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Brad Keselowski: The Smartest Driver in NASCAR

Header with a quantum corral, Keselowski at the KAM launch, and a 3d-printed prosthetic leg

Brad Keselowski may not have an engineering degree or years and years of experience, but I’m ready to nominate him as the Smartest Driver in NASCAR. He is a man with a plan and it’s a really good plan.

He is building what has been called by industry leaders an “Anything Factory”.

NASCAR Career Planning

A NASCAR driver’s career is uncertain, especially as he gets older. Everyone wants the next hot driver and the current level of competition means that having a merely ‘good’ year can mean losing your ride. And there’s always the possibility that an accident could take you out for a few races, a season, or for good.

Even if you have a long and productive career, Cup drivers tend to retire these days in their early 40’s — and that age is going down. The average lifespan of the American male is 78.7 years.

That’s a lot of time to fill.

What’s After Retirement?

A lot drivers (Burton, McMurray, Gordon, Earnhardt, Jr., Rusty Wallace, both Waltrips, Bobby Labonte…) move into broadcasting, but the broadcast booths are getting pretty full. Even with the 24-hour news cycle, the argument can be made that we’ve got more race-car-driver analysis than we really need. Plus, the season is limited: the broadcast rights are split between PRN and MRN, between Fox and NBC. For many people, broadcasting is not a full-time job.

Some drivers (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart) go into team ownership, or take on other roles with race teams (McMurray). Some go into slighty less-fast-paced businesses like car dealerships (Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace).

Brad Keselowski’s Path

Until recently Keselowski looked like he was ticking all those boxes. He appears frequently as a television analyst for XFINITY races. He’s made no secret of his interest in eventually becoming a Cup-level owner and, in 2007, started Brad Keselowski Racing.

Brad Keselowski Racing Shop with Sign and car out front
The BKR Racing shop “before” picture.

Focusing on the Camping World Truck Series, BKR ran part-time until 2011 and got their first win in 2012. Brad himself drove one of his own trucks to victory in 2014 at Bristol.

But in August of 2017, Keselowski announced the team would shut down.

He’s not the first driver to shut down a race team, and not even the first one to shut down a promising, successful team. Kevin Harvick did the same thing so he could focus on his own career and his family.

But here’s where Keselowski did something unique. He turned his 70,000 square foot race shop into a factory.

On January 24, 2019, Keselowski announced a new business: Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing (KAM), which had actually started in 2018. KAM started with 30 employees and expects to have 100 employees by the end of this year.

Manufacturing?

What does a NASCAR driver know about manufacturing? It turns out, plenty.

Keselowski’s grandfather spent WWII making drill bits for the military. Keselowski’s father and uncle had a race shop in Michigan where they built race cars, but also did production work for local racers and the “Big Three” car manufacturers. Brad saw firsthand how hard it is to make money racing. His family used manufacturing to fund their racing.

They couldn’t make a living from racing, so basically, they funded their love of racing through their abilities as craftsmen and fabricators.

Brad Keselowski, Inc.

He got his first look at the advanced tools of the time at Hendrik, where he saw his first CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines. Then he landed at Penske, where having an IndyCar team in the same shop meant exposure to manufacturing techniques that weren’t common in NASCAR at the time (like carbon fiber), but are now migrating over.

But Isn’t Manufacturing Dying?

A lot of people who used to make their living in manufacturing don’t anymore. The share of Americans working in factories has fallen from a peak of 30% in 1950 to 8.5% in 2017. Some people want to bring back those jobs, but others — like Keselowski — want to be part of movement that is changing what manufacturing means

Additive vs. Subtractive Manufacturing

When I took shop class (in high school and then again as a graduate student in physics), I learned how to use lathes, drills presses, milling machines, band saws and such. In the main physics shop, they used CNC machines, laser cutters and EDMs.

The Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy Machine Shop
The Machine Shop at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at my Alma Mater, Michigan State University. This is a new building. When I was there, it was a windowless cave in the basement.

