Going In-House with Graphics

Going In-House with Graphics

Any business needs to constantly watch for opportunities and when to jump on them. It’s no different in graphics and sign work where advances in equipment and materials seem to move so quickly and dance that enticing fine line between time and profit. One of the top teams in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing made a big jump recently, which could be the beginning of a trend in the racing industry to move their graphics departments in house.

A section of wrap is marked for identification while a section of a side wrap of the Caterpillar car is ready to package. 

NASCAR racing is reliant on sponsors. And sponsors mean graphics. And at over 200 mph, it’s a story of high-speed billboards on the track. At a much slower speed, it’s all about that on the roads of America, too. That’s because race cars get to the track via specially built, tractor trailer haulers that crisscross the county. So the teams’ graphics packages are made to sell both on the tracks and on the highways. There’s even more to their graphics as they are used on the pit walls of the tracks, on the gigantic tool boxes in the pits of the tracks and the rest of the team’s many pieces of equipment.

Today’s NASCAR racing is more than just slapping on a set of stickers; or even a wrap. The top teams have budgets in excess of $25 million and, as favorable as the return on investment is (and it is), many corporations can’t afford that level of marketing. So the answer is multiple sponsorships where a company may sign on for X amount of races while another, almost always non-competing, partners up for Y amount of races. Yet another may only sign on for Z amount of races. The net result is the race team can put the car on the track for the entire season and run for the championship, getting more exposure for all the team’s sponsors and brands. 

Here’s the lineup of Roland DGA machines at the new RCR Graphics shop.

One obvious result of multiple corporate partners is a lot of graphics work for the teams. As we’ve seen in the sign industry, the addition of wraps has helped take up that work load and they are helping race teams as well. NASCAR racers have been using wraps for years, so the practice is nothing new. Many balance between wraps and stickers as needed. Some have already used wraps in a double fashion; putting two on a car at one time. That way, one is used for one race then removed to reveal the second that is used a later race. It’s a calculated gamble as any damage to the car can obviously destroy the wraps. NASCAR race cars are built for certain types of tracks on their schedule. Sometimes, they run races at one type of track two weeks in a row and the teams want to use the same car. Race teams will double wrap the car so the turnaround time is quicker.

A pit wall banner for the Budweiser No. 29 Chevy is readied. The pit walls are of varying configurations so they need to be custom made for the tracks. The idea is to take full advantage of the height of the wall to present the car’s primary sponsor.

Double wrapping can be a complex process. When the car returns to the shop after the first race, the first thing that happens to it is cleaning off all the rubber, oil and dirt. If the body doesn’t require extensive work or any panel replacements, the top wrap is removed, along with all of the car’s running gear. Then, as the car is put back together, the body is already done with the bottom wrap. This little trick saves time and money as the car doesn’t need to go back to the paint and body shop before rebuilding and turnaround time is shortened immensely. 

But in the big picture of teams, those multiple sponsors are tough for the team to keep up with. Until recently, teams would use outside sources for their graphics. Add one, two, three or more teams and it’s like Grand Central Station with vendors coming and going with stickers and wraps. 

Richard Childress Racing (RCR) is one of those teams. In addition to their four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams running a full schedule, they race in other series, so the demands on the graphics department go up and up. For 2011, the number of teams at RCR is a whopping nine if you include their most famous No. 3 driven by the late Dale Earnhardt. Take those nine teams and divide them by multiple sponsors and the boys in the graphics department end up almost as busy as the engine builders. Then, take all those numbers and add in a number of show cars they keep in their stable. Show cars are just that—cars that are for just display and not racing. They are former race cars and are used at functions of the corporate partners for conventions, store openings, car shows and more. The team’s fleet of show cars and their trailers has to be branded to match those race cars on the track. Sometimes, a special graphics scheme is used on a show car for a special occasion and that adds one more to the long list of packages required. In short, as RCR’s graphic demands grew and got more complicated, it opened up the door for bringing it in house. 

Stickers, or decals as they are called in NASCAR racing, are weeded, covered and ready to go on some of the nine different race cars at RCR.

