This is a statement that fewer and fewer manufacturers in America today can make an honest claim to, but the team at Weld Racing Wheels stand behind their American-made product. They recently invited us inside their production facility in Kansas City, Missouri – just a stones throw from where the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals play ball – to see how one of the most recognizable and respected brands in the racing industry constructs the wheels used by racers all across the globe. Join us as we take a walk-through tour of the Weld Racing facility.
Weld Racing's Kansas City, Mo. manufacturing facility certainly isn't hard to miss, what with a giant racing wheel on the roof.
CNC And Machining
Among the lineup of wheels that Weld Racing offers, there are a number of components and entire wheels that are machined and forged from a block of aluminum. These include the modular centers on a drag racing wheel, and one-piece dragster fronts on up to the massive one-piece machined wheels for trucks.
A CNC machine carves the design of the aluminum center of an RT-S wheel. This center will later be welded to a pair of wheel shells.
At left, a pallet of Top Fuel wheel centers awaiting final machining and assembly. Right, a view of Weld's CNC machines. The machining department features five CNC machines, three lathes, and mills.
An interesting fact about Weld Racing
The average tenure of the current production staff is roughly 15-20 years, meaning there’s unparalleled experience in every facet of the production of racing wheels here.
Our first stop brings us to the CNC and fabrication area, where three CNC machines, three lathes, and a number of milling machines churn out these aluminum components, while two other CNC machines in a separate area carry out additional production. Here, drag race and sprint car wheel centers, street wheels, and beadlock rings are converted from forgings into components. One of these machines is dedicated to the spindle mount and lug mount front drag racing front runners, while another is capable of producing wheels for dually trucks up to 30 inches in diameter.
Components that will be anodized in black and Weld Racing’s signature gold colors will first be machined and sent to anodizing before returning here for milling of the bolt centers and remaining elements.
Weld also maintains a storage area within their machining department where partially machined wheels and centers are inventoried and finished on a made-to-order basis. Within their popular new truck line, ten different wheel designs are offered in both 17 and 20 inch diameters in five, six, and eight lug patterns for single wheel trucks and 17 and 19.5 inch diameters for dually trucks. With this wide matrix of offerings, rather than maintain an inventory of finished wheels of every shape and size, Weld machines and stocks the basic lathe form and once a wheel is ordered, is milled-to-order to the order specifications in terms of the final design and bolt pattern.
Because Weld Racing offers so many options in wheels in terms of the designs, diameters, and bolt patterns, maintaining a large stock of each would be costly. As such, wheels are machined to a blank face, anodized if necessary, and stored until an order is made. They are then placed back into the machines and finished per the order.
At left are one-piece drag racing front wheels fresh out of the CNC machine and ready for the final cosmetic machining. These wheels originate from a thin bar of aluminum that are forged into material of the proper size. At right, you can see the beginnings of what will soon be aluminum beadlocks.
Interestingly, a number of the machines and tools used in this facility are works of the engineering staff at Weld Racing, and virtually every machine has been modified to carry out a particular job specific to the production of wheels. As such, Weld Racing maintains an entire tooling department and staff, whose job is to create and service the various toolings used for stamping, machining, rolling, and every other element of the production process. Roughly 80 percent of the toolings, fixtures, and dies used on the floor are made in-house by a toolmaker; that other 20 percent being tools too large to fit Weld Racing’s lathes.
As virtually the entire facility operates using machines modified to carry out the wheel-making process, Weld Racing maintains a department and staff dedicated to creating the tools, dies, and fixtures used in these machines,.
Finished Good Storage
Based on the lead-time for the manufacturing of certain wheel lines, Weld Racing maintains a three-week buffer worth of stock of their A-move (most popular) wheels to ship out to distributors.
As we make our way to the rest of the fabrication department, we pass the finished goods warehouse. Here, Weld Racing maintains a stock of race and street performance wheels here, based on a calculation of usage and number of turns that can be met through production. Based on the lead time for manufacturing, three to four weeks worth of A-mover (high-selling) inventory is kept here as a buffer between Weld Racing and their distributors.
Opposite of the aisle from the finished goods warehouse is the storage area for raw materials of aluminum in all shapes and sizes ready for machining.
