Becoming a Pace Setter
Panther Graphics has used its racing connection to find wrap success.
Many digital print service providers enter vehicle wraps as an opportunity to tap a new market for their large-format print capabilities. For the team at Panther Graphics (panthergraphics.com) in Indianapolis, however, it was necessity that sparked an entire venture into digital print services.
And that has given this relatively new player in the digital graphics market the kind of cachet that translates into credibility as a premiere specialist in high-performance wraps.
Officially launched last year as a sister company to Panther Racing – a leading contender on the IndyCar racing circuit – the graphics division began with a straightforward but challenging request. In 2009, the National Guard, in its second year as team sponsors, requested that its IndyCar racer No. 4 be adorned with the same Army Combat Uniform camouflage worn by the guard’s citizen soldiers.
“Until then we had been painting all our cars,” recalls Nic Baumann, Panther Graphics director, and president and CFO of Panther Racing. “But it seemed just too overwhelming, too tedious for us to try and reproduce that camo pattern, and then have to redo it with the kind of quality we require.”
It’s not that the Panther’s expert paint team couldn’t reproduce the distinctive blend of tan, gray, and green. Rather, the problem was the painstaking detail and time required to accurately and repeatedly apply the camo to the race car. This wouldn’t be a one-time project. “Typically a race car will get repainted five or six times during the racing season,” Baumann explains, adding that the team has to maintain several cars. “We knew there was no way we could reproduce that camo pattern again and again, paint wise.”
Printing the pattern on vinyl then wrapping the car seemed an option, with reservations. Digitally printed vinyl decals were already a fixture on the sides of Panther racing’s car haulers, but previous experiments with wrapping a racer for special events had proven disappointing.
“The biggest problem we ran into was that we were limited in what we could do, design-wise, to get the quality we require,” he recalls. “Either they had to stretch the vinyl too much to completely cover the car, or we would end up with 20 or 30 sections of vinyl. We always have to look professional, our cars have to look their absolute best for us and our sponsors, and we just couldn’t accept that.”
But telling the National Guard representatives a camo-themed car posed too many challenges was not an option. “Our president and CEO John Barnes is not the kind of person who settles for hearing, ‘We can’t do something,’” Baumann acknowledges.
The Alabama team
So, Baumann and other members of the team cast a wider net, beyond Indianapolis, asking their contacts for recommendations on the best vehicle wrappers in the business. Ultimately, those referrals pointed south, to Alabama, and to a team that included lead installer Tony Kendricks and graphic designer Neal Cross. Panther Racing shipped off its ideas, a sample of the camo pattern, and one of its racers to Alabama. Two weeks later it was back, fully wrapped.
“They did the wrap which took other installers 30 pieces to complete with just five or six pieces and no visible seams,” marvels Baumann. “They just have the knack for making the car look its best.”
While the logistical challenge had been met, concerns remained. Cars competing on the IndyCar circuit can reach sustained speeds of as much as 230 miles per hour over the course of a 500-mile race. Could the vinyl and graphics endure conditions that Baumann likens to three hours of sandblasting?
“Not only did it hold up, but it proved to be more durable than a paint job,” he recalls. With paint, Baumann says, once track grit chips away any of the protective outer coating, the underlying paint begins to flake away from the car as well. “With the vinyl, though, the dirt just bounced off.”
From that point on, painting the cars was no longer an option. Kendricks and Cross essentially became working partners with Panther Racing. They wrapped all three of the team’s cars in 2009, then began wrapping the team’s haulers in 2010. By 2011 they were doing “a ton of work” for Panther Racing from their Alabama base: wrapping four racing chassis plus three 53-foot haulers, all vehicles associated with the races.
By then, Kendricks had left his employer and Cross was working with him as a freelancer. The only issue was the time and cost involved shipping equipment back and forth. Now, digital printing on vinyl had become essential to Panther Racing’s look. And, in 2011, “Someone began the conversation, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this in Indianapolis?’” Baumann says. “That seemed intriguing. The more we discussed it, the more we liked the idea, and we began looking for partners.”
It didn’t take much arm twisting to convince Kendricks and Cross to move north, as the core members of what would become Panther Graphics’ full-time staff of five. Once in Indy, they continued in familiar roles: Kendricks as lead printer and installer, and Cross as an installer and specialist in graphic design and file prep.
“Our long-range plans, once we brought [Kendricks and Cross] on board, have always been to offer our services to the public, as a self-supporting business,” says Baumann. “Meeting the needs of Panther Racing would always be a priority, but we also wanted to develop a full portfolio of outside clients.”
Before they could take on any job, however, they needed printing space and equipment. Panther Racing allotted 1000 square feet within its Indianapolis headquarters to the graphics venture, which would operate as a separate entity within the same holding group.
After surveying their print options, Kendricks recommended they invest in a pair of HP Designjet L26500 latex printers, driven by Onyx PosterShop RIPs. As far as print media goes, he’s brand loyal – his preference is Oracal’s OraJet 3551RA with its repositionable RapidAir technology, and the companion OraGuard 290 G gloss laminate film. “Racing cars have special requirements, and I’ve found once these vinyls are stuck, they stay on and hold.”