Anything you made started with a block or sheet of material and you eliminated the materials you didn’t want. You made things in pieces, then soldered or welded them together. When you were done, you had your part, and a pile of turning, shavings or scraps on the floor. This is subtractive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing says, instead of starting with a big block of stuff, let’s start with something smaller and build our part.

A pictorial explanation of subtractive manufacturing (top) and additive manufacturing (bottom).
A pictorial explanation of subtractive manufacturing (top) and additive manufacturing (bottom).
A quantum corral made of individual iron atoms
A quantum corral made from iron atoms.

At it’s most basic, this means building things atom by atom. For example, this is the quantum corral made by moving individual iron atoms one by one using a scanning tunneling microscope into the shape of a ring. It’s a corral because the waves you see are electrons being reflected back. And it’s been colored to make it pretty.

The IBM logo made using 35 xenon atoms.
35 Xenon atoms were used to make this exceptionally tiny advertisement for IBM — but it appeared in newspapers around the world.

And just so you know that science is just as sponsor-obsessed as NASCAR, the very first image made by moving individual Xenon atoms was made in 1999 and was a corporate advertisement.

You can also make things by assembling nanoparticles, which I used to make. The image below is from Brookhaven. Each one of the tiny cubes is 46 nanometers. To give you an idea, a human hair in 70,000 nanometers.

A nanoparticle superlattice.
The next step up from atoms and molecules are nanoparticles. Each tiny sphere is 46 nanometers, with is less than 1/1000 of the diameter of a human hair.

Additive manufacturing is the manufacturing of the future. Atomic-level is the manufacturing of the far future because, in addition to being cool, it is hellaciously slow. It took 22 hours to make the IBM logo. Methods have improved, but it would still take about 15 minutes to make three letters. Nanoparticle assembly, which is usually chemically directed, is also still pretty slow.

If you want to make, say, a race car, or an engine or even an engine mount, we’re talking about a pretty long time.

3D Printing

3D printing is a larger-scale additive manufacturing technique where, instead of moving atoms or nanoparticles, we’re moving larger bits of material. The technique has been around for awhile, initially for polymers, but later for metals. Today, 3D print with just about any type of material.

How It Works

You start by designing the part you want in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program, then use special software that separates your part into thin slices.

A pictorial explanation of how you go from drawing to finished part.
A pictorial explanation of how you go from drawing to finished part.

The actual printing is done slice by slide, with each slide going on top of the previous one. The printer draws the first slice, depositing liquid that is hardened using lasers once it’s in place. Then the stage moves down and the next slice is deposited until you’ve drawn the entire part.

The video below illustrates how it works. You can burn off a whole afternoon watching videos like this on YouTube. I chose this one because it shows how detailed you can be and how much space there actually is in the structure.

The process is a little different for metal. You use the same process of building the structure slice by slice; however, you start by laying down a thin layer of metal powder. In one method, a laser writes the slice by melting together the metal powder that is to be part of the finished product. In another method, a binder material is written over the metal powder you want to keep. This process is repeated over and over, then the excess power is removed and the part is heat treated to remove the binder and sinter the remaining powder together.

Depending on the method, you may need to heat treat the part – to remove the binder and/or to relieve stresses in the part.

The technique below uses sandstone powder, but is a great example of how intricate a part you can make. The excess power you see them remove at the end is mixed in with other powder and used again.

Advantages of Additive Manufacturing

  • Speed:
    • Rapid prototyping: Can customize and tweak parts during development easily
    • Ability to make changes quickly. The idea of a ‘production run’ will eventually be a thing of the past.
  • Don’t need specialized tooling for each part
  • Can combine multiple parts into one
    • Eliminate welds and other joins, which are common failure points
    • Save the time shipping and assembling multiple parts
  • Much less waste, so it’s cheaper and better for the environment
  • Starting material is powder as opposed to bulk; you need less inventory and the powder is cheaper
  • You can use “exotic materials” because there is less waste.
  • Can make parts without solid insides, meaning the parts can be just as strong, but lighter.
  • Can make parts impossible to make with traditional manufacturing techniques.

