To the Swift Goes the Checkered Flag
Downsizing is one of the big catchwords in industry today, but Swift Engineering Inc. is taking this science to a new level by designing full-size cars and then using a computer program to shrink them down to 45 percent of their original size. These cars are then suspended above an oversized belt sander and blasted with winds of up to 140 mph ... all in the name of science and technology.
This process is only one of the many test procedures a race car is subjected to before a full-size model is assembled on the Swift production floor.
Recognised as a world-class designer and builder of highly successful race cars, Swift is currently constructing entries for two of the most hotly contested international auto racing series: the CART FedEx Championship and KOOL/Formula Atlantic. Designs are tested for aerodynamic efficiency in a state-of-the-art wind tunnel of Swift’s own design. One of only four of its type in the world, this tunnel is just one of the tools Swift uses to maintain the edge necessary to outpace the competition in the ever-changing arena of international auto racing.
Staying on the cutting edge requires the harmonious blend of technologies to produce a winning piece of machinery. Swift achieves the absolute accuracy and repeatability necessary through the use of computerised modelling methods and the precision machining capabilities of CNC machines from Haas Automation
Alex Cross, Executive Vice President of Swift Engineering Inc., puts it this way. “Our use of modelling in conjunction with the Haas VF-8 machining centre and HL-2 CNC lathe allows us design-to-production accountability. It provides the capability to redesign the various body panels of the cars on the computer and accurately machine them – a major plus when we have to account for changes in downforce in the nature of 20-pound increments.”
Swift’s wind tunnel evaluation models are usually 45-percent versions of the 100-percent file, explains Cross. “So when we test in the tunnel, we are testing an exact replica of the car. This is because the source information used to make the scale moulds and bodywork for the wind tunnel model came off the same computer file as the full-scale model.”
For instance, the engineering file on bodywork in the computer provides the surface contour information to the CNC milling machines, “which is best described,” says Cross, “as almost literally the paint surface.”
This same file is used to create a tool on the CNC machine to make the mould used to lay up the composite parts for the full-size or scale model for testing. Same file, but a different scale, just by reducing the specified end size of the parts.
While most of the body parts used in both the scale and full-size models are carbon composite parts laid up and cured in the autoclave (a pressurised oven used to cure the parts), some parts, such as the wings and canards for the scale model, have to be machined out of solid aluminium billet on the Haas VF-8, because the carbon composites cannot be made thin enough to replicate the part to scale, yet still support the forces exerted on the part.
“Our experience is that if we make the tooling right, we will be able to make the parts right,” Cross continues, “parts that will fit and perform as designed. So we spend a lot of time making sure we get the tooling right. We are committed to the process and depend on the reliability this CNC-produced repeatability gives us.”
Indeed, Swift’s meticulous computer-assisted control of composite body panel development and chassis design was proven by the company’s out-of-the-box win at its first race with the Newman/Haas Racing Swift 007.i at the 1997 PPG CART World Series opener in Miami, Florida. With little more than a year having passed since the designer sketched the first, rough rendering, this virgin victory illustrates the value of design-to- production control.
Team drivers Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi have high hopes for the California- built racer. And while developmental problems are expected, the latest version of the car, the Swift 009.c, is living up to team hopes and dreams. Changes in the new car include significant advancements in both the aerodynamics and suspension, along with a redesigned six-speed gearbox.
Andretti noted that while racing with his previous manufacturer, the team was provided with only one aerodynamic development piece during the entire racing year. Thanks to Swift’s on-site wind tunnel and their “design-to-production” capabilities, the team will be testing and incorporating new designs throughout the season. “This program is not going to sit still,” he said. “We’re going to be putting new pieces on the car all the time.”
As it is, the Swift 007.i – in this case, the name Swift has nothing to do with birds, speed or newt-like creatures, but was chosen by Cross because of the historical race car, “The Swift” – was the first American-made Indy Car chassis to win a race since the season opener in 1983, when Gordon Johncock drove the Wildcat to victory.
Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday?
Swift is looking to the 19-race ’98 FedEx CART series (formerly the PPG CART series) to further establish its reputation as a builder of winning race cars. This reputation stretches back to 1983 when Cross, Paul White and Dave Brun, a flight test engineer from McDonald Douglas, decided to enter the world of race car construction. While they could drive formula (open wheeled) race cars quite well, their real expertise lay behind the scenes, with Brun as the designer and Cross as the organizer and front man. Swift Engineering was formed with winning in mind.
