Gettin’ Back On That Horsepower

Did you ever have one of those days where nothing goes right?

Where the cosmos is aligned against you, and no matter what you do, the results are less than favorable? Well, that's the kind of season PacWest Racing Group had last year.

Things looked so promising as they geared up for 1998. Coming off their best season ever in 1997 – drivers Mauricio “Big Mo” Gugelmin and Mark Blundell combined for four race wins, three pole positions and finished fourth and sixth respectively in the PPG Cup points standings – they were ready to take things to the next level. Early predictions pegged PacWest as one of the teams to beat, with Blundell and Big Mo not only expected to be in the hunt for 1998, but at the head of the pack.

Unfortunately, the cosmos had other plans. Setbacks plagued the team at every turn: a new engine/chassis combo arrived too late for thorough testing, practice and testing sessions were hindered by weather, untimely crashes destroyed cars. What started out as a promising year ended with both drivers playing follow the leaders. With all points tallied, Gugelmin closed out the season in 14th place, and Blundell rolled across the line three places later in 17th.

What happened?

“In ’97 we ended on a high note,” explained John Anderson, PacWest’s vice president of race operations. “In ’98 we fell in a big hole. There’s not one thing you can point to and say: ‘Look at the size of that! There it is. That’s it.’ There were a lot of little things.”

Bruce McCaw, PacWest’s president, expressed a similar view. “Fundamentally, we just got a late start on the season, with our cars coming late, and of course a new engine being developed by Mercedes.”

The introduction of the new Mercedes engine, and the corresponding new chassis from Reynard, posed several challenges for PacWest, as well as other teams. The new lump was drastically smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the electronic fuel injection package from Magneti Marelli wasn’t yet reliable, and the new chassis had some major aerodynamic differences. It was like starting over.

“They were behind the development curve,” Anderson said, referring to the new engine, “which meant there were parts arriving late to us; and the electronics system wasn’t to the point where they could put it on an engine and use it reliably.”

Faced with a new Reynard-Mercedes that had major teething problems, PacWest chose to start the new season with their ’97 Reynards: a known combination with proven speed and reliability.

“We had ended up with a good package,” Anderson said, “we had a competitive engine and chassis, why not use it? We could take delivery of the ’98s, and slowly get to know those cars while starting the season with a known quantity. We knew the ’97 engine, we knew what its capabilities were, we knew how much mileage we could get. We thought we could take advantage of those things to put us a step up with early points. The points you miss at the start of the year you never regain. They can win or lose a championship.”

Other teams opted to use the ’98 cars despite the early problems. But, according to Anderson, they had to run the new engines conservatively at first, which meant they would use more gas. For this reason, PacWest chose a strategy of fuel conservation for the first race.

“If we could go further than the next guy,” Anderson explained, “the chances of getting a yellow flag to pit under were going to be greater. Unfortunately, the first two races, the yellows came when we didn’t want them – early. And the guys who were running the new stuff, it fell right into their hands.”

PacWest ran the ’97 chassis through the first three races of the season: Miami; Motegi, Japan; and Long Beach. Bad weather plagued both Motegi and Long Beach, dampening practices and making it difficult to find a competitive setup for race day.“

Those first three races with the ’97s didn’t pan out the way we thought they would,” Anderson stated. “Coupled with that, we made some setup changes that shot us in the foot.”

McCaw added, “I think there were probably some mistakes we made. One was probably trying to develop the ’97 car some, instead of just running it the way we had it.”

Even so, both Gugelmin and Blundell logged top-ten finishes in two out of three of those races. Clearly they were still in the hunt.

PacWest finally brought out their ’98 cars for the fourth race of the season, which was Nazareth, a short oval. “Both drivers were involved in major accidents there,” Anderson said, “and we basically wrote off two cars. We were struggling to come to grips with the new ’98 car, and the first race we get to, we have a problem with both of them, and we’re scratching again. We kept running the ’98s, but we took the ’97s as backups, because we didn’t have the parts finished or ready to support a whole ’98 program.”

PacWest struggled with the ’98 cars throughout the remainder of the season, trying to find a winning setup. “The series is so competitive,” Anderson commented, “that if you get behind the development curve, it’s very difficult to catch back up again. It’s a game of numbers, really. You make fewer mistakes than the next guy, or you make better choices than the next guy, it will all add up to a better result, usually. It’s a gamble. You can go from hero to zero pretty quickly. And we had zero.”

