flanges CNC made outside,” says Darrell. “Then it got to the point where we could produce more headers than they could supply flanges, and we decided we needed to buy a machine.

“One of the guys a couple doors down from us had one of the early Haas machines, and he was telling us how, for the price, they’re unbeatable, they’re great machines. So we went to Ellison (the local Haas distributor at the time) and they really kind of jumped through hoops to help us finance a machine, since we were still a new company. We scraped up a fair amount down and bought one machine.”

That first machine, a Haas VF-1 vertical machining center, gave DC the capability to machine flanges in-house. The brothers quickly discovered, however, that a machine doesn’t make parts on its own.

“We bought the machine, then realized, Wow, it doesn’t make any parts unless you know how to run it,” says Darrell. “We were stuck.”

“We had the welders needing parts, and we had a machine to make the parts,” explains Darrick, “but we didn’t know how to use it. We decided it was sink or swim – go to school, get a crash course on how to run this thing, and get it into production as fast as we can. We both went to the school, and I kind of took on the responsibility of running the machine and getting it up to speed.”

Darrell, on the other hand, didn’t fair quite so well. “I tried to do the school,” he says, “and made it through one day, then I had X-Y-Z fever and checked out.”

But having Darrick at the helm was enough, and within a month they were cranking out CNC-machined flanges of their own. “I ran it for three months, maybe,” says Darrick, “then we hired a person to run it who had no machining skills whatsoever. I showed him what I had learned at the school, and gave him the manual. He just started trying new ideas, and we let him run with it.”

That employee was Leonard Garcia. “We couldn’t afford to go out and hire a twenty-dollar-an-hour machinist,” explains Darrell. “So we looked within our employees for someone who was talented enough, and eager enough, to give it a go. Although Leonard had just graduated high school, he was pretty sharp and was ready to handle some responsibility.”

Leonard rose to the challenge and today manages the entire CNC machining department at DC Sports, supervising several other employees, and running two shifts a day.

The Contreras brothers credit much of their success to the ease-of-use of the Haas machines. “If they had been hard to use we would have failed,” says Darrick. “We would have been stuck with an expensive machine that no one knew how to use, and gone belly up. Fortunately, they were very easy to use, and right away we were able to get going, which is a huge plus.”

Darrell agrees, “Two people who weren’t machinists by nature were able to run them and get them into production. They’ve been nothing but our heart at this point,” he adds, “and no matter what we throw at them, they seem to make it.”

Within three months of buying their first CNC machine, DC purchased a second Haas VMC, this time a VF-2. Darrell and Darrick felt surely that would be enough to make all of their parts. But as production continued to increase, there was a need for a third machine, so they purchased another VF-2. The added capacity not only allowed them to meet the increased demand for header flanges, but allowed them to develop new products.

At that time, DC Sports was known primarily for their headers; but as the company’s reputation grew, distributors began asking for more. Darrell explains, “Our dealers said, ‘You know, we can sell your headers all day long, but we need something to accent them. You need to branch off and find other parts to make, so that when a person comes in for your header, I can sell them your cat-back exhaust or your strut tower bar.’ So, little by little, we just created other products to help sell what we currently had.”

New products brought new machining challenges. “We started making a short-throw shifter out of billet aluminum,” says Darrick, “and we were farming those out to little independent machine shops. But we had a problem with supply: We could never get the parts when we wanted, and the quality wasn’t always there. So we decided to purchase a lathe to bring the shifters in-house. We felt that if we bought the Haas lathe, we could make the shifter, we could make an oil cap . . . ”

Darrell adds, “We just said, All right, what can we make on this lathe that we’re currently out-sourcing, and what else can we make on it in the future? How can we make this machine pay for itself?”

According to Darrell, the Haas CNCs were crucial as DC Sports expanded its product line. Another key element was Steve Schmidt, who today provides much of the engineering behind DC’s products.

Steve was just a sophomore in high school when he met Darrell and Darrick. They were working out of a small 1,440-square-foot shop in a multi-tenant complex, and he was working for a company across the parking lot. One day Steve spied a Honda RC 30 racing motorcycle – a fairly rare bike – in the window of the brothers’ shop. Intrigued, he decided to stop in.

“We were making products for Yoshimura at that time,” recalls Darrick, “and he was interested in motorcycles and saw the RC 30. He just became a kid who walked into the shop every day and looked around at what we were making. A few years later he was working for the company!”

Steve worked for DC on a part-time basis for about seven years, helping them with their computer system, drawing basic designs and doing some prototype fabrication. He came on board full-time shortly after DC got the first two Haas CNC machines. At that time, they were out-sourcing all of the machine programming, but they wanted to bring the process in-house. Steve was the logical candidate to take over the task.

