TMS Titanium featured in Drag Racer Magazine!

  • November 7, 2014

Titanium – The Most Versatile Metal In Racing Demystified

Titanium – we all know it’s on the periodic table, but it may surprise some people that titanium is also being used in the top cars for some of the nation’s most popular racing series. As the fourth most abundant metal on earth, titanium has found a home in many different industries, such as aerospace, medical and knife making. While some of these industries have been employing titanium for over seventy years, the metal has been used in racing for around five decades now, with a very slow start when first introduced to the industry.

At the time it was being introduced into the racing community, titanium was synonymous with aerospace more than anything else. With military grades and traceability options, on top of titanium’s innate qualities of lightness and durability, it was seen as the metal one would use when wanting to build a plane – not a car. Yet, as engineers began to experiment with various materials to decrease the weight of their cars, they discovered that there were more options available to them than they had originally thought.

“It’s interesting how titanium got its start in racing,” tells James Hostetler, Senior Vice President at TMS Titanium. “For us, it all started when the racing community picked up titanium from aerospace surplus and found that although there is a significant cost to purchase and make parts, titanium has an increased lifecycle on itself. It reduces assembly weights, which increases RPM and lowers resulting damage.”

For those who may not be as familiar with the metal as Hostetler is, titanium is a naturally occurring element and as stated previously, the earth is generously stocked. Found in the sand on beaches primarily in Asia and Australia, the titanium particles are chemically reduced, melted, forged, and rolled into what becomes the usable metal that is ultimately acquired by racing engineers. The overall manufacturing process is lengthy, taking at least six months – and in some cases a year – to complete. There has been an industry-wide misconception that all titanium is manufactured in Russia, when in fact it is also produced in the United States and Asia.

Lack of exploration was not the only reason why titanium had little presence in the racing industry. Another reason why it was seldom used was due to the regulations each series imposed upon participating teams. “We first started using titanium parts on the race car to a sizable degree around 1984,” recalls John Medlen, World Championship Crew Chief for John Force Racing. “Titanium started gaining popularity when the NHRA began placing minimum weight requirements on race cars, allowing us to experiment with different materials.” As other series started changing their regulations and newer series came into existence, such as Formula DRIFT, more cars began containing titanium parts.

Today, many racing series use titanium for driver and heat protection. Certain series such as TUDOR United SportsCar Championship (the 2014 merger of GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series) have tight restrictions when it comes to using the material for parts, leading engineers to some of their most creative ideas when incorporating titanium into parts and engines.

While regulations in certain series made way for titanium to have a bigger role in race cars, not everyone was on board to work with the metal from the get-go. The long-stand myth that titanium is a difficult material to work with kept a lot of engineers reaching for more familiar materials, such as aluminum and steel. Though both metals have beneficial qualities, titanium can serve as a convenient one-stop-shop for all the qualities an engineer is looking for when creating a part, such as strength, lightness, and flexibility. While these characteristics tend to be the most sought after aspects, titanium’s use as a protectant is by far the most valuable quality that race teams benefit from.

Nate Haugh, Chief Engineer and Lead Fabricator for Bink Industries works closely with Formula DRIFT Professional racer Joon Maeng, and has incorporated titanium into Maeng’s Lucas Oil, MavTv, Rayno Film, S13 car. “The most useful application of titanium for us is the bash bars – we are able to shave off weight outside of the wheel base and still have full protection for the driver and chassis, without compromise in design because of weight.”

Considering the amount of contact drift cars are subject to while sliding in tandem with other drivers just inches from walls, titanium helps protect the frame of the chassis in the event of a crash. “We use titanium in drifting because we need a lot protection for the frame, motor, and other engine vitals. Titanium provides a good crush element for the front and rear of the car. It also is used in hanging body panels, intercoolers and used for firewalls to separate the driver from radiator and oil lines,” explains Haugh. These crush elements are so effective, in one instance it actually saved the car from being totaled. Other materials could have been used and it may have saved the car as well, but not without sacrificing the major weight savings that titanium offers. “I love the advantage of using titanium in drifting and only see continued use by more teams as time goes on.”

Another area of racing where titanium is staking a claim is drag racing. In drag racing, there is an abundance of titanium used in the car – where hundreds of pounds are spinning at incredible revolutions per minute (RPM) and hanging off the end of the crankshaft, mainly in the clutch and flywheel area. The driver’s compartment is sheeted with titanium to protect the driver in the event of failure, while the bell housings are titanium to contain the clutch. Drive shafts contain titanium enclosures as they need to be lightweight, but are still strong enough to bear stress and rotation and have the ability to catch parts in case something doesn’t go as planned. The NHRA now mandates the use of titanium in several areas because of the ballistic capabilities that the metal provides, allowing drivers better impact protection as displayed in the afore mentioned Maeng collision.