Yet, in CART racing, zero is a relative term; and the difference between hero and zero is often measured in fractions of a second. Even though PacWest didn’t win any races in ’98, they still amassed 13 top-ten finishes and two top-five finishes. Both Gugelmin and Blundell showed tremendous determination and commitment throughout the season, and it all seemed to come together for the final race in Fontana. Aided by the dedicated and consistently fast efforts of their pit crews, both drivers finished in the top six at California Speedway, with Mo leading the race for 40 laps and Mark leading for one.

“Fontana was a nice way to finish the season,” McCaw stated. “The whole organization ran well, and we were fast all weekend. We probably had the best pit stops in the race. So, we were very much there, and I think everybody knew we were there. It’s nice to go into the off season feeling good about the organization and where we are and what we’re doing.”

With a disappointing season behind them, PacWest had no time, nor the inclination, to sit around and lick their wounds. They had survived the battle, and it was time to move forward and prepare for the next round.

As the old saying goes, when you fall off the horse, the best thing to do is get back on; and PacWest is ready to ride this horse for all it’s worth in 1999.

Unlike in 1998, the team is ahead of the development curve this year. They’ve had a season to dial in the ’98 cars, and they’re working with basically the same Reynard-Mercedes platform for ’99. The Ilmor/Mercedes IC 108E engine has pretty much matured out of the teething stage, and reliability is no longer an issue with the Magneti Marelli fuel injection system. “That engine will be in the new ’99 car with a season’s development under its belt,” commented Anderson. Things are looking good.

The team has been working with scale models of the ’99 car since about mid season last year, making modifications to the aerodynamic package and testing the results in the new Reynard wind tunnel conveniently located next door to PacWest’s Indianapolis facility.

“We think having the aero program next door, as opposed to in the UK where we did it last year, will be a big help to us,” McCaw said. “We have some ideas about how to use the program more effectively.”

Reynard’s new facility, known as the Auto Research Centre, also houses a computerized seven-post “shaker” rig for testing suspension setups. Using information gathered during races from sensors located throughout the cars, the “shaker” simulates the actual conditions encountered at a specific track, allowing engineers to see first-hand how the suspension is reacting, and develop optimal setups without having to go to the track.

“As long as you have the data from the track,” said Julian Karras, PacWest’s drawing office manager, “you can simulate a lap.” The advantage of the seven-post rig is that it can fire forces not only into the four corners of the car (wheels and suspension), but into the chassis as well to simulate the effect of aerodynamic forces on the car.

“You’re able to simulate other forces being exerted on the car, such as pitch and roll and rake,” Karras said. “If you can do that at tracks like Cleveland and Long Beach, where you can’t go and test because it’s a street course, then you’re going to get some useful data that you normally couldn’t get.”

Having the new Reynard facility right next door obviously is an advantage for PacWest; but the relationship goes both ways. PacWest has been instrumental in helping Reynard set up and test their new facility. In fact, one of the team’s ’97 race cars was used to calibrate the seven-poster.

“They took a ’97 car and loaded it with accelerometers and strain gauges, and ran it around Putnam with a set of tires on it,” explained Karras. “Then they pretty much wrapped it up in brown paper and packed it off to England. They calibrated the data against their four-poster rig over there, and using that information, they were able to bring the car back over here and dial-in the seven-poster.”

All of PacWest’s early aero work came to fruition when the first Reynard Champ Car for ’99, chassis number 001, arrived at PacWest’s racing shop Sunday, November 8 – a mere seven days after the close of the ’98 season, and six weeks earlier than they received last year’s car.

“It’s earlier than we’ve ever had a car before,” Anderson said when the chassis was delivered. “It’s going to be a great competitive advantage. If you look at where we were last year and where we are now, we’re already months ahead of the game.”

The new car got its first shake down in the hands of Mauricio Gugelmin at Sebring International Raceway in Florida in mid November. Following three successful days of testing, Gugelmin came away very optimistic.

“It’s very encouraging to have such a successful first test,” he said. “We did around 600 miles overall and had no problems whatsoever. The car was really reliable.

“We’re basically learning all we can about the new car,” he continued. “We kept it simple, but looked at a lot of things. I’m very optimistic; there’s potentially a lot more to come. At least I know I have a car in which I can use the brakes to attack corners rather than a car that wants to attack me!