And unlike popular cars and trucks, for which design templates exist, each racing wrap carries unique requirements, requiring a more custom-design. That responsibility fell to Cross, who uses digital photos, precise measurements, scans, and drawings to guide him in developing the printed sections that comprise each wrap.
A new season
During the years Cross and Kendricks had been working with Panther Racing, they’d perfected the wraps for the Panther cars. But the car chassis was redesigned for the 2012 season, requiring them to rethink and redesign the wraps. That challenge presented itself when Panther Graphics was preparing for its launch in early 2012 – just as the racing team was ramping up for the new season.
“Last January and February, there was a lot of demand for our services to meet the needs of the racing team,” adds Baumann.
The Panther Racing work represents the kind of guaranteed workload most print shops would welcome. In addition to wrapping three full race chassis for 2012, Panther Graphics also wrapped the four trailers used by the team to haul cars and equipment, golf carts used to get around the track, and just about anything wrappable in the pit area, right down to the tool boxes.
The race cars involve several steps and some special handling. Before the car bodies are wrapped, they pass through Panther Racing’s paint department. There, a coating of PPG sealer is applied to prep the car to be receptive to the vinyl adhesive.
“The race car basically consists of six to eight large printed sections, depending on the paint scheme,” says Cross. “We don’t have a template for the car because you run into a lot of 2D and 3D discrepancies going from a flat 2D drawing of logos to the actual curved surface of the car body.”
Print resolution can vary, depending on the desired effect, from a worn and distressed look to areas requiring fine detail and absolute clarity. “We have the ability to accurately reproduce art files that remain very crisp, even at smaller sizes,” asserts Cross. As an example, he notes: “We print a carbon-fiber pattern on the ‘black’ section of our car that has a very small weave pattern.” This mimics the appearance of the underlying carbon fiber body where it would show through the graphics.
In addition to wrapping the car sections, identical replacement panels are also covered with the graphics. These replacement panels travel with the team for swapping out, should that area of the car be damaged in a race.
Whether the team is working on an actual car or these body sections, most of the installation is pretty straightforward. Occasionally, though, the installers rely on self-igniting torches or digital heat guns to stretch the vinyl for a precise fit to some of the racer’s more challenging contours.
Once the wrap is complete, the cars head back to the paint shop for final finishing. “We use a standard rubber-seal clear coat, just like any paint shop shoots as a final coat to protect the finished surface,” says Baumann.
Competitors take notice
Wrapping the cars is proving a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to painting. “It took us three or four days to paint a car, and the car had to be apart,” Baumann points out. “We can do a wrap in about one-and-a-half days, and while they’re installing the vinyl we can be working on other parts of the car.”
He estimates it actually costs about $1000 more to wrap each car, but “the durability is so much better,” he says. That translates into savings. To maintain the quality look so critical to a successful team’s image, a car might need to be wrapped four times over the course of a season, compared with the need to repaint it as many as six times.
Printing on vinyl also allows the team to easily update a car with new graphics, or outfit it with an entirely new look for special events or appearances. “We’ve done all our pit equipment now, and anything around the shop which can be wrapped,” adds Kendricks.
Competitors are taking notice, inquiring about the process, exploring the possibilities with small jobs. “We’ve seen some other teams do partial wraps of their cars, but no one else is using wraps to the extent we do, or doing it in house,” Baumann boasts. “This is new territory for our industry.”
As the pioneer of full-wrap graphics for the racetrack, the goal now is to bring that same level of service to anyone requiring a proven mix of high performance, quality, and durability in fleet and vehicle graphics. The same skills that transform racers can just as easily be applied to planes and boats – anywhere an ordinary wrap from an ordinary company just won’t do. Its portfolio already includes sports cars, race trucks, vans, and buses.
“We like doing things that are just out of the ordinary,” says Baumann. “Even the company’s break-room refrigerator has been given the wrap treatment, with a new look of polished steel printed on Oracal 975 textured vinyl.”
Its first-year clients have proven just as willing to explore the possibilities. “We’ve wrapped baseball bats, a guitar, football helmets, ATMs,” he reports. “We’ve made a list of things we’ve never wrapped just to give us more ideas.
Although it’s the racing connection that may initially catch the customer’s attention, Panther Graphics is positioning itself as a one-stop shop for all its clients’ digital graphics. The goal is to grow at a pace which allows no room for compromise on the quality and performance it has demonstrated at the track. “We’ve wrapped race cars at a level we’re proud of, and we are committed to bring that same level of service to the public,” avows Baumann.
For those customers who require it, the company now offers a menu of multi-tiered design services for vehicle wraps, signage, or entire marketing campaigns. It’s also promoting the full range of capabilities of its printers for producing everything from decals and wall wraps to window shades and floor graphics.
“We just continue to be amazed at the quality and versatile of printing on vinyl,” Baumann sums up. “There’s just so much we can do with it.”