"There’s more to motor racing than just drivers in fast cars battling on the racetrack. Racing is a team sport requiring a variety of talented people and high-tech equipment. In today’s economic climate, however, many teams are slashing budgets and cutting staff, making it difficult to produce all the equipment necessary for a successful effort. Instead, they’re outsourcing some of the specialty items.
That’s good news for Tom Wilson, who runs HHR, Inc. The company, founded two and a half years ago, is best known for building pit equipment for race teams in several series, although it has recently added Super Finishing and other special projects.
Timing stands are frequently requested by new teams and teams seeking to update to the smaller, lighter timing stands currently popular. Most are made from what Wilson calls a “cookie cutter” design, but he also does custom work, like the 12-and-a-half-foot-tall timing stand he made for Fernandez Racing. The large, rolling stands are made from honeycomb aluminum and come complete with an adjustable awning for around $25,000. Other popular items include fueling rigs and support equipment such as water and gearbox heaters and polished stainless steel bodywork stands.
“The industry has changed,” Wilson reflects. “Teams are cutting down. It’s cheaper for them to buy stuff from me than to keep staff.” In addition, smaller teams and start-up teams don’t have the “luxury” of having enough staff or the proper tools to build the equipment. “I enjoy helping small teams. They appreciate it more because they have less.”
A business launched
Wilson owns about $80,000 in specialty equipment such as a CNC machine, a lathe, mills, welders, shears and tooling. HHR started on a much smaller scale, however. Wilson, a fabricator who began his racing career in 1982 on a 5-liter Can-Am team before moving to CART and IRL teams, was looking for a job after being laid off by Mo Nunn Racing in 2004. His wife Mariah suggested he think about doing something on his own.
Knowing that a lot of race teams needed equipment, he “just made some phone calls and started doing wickers and little bits out of my garage.” Before long, there was enough business for him to expand into a 20-by-20-foot room in the old Menard Racing shop with a welder borrowed from Bob Lazier.
Expansion continued as the business grew. “No one else was doing this any more; no one wants to do this. We’d do a job, pay for new equipment; do a job, pay for more equipment. We didn’t borrow money for any of it.” His latest piece of equipment is a $35,000 machine for the Super Finishing. The process, created by Rosler Surface Finishing, involves a computer-controlled vibratory bowl and special chemicals to safely remove microscopic peaks and valleys from manufactured metal parts.
“It’s not a polish,” Wilson adds. “It’s better.” The finishing process provides a smoother, more uniform surface that extends the life of parts by enhancing lubrication capability and reducing friction. It reduces maintenance expenses as well as the risk of failure during operation, improves precision of gear mating for maximum efficiency and allows freer movement of parts with less resistance.
Parts that commonly undergo this 10- to 12-hour process include gears, uprights and differentials, but Wilson has also processed CV joints, shift forks, bearings and steering racks and pinions. “Gears last longer and run cooler. Porsche’s GT3 cars were going through a gear stack in one weekend. Now that they’re Super Finished, they last at least three races because there’s less friction.”
Wilson reduced friction in his own life by becoming his own boss, but acknowledges a learning curve. “Time management is my biggest challenge,” he confesses. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of long hours.” Wilson typically works seven days a week, and those days are so long, they often blend into one another. “Mariah says she sees less of me now than when I was on the road [with a race team]. I work harder now.”
From time to time, he has employed temporary help — usually former crew members like himself who were laid off and looking for new teams to join. But most of the time, it’s predominantly a one-man show, with only a couple part-timers helping out. Wilson hasn’t had a slow period yet, making it tough to keep up with demand, especially when compacted racing schedules mean teams have little time to wait for equipment.
Despite a hectic schedule, Wilson appreciates being able to control his own destiny. “I may have more ‘bosses’ now, but I get to pick and choose who I answer to, what work I do. It’s not a glamorous life and I’m not going to get rich doing this, but I don’t miss traveling; there’s more to life than traveling.” His defining moment came in 2001. As part of the Rahal-Letterman Racing crew, he was “stuck” in Germany for a race on Sept. 11, unable to get home, wondering what to expect when he finally did return and feeling far away from his family and his country.
Gearing for future growth
Now based in a nondescript building in Park Fletcher without any signage, HHR continues to expand. “I’m always looking to develop new stuff.” He looks for projects three to five months down the road. “I’m starting to book stuff for the winter.”
As part of his expansion plan, Wilson is diversifying by seeking out special projects. One involved modifying the suspension and steering for two Saleen SR-7s for the 24 of Le Mans. “I’m trying to spread out the business to different series,” Wilson elaborates.
He’s also working on spreading into different industries by taking his Super Finish to the aircraft and commercial gear (big truck) industries, but like many who have worked in motor sports, once racing gets in your blood, it’s hard to leave it completely behind. Wilson remains deeply entrenched in the sport. These days, instead of working for just one team, he contributes to the success of many.
For more information, go to www.yourracingessentials.com or call 317-750-8769.