“Darrell said he would send me to school to learn how to program the machines if I was interested,” explains Steve. “I got the manual and started reading the G codes, then started learning how to work the machine and change the tools. I started out by just kind of cheating, looking at some of the existing programs, copying the G codes over and putting in my own geometry. I essentially learned to program on the Haas machine. The control’s like heaven; it was easy for me to learn on.” Before long, Steve was writing all of DC’s programs in-house.

“The Haas has been really flexible,” Steve continues. “I guess one of the biggest benefits is that the control is the same on the lathe and the mill. When a new operator comes in, he doesn’t have to learn separate controls, or where the keys are located. He can easily work the lathe and the mill, because it’s the same control.”

Today, Steve spends much of his time designing products and providing the technical drawings and programming for the DC Sports machining department. He also oversees the company’s computer system, and is heavily involved in the company’s racing program. He has nearly completed his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, and is looking for areas where his engineering skills will be beneficial to the company.

DC Sports has now grown to 19,000 square feet in two buildings – a bit larger than their original shop. Their current catalog includes a full line of products to complement their trademark headers, including cat-back exhaust systems, suspension strut tower braces (front and rear), air intake systems, short-throw shift levers, and an assortment of billet aluminum engine dress-up pieces, like battery tie-downs, sparkplug covers and oil filler caps.

Handling the machining duties at DC are a Haas VF-1 VMC, two VF-2s and an HL-2 lathe. The VF-1 and one of the VF-2s are dedicated exclusively to machining header flanges five days a week, and the other VF-2 turns out the strut tower bars and all the other aluminum accessories. Anything round is machined on the HL-2 lathe, including parts for the air-intake systems, ends for the strut tower bars, and an assortment of threaded pieces and connectors. The shop currently runs two shifts per day, from about 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

To increase production and reduce setup time for the header flanges, DC has fitted a manual pallet changer system (an SMW Setup Switcher) to one of the VF-2s. This allows the operator to load and unload parts offline while another setup is being machined. Tooling for each specific header flange is left on the individual pallets to speed changeovers, and the pallets are stored on nearby racks.

Header flanges begin as lengths of 3/8"-thick by 3"-wide cold-rolled steel. These are sheared to size, then fixtured four or five to a pallet for machining. The first operation drills the mounting holes for the header and drills out the center of each exhaust port. The mounting holes are then used to locate and mount the flanges on another pallet for the second operation. At this point, the port holes are interpolated and opened up to proper size, and a 1"-diameter indexable endmill is used to cut the flange profile.

All operations are done in one pass to reduce cycle times. According to Steve, “This includes a full-diameter cut with the 1" indexable end mill, and that’s running at about 60 inches per minute.”

He says that the challenge now is to optimize the processes to increase the ratio of run time to power-on time.

They’ve done this on the HL-2 lathe by adding a turret-mounted bar puller. This allows the operator to load a three-foot length of bar through the chuck, then program the tool turret to pull a specified length of stock for the next part. In this way, multiple parts can be run without the operator having to load material.

The HL-2 has allowed DC to bring most of their round parts in-house. “We used to buy a lot of these round components from outside sources,” explains Steve. “Some of them are threaded, so we would have to buy nuts and then have additional operations done on them before they were ready to use, which increased the cost.

“One part in particular is an EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) nut,” he says. “It’s internally threaded with a metric thread, and about 20 millimeters down it has an inverted flare with a hole all the way through the part. I talked to several outside sources and they said there was no way to make it in one part. They would have to do the inverted flare, then weld the threads onto it.”

Darrell and Steve decided to take a closer look and see if they could make the part themselves on the HL-2. They contacted several different tooling manufacturers for a solution, but were only able to come up with special tools, which are always expensive.

Undaunted, they continued to search, and finally came up with a standard tool that would do the job.

“That right there,” says Steve, “cut our costs tremendously. I think we were paying a dollar per nut, and now we can make them for pennies.”

Such solutions are typical of the DC Sports team. When they encounter a roadblock, they knock it down and go on. This philosophy has elevated them to the top of the aftermarket hill.

Being at the top is a great place to be, but it also gives the competition a clear target to aim for. And, although imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, in the aftermarket world, it is usually an attempt to steal market share.

“It seems our competition has found that our design is very attractive to our customers,” says Steve. “So you can find a lot of headers on the market, now, that are very similar to ours. So we’re doing little things to distinguish our products from everybody else. One of those is taking advantage of the fact that we have the Haas CNC machines. A lot of the other manufacturers don’t CNC machine their flanges, they use laser or waterjet. With the CNC equipment we can do extra detailing with just a minimal amount of added time, and it really distinguishes the part.”

If the past is any indication, DC Sports will continue to rise to the challenge. They are always ready to take things to the next level. As Darrel says, “Everything we do, we attack it and try to do it at 100 percent. We want to be known as the company to call if you want to buy a Honda and Acura product. We’ll do everything we need to do to keep it that way.”

“People ask us how we made it to where we are today,” muses Darrick. “And it’s funny, I don’t really have an answer. Just a lot of hard work and dedication. We don’t give up.”