Paint vs. vinyl: Wrapping race cars 'the wave of the future'

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Mike Hodge peeled a long piece of 3M vinyl from its package and carefully stretched it over the right side of the car in the garage of the NASCAR Technical Institute.

He then took a squeegee device and began pushing out the bubbles until the vinyl seemed as much a part of the machine as the skin on a snake.

By the time he and his partner were through, the entire car was covered in vinyl with all the graphic designs the sponsor and car owner requested.

"You're all the time hearing the television commentators say, 'Well, that's a special paint scheme,'" Hodge said. "Most of the time it's not."

Welcome to body wrapping.

More than half the cars in Saturday night's Nextel All-Star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway will be completely wrapped in vinyl with special themes.

On a weekly basis, about half of the primary cars in a Cup event are wrapped. More than half of the backups are wrapped so teams can keep the same car the next week and change sponsors without repainting, which in turn allows owners to keep inventory down.

Chip Ganassi Racing wraps about 95 percent of its cars. Chuck Spicer of Richard Childress Racing sees a day when every car in the garage will be wrapped instead of painted.

"It's the wave of the future," he said.

Motorsports Design is the leader in body wrapping, handling 60 to 70 percent of the teams. The company did more than 300 wraps last season and has trademarked the name "RaceWraps."

"I've been working for three years with those guys in the television booth to fully understand when they say paint scheme they're being very inaccurate," said John McKenzie, the owner of Motorsports Design.

McKenzie has been in the decal business with NASCAR for 25 years. He did his first full wrap in 1997 when Darrell Waltrip wanted a special chrome car to kick off his silver anniversary season at the Daytona 500.

Waltrip liked it so much that he ran it several more times.

A year later, NASCAR hired McKenzie to wrap a car in gold chrome in honor of the sport's 50th anniversary.

"Wrapping sort of set dormant for a while after that because in the old days it took two days for two guys to wrap a car with that tiny material used back then," McKenzie said.

But with the improvement of the vinyl, supplied to most wrappers by 3M, the process has gone from two days to two to three hours.

McKenzie didn't realize just how fast the installment could be done until 2003, when out of necessity his team had to wrap a Roush Fenway Racing show car on quick notice.

"They needed the car completely redone in a day and there was just no way it could be painted," he recalled. "One of the guys said, 'Let's wrap it.' So we wrapped it and it worked."

Later that year, Richard Childress had one of his backup cars wrapped for the All-Star race so he could use the same car with a different sponsor in the Coca-Cola 600 a week later.

That worked so well that Childress had almost all of his backup cars wrapped the remainder of the year.

"And nobody knew the difference," McKenzie said.

Kevin Harvick will be in a specialty-wrapped Platinum Pennzoil car in Saturday's race.

"I would say 30 to 40 percent of the time we have a wrap on something," Spicer said.

In a world where time is of the essence and sponsorships change from week to week, body wrapping is a necessity. Roush Fenway Racing, which has more dual sponsorships than any team in the garage, can turn a Greg Biffle Ameriquest car into a 3M car faster than most races are run.

It would take several days to make the transition with paint.

The extra workload put on teams with the Car of Tomorrow also makes body wrapping more economical.

"It's a cost factor," said Joe Whitley of PROCAL, which does most of the wrapping for Hendrick Motorsports, Evernham Motorsports and Robert Yates Racing.

"When you look at the demands on time of these teams, and you weigh out the cost of getting cars into the body shop and then decaled versus the turnaround of what we do, the wraps are a godsend."

At Talladega, for example, Jamie McMurray ran a shark-tooth design on his primary car that was painted. His backup was body-wrapped over his normal Crown Royal scheme so it could be unwrapped afterward and be ready for the July race at Daytona.

"It just helps keep our inventory at a manageable level," said Roush's Scott Bowen, whose organization does all of its wrapping in-house now. "It saves you a lot of time and labor in between the week.''

The most unusual use of body wraps is with the No. 21 Wood Brothers car, sponsored by Little Debbie. Because the sponsor is run by members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the logo is not allowed on the car on their Sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.

So Little Debbie is wrapped over after the final practice on Friday and not unveiled again until Sunday morning before the race. If it's a Saturday night race, such as this week, the team will go with Motorcraft on the hood.

"That may be the most convenient use of wraps," McKenzie said.

The cost of wrapping ranges from $2,500 to $3,500, including the design, printing and installation. The cost to paint might be somewhat cheaper, considering many of the teams get their paint for free, but money saved in time and labor by far outweighs that.

Body wrapping also allows for more extravagant schemes, none more so than the Peter Max design used by Dale Earnhardt for the 2000 All-Star race.

Max, one of America's most renowned pop artists, designed a special scheme for RCR's No. 3 car that had more colors than a rainbow and more twists than a tie-dyed shirt.

"That was pretty much the wildest decal scheme done in the modern era," McKenzie said.

It was so wild that NASCAR, which has to approve every scheme, told Childress to redo it the night before the race because the No. 3 on the side and headlights could not be seen clearly.

"So we had to redo everything Friday night, take it down Saturday morning and redo it before the race," McKenzie said.

In the early wrap days that would have been difficult. But with computers that easily can modify the design and digital ink jet printers that can print the design on vinyl in 90 minutes, it was a simple procedure.

You're all the time hearing the television commentators say, 'Well, that's a special paint scheme.' Most of the time it's not.

Mike Hodge

"It wasn't like the old days when we had to use a screen press," McKenzie said.

NASCAR rejects schemes about as often as it seemingly changes it rules, but McKenzie understands.

"They just want to have a nice, clean field of cars," he said. "They don't want anything controversial. There's been a lot of controversial stuff turned down."

One that passed was the Busch Series car McKenzie wrapped five years ago with a picture of Anna Nicole Smith on the hood.

"It wasn't a provocative picture," he said. "It could have been, but it wasn't."

Whitley said both RYR cars -- the No. 88 Snickers car of Ricky Rudd and No. 38 M&M's car of David Gilliland -- typically are full-body wraps.

"That Snickers car is pretty wild," he said. "It's got a real special finish on it. Think about having to paint that every week. It would be almost impossible."

A lot of cars have a special finish, particularly for the All-Star race, when metallic and neon colors are used to show up better at night.

One of the more unique wraps was the No. 43 Spider-Man car driven by Bobby Labonte at Talladega this year. Everything, from the car number to the smallest sponsor, was designed into one layer of vinyl.

There was no overlapping, as often is the case with a body-wrap package that comes in seven pieces.

"They wanted that for speed," McKenzie said.

Yes, aerodynamics figure into this. Most body wraps weigh on average about 9 pounds less than a paint job with full decals, McKenzie said.

Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team is one of the few that doesn't use a lot of body wraps because DuPont is his primary sponsor and the paint company prefers he uses its product.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 Budweiser car typically is painted, as well, but there are occasions when NASCAR's most popular driver will have a wrap. One instance will be next weekend at the Coca-Cola 600, when his car will have a camouflage scheme as part of a salute to the military.

In fact, most of the 10 drivers bearing military schemes will have wrapped cars.

These two weeks at LMS are so busy for McKenzie that he has dubbed it Charlotte-ona.

"The only other two weeks like it are Daytona," he said. "We're so doggone busy with these two races, plus we do the Bobby Rahal cars for the Indianapolis 500, that we barely have time to catch our breath.

"If wrapping continues to grow like I believe it will, we'll only get busier."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.