Texas, Triple Eight, and the Car of the Future
American auto racing fans got a real treat from Down Under this past May, when Australian V8 Supercar® racing made its USA debut at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Texas. Although not as widely recognized in the U.S. as NASCAR® or IndyCar®, V8 Supercars have a large, and growing audience of dedicated American fans who watch the races religiously on the SPEED Channel.
Located just outside of Austin, COTA was built in late 2012 for Formula 1® and motorcycle racing, but it just naturally beckons to V8 Supercars: It’s a 20-turn, 3.4-mile, counter-clockwise track with 200 mph straights, 40 mph hairpins, a 90 mph blind turn, and several altitude changes (to 133 feet). The inaugural V8 Supercar event, the Austin 400, was a four-race series that put a couple dozen very agile, very loud sedans on-track pumping out excitement – with 635+ horsepower, and drivers unafraid to rub doors or bump a blocker off the track.
Triple Eight Race Engineering is the preeminent V8 Supercar racing organization, with four teams and four drivers championships under its belt, including the current titles. Its Red Bull Racing Australia team continues to dominate one of the most popular sports in Australia. Countless fans the world over are watching every race closely to see if Triple Eight’s Jamie Whincup will win his third-straight championship. Teammate Craig Lowndes, himself a V8 Supercar icon – and three-time champion – is having another spectacular year, and is close on the heels of Whincup.
Roland Dane cofounded Triple Eight in the UK in the mid-1990s, where it competed in the British Touring Car Championship with great success. In 2003, Dane led the team’s expansion into the more-challenging Australian V8 Supercars Championship Series. “We still race in the UK,” he says, “and we are quite successful. But I wanted something with a little more excitement than the touring cars, and I found it in V8 Supercars.”
V8 Supercar racing is a tough test of humans and machines. Dane knows that victory is a successful struggle for superiority: the best driver, the best team, and the best car.
“We build the vast majority of the car ourselves,” Dane explains, “except for a few control components, like wheels and tires, transaxle, and fuel cell. The engine block and the heads are supplied by General Motors, of course, and we use outside suppliers for things like crankshafts and pistons. But the oil pump, coolant pump and system, rockers, brackets, covers, and all that sort, we build ourselves. Of course, we build the chassis, suspension, steering, and everything else that’s needed on the car – with a lot of input from our Haas Automation machines. And we supply everything from chassis parts and steering racks to complete cars for some other teams. In fact, every car on the line has our parts in their car. We manufacture something in all of them.”
Although based on production four-door sedans (or saloon cars, for those who speak Australian), V8 Supercars share sheet metal, and little else, with their showroom brethren. Much like NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s #14 Chevrolet, a Supercar resembles something you can buy at the dealer, but under the sheet metal, nothing is the same. There are a staggering number of bespoke parts on a Supercar, and you can’t get those parts at the local dealer. Nearly every element of Triple Eight cars – from the pedal box to the suspension to the steering components – was born on a Haas CNC machine tool at their headquarters and shop near Brisbane. And for 2013, the parts are very different.
The new Car of the Future (COTF) rules and specifications implemented this year for V8 Supercars represent major changes to the sport. Not only do they open the series to new competition – Mercedes and Nissan now join Holden (GM) and Ford in the championship series (with Volvo jumping in for 2014) – but they also require substantial changes to the cars themselves: new fuel cell placement, independent rear suspension, a new rear transaxle, different engine position, a new roll cage, larger wheels, different tires, and many other modifications. The COTF’s new component positioning, different weight distribution, and changed handling characteristics required teams to redesign mounting brackets and hardware, rethink critical components, and develop new parts to compensate for the necessary changes.
It’s a whole new game, but one Triple Eight has been studying for some time.
“We were involved with an intensive parallel COTF development program over a period of two years, while we were also running our normal race program,” says Triple Eight’s Director of Engineering & Production, John Russell. “Also, as a customer supplier, we took the opportunity to produce quite a lot of parts for a number of the customer cars that ran in the series, as well as the cars we built, plus two spare chassis. So, for only 43 people, including the racing team, we undertook a pretty significant engineering task.”
