KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is one of many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers who will sport a commemorative paint scheme for the 67th annual Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. In a tradition that began last year, some teams will sport paint schemes honoring the history in the sport of their sponsors, while others will pay tribute to the legacy of other drivers by running one of their iconic paint schemes. For Busch, it’ll be a different kind of throwback – one that symbolizes just how his sponsor Haas Automation came to be.
The paint scheme on the No. 41 Chevy pays homage to the VF-1, the first computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine manufactured by Haas Automation, launched in 1988. The “V” stands for vertical, which is an industry standard designation for a vertical mill. Gene Haas, founder of Haas Automation, added “F-1” to the name to unofficially designate it as the company’s “Very First One.” Since then, Haas Automation has gone on to become the largest CNC machine-tool builder in the Western World.
Find a challenge. Create a good, efficient and cost-effective solution. Repeat. For Haas, that has proven to be his formula for success in business, racing and philanthropy. Born on Nov. 12, 1952 in the industrial town of Youngstown, Ohio, formerly known as the “Industrial Heartland of North America,” it’s appropriate that Haas has become a captain of industry.
Haas’ family moved to Los Angeles when he was still a child. His father worked as a designer of electrical cabinets for Hughes Aircraft and his mother was a schoolteacher. Haas is the second oldest of four children, and the importance of hard work and responsibility was instilled in him at an early age by his family. He delivered newspapers while in elementary school and, at age 14, began working in a machine shop where he swept floors and kept the facility clean. But after only six months, Haas was setting up lathes and conventional milling machines. He continued to work at machine shops through high school and college, mastering the machining techniques that would lead him to found Haas Automation in 1983.
The company started with three employees in a 5,000-square-foot facility. During the next four years, Haas expanded his product line to include a wide selection of fully programmable rotary tables, indexers and machine-tool accessories. Haas Automation quickly became the leader in fourth- and fifth-axis parts positioning.
It was in 1987 that Haas took what he learned from his time at Proturn Engineering, a small contract machine shop in Sun Valley, California that he founded in 1978, developing a fully programmable 5C collet indexer to boost productivity in his own shop, and designed and developed the first vertical machining center – the VF-1. The prototype was introduced to the manufacturing world in 1988 at the International Machine Tool Show in Chicago. Haas listed the machine at the “unheard-of” price of $49,900. Industry experts were skeptical that an American company could manufacture and sell a machine tool for less than $50,000. Haas Automation silenced the skeptics. The new product was a success. Today, virtually every manufacturer of vertical machining centers worldwide produces a similar machine in the $50,000 price range.
Haas’ desire to push innovation and tackle new challenges goes beyond his interest in machine tools. He had always been passionate about auto racing. He has competed successfully in off-road racing and sponsored numerous race teams through the years in CART, IndyCar and NASCAR, which includes a tenured partnership with Hendrick Motorsports.
In 2002, Haas formed his own Sprint Cup team, Haas CNC Racing. Originally headquartered in Concord, North Carolina, Haas CNC Racing began as a single-car team with chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. The team made its debut on Sept. 29, 2002 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City with driver Jack Sprague.
The team raced only two more times in 2002 but, by 2003, Haas CNC Racing was running the full Sprint Cup schedule.
In 2006, Haas CNC Racing relocated to a new, state-of-the-art, 140,000-square-foot facility in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where it began fielding two, full-time Sprint Cup teams.
On July 10, 2008, Haas announced that he had partnered with then two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. The new SHR became official in January 2009. The team fielded two Sprint Cup entries – one for Stewart and another for Ryan Newman.
Since then, SHR has gone on to record 34 Sprint Cup points-paying wins, a pair of Sprint Cup championships and a Sprint All-Star race win. And, just as it did in 2002, Haas Automation will serve as a primary sponsor for driver Busch and the No. 41 Chevrolet during Sunday night’s Southern 500.
There is no doubt that Haas and everyone at Haas Automation will enjoy throwing back to the machine that started it all this weekend at a track that, appropriately enough, has been on the NASCAR circuit longer than any other.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What makes Darlington unique?
“Darlington demands so much attention and respect. It’s similar to a Bristol like that. It’s hard to get the setup perfect because both ends of the racetrack are so different.”
What do you remember from your first Sprint Cup pole at Darlington?
“Yeah, everyone told me that you aren’t supposed to hold it open all the way off of turn two. A couple of people were joking around and telling me that you just can’t do it. ‘You can’t hold it open off of turn two.’ I asked, ‘Why not?’ I told them I should be able to hold it wide open because turn two leads to the long back straightaway. So everyone was trying to egg me on to try and spook the rookie. So, to prove them wrong, I went out there and held it wide open and it stuck. I guess I got lucky.”
Describe just what a Darlington Stripe is and what it is like to get one.
“The Darlington Stripe is when you run up right by the wall and you are trying to get the best speed you can out of the car. Just that quick (snaps fingers), the wall just sucks you right on it and you’ve got the right side of your car pancaked. The teams build the cars with extra support on the right sides. It’s extra weight but it helps protect you from running into the wall too hard. It helps where you can keep your day going and not actually ruin your day when you run into the wall. You think, hitting the wall, usually your day is done. At Darlington, that is a tattoo. It’s a stamp that says now you are racing.”
Do you remember your first race at Darlington? Your first stripe?
“My first race and first stripe – that place chewed me up and spit me out. I think I wrecked 20 times, kept bouncing off wall. I wore out the tires but kept going. I probably finished 40th my first time there. It really was an eye-opener on how tough NASCAR was going to be.”
Other than the finish with Ricky Craven at Darlington, do you have any other memorable moments that stick out?
“The biggest moment at Darlington I ever had was finishing second to Ricky Craven in 2003 – everyone knows that race. It’s one of the best finishes in NASCAR history. But, probably the next-biggest moment would be during my championship run in 2004. I had an ill-handling car and still managed to finish sixth with it due to good pit stops. That was a perfect moment because it was our championship to lose with where we finished that day in 2004. That was back when Darlington used to be in the Chase.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine