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GTP: Wheels Of Fortune

September 23, 2009 by GTP.com 

As much as Donnelly and Slagle would like to claim their wheels were a natural choice for teams to use, the two often gained clients when those manufacturers or teams experienced failures using other wheels.

“A lot of people took for granted that BBS was always a dominant wheel company but in almost every case, most of those customers at one point or another had started with somebody else,” Donnelly said. “Nissan, for instance, was on Dymags when they first started. And AAR were with three wheel companies before they ever came to BBS. And a lot of times other wheel companies failed and we would sort of be the last stop for them to make.

“And we were never the cheapest wheel company and I can remember Nissan, we had to bail them out of trouble and then AAR, we really bailed them out of trouble. And that’s how those relationships were spawned was because we got them out of trouble at one point. Jaguar was the same way. So every one of those that we ended up with weren’t always customers in the beginning and it wasn’t always because we had the lightest wheel or whatever, it was usually because somebody else had failed.”

A wide variety of TWR USA Jaguars roleed to victory on BBS products. Davy Jones is seen here in 1991 with the twin-turbo V6 XJR-16. (© GrandTouringPrototype.com)

A wide variety of TWR USA Jaguars roleed to victory on BBS products. Davy Jones is seen here in 1991 with the twin-turbo V6 XJR-16. (© GrandTouringPrototype.com)


BBS was called in to save Nissan’s beautiful but doomed P35 GTP car, says Slagle, after NPTI momentarily defected to an alternate brand. “We actually lost Nissan as a customer when they did that P-35. We lost them for about two or three weeks and the very first test with the new trick super expensive wheel that they had gotten made kept failing — it never made it past the first test. I remember driving to the airport with parts that we made overnight for them so they could continue to test the next day. And then ultimately the program was pulled a month later.”

Donnelly found that stepping in to help with expertise – even with a team or manufacturer that used a different brand of wheel – often netted new partnerships. “With AAR, we knew who they were, they knew who we were. We were at the track all the time, and we knew that AAR was having some problems and we actually asked them for drawings of their suspension just so we could build them a set of wheels to solve their problems. I told Gurney, ‘We’ll build a set of wheels and just give them to you and let you try them out. If you don’t like them that’s fine.’ We built them, they worked, and they were a customer from then on.”

Working with a litany of manufacturers – Ford, Jag, Nissan, Toyota, Chevy, Porsche, Lola, March, Spice, Argo, Mazda, and many others, presented BBS with the challenge of building and maintaining trusting relationships. As each marque commissioned the wheel company to develop bespoke products for their GTs and prototypes, they wanted assurance their design would find their way onto a competitor’s car.

“One thing about it is we’re very visible,” said Donnelly. “If they’re running a certain shock and they’re all sharing, that’s fine, but you don’t really see that. But the wheels are pretty darn visible, there’s not much you can do about that. So for some of the information that we used to get, you know, knowing what certain teams were doing, things that were done, certain special things that had been made and tried and sometimes not succeeded but other times it worked. That kind of thing. So to be in that position was a unique kind of thing.”

Different styles, but the same DNA. (Courtesy of Porsche)

Different styles, but the same DNA. (Courtesy of Porsche)


Slagle agrees. “I think to add to that, the trust that we developed – because even within the 962s there was a lot of things that were different that nobody even to this day knew about – some teams do now, it came out, but I mean, at that level with everybody running BBS, everyone was trying to go their own direction.”

Slagle also reckons that it was only so long before teams got wind of some of the secrets their rivals had. “One crew guy would talk to his buddy on another team and let something slip he shouldn’t have, or something like that. When they’d come to us, they had to ask the right questions because if they’re asking what so-and-so did, you didn’t tell them. But if they knew enough to be dangerous and pinpointed it, you could give them an honest answer. But, I mean, that’s why we earn so much trust because many times we knew a lot of secrets about the car long before any team had seen it. And in good faith, I think that was what earned that respect because people knew that they could trust us.

“The other thing to add to that, that was so neat is that when new cars were being designed, many a designer would come to us before the car was even being penned yet and say, ‘Okay, what do we need to do to make the wheel right?’ That was an interesting perspective that I’m sure Craig is equally as proud of because when a guy like Bob Riley comes in and says, ‘Okay, what are we going to do here first?’ I mean, he doesn’t even have the outright design yet and wants to know what we are going to do here wheel-wise, because there’s so many things to package around it. I still remember when ‘Country’ Bob Riley coming up in his farm slickers and straps across the back and talking to Craig about wheel drawings and I don’t think I realized just how cool that was at the time.”