“One of the keys to our success in 1997 was getting the new car early and putting in a lot of miles to learn what it liked and didn’t like,” Gugelmin said. “It’s a tremendous advantage for us to be the first team out testing our ’99 package.”

Such testing will be a crucial part of PacWest’s program for ’99. “We’ve established an autonomous test team this year,” Anderson said, “so we have five cars. We’ll use the fifth car for testing. The test team will be equipped with its own gear, its own equipment and its own transporter, so we can take the test team and not interrupt the preparation of the cars for a particular race.” This will free the race cars from testing duty, allowing more freedom to test new components and modifications throughout the season.

“Clearly, having a fifth car will help our testing,” McCaw added. “It primarily gives us an opportunity to have a car ready to set up and go testing maybe the day after a race, instead of having to take a race car back and repair it and rebuild it. It makes our people a lot more effective; and, of course, if we have a problem, it becomes a fairly instant source of spare parts.”

In addition to bringing their aerodynamic division in-house, PacWest also has brought their research & development division on board. “In the past, we’ve had a relationship with a company in England called Galmer Engineering,” Anderson explained. “But with the location of the two entities, it got unwieldy sometimes: different time zones, the logistics of getting parts made over there and sent over here to fit cars they don’t see. The name of the game, especially with 20 races, is time. So if you can do the job faster, that’s the key to it.”

Getting the job done faster meant bringing in the equipment to do it. To this end, PacWest has set up a full machine shop outfitted with two CNC machining centres (VF-2 and VF-4) and two CNC lathes (HL-2 and HL-4) from Haas Automation. They also have HP Kayak workstations running AutoCAD for the design work, and Mastercam software for developing the machining programs.

“Those machines have performed several miracles,” Karras said, referring to the manual machines. “We’ve made stuff on there that you wouldn’t believe. Back in the old days, that was how it was done: one at a time, manually, and every part was different.” But when you’re building five separate race cars and running 20 races a season, not to mention all the testing, you can’t afford to make parts one at a time. And if you’re trying to make a batch of identical parts, you definitely don’t want every one to be different.

According to Karras, PacWest used to send out at least 75 percent of their work, which required a lot of lead time. “We’d have to get parts drawn up and ready a couple weeks in advance. We’d have to have it quoted by a couple of subcontractors and find one who could make it on time. Then we’d get a P.O. written up and fax it to him, and then he’d make the parts and ship them back. That all takes a bunch of time. Whereas now, if we need ten of something, we’ll make them in two days. The story’s completely different now that we have this equipment here.”

With the manual machines, the parts had to be fairly simple. “We were a little constricted as to what we drew,” Karras said. “If we knew we had a short time to make it, we drew it with that in mind. Now, even though it still has to be done in a short time, we can be more ambitious with what we draw, because we have the CNC power.

“Something else which is very important,” Karras continues, “is the control over that piece. If the guys are halfway through making a piece and suddenly you find you need to modify a certain part of it, they’re able to do that. You can run out into the shop and say, ‘Stop.’ But when some guy in Colorado or England is making it for you, you can’t do that. You wait for the bits to come in, then you try to modify them. Or you try to ring him with the change, and if you’re too late, then you’ve got to pay for them. That’s been a problem, sometimes. You have to have them redone, so you’re paying for them twice, effectively.”

“The old enemy is time,” stresses Anderson. “There are a lot of good machine shops around, and they’re there to make money. They’ve got other customers, and if you’re the second, or third, or fourth on the list to get a job done, your parts are going to take more time than if you do them yourself. We didn’t have the capability, and we couldn’t compete with just a manual lathe and mill.”

The CNC power, as Karras puts it, gives PacWest the capability to compete, and speeds up the development process.

“This is a just-in-time business,” McCaw remarked, “and you have to be able to do things on your own schedule, not somebody else’s.”

PacWest’s machinists, Brian Williams and Chris Jaynes, are thrilled to have the new equipment. Both had been pushing for quite some time to make the move to CNC.

“We went from having VW Microbuses to having Porche 911 Carreras,” exclaimed Williams. “It was a huge difference. Now the engineers are thinking, ‘Yeah, they can do this, and they can do this and . . ..’ They’ll be designing parts for us to build, instead of having somebody else do it.”

“The engineers used to have to consider whether or not we could actually make the part in-house,” Jaynes explained. “And then if we couldn’t, we would send it out to a local machine shop and pay a lot of money to get it done, because everything we do has got to be done in a short period of time.”

