It’s a hot Sunday in July. Drivers simmer in puddles of perspiration, their sweltering cars waiting for the go signal. Encased in racing garb —fireproof clothing and full-face helmets —the discomfort would be unbearable if it weren’t for the adrenaline coursing through their veins.
They are strapped into the seat of powerful racers so tightly that only movement necessary for piloting the car is possible; chest, thighs and upper arms are all lashed down, insurance against losing limbs during a high speed crash. Racing has begun! The roar is deafening. Cars are bellowing around the track, trailing the smells of high-octane fuel, hot engine oils and tires that are literally shedding their rubber in the quest to keep the car on the pavement.
Engines are pounding out hundreds of horsepower because every one of them have been so highly modified for speed, that each lap brings the motor closer to its demise. Lasting the entire race is all that the driver and his team can hope for…that, and a win.
This is Winston Cup auto racing in 1988, and the track is Talladega, Alabama. One car that holds together for the entire race and ends up winning is owned by Precision Products Racing, of Asheville. Put on your flame suit and let’s enter the world of the speedy Jackson family…(you did bring a crash helmet, didn’t you?)
Brothers Richard and Leo built a racecar when they were teens. Their father owned a service station, so the boys picked up on auto engines osmotically. Little did they know that this car project would not only be a winning racer; it would become a vehicle to propel them into a future unimagined.
The first outing for the car was on the track at McCormick Field in Asheville. What? Yes, in 1955 the Tri-State League, which included the Asheville Tourists, folded, and the stadium was turned into an auto-racing venue by local businessman, Jim Lowe. (His family would create the Lowe’s home improvement empire).
Home plate was the start/finish line of the quarter-mile oval paved around the baseball diamond. More than one driver and his car came to grief in the dugout after misjudging the home plate curve!
The racing hook was firmly set: Richard and Leo campaigned their project at McCormick Field as well as Asheville Motor Speedway. The Jacksons discovered that they were good at building fast cars as well as winning races.
As time unfurled, Richard became a mechanical engineer and Leo, a skilled machinist. They were both hired at Ex-Cell-o Corporation in Swannanoa, where they refined their talents, and continued to race on weekends. Idyllic as life appeared, it wasn’t perfect: the young men dreamed of opening their own business that was somehow dedicated to auto racing.
In 1963 their father, Leo Sr. sold his service station and was looking for an investment opportunity. The timing couldn’t be better: two Jackson generations decided to go into the metal machining business.
Every entrepreneur needs a plan, and theirs was a simple one: the brothers would capitalize on their racing experiences. At the track, internal engine components are forced to withstand incredible stresses. The maximum engine RPM have been increased to 10,000, almost two times what they were originally designed for.
At that rate, 166 explosions per second are taking place in the engine and the internal temperatures skyrocket. If one part fails, the engine will rapidly self-destruct, and a very expensive car will be eliminated from the race.
The men knew which parts needed fortification; so solving those problems was an engaging task for an engineer and a machinist. The venture was appropriately named, Precision Performance Products Center (PPPC). They started cutting metal at once.
Within a short time, the Jackson’s company became the racer’s place to go for quality engine components. Their fielded parts proved themselves on the track by performing far better than any other products on the market.
Diversification also appeared in the form of custom machining; manufacturing small runs of parts from customer provided drawings. In this capacity, Precision garnered a reputation for high quality work, which attracted the attention of aerospace firms such as: Northrop and Stencel Aero Engineering, the Asheville-based creator of ejection seats for the military.
The Jackson brothers had put racing aside while they were building their machining business… until 1974, when they entered a car in the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Division. The team won its first race with driver Bob Pressley, and went on to win an astounding 34 of 53 races that season.
By the time Leo sold his racing team in 1996, what had begun as a part time hobby had developed into a winning NASCAR enterprise. At one point the Precision Products Racing team had the support of 14 sponsors. This enabled Leo to employ engine builders, drivers and pilots to fly the team members to the races.
A book could be written about Leo and Richard’s success on the track, which is beyond the scope of our story. Perhaps the best testimony to their legacy is the success of Precision Performance, where the knowledge gleaned at races on Sunday was distilled into product improvements on Monday.
The small firm that started out with only a lathe, a mill, a screw machine and a surface grinder has now been in business for 49 years. Their facility on Airport Road in Arden houses a vast array of production machinery, which is run by a dedicated staff of 25.
Throughout his tenure, Leo has continued to build on his racing experience to spark innovations in the go-fast parts industry. He was the first manufacturer to offer Titanium Valve tips.
Traditionally, intake and exhaust valves have been made from high strength hardened steel, which is heavy. In the quest for speed, steel has been replaced by Titanium, a precious metal that is almost as strong, but far lighter. It’s expensive and difficult to machine, but engines do turn easier with the lighter valves; however, unfortunately, the tips wear quickly.
Leo created a titanium valve with tips made of high strength steel, allowing teams the benefits of both materials. Titanium tipped valves were instantly accepted by race teams and became standard equipment on Grand National Cars nationwide.
Manufacturers can alter the properties of a part to make it more durable or wear better. Artificial hip joints last longer, thanks to a patented process called Casidiam, a carbon coating that drastically alters their surface.
Leo had an idea: why not apply this coating to some engine parts? Precision Performance experimented with Casidiam and pioneered the application of this new technology to wrist pins, a part that wears out very quickly during a race.
The technique is very sophisticated: carbon ions are drawn into the metal’s surface when placed in a vacuum chamber, which is then filled with an ionized gas and heated. The resulting layer is very thin: 80 millionths of an inch.
