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Danica Patrick's father's carbon fiber snowmobile business

Get your Fiber!

T.J. Patrick puts his products to the test in a vintage race at Eagle River, Wis.
Carbon fiber composite structures have always been identified with high-tech, no cost spared applications like elite fighter jets and Formula 1 cars.

Due to high tooling and materials costs, complicated manufacturing processes and limited supply it has taken a while for carbon fiber to make its way to the snowmobile world. But T.J. Patrick (Danica’s dad) is trying to change that.

“Composite” means made up of two or more materials, and in performance applications has come to mean man-made fibers blended with synthetic resins. Glass fiber was one of the first composite materials used to mold complicated shapes from boat hulls to snowmobile hoods.

Glass fiber structures are easy to fabricate and relatively inexpensive to make. However, glass fiber products are relatively heavy and easily damaged by impacts. The advantage with fibers is that they can be weaved and also placed in the direction of stress for better managing the forces acting on a structure.

Despite the many advantages of fiberglass composites, airplane designers wanted a stronger, lighter material, so began searching for better fibers. The three that emerged were: carbon, Kevlar and boron.

Kevlar has special applications because of its extreme toughness, good tensile properties, and strong resistance to tearing. Kevlar is used in today’s snowmobile drive belts for this reason.

High-stress parts like Polaris clutch covers are the type products T.J. Patrick is creating.
Carbon fiber’s beginning
The first carbon fibers were produced in England at the Royal Air Force establishment in Farnborough. Rayon fibers were cooked in a carefully controlled, oxygen-free atmosphere. Carbon is one of the most plentiful elements in nature, and because of its ability to produce long chain molecules it’s suitable for making high-strength long fibers.

The earliest application, and today’s largest use, is in the recreational market, in such applications as skis, tennis rackets, golf clubs, fishing rods, bows and arrows. You probably already have a carbon fiber product in your garage.

Carbon fiber soon found applications in aerospace and fighter jets. One of the larger makers of aerospace products is Hercules in Salt Lake City, Utah. Looking to expand its markets in the early 1980s, Hercules got involved making monocoque racecar chassis for F1’s McLaren. The strength, lightweight and torsional rigidity of these structures gave McLaren’s cars a handling advantage.

I witnessed this at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1983 were John Watson won and his teammate Niki Lauda took second in McLarens. By coincidence, I was sitting in the shuttle bus at the rental car terminal when some Hercules personnel jumped on and sat down across from me. Naturally they were excited about the win and we started talking. They were interested in more applications and invited me for a visit.

Unfortunately my visit did not accomplish much, since they were mostly interested in projects that could bring them a minimum of $1 million. So our small company’s interest in reed valves and composite front-ends for snowmobiles clearly did not fit within those parameters. Although it was an interesting meeting, my conclusion then was that it would be a long time before the costs would drop to where applications would be practical for snowmobiles. I was right!

Patrick Offers carbon fiber Polaris clutch covers.
Carbon fiber for sleds
The first application turned out to be reed valves, but now, 30 years later, things are really starting to happen.

T.J., or “Danica’s dad” as he is often called, was a successful Sno Pro racer in the late 1970s. He was one of Polaris’ top privateers, and when Polaris terminated its factory team in favor of a privateer efforts the team gave him three factory sleds, Jerry Bunke’s 440, Steve Thorsen’s 340, and Brad Hulling’s 250.

Patrick’s record included USSA High Point Championships in 340 in both 1978 and ’79, and a 340 Super Stock Championship on the Sno Pro circuit in ’78. In the 1980s he also was much sought after as a crew chief for Sno Pro racers because of his tuning and fabricating skills. Later, he used these skills to take care of his daughter Danica’s go-kart racing. We know how that ended up. She was the first woman to win an IndyCar race, lead the Indianapolis 500 and now is racing in NASCAR.

Daddy has not forgotten how to race himself. Last January at the Eagle River Vintage World Championship, T.J., now 52, rode his newly rebuilt ’79 340 Ski-Doo IFS to an easy win of the Masters Class.

But Danica’s involvement with IndyCar racing led to T.J.’s involvement with carbon fiber manufacturers that supply IndyCar. He saw much potential for carbon fiber in snowmobiling. Better yet, the price had come down from the stratosphere and material availability, engineers and expert fabricators were now in place.

T.J.’s first product was perhaps his biggest challenge.

He chose to make a clutch cover for the Polaris clutch. This is a high-stress application as racing clutches turn more than 10,000 rpm, but he reasoned that it would be a good demonstration of the material’s strength.

If you compare a sheet of aluminum against a sheet of carbon fiber of the same thickness and the same size, the carbon fiber weighs half as much as the aluminum and is 5 times stronger.

This was not a haphazard try; T.J. got an IndyCar manufacturing firm involved in the cover’s design and stress analysis. Everything from the material, number of layers and direction of the weave to the design of the tooling was analyzed by experts that design IndyCar components.

T.J.’s vendor uses 40-60 pre-impregnated carbon fiber sheets. This means the sheets contain 40% carbon material and 60% resin that already is impregnated in the fiber weave mesh. The material is refrigerated while stored to prevent the resin from starting to air-cure, and then brought out and cut to the desired shapes as it is put into polished aluminum molds.

