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Inside the world of race-car decals

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

This weekend, when race car driver, Jeff Green, runs the Atlanta Motor Speedway track, during the Pep Boys Auto 500, in his No. 66 Best Buy Chevrolet Impala Super Sport, many people will notice the car's exterior design and the sponsors who paid for it.

What many will not know is that the car was 'wrapped,' from bumper to bumper, and it was done by two men in just over two hours.

What once took hundreds of man hours, by a team using paint and stencils, can now be done in a fraction of the time.

The art of wrapping cars in vinyl decals has gained popularity in the last three or four years, according to Ben Hudgins, sales manager for PRO CAL Professional Decals, the Rock Hill, South Carolina-based decal business responsible for the designs on the No. 66 car.

Wrapping has streamlined the business of designing the exteriors of racing vehicles, and has opened up a world of artistic possibilities just about impossible with paint.

"They don't even have to paint the car anymore ... we can encase it in vinyl," said Hudgins. "I can have two guys wrap that thing in two and a half hours."

Instead of using conventional paint, Pro Cal uses a series of decals, printed on large printers using 3M brand vinyl, with a sticker-like backing. Large decals are applied to the side panels, the roof, the trunk and the hood, and smaller decals are applied for minute details and additional brand sponsors.

A propane gun is used to stretch and mold the vinyl on uneven surfaces, such as the bumper and the front end of the car. Hudgins said an average wrap weighs about 6.5 pounds -- about the same as a standard paint job. The decals, however, can be removed causing little or no damage to the car's exterior, and can be replaced without adding any extra weight to the car.

"It's evenly distributed weight, too, which is even better," which benefits the driver during a race, said Hudgins. "The good thing about the wrap is the graphics are embedded into it ... it allows you to do some amazing things."

In addition to speeding up the design process, Hudgins said wrapping allows cars to incorporate photographs and computer-generated art in their designs, which benefits both the race teams and the sponsors through better product placement and the ability to rotate which sponsors are more prominently displayed.

"That's why McDonald's ... instead of spelling out 'McDonald's' ... will put the big picture of burger and fries. That's what's going to make you hungry and go to the store," said Hudgins.

The South Carolina businessman gave other examples of designs made possible by wrapping, such as incorporating different bottles of brand-name salad dressing, movies currently in theaters, and a picture of Magic Johnson once used on the Best Buy car.

Hudgins said that a wrap for one standard-sized racing vehicle will cost between $2,500 and $3,000, and will last four or five years without fading.

The flexibility of wrapping cars allows racing teams to generate $8-$18 million per year on sponsorship alone, said Kerry Gilbert, publicist for the No. 66 Best Buy Racing Team.

"A lot of cop cars now are wrapped in vinyl, rather than painting," said Gilbert. "It's not just for race cars, it's in the general public as well."

Marcy Scott, director of marketing and promotions for the Atlanta Motor Speedway, said that fans appreciate seeing what fresh new design schemes will be displayed by their favorite racers.

"When you look at other racing sports where cars don't have the big numbers and the paint schemes ... it is hard to keep up with," said Scott. "With the larger sponsors, they can afford to be a little more creative with their decals, and it allows the fans to keep up with the car anywhere it is on the track."