Now, with the CNCs, the process is different. “On Monday they figure out what they want. On Tuesday the part’s drawn. By Wednesday we’re machining it, and hopefully, by Friday the part’s on the car and on its way to the race track,” Jaynes said.

“A lot of times it’s drawn, designed, built, anodized, almost in the same day,” said Williams.

And there’s been no shortage of work for PacWest’s new machine shop. “We haven’t sent any work out for a long time,” said Karras. “We’ve even modified a few Reynard pieces ourselves. We’ve changed stuff around and made it to our own liking. We’re going to make as much as physically possible, and the guys are pretty stacked up right now. We’ve got things like front-upright tooling to make – so you can put the bearings in properly – and this kind of stuff. It’s not just parts that go on the car, it’s the backup pieces, as well.”

One group of parts in particular, the skid plates, has really benefitted from the CNCs. These thin aluminum or brass plates bolt to the bottom of the cars to prevent the carbon fiber chassis from wearing away when the car bottoms out. Although they’re not the most complicated part, they are crucial to the race car.

“They’re such a throwaway item,” Karras explained. “We get through hundreds of them a year with four cars beating them on the ground. They don’t last that long, and we have to change them and put brand-new ones on. So for that reason, we make our own. The CNCs have been churning those out.

“The way it used to work was,” he continued, “we would take the first ones that came with the car and make a pattern off them, then sort of cut them out on the bandsaw and mark off where the holes were supposed to go. That’s so unreliable, with human error involved there, you know.”

“Now,” said Jaynes, “we just sheer the plate square, stick it in the machine, and it cuts the profile, drills the holes and countersinks them in three minutes. So, the job that was taking a guy probably two hours to do, is taking us three minutes to do now.” Because they are pulled directly off the drawings from Reynard, the profiles and hole locations for the plates are exact.

Such time savings are crucial when you’re racing or testing nearly every weekend. But cost is another consideration. After all, race cars are expensive. A Reynard chassis will set you back about $450,000, and that’s without an engine, or any spares. Multiply that by five – two race cars, two back ups and a test car – and you’re talking major bucks.

If you break something and need a replacement, or just want to have a couple spares around, you have two options: buy them direct from Reynard, or make your own. Obviously, Reynard is going to charge a premium. They’ve got it, and you need it – it’s simple supply and demand. But if you have the capability and can make it yourself, well, you’re that much further ahead of the game. Not only have you saved a lot of time, but a bunch of money, to boot.

Another reason to bring things in-house is security. Every race team has their own speed secrets, and they don’t want them to get out.

“Any race team will tell you,” Karras said, “that the best speed secret they have is keeping their speed secret secret. And that applies to us, obviously, as well. I would say about a third of the stuff we do is strictly PacWest related.”

By manufacturing and modifying their components in-house, they eliminate the chance that another team working with the same supplier – be it Reynard or a local machine shop – could find out their secrets.

Summing up their reasons for bringing the processes in-house, Anderson put it this way: “You are master of your own destiny. You can react far quicker than if you’re doing stuff outside, you have the security, and then there’s the financial consideration. When you farm stuff out to an outside contractor, you’re obviously paying for his profit and his overhead. To bring that in-house, it’s a major advantage to us. It’s money saved. What you save there you can spend somewhere else to make that car go quicker.”

And, after all, that’s what racing’s all about.

Since they got the CNC machines, PacWest has jumped in with both feet, making just about anything they can think of. “We make all kinds of bobbins or washers or pieces that get lost or broken easily,” Karras explained. “For example, if you have a crash and you lose a side pod– which generally you do, that’s the first thing that makes contact with the wall after the wheel – in that side pod there’s all kinds of clevises and washers and stuff that hold it down. That’s all gone, because it’s broken or cracked, so they all get replaced.

“I think we’re going to be playing around with the suspension mounts just to experiment with geometry,” he continued. “That’s going to require some full-blown CNC power to produce those. We have no requirement at the moment to get into making our own suspension, simply because the parts, everything we need, come with the car. But when we start stuffing them into the walls, we have to think about where to get the spares.”

Rather than buy the spares from Reynard, they will probably make their own. “We make anything we can, at any point, because Reynard makes a pretty decent mark-up. When you have the kind of hardware sitting on the floor that we have [the Haas CNCs], you make use of it,” Karras said.