The John Force Racing (JFR) team also uses titanium in similar ways for their funny cars and dragsters. “We primarily use titanium in the clutch components, bell housing, pressure plate and cover, flywheel, some chassis components – basically we use it wherever we can to conserve weight and still have a high degree of strength,” John Medlen explains regarding the champion team. Medlen has recently rejoined the John Force Racing team, working with JFR from within The Eric Medlen Project, a research and safety initiative founded in 2007 by John Force, located in JFR’s Brownsburg, IN shop facility. Given Medlen’s position in The Eric Medlen project, he has become the “safety conscience” of the team.

The overall properties of titanium make it a wonder metal. An intriguing benefit of titanium is that it’s able to fix itself. Todd Harrison, President of TMS Titanium explains: “The reason that Titanium is ultra-corrosion resistant is because it forms an oxide layer over its surface to fight off contaminates. If this surface is damaged, the oxide layer actually repairs itself.” Titanium can also be welded, but not to anything other than titanium. Titanium is a reactive metal, if it is exposed to the atmosphere at an elevated temperature, it will absorb the oxygen from the atmosphere and weaken the welded area. There are several common ways to keep out the oxygen, such as welding in an enclosed space purged with argon or purging the inside of the tube and trailing the torch with extra argon protection.

As one of the early adopters of titanium, John Force Racing’s two-time world championship Crew Chief Mike Neff sees the continued value of the metal: “We’ve been using titanium for many years and as time goes on, we see it being used more and more in the racing industry. Yes, it is more expensive, but it’s worth it because it holds up longer.” Neff is currently competing in the 2014 season with Robert Hight, John Force Racing President and driver of the “most outrageous race car on the planet”, the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang Funny Car.

Bruce Crower, mastermind behind Crower Cam and Equipment, started using titanium over 40 years ago and has been employing it ever since, mainly through connecting rods. “We use titanium because it is 40% lighter than steel but still matches the strength. Titanium has an amazing power-to-weight ratio, and is really the perfect element for creating the ultimate race car.” A force to be reckoned with since the 1950’s, Crower’s engineering genius has grown into not only a substantial enterprise, but has resulted in the creation of the Crower Cup series. The 2014 Crower Cup series will be held this summer at The Barona Drag Strip in Lakeside, CA.

Large racing series such as NASCAR use titanium in areas that the rules allow, which are very limited, allowing only small items such as valves to be made of titanium. Indy cars are another series where titanium is allowed, but once again, only in very limited areas. IndyCar teams find a way to work with titanium, mostly using it in specific assemblies. Sprint cars have the allowance to utilize more titanium and they use it in a lot of hardware as well as brake rotors and brackets.

While the bigger players have to use their imagination, most race teams, despite size or budget, have one goal in mind – to save weight wherever possible. Titanium allows them to do this by taking weight off the car and individual assemblies and even affording engineers the opportunity to add it back in areas where they choose. As we’ve seen from the teams quoted here, the easiest way to incorporate titanium into a race car is hardware, because the metal is half the weight and similar in strength to the standard metals used. Additionally, the hardware is easy to change and provides a team immediate weight savings.

Regardless of the series a team participates in, titanium ultimately allows engineers a significant weight savings in the cars they build by providing them with better heat resistance, flexibility, and strength when the metal is incorporated into car part design. One of the main factors for titanium’s entrance into the racing world is the metal’s competition with steel. While the most common titanium grades used are just about the same strength as steel, titanium is 40% lighter and has better memory. When compared to one another, titanium is actually heavier than aluminum, with the density of titanium being .163 lbs/inch cubed, where the density of Aluminum is .0975 lbs/inch cubed (steel is .284 lbs/inch cubed). The benefit that titanium has to offer over aluminum is strength. Titanium maintains its strength over a longer period of time, allowing the fabricator to use very thin material to accomplish the same task, whereas the aluminum would have to be double the thickness for the required strength.

With all the recent and long-term success teams across different series are experiencing, titanium use in the racing industry is definitely here to stay. One way titanium is projected to be used in the future is for fabrication, thanks to new machining and coating technologies proving to make titanium a more fabricator-friendly material. This advancement helps solve titanium’s age-old problem of being horribly galling in any situation where it rubs against anything, such as when it is not bolted solid. Coating technology is developing every day to improve this issue, and the answer for the future might be a combination of coatings- first coating to improve the hardness of the titanium and the second to improve the lubricity of the titanium.

Another area that is being explored is the driveline, a piece that connects the transmission to the rear axle, which could benefit from flexibility and light weight resulting in increased driveshaft speed and efficiency.  One such achievement to this point is a titanium driveshaft such as that made by ALDriveline. This shaft is a great start, and in the future could be coupled with additional titanium parts to make more driveline components from titanium.

Overall, titanium, the abundant metal that is utilized across a diverse range of industries possesses many hidden qualities and benefits. Although it has been around for many years, new uses of titanium are being explored and limits pertaining to the metal are being pushed, showing that it has a lot of potential for the future. The racing community has become an adapter of the metal and as shown, is consistently making new discoveries and improvements for exploiting titanium in a variety of parts, all with one goal in mind, to build the “ultimate race car”.