Forgeline Motorsports: Doubling down on race wheels

Features - Cover Story

Surging demand for one-piece racecar wheels led Forgeline Motorsports to boost capacity and adopt new technology with Haas vertical machining centers.

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Richard Prince Photo, courtesy of Chevrolet

With the economy growing, more car enthusiasts are participating in motorsports, leading to big increases in orders for specialty wheels at Forgeline Motorsports in Dayton, Ohio. But the shop that dates back to 1994 had a problem – most of its new orders were from racers who wanted top-of-the-line, one-piece wheels, not sets assembled in pieces.

“We’ve been behind on one-piece wheels. We were getting more one-piece wheel orders than three-piece wheel orders,” says Forgeline President David Schardt. Forgeline employees machine one-piece racecar wheels from a single, strong and stiff aluminum billet.

Three-piece wheels are assembled from – barrels, the main wheel body; lips, the part that holds the hardware; and faces, the outer part that gives the wheel its look and where lug-nuts connect it to the car. They perform well in some race situations, but a one-piece wheel is lighter and stronger.

“We upped the capacity of the one-piece by 25% to 30%, and then we immediately received tons of three-piece orders,” Schardt says, adding that new equipment helped Forgeline attack backlogs for both wheel types. “We’re still getting lots of one-piece orders.”

Fighting the backlog

The Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge Race Series, part of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), allows race enthusiasts to buy standardized, race-tuned versions of common cars from major manufacturers – providing a level playing field in which every driver is using a nearly identical vehicle. Forgeline is the spec wheel for the Ford Mustang GT4 and the Chevrolet Camaro GT4.

“Everything in those series is being homologated by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of the cars, so if you want to race a Mustang at the IMSA Continental Series, you have to race Ford’s GT4 Mustang, and you have to buy it from Ford,” Schardt says. “You buy four or five sets [of wheels], so it’s a pretty decent business, and racing right now is just exploding. When the economy’s good, people go racing. It’s an expensive hobby.”

Forgeline Motorsports President David Schardt
Photos courtesy of Forgeline Motorsports

Between 2016 and 2017, Forgeline bought three Haas vertical machining centers (VMCs), two VF-5s and a VF-6, to boost capacity for one-piece wheels. The machines feature Haas’ Next Generation Control (NGC), built on a Linux platform, with 1GB of program memory and Ethernet standard, making it easier to upload and run large programs.

Product Engineer Todd LaRue estimates the machines are 20% faster than older VMCs at the shop, so between the three new machines (bringing Forgeline to 11 Haas CNC machine tools overall) and the speed increases, machinists have been able to get one-piece order times down to about three weeks – six weeks for 3-piece wheels.

“The machines are significantly faster. We didn’t have Ethernet before, and we were uploading and downloading a lot of huge programs,” LaRue explains. “With Ethernet, it’s super-fast. It saves us 10, 15 minutes per program.”

Machining process

The one-piece wheels arrive at Forgeline as aluminum billets. Machinists put them through two lathe operations to machine the front and back.

“Then [billets] go under the mills and gets all the spokes,” LaRue says. “The holes in the back, the spokes in the top side, the lug patterns, center bore, it’s all done there. Then it goes to grind, wash, powder coat, and assembly.”

Forgeline’s one-piece wheel milling cells uses a Haas VF-6 and two Haas VF-5s.
Photos courtesy of Forgeline Motorsports

Schardt says milling times can vary from 40 minutes to more than 3 hours, depending on the complexity of the design. Some ornate race wheels have tall spokes and complex, 3D shapes on their faces, requiring as many as six milling passes per side. Because the wheels require significantly more milling than turning, the VMCs were the bottleneck in production. A single lathe can handle the shop’s needs, he adds.

LaRue says machinists save time by basing their designs on using common tooling to avoid changeovers. Between wheel diameters and widths, the company has about 128 basic designs and several cosmetic variations on each, so managing complexity is a constant challenge. Nearly 700 lathe profiles are programmed for various designs; machinists design and test parts using Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks software and program with Mastercam computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software from CNC Software Inc.

“The combinations get crazy,” LaRue says. “It’s exponential. When you design one design, it’s hundreds of programs.”

Ford Mustang GT4 photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.
Photos courtesy of Forgeline Motorsports

Early days

The complex programming and design tools are a far cry from Forgeline’s origins. Dayton Wheel started making car wheels in 1916. Schardt’s family bought the company in 1970.

“My brother Steve and I grew up working in the wheel factory, lacing wire wheels and doing whatever other jobs were needed, so we’ve been in the wheel industry our entire lives,” Schardt says. He adds that his father owned Dayton wheel from 1970 until about 2000.

In the early 1990s, David Schardt was running The Wheel Source, a business that sold racing wheels and custom wheels from other manufacturers. He and his family members saw a market for better, customized racing wheels, so his father and brother started Forgeline in 1993.

A one-piece wheel is machined on a Haas VF-5 at Forgeline. Milling times can vary from 40 minutes to more than 3 hours, depending on the complexity of the design.
Photos courtesy of Forgeline Motorsports

“It took off in racing right away, because there weren’t very many wheels with custom offsets,” Schardt explains. “It was a two-part wheel. We were buying the forging in a [5-spoke] shape, and all we were doing was drilling in the lug bolts, doing the center bore, and milling the pad on the back side. We’d weld that center wherever we needed to in the barrel to get the offset, and we could buy all the barrels.”

He and his family members made those early wheels on a Tree milling machine, an open system that would spray coolant and chips all over the shop, Schardt recalls.

“As cars got heavier, and faster, and more downforce, and tires got stickier, we were having problems with the barrels cracking right at the weld,” Schardt explains. “The three-piece wheels were starting to get popular, where you bought components and you bolted them together.”

In 1998, the company bought a 1996 Haas VF-3, its first VMC and first enclosed system, for $25,000.

“We got our money’s worth out of that one,” Schardt says. He adds that one-piece wheels started becoming popular about 10 years ago, and Forgeline added its lineup in 2012.

Since those early garage days, Forgeline has expanded into 30,000ft2 of space and employs 27 people. About half of the company’s business comes from street wheels and half from racing enthusiasts.

Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge
https://sportscarchallenge.imsa.com

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.
https://www.solidworks.com

Forgeline Motorsports
https://forgeline.com

Haas Automation
https://www.haascnc.com

CNC Software Inc./Mastercam
https://www.mastercam.com