Pulling all those carbon ions into the wrist pin makes the surface harder, which means it wears less quickly; it is also somewhat self-lubricating, much like Teflon.
Leo’s hunch paid off. Casidiam-treated wrist pins lasted longer and required less lubrication — race teams couldn’t get enough.
The process is also called: Diamond Like Carbon Coating (DLCC) — but there are no diamonds involved — and other manufacturers began using the process as well. Precision needed leverage against the competition, so they went the extra mile.
Leo realized that this whiz-bang coating could perform better if the surface upon which it is deposited was improved. He invented machines that would create a surface so smooth that it looks like glass.
His invention can polish the surface of a metal part to resemble fine jewelry yet retain dimensional tolerances to a staggeringly small, fifty millionths of an inch! (0.000050”).
A mirror finish, combined with the DLCC coating is a competitive edge for Precision Products. Today, the coating is offered on wrist pins, valve lifters as well as any other parts their customers desire.
When summarizing innovations brought to light by entrepreneurial companies, there is a pitfall for the reader; it all sounds so easy. Successful business owners will tell you that every day is a struggle and rare is the individual who ever feels like he is ‘out of the woods’. Hard work, dedication and a great deal of family support are the norm.
His mother, Debbie, is the General Manager of Precision Performance, but she wasn’t magically deposited into that role…she started to earn it before she could read.
Debbie accompanied her father to work and to the racetrack when she was a toddler. The slightly sweet scent of a machine shop was to become inextricably bound to fond memories of their time together.
Before Debbie was out of junior high, summers found her working full time at PPPC.
Throughout her college years (at UNCA) Debbie continued to support Leo in the family business. Originally on a track to become a veterinarian, she switched majors to mechanical engineering when she realized that if she didn’t work in Leo’s business, his legacy would wither.
Debbie chose an unusual path for a young woman. Few females sought their bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Even fewer could be found advising machinists within their male dominion. No female engineers, however, could be found conferring with highly experienced NASCAR teams to develop race-winning parts.
But, her dad owns the company, so no big deal, right? She’ll just waltz into a plum cake job, on graduation day, right? Wrong.
Debbie was on her own like any other employee. Leo, in addition to managing Precision Performance, was running a fully sponsored, highly successful NASCAR team. He would give Debbie her marching orders, then disappear into the dizzying details of his work day.
She felt frustrated back then because she didn’t have a job title, and dad gave her a myriad of assignments, most of which didn’t involve her engineering skills. She thought them to be menial and beneath her; she was an engineer, after all!
Things became interesting when Precision Performance’s general manager left. As a result, Leo asked her to fill the newly created void. Debbie felt the fear of the unknown — for about a millisecond — then she got to work; there were valued customers who needed their parts!
Within a short time, Debbie realized that she was doing all right…even better than all right, she was running the company, and having a good time in the process.
Another appreciation dawned: she realized that those “menial tasks” Leo handed her were now valuable tools; Debbie had good, working knowledge about every job within the shop, invaluable for any GM.
Leo comes to work now three days a week in a advisory capacity; most of the decisions are made by Debbie and her dedicated staff of professionals. She has also acquired a reputation for herself within NASCAR circles.
When Debbie was younger, race engineers would refer to her as “Leo’s daughter,” dismissing her as inexperienced. Today, when those same people call Precision Performance they demand to speak to Debbie Jackson. Period.
The number of tasks required of her can be staggering, so Debbie spends between ten and twelve hours daily at Precision and is usually the last to leave. Her son, Harrison, often opts to keep her company until she turns off the lights and locks the doors.
In 2007, PPPC started to see sales figures drop, when the US economy began its downward slide. Along with the ensuing global financial slowdown, there were changes in some NASCAR rules, which meant teams needed fewer parts, so Precision’s sales sagged.
Unlike their competitors, the Jacksons have not outsourced their manufacturing to offshore shops, or cut their raw material costs to offset the lower sales figures. Precision has never laid off an employee and continues to buy only the best metals available from the US, Austria, and France.
This slavish attention to quality has paid off. Precision Performance has not lost customers; rather, they are attracting more. A new market has turned up recently: parts for antique cars.
Companies that painstakingly restore older, thoroughbred vehicles cannot buy engine parts. Instead, restoration firms arm themselves with detailed drawings and search for a machine shop that can deliver.
Many such requests have landed on Precision’s doorstep. Debbie reports that her company is now making parts for such exotic marques as: Maserati, Bugatti, and Ferrari.
Restoration companies ask Precision to machine some very complex parts in small quantities, which is expensive and time consuming. Most customers are on a limited budget and tight schedule. Not so for restoration shops. They are rarely in a hurry, and have very liberal spending policies.
Precision ships large volumes of their parts worldwide and countless professional race teams depend upon their services. Sixty percent of what they manufacture is private labeled, which means that you’re not likely to see their logo on the shelves of speed shops. The rest of their sales are custom work for individual customers.
The next time you see images of a professional race car, think about what you’ve just read, because there’s a good chance that some of the critical engine parts came from Asheville’s own Precision Performance Products Center.
No one can predict what kind of engines will propel racing cars 20 years from now. If history repeats itself, however, race engineers will be on the phone to a shop in Arden, speaking with a young engineer named Harrison Jackson.
He will represent the fourth generation of Jacksons at Precision, and he will be reminded of that every time he detects the sweet perfume of a working machine shop.