The mold consists of two plates sandwiching the material and torqued down to a predetermined load. The assembly then goes into the oven for a 12-hour cure cycle before it comes out and is trimmed and prepared. Only very hard carbide tooling is used in machining because of the material’s strength.

So far the cover has been a success, none have burst and the covers show an edge in performance. The lighter weight reduces inertia and improves acceleration.
More amazing is the result one manufacturer got when it put the cover on a clutch and endurance tested it for 100 hours. Afterward the parts such as rollers and flyweights looked like new, while a normal clutch would show wear after just 50-60 hours.
Patrick's Arctic Cat carbon tunnels
With the stiffer cover and longer sliding bushing, the moveable sheave was kept straighter at higher rpm, reducing the wobbling action that often takes place and ends up vibrating the flyweights, which in turn wears the rollers. By strengthening the whole movable sheave assembly, shifts become more consistent, which lowers lap times.

Top level racers are now catching on to the advantages and T.J.’s first product is being accepted. In the meantime, he has more applications in the works. Because carbon fiber plates do not transfer temperature, placing one on the inside of the tunnel not only strengthens the tunnel, but also prevents ice and snow from building up. This can cut 25 lbs. off a race sled.

T.J. now also builds tunnels and hoods. The tunnels are for mountain sleds, where weight reduction is always critical, and the hoods for oval racing Champ sleds. The obvious advantage of a lighter, yet stronger tunnel that does not allow snow to build up is catching on out West.

In ice oval racing it is more the hood’s strength that gets attention. Not only are these hoods 8-10 lbs. lighter, but they also are surviving crashes that would make total junk of a fiberglass hood.

Joel Diamond is a believer; he crashed 7 times last season and is still running the same hood. “That would have cost me 7 new fiberglass hoods” he says.

Matt Schultz hit a barrier straight on at 80 mph; the hood was damaged, but still could be easily repaired. What amazed Matt was that the hood had saved his pipes, front suspension and bulkhead from damage. That kind of crash could easily have written off a complete sled, he says.

We often see race cars crash on TV, and bits go flying everywhere. When they come to rest the tubs often are intact, proving that carbon “crash impact” structures do their job.
Patrick's Polaris spindles
Snocross can’t use carbon fiber
Snowmobile manufacturers have banned the use of carbon fiber on snocross sleds to keep costs down, but that makes little sense when you see the NASCAR-style trailers they show up with at races. Other sled racing does not have this type of restriction, so oval and drag racers are free to experiment with it.

One application you may not see is carbon-carbon brake discs and calipers. This is working in car and bike applications for road racing. But this combination needs to be very hot to work, and Formula 1 and Moto GP racers haul their machines down from high speed at the end of a long straight, which puts enough heat into a disc to make it work.

When some factories tried this on snowmobile racers years ago the discs never got loaded enough to build up heat on short oval and snocross tracks. Therefore the carbon brakes did not perform as well as regular steel discs.
Is there a big future for carbon fiber in snowmobiles?

New applications are already being tried, like carbon fiber ski spindles, but viability often comes down to price. There are always niches where it makes sense, and T.J., among others, is already working on new ideas.

Thanks to his famous daughter’s involvement at the highest level in racing, he has access to experts that also are looking to expand their markets. It’s a combination that’s working, and we are eager to see what the future may be.
Carbon Sled parts’ muffler for Ski-Doo’s E-TEC weighs only 3 lbs.!
CSP offers carbon fiber accessories
WHILE T.J. PATRICK is working on high-stress carbon fiber parts for snowmobiles, others, such as Carbon Sled Parts have been creating a variety of carbon fiber items for sleds for several years as well.

Brian Fothergill, the Vermont-based firm’s owner, said he became accustomed to the bling of carbon fiber parts, such as silencers, when he was racing motorcycles years ago. He thought it was high time snowmobilers had such lightweight accessories.

First up was mufflers. Carbon Sled Parts partnered with Jason Houle’s Straightline Performance to create the lightest muffler in the industry at “a whisker over 3 lbs.” for Ski-Doo’s E-TEC motors, Fothergill says. Its mufflers for carbureted models weigh less than 3 lbs.

Now the firm offers a full line of Ski-Doo accessories, including hand guards (with raw aluminum mounts), windshields and mufflers and all fit exactly to Ski-Doo stock locations, so no modifications are needed. Carbon Sled Parts’ mufflers fit all REV and XP models (except 2005-07 600 SDI models), its various windshield styles fit the REV, XP and XR (1200 4-TEC) models. Plus it makes skid plates, chaincase covers, disc brake covers, gas cap covers and a new intake nose cone for the XP.

Fothergill says customers can expect some Polaris and Arctic Cat exhausts and windshields soon too.

More info:
Olav Aaen is a long-time contributor to AmSnow.
As a mechanical engineer and president of Aaen Performance, Olav has been heavily involved with snowmobile performance since 1968. Aaen Performance is best known for pioneering performance pipes and introducing the roller clutch to the sled market.
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