Raw Material Storage
When Weld Racing says their wheels are made in the USA, they mean it. Their large inventory of raw materials are shipped in from domestic suppliers from around the country.
Every piece of raw material you see here comes from domestic suppliers. None of the raw material used in Weld’s wheels is imported.
It’s here, in the fabrication department where perhaps the most interesting process undertaken by Weld Racing occurs. If you’ve ever wondered how the halves of a wheel (the two halves that make up the shape of a wheel that are welded together at the center) are created, then you’re about to find out.
While many wheel manufacturers simply source out and even import wheel halves already pressed, Weld Racing does it all in-house. These begin as three different alloys of sheet stock, which are essentially thin, round, flat discs when they arrive. Using a series of large presses, these discs are pressed – or “drawn” – into their basic cup-like shape and then into the shape you see in the final product. without any use of heat, these alloy discs are formed into a wheel half with nothing more than hydraulic force. These halves are used in the creation of most wheels that aren’t one-piece, from Top Fuel wheels to Alumastars and the like.
At top left, these alloy circles, dipped in wax, are what will ultimately be transformed into wheel shells through a process known as 'drawing,' where the circles are pressed into shape through hydraulic force. Top right, you can the initial draw that forms the cup-like shape, while at bottom right you see the second draw that reduces the diameter, deepens the draw, and further forms the final shape of the wheel shell.
This massive, 1,100-ton hydraulic press punches out narrower front wheel shells all in one process from alloy circles in less than a few seconds.
In the first “draw,” the alloy circles are reduced by 50%, meaning a 30-inch circle becomes a 15-inch wheel with a depth – or “draw” – as deep as the material will allow. Further draws will reduce the diameter and increase the length. These will generally go through two if not three draws before they’re finished.
Once pressed, certain wheel halves, depending on the alloy, will be heat treated in a pair of large furnaces. The 6000 Series alloys, used in most racing wheels, are formed in a “soft” condition and is then ran through the furnaces to harden them to a T-6 condition. Halves are run through the furnace at 375 degrees for eight hours, which artificially ages the grain properties of the material. As those with engineering backgrounds know, you could actually place these wheels on a shelf for several years and age them in the same manner, or you could heat treat them, as seen here.
Another furnace, a T-4 furnace, completes a process known as annealing, which actually softens the material, allowing work-hardened alloys to be softened for further drawing.
This pair of furnaces is where the alloy wheel shells are heat treated, depending upon the series of alloy used. At left, this robot picks up the wheels and loads them into the T-6 furnace, where they're heat treated at 375 degrees for 8 hours to artificially 'age' the grain properties within the alloy. The T-4 furnace at right is used to essentially 'soften' the wheel shells of certain alloy material so that they may be further 'drawn' in the press. Once they're finished, they too will take a trip through the T-6 furnace.
In rows of four, wheel shells come out the opposing end of the large T-6 furnace after being hardened.
A row of three machines carry out the complete process of piercing and pressing the cosmetic design into Weld's ProStar, Rodlite, and Draglite wheels. The die seen at right makes the basic cut into the wheel and another machine 'rolls' the edges over for the final design.
Weld Racing’s Sport Forged wheels – or DFS (which stands for Draw, Form, and Stamp) – including the Draglite, Rodlite, and ProStar models, are designed with the wheel design incorporated into the wheel halves, making for an interesting manufacturing process all their own. First, drawn either in the standard presses or the massive 1,100-ton press used for narrower wheels, the wheel shells are then placed on a series of machines fitted with dies that first pierce and then form the star design or circles that make up the cosmetic design you see on so many street/strip cars. After the design is formed, the backside is milled flush and the two halves are ready to be “married” together to create a wheel.
After the cosmetic design of the wheel has been pressed, the excess material is machined flat so that the two wheel shells can be welded together to create the final product. The machine seen here also cuts the inner diameter of the wheel in a single process.
R&D Test Lab
Within the Weld Racing facility is an in-house testing lab, capable of performing a range of testing procedures on street wheels and basic testing on race wheels. Here, Weld’s engineers can perform radial fatigue, rotational fatigue, and impact testing. Radial fatigue simulates a wheel running down the freeway at 55 MPH in a straight line, with a heavy weight load placed upon it. Rotary fatigue simulates cornering with a load, and impact tests involve weight being dropped on the wheel to asses the overall rigidity of the wheel structure.
