Author: Scott Neth Photo: Scott Neth
With a fabrication career of 32 years and a racing career that’s more than a decade longer, Bob Neth of Neth Racing Works in Julian, California, has seen the evolution of our sport through the lens of both a driver’s and a welder’s helmet. Great success in both realms has given him a unique edge, allowing him to consider the wants of a driver and the practicalities of fabrication when building a new vehicle, and his skill and craftsmanship have made him a go-to name for quality. We sat down with Bob to pick his brain about fabrication, tips and advice along with his thoughts on the future of the sport.
Dirt Sports (DS): How did you get started in fabrication?
Bob Neth (BN): Just after high school I had a friend, Craig Campbell, whose dad was a USAC chief mechanic for Johnny Rutherford at the Indy 500, and we had access to his shop after hours where we fabricated stuff on our dirt bikes. That was back in the heyday when there was Can-Am and Formula 5000 (both were road racing series that Campbell’s father built cars for), in the pre-composite era, when racecars still had fabricated aluminum monocoque chassis and welded steel suspension parts, so we had examples we could look at and aspire to.
DS: Who taught you the basics of fabrication? Where did you first get started?
BN: We were basically self-taught. We just kinda learned by looking at examples of what we wanted to make and then figuring out how to do it. Then in college I took welding on an independent study basis, where I could basically bring my racecar into the shop. They had a full airframe shop that wasn’t being used, which I had access to. Basically, I had access to all the equipment, and I had to teach myself how to use it because there wasn’t an instructor for that class.
DS: What was your first real success as a fabricator?
BN: The first single-seater I built in 1972. Tom Smith, who owned Wrecks West, saw the car in ’73 and was so impressed with it that he offered me a full sponsorship. We formed Racers West to build and prep cars. He sponsored my racing and we did several races together that season, including the Baja 1000.
DS: How did you turn a hobby into a career?
BN: I was a carpenter for a living, with racing as a hobby. In 1981 we had a recession that dropped home sales to zero. The contractor I worked for told me to take their car home and start prepping it, with the hope that something would break soon and I could start back to construction. But three years later, I realized that I was now building and prepping cars for a living, so I built a shop on my property in Temecula, and have been doing it ever since.
DS: What are some of the projects you’re most proud of?
BN: Certainly the 1600 cars that my brother and I raced and had great success with. Building 54 Protrucks for Ivan Stewart, and the new four-seater that I built for Rick D. Johnson, which was on the cover of Dirt Sports.
DS:How do you feel the racing side of your career has improved what you produce as a fabricator?
BN: Driving the car under race conditions leads to a thorough understanding of how they work and how they can be improved. Before you can start fabricating, you need to know what you’re gonna build, and that comes from being able, as a driver, to communicate with a customer to understand what the car needs so that you can design something and start building it. All the fabrication skills in the world are useless if you don’t have any idea what to make.
DS: What do you feel are some key skills of off-road fabrication?
BN: I feel that my strong suit is steel fabrication and welding, but the need to do quality work is present in every aspect of building a car. The market is moving more toward the upper classes, and demands quality work; there seems to be less and less entry level, do-it-yourself opportunity for beginning fabricators. That’s a hard thing to say without sounding insulting, but that’s how I see it. You really need to be up on your game.
DS: What principles do you employ when it comes to racecar construction and building a quality vehicle?
BN: I feel that it starts in the design stage and having a good understanding of all aspects. From the beginning of the project, the ability to design, fabricate and assemble the finished project, and see all the aspects of it so that they mesh together. For example, a good design with poor construction or bad components ends up as a failure, and certainly someone who can see all aspects of the project from design through fabrication and assembly, testing and development, will be in demand over someone who can only do one element. The racing environment is so demanding at the speeds that cars go now that every aspect has to be perfect, including the driver, for a project to be successful. Unfortunately, it can take years and years of experience to get good at all of those aspects, which means you need some business skill too, to survive long enough to get that experience.
DS: Any advice for up-and-coming fabricators?
BN: If you’re considering a fab school, don’t forget some business classes as well, even in community college. After all, you’re trying to make a living at it, unless you just want to learn fabrication as a hobby. I think that happens to a lot of fabricators who don’t have a concept that for the hours you spend making a part, you need to be able to sell it for an amount that generates a decent hourly wage. At the same time, it’s not as simple as saying I’m going to charge “X” amount an hour, because if your quality isn’t worth that, you’re not going to stay in business, either.
DS: What do you feel is the next evolution in off-road racing?
BN: Hmm (strokes chin thoughtfully). Active suspension, like what was banned in Formula 1, is certainly an enticing idea. The vehicle dynamics of an off-road car vary so widely that it’s impossible to maximize the performance of any off-road vehicle over the wide range of course conditions encountered in any given race. If you were to have computer-controlled shock valving, spring rates, steering ratios, etc., varying during the course of the race, as opposed to the “one setup fits all” compromise that’s in current use now, cars could have the ability to leave the current crop in the dust.
DS: After such a long career in fabrication, what drives you to continue to get out in the shop?
BN: I still enjoy the challenge of designing and building things, and the knowledge that at the end of the day, you can stand back and look at something you’ve created. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.