The list of bits they’ll be making is endless: anti-roll-bar pieces, weight jackers, suspension components, skid plates, shock parts, quick jacks, underwing supports, rear wing pillars, pit equipment, fasteners, bushings, spacers. And they’ll be working with a multitude of different materials: 6061 and 7075 aluminium, 17-4 stainless, a little bit of steel, and even some exotic materials like Zymaxx, a NASA-grade carbon-based polymer.

The move to CNCs and bringing everything in-house, while being very beneficial, also has been a learning process for PacWest. Neither Brian Williams or Chris Jaynes had much experience with CNC equipment prior to the Haas machines. In fact, both machinists originally were hired as mechanics for the team. When the decision was made to acquire CNC equipment, they were asked to put together a wish list.

After poring over brochures and literature, and talking with some other manufacturers, the decision was made to go with Haas, which was Williams’ first choice.

“From what I’d read and the people I talked to, it just seemed to be the best package all around for what we’re doing here,” he said. “I’d never actually seen one run until we went down and looked at one at the local distributor, Technical Equipment.”

“We went down to the local distributor and saw the machines in operation,” Anderson said. “It was a feeling, really, from those guys: the enthusiasm was there. These guys followed up, they were enthusiastic, they wanted to see us involved, and it just made the difference. We went down there a couple of times. We had a look at the machines; we measured them up. They made parts for us while we stood there and watched.”

Once the machines were delivered, it was time for the machinists to go to school, as there’s a little bit of difference between running a manual machine and programming a CNC.

“Chris, myself and Chris Griffis (PacWest’s machine shop manager) went to Technical Equipment in Cincinnati for the training,” Williams said, “and the week after we got back the guy from Technical Equipment came in and initialized the machines and did all the setup and got us going. About a week later we were making chips.”

They’ve been making chips ever since, and having a great time doing it.

“I love coming to work every day,” Williams enthused. “That’s the reason I wake up every morning, so I can come in and be building parts. If I didn’t like what I was doing, I wouldn’t be here.” And things are even better now with the Haas equipment, he said. “It’s definitely better now. When you get a part out and it looks extremely nice, and everything is exactly the numbers that you punched in, it’s a good feeling. Whatever work you put into it has paid off, because the parts you get out are perfect.”

And the more complicated the part, the better. “That’s the type of stuff that Brian and I look forward to doing,” Jaynes commented, “the really challenging stuff that we have to actually sit down and think about.”

Both machinists tout the Haas control as one of the best things about the machines, emphasising the fact that it’s the same on both the lathe and the mill. “Once you learn one, you’re able to really run them both,” Jaynes said.

Since many of the parts they make are similar, the machinists also really like the word-processor-style editing. “You can take a chunk of your program out here and stick it over on the clipboard, then write another program that you know is going to have the same operation, and slide it right back in,” Jaynes said.

Other features of the Haas control they rely on are the built-in calcuRobotor and graphic dry-run function. “I use the calcuRobotor quite a bit,” Williams said, “especially with angles and whatnot on the lathe. You can transfer the numbers right from the calcuRobotor into the program.”

And they use the graphic dry-run every time they run the machine, according to Jaynes. “It’s a life saver,” he said.

Williams agreed, “The graphics are definitely good, even for debugging programs. If you’ve got something in there that you accidentally put in, you can see that on the graphics, instead of wasting a piece. I don’t know how you’d live without it, really.”

Now that they’ve had a taste of CNC power, PacWest probably is wondering how they ever lived without it. The Haas machines have definitely become vital members of the PacWest team.

“When you talk to the guys who are running them,” explained McCaw, “man, they just love the equipment; they love working with it. That speaks volumes, because at the end of the day the guys who use the equipment are the ones who really know if you’ve got the right thing or not. And I know our people are thrilled with it.”

“The main role of the Haas machines, obviously, is to produce parts in less time, and more of them,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to be able to take advantage of what modern technology can do for you. The ones who can are the ones who are going to get a leg up on the competition. The name of the game is to beat the other guy. If we can do it faster, better and more cost effectively, that’s our advantage over the competition who hasn’t got that capability.

“You’re only as good as your last results,” Anderson continued. “For the ’99 season we want to be competing for the championship. From the time that bloody green flag drops at the start of the first race, we want to be running with the lead bunch.”

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our organization, and I think we have two of the finest drivers in the series,” concluded McCaw. “You have to get better to stay in the game, and if you want to get really good, you’ve got to get a lot better. We feel we’ve got a combination that can win, and we expect to be right at the top all year.”