How Stock Car Painting Works

Brilliantly painted cars in race.
David Madison/Stone/Getty Images

­NASCAR. You know it for the sights, the sounds, and the speed. Maybe you're an avid fan or perhaps you're altogether unfamiliar with the actual races. Some fans wait all year for big races, showing up days in advance to camp out and make an event out of it. And then there are the drivers. To them, race day has been months in the making, with their cars being built from the floor up in shops specially made for the purpose. Long gone is the day of slapping some paint on an old Taurus and calling it good. In this article, we'll cover the basics of painting a stock car.

From the basic black of the Model- T to the brown and orange of the Home Depot runner, cars of all purposes­ have always had some sort of paint job. People like certain colors and enjoy being able to display their preference. But NASCAR cars take color a little bit further than your own Chevy, using the color schemes, logos and decals of their sponsors as a way to brighten the landscape and advertise their partners' business. The sponsors love it -- score a win, and your name is all over the news -- and the fans identify with it.


­But with so many people involved, how is it possible to have a car everyone will like? With sponsors shelling out millions, it's no small matter. After all, when you think about the speeds these vehicles reach, you can see how it might be hard to make out that Kellogg bumper sticker. Drivers and sponsors want to be sure fans are able to distinguish their cars from the pack, but not at the cost of durability and rules.

­Paint starts at the chassis and underbody (in low-light places, like the pits, lighter colors can be easier to work with) and works its way up to the finished products we see on our television screens [source: Gomez]. There's a lot of work in that paint job, and we're about to dip into it. To see what goes on first, read on.


Stock Car Painting Preparation

Once a car has been built, it goes to the body shop for a washing and baking/drying process. This has to occur before the chassis is painted. Professional teams have the advantage of large shops, paint rooms and bake booths, but for many, the steps are much less involved. In this section on paint prep, we'll begin with the sanding.

Whatever material was used for the car, it needs to be roughed up for the paint to stick. Sandpaper, sheet metal, fiberglass or plastic is used to scratch the surface lightly enough to leave a scuff. A light touch is required -- too much force could cause damage to the material.


Durability comes into play in the next step too, when the surface is gleamed up with an industrial cleaner. This gets grease off of the car's surface before the primer is set, and an "electrocoat" goes down to kill any electric transmission of sparks [source: Gibson, DuPont]. But again, overuse could wear down the foundation.

­Once the body has been cleaned (and dried again), a primer, which serves as a buffer zone between the metal and the paint, is applied.

Filler might be applied as well, if the car's panels aren't "straight." To be straight means that the surface looks even, without bubbles or warped spots. Tools are needed to hammer out bent metal edges or otherwise redesign the problem area, but once that's done, a filler is applied, then sanded until smooth and perfect, to finish out the process.

­So your car's ready and your paint is in stock. Cruise over to the next page to check out the application process.


Applying Paint to Stock Cars

You've done all the preparation, so the dirty work is pretty much done, right? Not so fast -- painting cars is more involved than running the rollers over a fresh canvas.

­Today, most cars are actually painted by robots in an assembly line, with the exception of rare hand-painted models, like the 2008 National Guard camo car [source:Pfefier]. For those without the time or money to get a hand-painted car, the "50/50" method of painting a personal car is the best. When viewed from a distance, or great speeds, the paint job can look great.


For others, like Nextel Cup pros, a car has to do more than look good from a distance. The colors also have to match the driver's fire suit and all of the merchandise associated with the team. To make sure this all happens, a designer draws up a specific plan encompassing the different elements. When a design is agreed upon, the car is sprayed with a final base, usually an acrylic urethane and is ready for the paint [source: Livingstone].

Then, the color is applied in a color booth. Labor intensive and complex, depending on the colors used, this process can run up to $15,000 [source: Livingstone, Siska]. The goal is that the car has a good "pop"-- a visual look that makes it stand out from others and says something about the team and its sponsors. Once the paint's applied, the car dries before receiving its clear coat, which acts as the final barrier between the slick paint job and the harsh elements of the world.

For a more in depth look at the clear coating, head over the next page.



Applying Clear Coating to Stock Cars

In NASCAR racing, it's difficult to determine just who has the hardest job. Is it the driver controlling the machine while sitting and sweating in a small confined area, or is it the pit crew buzzing through a stop to make sure their man (or woman) is back on the track in no time flat? This isn't exactly clear, but one thing is certain: the clear coat has an important -- though under-recognized -- job. This coating protects the paint job and helps make the cars shine [source: DuPont]. It's also used as an adhesive for graphics on your favorite cup vehicle. But what is this stuff?

­Since it shields a car's paint from bird droppings, road gunk and debris, you know it has to be strong. Clear coat is a layer of paint, or resin, that doesn't have any color added to it. The initial layers of paint on a car have color added to them, so this clear coat is a "stage-two layer" that seals the paint and extends its life [source: Hot Rod Magazine].


3M, a leader in paint and clear coat development, spends a great deal of time researching its products to ensure their durability. As paints are phased out and vinyl wraps become the standard, they are also developing the clear coats needed to master this new technique [source: 3M]. NASCAR's super speedy vehicles aren't the only ones on the roads (or tracks or speedways) to have this glossy finish applied -- yours might too.

What about those very important decals? Read on to find out.


Stock Car Decals

So we understand more about the extensive painting process that goes into finishing a stock car, but why is it that these teams put so much effort into achieving outlandish looks? Not only will these designs help the cars stand out but with any luck, they'll also make the car look faster than it already is. At least, that's what Jeff Gordon is hoping for with his No. 24 car's new look of "fire and flames." He'll introduce his new look -- orange, black and yellow -- for 2009 [source: Murphey]. What about his trademark DuPont logo? It will still be there -- but it won't be painted.

Decals and logos play an important part in this advertising-driven sport, and these days they can be slapped on right before a race with the creation of vinyl wraps [source: Graves]. Currently logos and decals are made from vinyl and plastered, not painted, all over a car as a means of earning sponsorship dollars. Numbers, which are leased from NASCAR, "belong" to a team only as long as their contract is good [source: Sporting News].


Most fans don't question the colors of their favorite team, but they may wonder how a certain number is assigned to their driver's car. As with all of the rules and regulations, that is up to the team to pick, with approval from NASCAR, of course [source: Newton].

­Now that you have the knowledge on how stock car painting -- or vinyl wrapping -- works, check out the links on the following page for even more stock car topics.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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