NASCAR race cars require hundreds of welds -- and every single one of them has to be perfect.
At 200 mph and around every corner, race cars are pushed to the very limits. They have to be strong for safety, but light for performance. The cars built at Stewart-Haas Racing are no exception.
Back at the shop, master fabricators such as Daniel Smith spend hours making sure every weld is just right.
"I've always wanted to weld," said Smith, a native of Concord, North Carolina, who was born and raised in the heart of motorsports country.
After graduating from NASCAR Technical Institute and 5 Off 5 On Pit Crew U in 2004, then-19-year-old Smith landed a full-time position at what was then Haas CNC Racing. Being a typical adventurous teen, Smith quickly earned the nickname "Danger" among his peers at the shop, but that didn’t stop him from putting in long hours of hard work and sacrifice to perfect his craft.
"In the beginning, I spent a lot of time in the shop," Smith reminisced. "I would stay after work on my own time to pick up pointers from other welders. I was welding anything and everything I could get my hands on in the shop."
Smith began his racing career in the tear-down department, but soon earned a promotion to the fab shop. Today, the 29-year-old veteran juggles both pit crew and shop duties.
Double duty: Daniel Smith is a welder/fabricator at Stewart-Haas Racing and rear tire changer on the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.
"On Sundays, I go over-the-wall as the rear tire changer on the No. 14," explained Smith. "On Monday mornings at 7 a.m. sharp, I'm back at the shop, welding and building suspension pieces, upper control arms, oil tanks, spindles and exhaust pipes."
Smith's day job is critical.
About 95 percent of NASCAR race cars are TIG-welded by hand. Long before the race car hits the track, welding and fabrication consume roughly 950 man hours on each vehicle back at the shop.
Lincoln Electric, which has provided Stewart-Haas Racing with welding machines, consumables and apparel since 2008, says welding plays an important role in NASCAR keeping drivers safe first and foremost.
"Critical components such as the roll cage, seat, and chassis need to withstand forceful impacts at speeds of 200-plus mpg," said Mickey Holmes, sports marketing manager for Lincoln Electric. "Quality welds help achieve this."
Most welds join intersecting tubes that make up the frame and the all-important roll cage. By rule, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race cars have a minimum weight requirement of 3,300 lbs. The Gen-6 race car is 160 pounds lighter than its fifth-generation predecessor (100 pounds lighter on the right side, 60 pounds lighter on the left). The frame and roll cage components are fabricated from mild steel, which allows the car to absorb the forces of a crash in a bend-before-break mode.
When drivers often walk away from high-speed crashes unhurt, it can be attributed to overall safety improvements in the chassis design -- and weld quality.
Smith works with a variety of Lincoln equipment at the shop, including the Invertec V311-T AC/DC, Precision TIG 375, Invertec V205-T AC/DC, Power MIG 350MP, Power MIG 256 and Power MIG 180C.
The team's transports are equipped with Power MIG 180C's and Invertec V205's.
"The welding technology is really amazing," said Smith. "They're solid machines. You can kind of get spoiled working with all the nice equipment at the shop."
Smith understands if a part breaks on the track, it cannot break at the weld. He knows the importance of a sound weld, and that a driver's life is on the line.
"My standards are a little higher from working in NASCAR -- the welds have to look nice and be clean and sound," Smith said. "The steering shaft has to hold up at every turn. Holding all of the suspension components together is very vital in racing."
Smith first got into serious welding at age 19. He's been doing it ever since.