Building an Empire

There was a time, not too long ago, when Rick Hendrick was just another owner of a small race team in North Carolina. But as the popularity of NASCAR rose to record heights over the years, so did the size and success of the Hendrick Motorsports empire.

Today, Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) supports eight different NASCAR teams with engines, chassis and technical support. Over the years, HMS teams have won more than 100 Cup races, and brought home five Winston Cup championships and three NASCAR Truck championships.

Arguably the best-known team at HMS is that of four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and the DuPont No. 24 car. Gordon entered, and held, the limelight by winning Winston Cup titles for HMS in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Although he made a strong showing in 2002, with several race wins keeping him near the top of the points, Gordon failed to clinch another title – at least as a driver. But Gordon isn’t just a driver for HMS; he’s also co-owner with Rick Hendrick of the Lowe’s No. 48 car driven by rookie phenom Jimmie Johnson, who seriously challenged for the series championship in 2002.

Other HMS cars on the Winston Cup circuit are the Kellogg’s No. 5 car driven by 1996 series champion Terry Labonte, and the UAW/Delphi No. 25 car driven by Joe Nemechek. Rounding out the HMS stable are Jack Sprague and David Green driving the Hendrick entries in the Busch Series. For 2003, Sprague moves to the Winston Cup Series to drive the No. 60 Haas CNC Racing car. Also making its appearance in 2003 will be the newest team at HMS, and the first minority-owned team in Winston Cup history, the No. 54 Army National Guard car with Ron Hornaday at the wheel.

For the past five years, Haas machining centres have played a central part in the successful growth of HMS. The CNC department acquired its first three Haas machines in 1997, and now has a staff of nine working on 16 Haas machines. The shop has six HMCs, six VMCs and four lathes – leaving just enough space for raw material in the 15,000-square-foot shop. The sheet metal shaping department has also added a new Haas Z4-500 Laser to cut small parts for stamping dies, as well as a VS-3 50-taper VMC for cutting blanks.

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“It has been a gradual expansion,” says Jim Wall, Hendrick Engines Engineering group manager. “Every year we replace a few machines and add a few machines. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re about to fill the room up. Our engine production has gone from a couple hundred a year to over 700 a year.

“When we had fewer machines, we had to change the fixturing for different parts,” Wall explains. “But now we have the luxury of dedicating certain machines to certain tasks that we do over and over again, such as cylinder heads and manifolds. We have four HS-1Rs, and one of them is dedicated just to cylinder head work.

“Having machines dedicated to a specific part gives us much more repeatability and accuracy, and allows us to turn around parts much faster,” says Wall. “Once you get a race car tuned in and the geometry is just right, then you can actually have spare parts that fit. So if you do get in an accident and bend something, you can replace the parts and put the car back exactly where it was.”

One of the biggest changes at HMS over the years has been the increase in four- and five-axis work.

“We’re doing more five-axis work, because it reduces the number of times a part has to be fixtured,” says Wall. “Every time you take a part out of a fixture and put it in another fixture, there will be inaccuracies due to alignment.”

A new setup in the CNC department uses a Haas HS-2RP with an HRT 310 mounted sideways on the machine’s built-in 4th-axis rotary table. “We took the guts out of the machine and added five-axis capability to it,” says Wall. The HS-2RP, a twin-pallet machine, is dedicated to engine blocks, with each pallet set up for different operations. Dean Millican runs the machine full-time. “In the first setup, we machine the end face and bore the cam tunnels,” he says. “Then we drill and tap for the motor plate.”

The second setup for the engine block is on the other pallet, using the HRT 310 matched with a manual tailstock. “We use the 310 for cylinder bores, along with drilling and tapping deck holes and the main caps. It takes about ten hours for each engine block, but I save time with the pallets,” says Millican. “I can usually go through six engine blocks at a time – three on one pallet and three on the other.”

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Millican adds that the setup allows them to consistently produce good parts. “It’s a really accurate machine, and we’re getting really good quality reports from CMM on the blocks,” he says. With more than 700 engines being machined per year, there’s plenty to keep the CNC department busy.

HMS has a central department that oversees common parts for all of the teams, and each race team has a department of its own to hold team-specific parts. “We don’t do just-in-time inventory very well,” notes Wall. “Most of the time, a team says they’re out of something and Randy Troyer [head of the CNC department] will juggle the priorities to get the parts done. We have lots of parts that are specials, done on a requested basis. We try to stay ahead of that curve.”

Keeping track of everything is a new computer network. “Our race teams can design their own part and then send it here to be machined,” says Wall. “The team here in the shop can pull up the program and manufacture the part without having to go through a bunch of blueprints.”

Supporting the computer network is a new information technology centre that allows easy access to programs for standard parts. “The nice thing about the Haas equipment is that the control is a common platform, so there is little difference between a program for a vertical or horizontal machining centre,” says Wall. “It makes it much easier, because the machines are tied in with the servers through Ethernet, and you can easily do a backup of what you’re doing.”

Despite the large number of parts being machined, the CNC department at HMS isn’t into high production. “We try to focus on the parts that give us a competitive advantage, and leave the commodity parts for vendors,” says Wall. “For example, we have done a lot more work with intake manifolds. We can do complete machining in one setup on the HS-1R.

“The number of machines we have really gives us flexibility. Part of that flexibility is being able to use it in panic mode,” Wall continues. “There are times when a team makes a change on Sunday night after a race. They change a design and then we are able to machine it and test it before the next race.” And, he notes, “It is better for us to design our own part rather than trying to spend time modifying a store-bought part.”

So whether there is an engine block that needs to be machined or another problem to fix, the CNC department at Hendrick Motorsports has the Haas machines to meet the demand.