The sound of smashing, banging, grinding, whirring, the scent of polishing compound, and the sizzle of welders abuzz assaulted my ears and nose as we walked into the inner sanctum at WELD Racing recently. Enormous million-pound-plus presses and dozens of machining centers are spread out throughout the building, with a wide variety of processes taking place in what — at first glance— seems a haphazard array of workstations. Upon further inspection, we felt the aura of manufacturing stability enter into the picture as we witnessed the company’s products coming to life.
The WELD Racing RT-S line is the perfect street/strip wheel. — Jennifer Collins, WELD Racing
Chances are, if you’re a car enthusiast, you like to see how things are manufactured. We share that desire. In fact, How It’s Made is one of our favorite television shows. So when the opportunity was extended by the folks at WELD Racing to come check out its factory to see how the RT-S wheels — specifically the all-new-for-2018 S70 design — come to life, there was no chance we were going to turn down the invitation.
Meeting some of the people behind the scenes was also enlightening, as there are multiple generations of families working here — husbands, wives, fathers and sons all work to design and manufacture the racing and street wheels that frequently end up in the winner’s circle. Their sense of pride is evident in the products which take shape here, as we witnessed what could only be described as art built from aluminum taking shape during the course of the day.
In fact, ever since we bought my first set of WELD Draglite wheels in 1994, We’ve always wondered how their products were built. Let’s call this trip a bucket-list item I can now check off… and the chance to share the details with you is one that we are excited for — so let’s get to it.
Chunks, Chunks Everywhere!
One thing we noticed right away was just how much aluminum it takes to create these wheels. From the sheer volume of raw materials to the chips destined for recycling, there is more of the alloy located in this building than we have ever seen in one place.
There are certain parts of the process that are proprietary and we simply can’t show you; WELD Racing has developed these methods over years of testing along with trial and error, and the company simply doesn’t want to give away its secrets for free.
The three-piece S70 wheel design consists of two halves and the aforementioned center, which is manufactured in one of three different configurations: low, medium, and high pad, each of which are designed specifically for brake clearance. As Jennifer Collins, Category Manager – Domestic Motorsports and Street Performance, explains, “The WELD Racing RT-S line is the perfect street/strip wheel. Designed using our race engineering, we produce a strong, lightweight wheel in a variety of diameters and widths, that looks as good as it performs.”
In order to prevent the circles from sticking to the press, a proprietary lubricant is added by this worker, who then stacks them in the shelf to await the pressing process.With such a wide variety of potential fitments (think early and late-model musclecars and trucks in 15-inch to 20-inch diameters) the RT-S line is one of WELD’s most versatile. As such the versatility of the wheel centers is a big plus for the company, not only because they can help their customers achieve that “just right” wheel fitment, but also because the manufacturing costs can be amortized much more simply.
No wheel package is complete without the right set of tires, and our old friends over at Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels got us set up with the right rubber for this fitment. With the 20-inch wheels on the drawing board, we selected a pair of 275/35-20 Street Comp front tires and a pair of 305/35-20 ET Street S/S drag radial tires for the rear. These monster meats help to fill the wheelwells just right.
The Street Comp front tires are an ultra high-performance tire which has been designed to be responsive at high speeds and is best suited for late-model performance applications like the S197 and S550 Mustang. The asymmetrical tread design helps to provide solid performance in both wet and dry conditions, although this particular car never sees rain. On the rear, since we have plans to ultimately outfit this car with an automatic transmission of some type, we chose to install the ET Street S/S tires, which will help us to harness the 620-plus rear-wheel horsepower from the ProCharged Coyote. Billed as a street tire which ca be driven to the track, the ET Street S/S features the proven R2 tread compound, which requires little to no burnout to work properly at the track. But it doesn’t give up street manners; despite the monstrous 305-wide tread section, the tires track smooth and true, although a slight amount of tread squirm can be felt at higher-speeds through long, sweeping corners. Regardless, if you’ve ever driven on a drag radial tire, these won’t disappoint. The company says they do offer hydroplaning resistance due to the tread voids and circumferential grooves, but we don’t ever take this car out in the rain, so we can’t confirm. No matter what, we still wouldn’t recommend running 80 mph through a torrential downpour with these on the back. Stickiness “in Mexico” is as expected. They work well—real well—in both dig and roll conditions on this car. And since they are DOT-approved, you don’t have to worry too much about the law hassling you for running them on the street. Although we haven’t gotten to the track with the car in this configuration yet, we expect the next time out to be a breeze as the tires run smooth no matter the speed.
At this point of the process, we were simply in awe, as I realized that these simple discs of aluminum would become the foundation for the set of wheels you see up there at the top of this article in the lead photo. Well… not this specific set, as the build process certainly couldn’t be completed in the single day I was able to spend at the factory, but a similar set.
Testing Is Critical
One of the areas where the company prides itself most is in the testing area, where they put each wheel design through its paces. The roller seen here—with a massive truck wheel and tire assembly in the testing process—is in the middle of a two-million-cycle rotary fatigue test to ensure the wheel design’s feasibility. The testing room also includes radial fatigue testing and impact testing.
These days, thanks to the magic of finite element analysis, computer simulations during the design phase means the engineers can usually get the architecture to a point where the initial testing can be the final testing—a far cry from the trial and error used when the company was first founded in Greg Weld’s backyard in 1967. During testing, the wheels are subject to loads which can be three times or more the load rating of the wheel, and they can wear through a few tires during the two-million-cycle test. All of this is done in the name of safety for the company’s customers.
Finishing The Build Process
The process of wheel polishing takes a number of steps using progressively finer compounds and abrasive wheels. This employee has been performing this same task for well over 30 years, tackling the task with an artist’s touch, doing it as much by feel as by sight, as the polishing wheel must be treated with just the right amount of pressure and movement to make the wheel face gleam once the job is done.
One part of the process that was really interesting to me is that the shells are then heated to help them expand slightly and then the wheel center is dropped into place while the shell cools down.
The top half of the wheel is assembled in the same fashion as the bottom; the shell is heated and then dropped into place and left to cool, solidifying the press-fit before it moves to the welding station.
We can’t show you any of the welding process, but rest assured that it provides a perfect weld that ensures the wheels are as strong as possible, evidenced by the company’s in-house testing success. As one of only a handful of North American wheel manufacturers which can boast about its in-house testing facility, the company is assured of the strength and durability of its wheels, as proven out by performance on the track — drag strip and road course — for over 50 years. Their testing regimen is detailed and thorough, and is designed to test wheel integrity at levels far above what could be expected “normal.”
One interesting item that Jennifer shared with me is that each and every WELD wheel is serialized, with a number that is affixed to the wheel barrel before it is shipped. By serializing each wheel, they know exactly who built it, when it was made, where the aluminum came from, and even who inspected it and packed it into a box. This information is a great reference tool for future purchases and even for collectors who have called after purchasing a car with WELD wheels on it.
The opportunity to witness up close and personal what it takes to design, test, machine, and assemble not only WELD Racing’s S70 three-piece wheel, but all of WELD Racing’s wheels, was one that will not ever be forgotten. It was an amazing day spent with talented, dedicated, and extremely proficient people. And after all, isn’t it the people who make the things?