As with most new companies, Swift was short on funds but brimming with enthusiasm. If they were going to sell cars, they first had to prove that their cars could win races. So with a new Swift DB1/Formula Ford in tow, the crew drove to the Formula Ford Championships in Atlanta.
“We had one shot,” says Cross. “Our car either performed well in that race or we hitchhiked home, broke and defeated.” The car, driven by another new partner in the fledgling business, R.K. Smith, took the checkered flag, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The win meant competitors began placing orders for dupes of their winning entry. As Cross says, nobody wants to drive a loser, especially on the race track. “We had orders, with deposits, before the engine had a chance to cool down,” remembers Cross with a smile.
Of course the new Swift 009.c isn’t expected to sell in the hundreds (Swift is scheduled to build six 009.c chassis this year), but it does carry a $425,000+ list price ... not counting spares. This means that while Swift Engineering will probably make some money manufacturing additional customer cars, the “Selling on Monday” will be centred on selling the company name as a respected engineering/design force of the likes of Porsche Design or Lotus Engineering.
Big Bucks and Luck
“The Indy Car program, aside from being one of the premier racing venues in the world, is part of our plan to establish our company as a leader in technological development and engineering,” says Cross. “If you can build a winning race car in one of the most competitive racing series in the world, you are obviously capable of doing a lot of other things.”
This plan includes eventually working with the major auto makers and other manufacturers of technological devices all over the world. However, the road to this goal demands dedication, quality and a lot of luck.
The young company survived the early years on the racing successes of the Formula Ford cars. Then, in 1987, Swift produced its first Formula Atlantic car, the Swift DB4. It was also in 1987 that a young Japanese driver entered the scene determined to make a name in America’s Formula Ford series.
This young driver soon hooked up with Alex Cross as his driving mentor and eventually served to provide the financial resources and contacts in the world marketplace that would make Swift an international entity.
His family name well known throughout the world, young Hiro Matsushita wanted to be a professional race driver. He advanced quickly, and in 1991, he became the first Japanese driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. It was also the same year Matsushita International, including Hiro’s real estate business, bought Swift Engineering.
This now set the executive lineup at Swift to include: Hiro Matsushita, President and Chairman of Swift Engineering; David Bruns, Technical Director and Vice President of Engineering; Jim Chapman, Vice President of Manufacturing and Alex Cross, Executive Vice President, Operations.
From this point on, the Swift Engineering team started moving toward its long-range goals in earnest. But in order to make the jump to the big leagues, Swift had to stop building the so-called amateur race cars and start building a company capable of producing machines to compete in the rarefied world of big-time racing.
So Swift shut down production and relocated to a new 60,000-square-foot facility in the hills overlooking San Clemente, California. It was here that Swift began construction of a new state-of-the-art wind tunnel facility, a facility that, when used in conjunction with the programmable accuracy of Haas CNC machines, would revolutionize race car design.
A Light in the Tunnel
To be a leading contender in the international automotive engineering game, Swift was going to need frequent access to a world-class wind tunnel, preferably a high-tech wind tunnel designed to evaluate automotive aerodynamics. However, access to most of these wind tunnels (located in Europe) is monopolized by the Formula One teams, and time would only be available on a sporadic basis.
This prompted Swift to consider building their own tunnel in the States – a costly venture, but one that would promise easy access and, as an added bonus, income from stateside tunnel time rentals.
This advanced technology demands a moving ground-plane to accurately plot the downforce and aerodynamic forces of a vehicle driving through seemingly motionless air.
Not an easy task if the only way you can approximate the effects of a vehicle at speed is to accelerate the air around it. If the “ground” under the car in the wind tunnel isn’t moving at the same speed as the surrounding air, the ground will form what is known as a “boundary layer” of slower air on any surface that is moving past it. (Note: This is why you can never drive fast enough to “blow” the dust off your car.)
This ground-to-air interaction also includes the ground under the car, and since this doesn’t reflect the real-world parameters a speeding race car feels, the aerodynamic test results will be inaccurate.
To remove this unwanted layer of dirty air, a moving ground plane is approximated by employing an oversized belt not unlike those found on a belt sander – only this belt is 94 inches wide and 38 feet long! In addition, a vacuum is used at the leading edge of this belt to suck away the existing boundary layer that has formed as the air is blown through the tunnel itself.