In Weld Racing's R&D Test Lab, tests including radial, rotational, and impact testing can be performed that will simulate the the lifetime use of a wheel. Basic validation of racing wheels is also performed here, although certification is completed by sending the wheels for testing with the SFI Foundation.
These tests are all based upon SAE testing formulas for load ratings, and while most tests are run only to the required certification levels, parts are occasionally tested to the point of failure.
To give an idea of how wheels are tested here, in a rotational fatigue test, wheels are loaded at 1.6 times the typical load rating for 150,000 cycles (roughly 5 hours), which would simulate doing 60 MPH donuts for 5 straight hours under heavy load. The radial fatigue test, meanwhile, is performed at twice the load rating and run at 55 MPH. Both of these are designed to be a lifetime test of the wheel.
Final Assembly And Welding
In final assembly, DFS wheels have their bolt circles machined and the wheel shells welded together. Afterward, excess material and the wheel lips are machined clean, the valve stem hole cut, and the wheel tested for roundness.
In final assembly, the DFS wheels are pierced and punched with the final bolt circle. The two wheel halves are then welded together and the sharp edges smoothed out using a die grinder. Wheels are then spun and tested to ensure there are no out-of-round areas. Modular-type wheels that feature a machined aluminum center paired with two wheel halves are also bolted together and then welded together in this department. Dirt track wheel rim shells are bolted together and siliconed.
After the wheel halves are polished and milled, they’re run through a machine with an arm that drops down on the wheel lip, and spinning at a high rate of speed, rolls the lip over into the shape that you see in the final product, effectively reducing the outer diameter. It’s also in this stage where Weld rolls their dzus tabs for the attachment of mud covers used by dirt track racers.
At left, a racing wheel mated with an aluminum center being loaded into the automated welding machine. Right, a beadlock being welded onto a wheel shell.
Wheels destined for beadlocks are finished as normal wheel shells before a dedicated machine cuts the lip of the wheel off and the beadlocks are then welded on. Wheels sent in for beadlock conversions are done here in the same manner.
Lastly, every wheel is run down a final line, engraved with a serial number, and stickered. By doing this, Weld Racing can track every wheel for the duration of its life – from when it was manufactured to when it was shipped, who assembled it, who welded it, what lot of material it was made from, and so on and so forth.
The lip of a rim being cut off for the installation of beadlocks. After this process, they'll head across the aisle to be welded.
At left, a storage area of machined wheel centers and beadlocks ready to be paired with wheel shells in final assembly. At right is the last stage of the assembly process, as wheels are serialized and stickered before being boxed up and ready to ship.
It's not the most glamorous of departments to work in, but the polishing department is where the immaculate finish of Weld's wheels is produced.
We’ve been through a number of wheel manufacturing facilities and the general consensus is, this isn’t exactly the department you want to work in, but its rough job and someone has to do it. Here, using a number of different polishing machines and hand-held tools, polishers cloaked in radiation-looking suits and full masks work to bring the immaculate shine to wheels before they’re shipped to your door.
Manufactured within three weeks of placing the order and prepared a day prior to shipping, this is where orders are staged and ready for delivery. For those familiar with oval track racing, the six pallets of wheels at right are a special order for dirt track legend Scott Bloomquist, known affectionately as the 'Bloomquist Special.'
Once products roll off the assembly line in finished form, they’re boxed up and either sent to the warehouse as stock or prepared in the shipping department for delivery. While many orders for Weld wheels may be placed through such avenues as JEG’S or Summit, Weld often drop-ships their wheels, meaning they deliver direct to the custom rather than to the distributor and then to the customer. Depending on production time for the wheel, products are ready to ship within two or three weeks from the time of order, and are staged in the shipping department a day prior to their schedule departure.
Weld Racing’s manufacturing strategy is about as close as you’re going to get to a completely in-house process, and as such, this was one of the most intriguing shop tours that we’ve had the pleasure of taking. We hope that you enjoyed this trip through their facility as much as we did.