"If you don't keep up with the latest technology, you fall behind," said Jeffrey Baker, director of fabrication for Penske Racing South. "It's just that simple."
It was a mantra passed down to him from Baker's boss, legendary racer and entrepreneur, Roger Penske, who since his first official race in 1958, insisted on the best equipment and technology available. It was that penchant to win-to be the best- that has set Penske and his teams apart for nearly half a century.
Today, having engrained an indelible mark on NASCAR and Indy series racing, Penske continues to demand the best of everything, which becomes clear throughout his new 400,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on eight acres near Charlotte, N.C.
But Penske purposely designed his racing campus to be more than a slick office complex and racing laboratory. While hundreds of technicians produce some of the most advanced cars in the world, the entire facility speaks to visiting racing enthusiasts.
Encircling the facility's inner walls, high above the open workspace, are 1,000 linear feet of historic photographs depicting five decades in the sport. Fans are invited to walk about the 330-foot observation deck to take in the view and watch the mechanics at work.
Boasting one of the largest ceramic tile jobs in the world, Penske installed more than one million pounds of Italian ceramic tile throughout the building. It took some 250,000 tiles to fill the facility.
The equipment on the shop floor was also selected with the same care. Baker insists on welding equipment from The Lincoln Electric Company® . Nearly all welds on Penske NASCAR® cars are TIG welded with Lincoln's Invertec® and Precision TIG® welders.
"There are some guys who come to work here only knowing another brand of welder," Baker said. "But after we put a Lincoln® TIG torch in their hands, they change their thinking pretty quickly. It's just habit, I guess. You get used to one thing. But until you try something better, you'll never know."
Some of the best welders in the world assemble Penske's racecars, Baker boasts, in an environment, where welding is considered more of an art than a means to join metal.
"I can look at a specific weld and tell you exactly who laid down that bead," Baker said. "These guys take great pride in their work. And if a wrecked car comes through the door, they're all lined up to see if their weld failed."
But weld failure isn't an option for cars that travel at more than 200 miles per hour. For safety and performance reasons, the quality standards for NASCAR® cars must match that of the aerospace industry, which serves as a model for NASCAR® technology and innovation. Fit tolerances go as low as 1/1000 for some parts. Every weld is visually inspected, and many key welds are X-rayed.
Each driver has roughly a dozen cars in various stages of assembly and repair - each for different track conditions. From the observation deck viewers will see 10 or more of what appear to be identical cars lined up in bays. But each vehicle differs in camber, weight distribution, suspension and turn radius to match varying track conditions.
Drivers, too, have their say in personal preferences. Each car is an ongoing project to enhance safety and performance. A variety of people are routinely involved in the production, from welders to engineers to research analysts and drivers.
The Lincoln Electric Company® also has a local full-time technical sales representative nearby to deliver new technologies to the shop, offer expertise regarding welding applications and to offer other assistance when needed. That local presence provided by Lincoln® is a key factor why Penske shop welders are red.
"Lincoln is on the industry's leading edge of welding technology," Baker said. "These guys help us get the most of their equipment and it's really paid off. In this shop, welding is everything. Our drivers' lives depend on it, and everyone who works on these cars know it."
To assist in ongoing technology training, each year Lincoln® holds a two-day invitational seminar for racing's elite welders. Representatives from Penske attend every year in December - an opportunity Baker says is invaluable.
"It's amazing the things these guys teach you," he said. "You have to keep up, especially in my industry. These seminars are an important part of that. Welding isn't a static trade, it's an evolving technology that grows a lot faster than most people realize, and Lincoln® leads the way."