As part of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, RCR unveiled one of their new corporate partners. A new Jimmy John’s No. 29 Chevrolet paint scheme was revealed and announcements made. The same thing happened for the new Menards No. 27 Chevrolet; a brand new team at RCR and their fourth in Sprint Cup Series racing. RCR presented the teams to the gathering of more than 200 international and domestic journalists. It was a series of big photo opps as the rest of the RCR teams were there as well. All race cars had their latest graphics packages for the hundreds of photos taken. 

Behind the scenes, it was anything but business as usual. Reporters got to talk with Nick Woodward, the Graphics Manager at the RCR Graphics Center. Only one month old, the new department is the first in-house, print, cut and wrap shop in the sport. Prior to this, their graphics were purchased from outside sources as was some of the labor to install them. Working with Roland DGA, the new shop now sports a six color SolJet ProIII XC-540 print/cut, a six color, SolJet ProIII XC-640 printer, a six color, SolJet XC-540MT print/cut and a four color (with metallic and white) VersaCamm VS-640 print/cut. The new association between RCR and Roland is a two way street as Roland will be using the new shop for training classes, dealer meetings and product demonstrations.

There are only two full-time people in the department, manager Woodward and Kenneth Ward, the creative manager. They use Avery MPI1005 and DOL1360 materials almost exclusively for the graphics needed on the cars, car haulers, pit and toolboxes, pitwall banners, helmets, showcars and their trailers, wall murals and graphics and other miscelaneous equipment and jobs.

As part of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, a new corporate partner for the No. 29, Jimmy John’s, is presented with car owner, Richard Childress (left) and driver, Kevin Harvick.

The department’s new capacity for in-house, full wraps is not an end to paint at RCR. In fact, paint is still the dominant base on everything they use for graphics.  “Paint is used a lot on all of our cars. We paint most of our cars at this point, but we hope to keep researching vinyl and paint to come up with other alternatives,” Woodward says, “We do wraps when we have a special design. We also have been wrapping most of the Menards cars. We worked with Avery to develop a special vinyl that matches the Menards Yellow paint. We are testing this against the paint process to see which is better for us.” Menards is another new partner for 2011 and uses a distinctive yellow as its corporate color on the No. 27 Chevrolet.

When it comes to paint versus wraps, Woodward says for a typical decal over paint job on a race car, it takes about eight hours of work. By comparison, a wrap will take half that time. But it’s not always about time when determining which method is used. The number of times a particular graphics package is used throughout the year factors in as does the number of ancillary pieces of equipment that need to be re-branded. And as this in-house department is relatively new, they are still learning when to use what and where. As time goes on, they will gain more on the schedule and be able to get further ahead of the cars. 

It all comes down to scheduling. Because the graphics have to match the racing schedule and sometimes last minute changes, the workload is dictated by the race schedule and the schedule of the shops in getting the race cars ready.  “We do work off the race schedule and our shop’s car schedule,” Woodward says. The department even schedules the printers and work. “We will print a few days then once everything is dried, we will start to cut,” Woodward says. “We try to work two weeks in advance from when the car will be coming up for the graphics to be put on. But on Thursdays and Fridays, we have to be ready to ship anything needed to the track. So on those days we keep at least one printer open for that kind of stuff.”

So what’s a typical week like in the RCR Graphics shop with all those cars and all those designs? Woodward says, “For example this week, Monday—cutting, weeding, premasking, delivering to body shop for stock, print decals and cut decals for Daytona, a ½ wrap Jimmy John’s car for Phoenix. Tuesday—Cut, weed, and premask the Wheaties Fuel car for Las Vegas. Wednesday—Delivery Wheaties Fuel. Thursday and Friday—Printing two Wheaties Fuel wraps for Vegas and start working on BB&T for Bristol and Martinsville.” 

At this point, it’s hard to determine which one is moving faster—the RCR cars on the track or their graphics department keeping them in the correct colors. The bottom line is they made the jump to an in-house system, and it’s working.