Building a winning racecar requires that each part must be carefully engineered, well designed, and precisely manufactured from quality materials. It also requires machine tools that are accurate, reliable, and versatile.
“Triple Eight depends on its machines,” Russell points out. “They have to be dependable and accurate. They have to produce, and that means a lot of uptime. We have five Haas machines, and when I first came here, I was not familiar with the Haas brand. But, I must say that I am now massively impressed with the product. The equipment is very, very good – very reliable. We are a small workshop, but we run two shifts. We have very good uptime, and the accuracy and the quality of the parts we produce are excellent. And the Haas Factory Outlet [HFO Australia, a Division of Alfex CNC] is always there to help; the service and support are fantastic. I am very happy with Haas.”
The task of making the newly designed and engineered COTF parts falls to shop manager Craig Johnstone. “We have two main series cars in our team, and a development series car,” he points out. “And we build four cars for two other teams, so we build about 10 chassis at the beginning of the year. A lot of work goes into those cars, and the parts we make have to be top-notch.
“We have a Haas TM-2, a VF-3 with a 210 mm 4th axis, a VF-5 with a 210 mm trunnion for five axes, an SL-20, and an SL-30,” Johnstone reports. “We use the extra axes for lots of parts. We make parts like rollbar blades and spindles on the VF-3 four-axis setup, and the rear uprights and steering rack housings are made on the VF-5 with trunnion. Many of the parts we make, like the steering components and some suspension parts, are fairly complex – just right for the five-axis trunnion, where we can work five sides in one setup. We make a lot of parts, so the extra axes save a lot of time on multiple operations and fixturing.
“The mills do all sorts of work,” says Johnstone, “from engine block modifications to uprights to steering rack housings. We use the new [Solidcam] iMachining techniques for roughing now – full depth and full flute-contact cutting. I’m a big fan of this. It is a lot quicker and the tools last longer – and it’s easier on the machines.
“Also, we use the mills to cut thin-wall, deep-pocket parts,” he continues. “They basically look like fins on a heat sink. I cut the walls straight to size as I step down, to avoid any vibration from the thin walls and long cutters. And we do a lot of pre-turning in the lathes, and then finish off the parts in the mills as required. This obviously relies on the machine’s accuracy to achieve a good finish, and it works well.
“The lathes do the majority of the rotating parts, like disc hats and spindles,” Johnstone comments. “Our spindles are tough: heat-treated and hard-turned, with some more heat-treating later. We don’t work with titanium very much, but we use a lot of 4140 and 4126 steel, and 7-series aluminum. Our Haas machines handle it all very nicely, and we are all pretty impressed with the machines. They are very reasonably priced, rugged, dependable, handle tight tolerances, and they do the job well. I especially like that they are very easy to use, with an easy-to-understand control. They are great products, and incredibly competitively priced – with terrific service!”
“Our relationship with our customers is more than just a transaction,” explains George Buhagiar, Managing Director of HFO Australia (a Division of Alfex CNC). “We’ve been working with Triple Eight since 2005, and we want to keep their Haas machines in top working condition. We’re fully equipped with all necessary specialized tools to maintain, service, and repair Haas’ full range of machines – and we are dedicated to providing the best service possible.”
“Triple Eight has been using Haas machines for almost ten years,” says Roland Dane. “They serve us very well, not only on a machining basis, but also for service backup. It is a combined thing, really. Looking at those two factors keeps us going down the Haas path.”
And by the look of it, it also keeps Triple Eight going down the championship path. After a couple of uncharacteristically disappointing showings early in the season – but still with top 5 finishes in all seven races across Tasmania and Auckland – Triple Eight descended upon Texas with a vengeance, winning three of the four races, finishing 1-2 in the first two. And their record of success continues – winning two of the three races at Darwin, and adding more victories as the season endures. Another Triple Eight championship looks like a very good bet.