Earning the Checkered Flag
When you think about printing operations, your first thought probably doesn’t go to professional racing. But in reality, those wraps — and other graphics — that are so eye-catching on the track are produced in-house for two of the top teams: Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and SPIRE Motorsports. Their experiences in printing and installing vehicle graphics quickly and cleanly can be applied to any commercial printer looking to expand its service mix.
Before we dive into the tips and tricks these professionals bring to the table, let’s look back at the evolution of vehicle wraps in professional racing. NASCAR, in particular, started with vehicles that were all hand painted, with the early 1980s seeing the start of using decals for some of the logos and graphics, produced via screen printing. It wasn’t until the late 1990s/early 2000s — when wide-format printing began to really take off — that printed elements started being used more frequently on these cars.
Nick Woodward, graphics manager at RCR, in Welcome, North Carolina, says his group was still hand painting cars at the time; decals and prints were used more for the “backup” vehicles than for the main car that was intended to be raced. This was the car that would be swapped in if there was an accident or mechanical failure. But, he notes, “the more paint you pile on, the heavier the car gets. So around 2015, we started wrapping everything.” A wrap, he says, weighs around 5.5 lbs., depending on the material used and the coverage, where paint weighs “quite a bit more.”
And in fact, notes Kevin Wilson, president of SPIRE Graphics, in Mooresville, North Carolina, now wraps, instead of paint, are mandated. “Race cars were primed and painted before decals were involved,” he points out. “Teams used to even paint the base colors of their cars and placed loose decals on top of the paint. But due to NASCAR rules for the Next Gen cars, all cars are now completely wrapped.”
SPIRE Graphics was started in late 2020 to get SPIRE Motorsports ready for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Season by designing and producing wraps.
Learning From the Pros
With teams now wrapping their NASCAR offerings — and they still have that backup and primary car to consider — these in-plants are wrapping a lot of vehicles. SPIRE Graphics can wrap more than 72 cars in a single season, including both the race cars and the various support vehicles, while RCR — which was the first NASCAR team to bring its printing in-house, back in 2010 — wrapped 372 vehicles last season, and is on track for the same this season. That is a lot of wrapping experience.
The first consideration both teams suggest is giving some good thought to which equipment and material will be used. Both are fairly dedicated to their vendors on the hardware and substrate side. RCR is a Roland shop, running a TrueVis VG2 printer/cutter, and two TrueVis VF series printer/cutters and printing mostly on Avery Dennison 1105 or 1360 substrates. SPIRE on the other hand is a Mutoh shop, and runs the 1641SR and 1641SR Pro for printing, paired with the company’s ValueCut plotters. On the substrate side, SPIRE uses General Formulations’ 230 AutoMark for all its race cars.
Stick With What Works
That is one of the tricks to getting really good at vehicle wrapping; having one ecosystem ensures every installer is intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the output. By sticking with just one or two substrates, they are very aware of what it can and can’t do when the time comes to put it on a vehicle. They know how much stretch and give it has, how it will bend around tricky corners, and how to ensure they get the best results every single time.
For other print providers looking to add vehicle graphics to their service mix, it might be tempting to keep trying all the myriad options, but sticking to one brand as much as possible will give your team the best platform for success.
Another tip: Have your team trained, and have people who are dedicated to wraps. At the very least, assign one person to do the wrapping, rather than letting anyone jump into it. This way, that person can build up expertise over time. Today, both SPIRE and RCR say their teams have gotten so good, they can wrap an entire vehicle in just a few hours.
“It typically can take four to five hours for one race car to get completely wrapped,” Wilson says. “Production time is different, as we allow our wraps to air dry at least 12 hours before lamination. Our print time for one car usually takes up to four hours or less.”
“It takes about six to eight man hours to wrap a car, and we work in two-man teams, so around a four-hour window, although depending on the car it can fluctuate,” according to Woodward, such as if extra stripes, metallic, or neon features are added. “The cars are being put together at the same time and have to be done to go to the track with the wrap. We can’t have the car for two to three days — we have four hours, and they’re doing 10 other things to the car while you’re wrapping. That happens a lot.”
While your printing business might not have such a time constraint when you wrap vehicles (nor will you need to contend with a car being assembled while you’re wrapping it), it is a testament to how efficient and fast a great installation team can get with the right training and experience. It is something your teams can strive for as you build up your portfolio of wrapping jobs.
Planning Is Essential
When it comes to the actual installation, Woodward stresses that starting with a great template for every vehicle you intend to wrap is essential to getting a print that installs quickly and cleanly. While your vehicles might not change as often as theirs do, you can still take their methods and apply them to your own workflow.
“It all starts with building the templates,” Woodward says. “At the end of each year before the new season, we take a car, wrap it in plain vinyl, and make lines and drawings for the curves. Then we take it off the car, take pictures, and scan it into the software to build a very precise template of the car, so when we go to print, we can build a lot of extras into the design, like pinstripes or logos. This keeps it smooth and all one layer, rather than needing extra decals. That helps keep the weight down, but it also helps us keep efficiency high. That’s how we can meet that four-hour window. We can just install the wrap and not have to go back and add more details. So, we take a lot of pride in having that accurate template.”
Woodward also notes that having the design team work closely with the installers when putting the wrap together can go a long way toward eliminating problems before they ever make it to the printer. Things like the installers pointing out where the material will be stretched to fit around a curve correctly, so the designers can take that into account and build that distortion into the print for a polished final look.
“Communication is crucial,” he stresses.
Wilson says color is another thing to keep in mind, noting that having the right equipment, ink sets, and materials for the job is a good start — and this is where sticking with one option helps, since it means less color correcting once you have it locked in. Ensuring those files are clean and ready to go before heading to the printer is a critical step that can’t be overlooked.
“Be consistent on your setup,” he advises. “Make sure you have good, correct files that can be used time and time again without much hang-up with color correction and layout changes.”
Other than that, both shops say they don’t have any special tools or techniques they use for the actual installation process — although Woodward notes that his team prefers to use torches rather than heat guns since they get hotter faster. However, he cautions that torches require skill to use without scorching or burning the material. But other than that, they use the same basic tools that every other print provider has access to, making vehicle wrapping obtainable for many print shops with a wide-format printer.
In the end, Woodward offers this advice to printers considering adding vehicle wraps to the service mix. “Keep your machines well-maintained to have a great print, don’t have a ton of products, and learn them well. Sometimes, you fail hard, and learn from it. Take some classes — Avery [Dennison] and some of the other manufacturers offer great schools where small shops that can’t afford to waste materials learning can get hands-on [training]. And then just work through it — learn what your chosen material likes and doesn’t like, how it responds to heat and cold, how it does around curves, etc.”
Vehicle wraps can be a very lucrative and highly visible option for any commercial printer. With these tips straight from the racing professionals, your vehicle wrap installations can go from zero to 60 without missing a beat.