Follow Along As WELD Racing’s New RT-S Wheels Come To Life

The sound of smashing, banging, grinding, whirring, the scent of polishing compound, and the sizzle of welders abuzz assaulted my ears and nose as we walked into the inner sanctum at WELD Racing recently. Enormous million-pound-plus presses and dozens of machining centers are spread out throughout the building, with a wide variety of processes taking place in what — at first glance— seems a haphazard array of workstations. Upon further inspection, we felt the aura of manufacturing stability enter into the picture as we witnessed the company’s products coming to life.

The WELD Racing RT-S line is the perfect street/strip wheel. — Jennifer Collins, WELD Racing

Here is WELD’s all-new S70 design on our S197 project. We ordered a pair of 20×9.5-inch front wheels (7.0-inch backspace, P/N 70LB0095A70A) and a pair of 20×10.5-inch rear wheels (8.0-inch backspace, P/N LB0105A80A) to go with our 275/35-20 Mickey Thompson Street Comp front tires and 305/35-20 ET Street S/S rear tires.

Chances are, if you’re a car enthusiast, you like to see how things are manufactured. We share that desire. In fact, How It’s Made is one of our favorite television shows. So when the opportunity was extended by the folks at WELD Racing to come check out its factory to see how the RT-S wheels — specifically the all-new-for-2018 S70 design — come to life, there was no chance we were going to turn down the invitation.

Marcus and Tom at Gear One Performance in West Chester, Pennsylvania, did the dirty work of mounting and balancing the tires, then hooking up to the shop’s state-of-the-art Hunter alignment rack to make sure our wheels were rolling straight and true.

It takes the hands of many talented people—and machines—to bring WELD Racing’s RT-S wheel line to life.

Meeting some of the people behind the scenes was also enlightening, as there are multiple generations of families working here — husbands, wives, fathers and sons all work to design and manufacture the racing and street wheels that frequently end up in the winner’s circle. Their sense of pride is evident in the products which take shape here, as we witnessed what could only be described as art built from aluminum taking shape during the course of the day.

In fact, ever since we bought my first set of WELD Draglite wheels in 1994, We’ve always wondered how their products were built. Let’s call this trip a bucket-list item I can now check off… and the chance to share the details with you is one that we are excited for — so let’s get to it.

Chunks, Chunks Everywhere!

One thing we noticed right away was just how much aluminum it takes to create these wheels. From the sheer volume of raw materials to the chips destined for recycling, there is more of the alloy located in this building than we have ever seen in one place.

The RT-S wheels start as one of these forged pucks of material. Due to the fact that WELD Racing has north of 40,000 SKU numbers in the RT-S line alone, they try to maximize the number of wheels that can be built from each blank to keep the process more manageable. The engineering team is tasked with figuring out the details on this part of the build process, which is a monumental task in itself.

There are certain parts of the process that are proprietary and we simply can’t show you; WELD Racing has developed these methods over years of testing along with trial and error, and the company simply doesn’t want to give away its secrets for free.

If the wheel center is going to be manufactured in the company’s black finish, the lathe forms are sent to the anodizing area to receive their finish, then returned to the machining centers where the edges are turned down to reveal the raw aluminum underneath. Without this raw material exposed again, the wheel cannot be built and welded together.

The three-piece S70 wheel design consists of two halves and the aforementioned center, which is manufactured in one of three different configurations: low, medium, and high pad, each of which are designed specifically for brake clearance. As Jennifer Collins, Category Manager – Domestic Motorsports and Street Performance, explains, “The WELD Racing RT-S line is the perfect street/strip wheel. Designed using our race engineering, we produce a strong, lightweight wheel in a variety of diameters and widths, that looks as good as it performs.”

In order to prevent the circles from sticking to the press, a proprietary lubricant is added by this worker, who then stacks them in the shelf to await the pressing process.With such a wide variety of potential fitments (think early and late-model musclecars and trucks in 15-inch to 20-inch diameters) the RT-S line is one of WELD’s most versatile. As such the versatility of the wheel centers is a big plus for the company, not only because they can help their customers achieve that “just right” wheel fitment, but also because the manufacturing costs can be amortized much more simply.

These days all of the wheel design work is completed in SolidWorks, but Jennifer shared with us framed blueprints from decades ago, and we were amazed at how the technological advances have changed the design and manufacturing methods. Ultimately, though, the overall goal of the entire staff at WELD Racing remains the same: to design, develop, test, and manufacture wheels which set themselves apart from any other on the market.

Rolling Stock

No wheel package is complete without the right set of tires, and our old friends over at Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels got us set up with the right rubber for this fitment. With the 20-inch wheels on the drawing board, we selected a pair of 275/35-20 Street Comp front tires and a pair of 305/35-20 ET Street S/S drag radial tires for the rear. These monster meats help to fill the wheelwells just right.

The Street Comp front tires are an ultra high-performance tire which has been designed to be responsive at high speeds and is best suited for late-model performance applications like the S197 and S550 Mustang. The asymmetrical tread design helps to provide solid performance in both wet and dry conditions, although this particular car never sees rain. On the rear, since we have plans to ultimately outfit this car with an automatic transmission of some type, we chose to install the ET Street S/S tires, which will help us to harness the 620-plus rear-wheel horsepower from the ProCharged Coyote. Billed as a street tire which ca be driven to the track, the ET Street S/S features the proven R2 tread compound, which requires little to no burnout to work properly at the track. But it doesn’t give up street manners; despite the monstrous 305-wide tread section, the tires track smooth and true, although a slight amount of tread squirm can be felt at higher-speeds through long, sweeping corners. Regardless, if you’ve ever driven on a drag radial tire, these won’t disappoint. The company says they do offer hydroplaning resistance due to the tread voids and circumferential grooves, but we don’t ever take this car out in the rain, so we can’t confirm. No matter what, we still wouldn’t recommend running 80 mph through a torrential downpour with these on the back. Stickiness “in Mexico” is  as expected. They work well—real well—in both dig and roll conditions on this car.  And since they are DOT-approved, you don’t have to worry too much about the law hassling you for running them on the street. Although we haven’t gotten to the track with the car in this configuration yet, we expect the next time out to be a breeze as the tires run smooth no matter the speed.