The photo below is an example of how you can 3D print something that appears solid, but isn’t. Because of the internal structure, the parts are just as strong as if they were solid, but they are lighter. Now think about these not as curved cylinders, but as straight cylinders that might serve as pistons.

Disadvantages of Additive Manufacturing

  • Performance:
    • While you can get the same strength from 3D printed parts, the fact that they’re made in layers means that they tend to fail by layers (i.e. delamination). They also have a tendency to crack.
    • Because you’re starting with powders, incorporation of oxygen can be an issue
  • Speed
    • Most videos are time lapse because the process still takes a lot of time.
    • Pieces that require very tight external tolerances often need additional machining.
  • Size
    • We’re still limited as to how big the printers are. About a cubic foot is a realistic size for now.
  • Cost
    • 3D printing machines (and the support equipment necessary, like computers, drawing programs, etc.) aren’t cheap.

Hybrid Manufacturing

KAM is a hybrid manufacturing company, which means they use additive and subtractive manufacturing. The subtractive techniques are often used for parts requiring high precision exterior tolerances, or for polishing.

Uses of 3D Printed Parts

Many of the cool things people show on YouTube make it look like 3D printing is an expensive replacement for those wax mold-injector machines you used to find at zoos and museums, but 3D-printed parts are being used in mission-critical applications.

  • In 2014, Space X launched a Falcon-9 rocket with a 3D-printed main oxidizer valve in one of the nine Merlin engines. The valve had to work under high pressure, at cryogenic temperatures and a lot of vibration.
  • Just this month, the SpaceX vehicle that will eventually carry humans was launched with a combustion chamber fabricated in Inconel (an iron-nickel-cobalt alloy that survives extreme heat and pressure) by 3D printing.
  • NASA has also created 3D printed parts, such as rocket nozzles, in an effort to increase efficiency and reduce cost.
  • The GE Leap airplane engine uses a 3D-printed fuel nozzle that helps combust fuel more efficiently, which saves money every time the plane flies.
  • Boeing expects that switching to 3D printed parts will save $2-3 million dollars per 787 plane.

You’ll notice that these are applications that require performance in extreme environments and those are usually the first industries to adapt new techniques. But they’re also being used in more mundane, but no less important applications

In the medical realm, 3D-printed hip replacements are common.

The surface of these hip joints are purposely made to mimic the porous structure of real bone. You can even custom print repairs.

For some reason, this reminds me of a drywall patch.

Medical applications of 3D printing includes hearing aids, surgical tools and prosthetics.

That last one is very important: prosthetics usually weigh more than their corresponding natural limbs, which makes them harder to use. 3D printed prosthetics can be made lighter and in more natural shapes. (Or more unnatural, depending on what the wearer wants.

This picture shows a traditional prosthetic for a person with a below-the-knee amputation and the 3D-printed replacement on the right.
A traditional steel-rod-based prosthetic for a person with a below-the-knee amputation and the 3D-printed replacement on the right.

This is especially important for children with amputations. Prosthetics, even the simplest ones, are expensive. Because kids grow quickly, they either have to keep buying new prosthetics or they have to cope with a prosthetic that isn’t the right size.

3D Printing in Motorsports

F1 teams like Ferrari use 3D printing to make new micro-injectors for their engines that increase performance and increased fuel mileage.

F1 teams are also revisiting steel pistons, which fell out of favor because they’re heavy. Aluminum alloys are subject to deformation and breakage. But 3D printing allows you to make a piston that isn’t solid inside (using, perhaps, a honeycomb structure). This means you can you can lighten the part and still take advantage of steel’s properties.

McLaren has been using 3D printing and produced a rear wing in a week and half, which sound slow — but procuring the wing through traditional channels would have taken five weeks.