Another vacuum system is incorporated to hold the belt flat to the base as it rolls under the test car. This is necessary because the cars generate so much negative pressure underneath the car that they literally suck the “ground” up toward them. Cross explains that this massive aerodynamic downforce is so powerful that if a Swift 009.c running at 230 mph could run on an inverted, upside-down track, it would defy gravity and continue running as if right side up, due to the massive aerodynamic downforces generated by the body and wing designs!
Contracted time in the Swift tunnel is a costly and secret affair, but the results are worth the expense. The cost of this advanced facility – in the vicinity of $6 million – is currently being repaid through extensive use by numerous Formula One and NASCAR teams and the Big Three automakers, all of which are lined up to use the advanced facility. Cross says they could have built a more economical tunnel, but then they probably wouldn’t have as many teams waiting in line to book time on it.
Operated as a separate division under the Swift Engineering banner by noted aeronautical engineer Doug Smyth, the Swift Aero building is as secure as a top-secret government operation. “Customers demand this, as advanced technology is the racer’s edge, and this science of aerodynamic weaponry is as closely guarded as any advanced defense project,” said Cross.
“This, in conjunction with the fact that the tunnel is designed to have good laminar airflow, boundary-layer control, and the proper speed and size to test automotive designs combines to distinguish our tunnel as one of the four built in the world of this type.”
Milking the Unfair Advantage
Information gathered from this testing is then evaluated and turned into performance and efficiency on the racetrack. Because Swift depends on a fully computerized design/production system, any minor changes required in a body panel or part can be entered into the original program and the new part machined on one of Swift’s Haas machines to exact tolerances.
In addition, any of these recommended changes can be reduced to the 45-percent wind-tunnel size and tested in the tunnel before the full-size part is cut. This is how Swift is able to design changes in downforce pressure of as little as 20 pounds in a car producing in excess of 4,000 pounds of force.
And because everything in the Swift manufacturing/testing process is computer driven, absolute repeatability is guaranteed. If an internal modification demands changes in the exterior body panels, the appropriate changes can be entered on the computer, mocked up in scale for the wind tunnel testing, then cut full-size on the Haas machines for actual track testing.
This technology makes it affordable to design specific parts for different types of race tracks with the knowledge that these parts will generate the needed results. If a high-speed track demands less wing surface for high speed, yet sufficient body downforce for the turns, these panels can be engineered and tested for the specific parameters of the track.
Short track or road courses would demand different parts and pieces to augment handling characteristics for those tracks, giving the specific vehicle the fabled “unfair advantage” over the competitors. It’s a win/lose situation, and nobody wants to buy a loser ... and that’s why the Swift Aero tunnel is booked well in advance.
Pacific Plant to Build Atlantics
In addition to Swift’s Newman/Haas relationship, the company was recently awarded the contract for the construction of the new KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Series cars. The new Swift 008.a spec racers (47 cars ordered) feature carbon-fiber composite construction with a “raised-nose” design and are powered by the 240-hp Toyota 4A-GE engine.
This competitive series, now entering its 25th year, focuses on driver ability (all cars are identical in a “spec racing” series), and the cars feature a number of parts and components designed and built on Swift’s Haas VF-8 and HL-2.
Swift was but one of eight manufacturers that participated in the design/build competition for the new Atlantic chassis. The new design includes special attention to the survival cell in the areas of impact protection, including cockpit shape and helmet surround in addition to extra attention in the foot protection areas.
Future Plans & Priorities
There has been a lot of growth at Swift Engineering. During the past few years, the staff has increased from 11 to more than 85, and there are no signs of letting up.
Hiro says that in addition to building and selling the cars for the Formula Atlantic series, he envisions selling Swift 009.i cars to about three or four FedEx Championship teams. But he doesn’t want to stretch Swift’s ability to properly service these customers. Cross goes along with this philosophy, adding, “We just want a few good customers. In that way, we’ll have people winning races, and that sells cars.”
Company plans call for more Haas machines, including an additional vertical machining centre with more travel on the X-axis. This will allow the designers to machine moulds for larger composite body panels and pans. In addition, more parts will be programmed for finish work on the existing machines.
“What’s important about Swift and the engineering computer system is that it really is the start of a very integrated process,” says Cross. “A repeatable, developmental process in which Haas machines are a very integral part.”
Success at reaching long-range goals depends on teamwork and dedication to the latest technology. And to the Swift, go the spoils …