When building the wheels, after the pad height is determined, the company can then move to selecting the proper wheel halves for the selected design. This is where we were privy to witness the manufacturing process in all its glory. We moved to the area where the wheel halves are manufactured, and I watched as one of the immense presses took a flat disc of aluminum (called, coincidentally, a “circle”) and drew it into its initial shape.

The circle is forced over a die in the base of the press, where the aluminum is stretched out until it forms its first shape, a sort-of bucket that moves down the line to the next step. There it’s stretched again over another die with another massive press performing the operation. At this stage the lip is much closer to its final shape, with the tire’s bead area coming to life, but there are still other machining operations, including draw forging, to make the barrel complete and ready for final assembly.

At this point of the process, we were simply in awe, as I realized that these simple discs of aluminum would become the foundation for the set of wheels you see up there at the top of this article in the lead photo. Well… not this specific set, as the build process certainly couldn’t be completed in the single day I was able to spend at the factory, but a similar set.

Remember where we mentioned the 40,000-plus RT-S SKU numbers WELD offers? As a result of that extensive application catalog, it’s nearly impossible for the company to do more than stock the wheel centers in the different pad heights. The machining processes are completed and wheels are assembled after they are ordered, as WELD Racing is a true custom wheel company which prides itself in offering the street enthusiast and racer a custom product designed to offer superior fit and finish that they simply can’t get anywhere else.

Testing Is Critical

One of the areas where the company prides itself most is in the testing area, where they put each wheel design through its paces. The roller seen here—with a massive truck wheel and tire assembly in the testing process—is in the middle of a two-million-cycle rotary fatigue test to ensure the wheel design’s feasibility. The testing room also includes radial fatigue testing and impact testing.

These days, thanks to the magic of finite element analysis, computer simulations during the design phase means the engineers can usually get the architecture to a point where the initial testing can be the final testing—a far cry from the trial and error used when the company was first founded in Greg Weld’s backyard in 1967. During testing, the wheels are subject to loads which can be three times or more the load rating of the wheel, and they can wear through a few tires during the two-million-cycle test. All of this is done in the name of safety for the company’s customers.

There are no fancy machines is in the room where the wheel sections are hand-polished. You can see in the left photo how the wheel appears prior to polishing; there are tool marks and other imperfections which must be removed.

Although we can’t show you the actual heat treating process, know that the company heat-treats wheel centers to T6 specifications depending upon the application. It was a bit warm over here.

Finishing The Build Process

The process of wheel polishing takes a number of steps using progressively finer compounds and abrasive wheels. This employee has been performing this same task for well over 30 years, tackling the task with an artist’s touch, doing it as much by feel as by sight, as the polishing wheel must be treated with just the right amount of pressure and movement to make the wheel face gleam once the job is done.

Prior to bringing the three-piece S70 wheels together, the shells must be completely free of contaminants. Using a variety of solvents in a three-step process, this worker cleans the mating surface to remove any polishing compound remnants and other unwanted materials from the shell.

One part of the process that was really interesting to me is that the shells are then heated to help them expand slightly and then the wheel center is dropped into place while the shell cools down.

You might remember up above where we showed the edge of the wheel center machined to bring a clean surface; this is where that becomes important. The clean surface is required to give the shells a fresh surface upon which to rest. At this point the wheel is starting to take shape.

The top half of the wheel is assembled in the same fashion as the bottom; the shell is heated and then dropped into place and left to cool, solidifying the press-fit before it moves to the welding station.

The welding equipment—along with many of the other machines we saw in operation—are built in-house at WELD Racing, as they prefer to engineer the pieces to work properly for their exact needs rather than trying to repurpose an existing machine.

We can’t show you any of the welding process, but rest assured that it provides a perfect weld that ensures the wheels are as strong as possible, evidenced by the company’s in-house testing success. As one of only a handful of North American wheel manufacturers which can boast about its in-house testing facility, the company is assured of the strength and durability of its wheels, as proven out by performance on the track — drag strip and road course — for over 50 years. Their testing regimen is detailed and thorough, and is designed to test wheel integrity at levels far above what could be expected “normal.”

In Conclusion

One interesting item that Jennifer shared with me is that each and every WELD wheel is serialized, with a number that is affixed to the wheel barrel before it is shipped. By serializing each wheel, they know exactly who built it, when it was made, where the aluminum came from, and even who inspected it and packed it into a box. This information is a great reference tool for future purchases and even for collectors who have called after purchasing a car with WELD wheels on it.

The opportunity to witness up close and personal what it takes to design, test, machine, and assemble not only WELD Racing’s S70 three-piece wheel, but all of WELD Racing’s wheels, was one that will not ever be forgotten. It was an amazing day spent with talented, dedicated, and extremely proficient people. And after all, isn’t it the people who make the things?

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About the author

Jason Reiss

Jason draws on over 15 years of experience in the automotive publishing industry, and collaborates with many of the industry's movers and shakers to create compelling technical articles and high-quality race coverage.
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