May 28th 2020
EPARTRADE EXCLUSIVE! Steele Racing Products Owner Andy Wagoner Answers EPARTRADE's "5 Questions" Interview With Racing Industry Executives
Officially launched in 2013, Steele Racing Products is a relative newcomer to the racing industry, but its young owner, Andy Wagoner, is no stranger to the small, technologically advanced fan systems that are now widely used to cool brakes, tires, gearboxes and drivers. His father is Robert Steele Wagoner, an aerospace engineer who ran a radio-controlled airplane business called the Electric Jet Factory in the '90s, pioneering small-but-mighty battery-powered fan systems when everything in the RC world was gas-powered. He later consulted with race team owners looking for better brake and tire cooling solutions, and is now the senior VP of product development for a Tucson engineering firm. As Andy Wagoner earned his degree in business management at the University of Arizona and interned for an engineering company, he was struck with the idea of forming a business focused around the cutting-edge electric-powered systems his dad had developed. They worked together to engineer their first fan system aimed at the motorsports industry, and Steele Racing Products, named in recognition of his father's expertise and inspiration, was born. A competitive BMX freestyler in his younger days, Andy Wagoner hasn't actually done any auto racing, but finds the thrill of competition on the engineering side of the industry. "We work directly with race teams to find competitive advantages with our fan technology," he said. "There are just so many opportunities to help them find solutions that it has always kept me very interested and focused on engineering improvements."
1. Tell us your story of how you got started in racing?
My dad had worked with Ganassi and Penske Racing in the early 2000s on some special R&D projects, and when I looked back at the impact of the solutions he provided, I wanted to see if there was a market for that kind of technology in the industry. He had built the brake and tire cooling fans for the Daytona prototype vehicles for Chip Ganassi Racing, which had a very profound legacy in the Rolex 24 Series, winning that multiple times using what he had made back in the day. To me, the proof was in the pudding and it seemed like a good idea to invest in.
We worked with a lot of commercial, off-the-shelf systems and integrated them into a single piece. I researched the top 100 race teams around the world and filled out the contact forms on their websites. Two weeks went by. Nothing. I figured I might as well close up shop. Then the third week I got a reply from VonRyan Racing, which ran a McLaren MP4/12C in Europe. They were interested in ordering six of the systems. Then it was a very interesting kind of domino effect; when one person in racing hears about an innovation in technology, the word spreads. After that, we got a call from Roush Fenway Racing. They put in a big order that allowed me to invest in the shop and tools and the product. We're doing nearly everything in-house now. We have Haas CNC machines, laser cutters, laser engravers, 3D printers, but we also still leverage outsourcing as a means of having a profitable bottom line.
2. What is the most exciting thing to you about the motorsports industry today?
I think it's the impact we have--the fact that we're able to create a product from nothing, putting our minds together and supplying a component that helps a race team win. In NASCAR, if a gearbox fan fails, they're out of the race. That's a very expensive weekend if a car doesn't finish. Our fan technology is considered a performance-critical component, so we build our systems to be that robust and reliable. The most exciting part is definitely that we can have such a big impact with such a small product.
3. What motivates you daily in your job?
It's the people. We're a small team and we're all families who have our own lives. The drive for me is to think of the business as a means for a better life for everyone involved. I'm driven by the success of the business because, by extension, it's the success of everybody else in the company. I'm motivated by the growth opportunity, the impact that we have in this industry, and the legacy that we leave for the next generation. If we keep doing it right, it grows exponentially.
4. What recent new technology or advancements in racing excite you the most?
The advancements I'm very interested in nowadays are the battery systems that are becoming smaller and lighter and are capable of the same output as the normal 12-volt battery that you would see in a race car. Just as my father was in the '90s, I'm keeping my eye on the future of how battery technology can not only help to power a race car's drive system, but also how we can streamline that into our products, as well. As battery technology gets better, we have more options for offering new and different solutions to our customers.
One of the advancements we're working on right now is brushless radiator fans that give you the ability to dynamically control your radiator fan speed through inputs that a driver can manipulate with a switch or a dial. This is sort of uncharted territory in terms of what it can provide. We work closely with a lot of Cup teams and we've done some special projects where we're spinning the radiator fan at almost triple the speed to create downforce on the car. So it's not just a cooling device; it's now a performance system that is shaving fractions of a second off lap times, which is a big deal in NASCAR.
However, the real bread and butter of our fan systems is our controllers; it's the logic that we've built into how the fans are run, so it isn't really something that's easily repeatable for other companies. We're just now applying our logic, our controllers, to the radiator fan business, and we're seeing the major advantage it is giving these Cup teams. Because they're so big and have such large budgets, they invest in these forward-thinking product ideas for themselves. But for a company like Steele, it creates an opportunity for others to also leverage the technology for their gain. There are so many divisions of racing that can benefit from the same technology, so right now we're in the process of packaging all of this as something new to offer in this industry.
5. What should everybody in the racing industry know about your company?
I've always talked internally to my team about how we're sort of the "Skunk Works" of racing, similar to Lockheed Martin's secret R&D lab where they created projects like the SR71 jet fighter that went over 2,000 mph without anyone knowing about it. I see our company as a kind of an R&D lab for race teams and organizations to prove out and develop an idea.
I also want people to see our fan systems as the best on the market. We make an all-aluminum fan design--housing, rotor--and spec high-temperature bearings and magnets. And we have actual logic built in so that it's not just a dummy fan that just turns on and off. We go above and beyond that so people can use our fan systems to do much more.
As an example, we're doing a project right now with a company that works in the off-road Side-By-Side racing industry, where there is a major issue of their CVT belts basically turning to liquid rubber when they hit a certain temperature. The company has an infrared temperature gauge to read the belt temperature, and we've worked with them to apply our fan system to actually speed up or slow down to maintain a predetermined temperature range.
There are a lot of companies that can use forced air cooling systems for what they do, and we're the company that can actually do the logic part to provide dynamic control, and that's something we feel is very innovative in this industry.