Roughly three and a half seconds, or maybe a hair more. That’s all it takes for a pair of dragsters to traverse a 1,000-foot Top Fuel circuit track, spewing flame and drowning out the din of cheering spectators as they blur past at speeds exceeding 330 mph.
In these moments, precisely how many onlookers fully appreciate the engineering that goes into these lightweight machines is anyone’s guess. And yet, three and a half seconds is all it takes for critical engine components to fail. That’s why the starting line isn’t really at the racetrack for National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) teams; it’s in the shop. In fact, keeping the cars running is demanding enough that the shop literally travels with the team during the 10-month race season, with the same kinds of trucks that house cars and crew also transporting mills, lathes and other equipment.
At more than 20 vehicles strong, the caravan of tractor trailers hauling Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) around the country is the largest in the NHRA. The home-base manufacturing operation in Brownsburg, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, is more sizeable than most as well. Last year alone, DSR invested more than $7 million in new equipment and a 25,000-square-foot expansion, bringing the facility to a total of 145,000 square feet. At the time of this writing, engine blocks were the only significant components not produced in house, and plans were already in the works to start machining those parts, too. “We want to control our own technology and control our own costs,” says Tom Warga, one of 14 machinists and one of the lead strategists for improvements throughout the shop.
That goal is likely a familiar one to many North American manufacturing enterprises. Although winning titles is the primary aspiration of any race team, this 120-employee organization is a business like any other, and it faces similar pressures and challenges. Team owner and former driver Don “the Shoe” Schumacher certainly thinks this way, at least judging by his decision in 2013 to start selling parts to other teams as well. In keeping with Mr. Schumacher’s predictions (and contrary to the worries of some crew chiefs), selling itself as a parts supplier as well as a race team hasn’t detracted from DSR’s competitiveness, Mr. Warga says. (In fact, 2016 was the fourth year in which the team won two NHRA world championships in the same season.) Supplying parts does, however, provide extra revenue, not to mention a potential hedge against unexpected events off the strip.
As the volume and variety of work have grown, strategies for addressing the resulting pressures have also tracked closely with broader industry trends. These days, the steady hum of carbide on metal emerges from not just three-axis VMCs and lathes, but also five-axis, turn-mill and pallet-fed horizontal machining centers. From clamping to cutting tools to CAM software, processes are designed to maximize spindle access to the workpiece and minimize the need for manual intervention during the machining cycle.