Nascar teams are just starting to explore the possibilities of 3D printing, although Penske was one of the first. Some teams are using 3D-printed parts in the car now, but mostly on the interior of the car like dashboard parts, electrical harnesses and mounts.

NASCAR, EFI and 3D Printing

Back in 2012, when NASCAR was switching over to EFI, they had a problem with a relay control box: it had two circuit breakers, but there were five circuits. This doesn’t sound like a demanding application, but it is: the box must be as light as possible, can’t be electrically conductive, had to stand up to heat, and had to be able to be changed on the fly. And had to be available quickly.

NASCAR Prototyping and Testing

The 3D printed electrical box from the EFI system
The 3D printed electrical box from the EFI system. Note the seven fuses.

DC Electronics had a body 3D-printed for the electronics from a proprietry composite material (polymer reinforced with glass fiber) that met all the requirements. Traditional

When developing the latest versions of the manufacturer car bodies, 3D-printed parts were used to modify the body shape during wind tunnel tests. Instead of testing a bunch of different bodies, the engineers can add and subtract parts in real time. That makes it easy for them to try new things and allows them to try more things as they’re trying to get aerodynamic parity for the three different bodies.

Penske and others are using 3D printing to make mirror housings, again taking advantage of the ability to custom-make a part that’s light and strong.

One surprising use of 3D printing is to make tools and jigs. When you’re dealing with custom-made parts that have to satisfy strict tolerances, you need all the help you can get. Jig and tools that allow the people in the shop to do even traditional machining better and faster.

Keselowski thinks that Toyota teams are way ahead of the pack at the moment.

3D Printing for the NASCAR Fan

And you can also buy 3D-printed fan gear, from track replicas

You can get Bubba in 3.5″ or 5″ and four different uniforms.

…to figurines.

In fact, the web page lists 8 different versions with two sizes and four different uniforms for Bubba Wallace. They can do that because they don’t have to make a large production run of any of the figurines. If they run out, they can make a few more. At some point, they’ll be made on-demand.

KAM’s Present and Future

Keselowski is a cheerleader for 3D printing, saying that the technology will “help improve fuel efficiency, be the technology that enables mankind to set foot on Mars, enable safer operations of nuclear power plants, and reduce gigantic amounts of manufacturing waste.”

That won’t happen immediately, and it will require other cutting-edge technologies as well. Keselowski isn’t just looking at car parts, but at medical, aerospace, energy, defense and eventually, he says, medicine.

Right now, KAM is working on some smaller-scale projects. For example, the company was asked to develop a heat-transfer piping component that had been made in three pieces that then must be assembled. The total process took four weeks.

KAM was able to make the component in a single piece with no connecting points and in less than two days.

So Keselowski Will Leave Racing When He Retires?

This is the great part. KAM is all part of his long-term plan to become a Cup owner at some point. He’s reportedly investing about $10 million of his own money in the company. He’s been watching how the business of NASCAR works and realized that this venture could pay for him to become an owner, the same way his father and uncle bankrolled their racing aspirations.

If I’m able to do what I want successfully, it will give me a pathway back to being an owner. One of the things I’ve learned from Roger Penske is the importance of having a successful core business outside of motorsports. If you have a successful business venture outside of motorsports, you can kind of roll with the ebbs and flows of the sport as an owner. That’s the position I want to be in, and that I’ll need to be in to be an owner who lasts in NASCAR.

Brad Keselowski, personal blog

I think this is a really brilliant plan. It’s looking toward the future while still providing solutions today. It gives him the opportunity to affect technological development in NASCAR while solving problems of national and global importance.

He’s also bringing jobs to North Carolina. They’re not traditional manufacturing jobs: they require facility with computers and complex equipment, chemical safety and a whole lot of other things we don’t traditionally associate with manufacturing. But they’re good jobs and they’re the jobs of the future.

If the National Science Foundation or the National Academy of Engineers is looking for a spokesperson, they should look here — especially given his long-standing concern about the lack of depth in America’s engineering pool.

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