As Slage, recounts, not every 956 or 962 came from the factory on their wheels, but before long, almost everyone converted to BBS. (Courtesy of Porsche)

As Slage, recounts, not every 956 or 962 came from the factory on their wheels, but before long, almost everyone converted to BBS. (Courtesy of Porsche)


Fast forward to today, and you’ll still see John Slagle walking briskly through the ALMS paddock as he looks after his customers – 75 percent of the field. As the boss of BBS’ Motorsports division, his job title has changed but the essence of his work at the track remains the same. If there’s been one major difference in the ALMS, its been the universal implementation of one-piece wheels. From the IMSA wheels of yesteryear to the gorgeous forged magnesium wheels used today, Slagle says getting his hands dirty assembling three-piece wheels is now a rarity.

“You know, you don’t touch them as much and you don’t interact with them as much but it’s still BBS and it still was our trademark back then and it’s still our trademark now. Back in the GTP days we were always evolving things based on our customer’s needs, but with time, I think we’ve developed a wheel that doesn’t need to be monkeyed with and altered every race. It’s the product of a lot of hard work on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Donnelly sees the lineage of the wheels of the ‘80’s in what BBS produces today for sportscar racing. “It’s the same family. You can see it. It’s an evolution just like with our Formula One wheels, it’s the same thing, where you look at the very first Formula One wheels we build for Ferrari, the spokes and the way they were done and then now you look at the current stuff and it’s the same. It’s just an evolution through the series, whether it’s multi-piece to monoblocs or early generation one-piece to the most current back-milled stuff. This is really state-of-the-art. It’s forged magnesium; they’re really like a piece of jewelry.”

Audi preferred to do their own wind tunnel work, developing some of the most radical wheel fans of the '80's. (Courtesy of LAT)

Audi preferred to do their own wind tunnel work, developing some of the most radical wheel fans of the '80's. (Courtesy of LAT)


The more we talked, the more the memories of old came rushing back. Donnelly, now the Director of Product Development, smiles when he talks about GTP racing. For Slagle, he’s never left the sharp end of sportscar racing, but his days spent on the IMSA circuit are still vividly recalled.

“Sometimes I think — and this is probably true for everybody – at the time Craig and I were such an integral part of it, but I don’t think we ever looked at it as unique or different. We were a part of the living history, you know, we just never really thought of it then from that aspect. I look back now, I look at the books written and the history that we were a part of – we knew everybody. What an era we were part of. There’s not too many people that were a part of it 20 years ago and are still a part of it, particularly in a similar capacity.”

Donnelly had a unique way of looking at their long tenure in GTP racing. “When you’re building wheels for vintage cars and you realize you were the first one to put wheels on the car when it was brand new…that’s when it’s like, ‘Wait, this is a reality check here…’”

Slagle continued. “Craig can tell you, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans they have the historic Group C race for about an hour before the 24 hour race and my colleague, Eric, who was Craig’s colleague there in 1978 or whatever, we were laughing because we’re going around these cars just a short time ago and I can’t tell the cars anymore from the bodywork, but I can tell it by the part number of the wheel. ‘Oh yeah, that was an old Tiga, that’s a Lola…we could go back in our memory bank and literally look at the part number of the center… we used to use a 4-1/4 inch outer and 8-3/4 inch inner on this car… And he was just laughing because he was remembering the same things.”

BBS is still heavily involved in sportscar racing today. Thier monobloc wheels are used on most entries in the American Le Mans Series. (© GrandTouringPrototype.com)

BBS is still heavily involved in sportscar racing today. Thier monobloc wheels are used on most entries in the American Le Mans Series. (© GrandTouringPrototype.com)


Donnelly says he’s the same way. “It’s pretty sick, I can’t remember what I had for lunch last week but I can remember what part number we used in 1982. I don’t think we realized at the time how great it all was, because we worked hard and traveled a lot and did crazy trips, did crazy things like trying to get air shipment in, wheels built and back out like within hours. You know, where we would have to run to the airport or some crazy bonzai move. Or building wheels on the way to the airport in the back of the truck.”

“Yeah, I remember a few too many rocky rides in the back of our van with tools and wrenches,” Slagle said. “Building wheels and getting them boxed at the airport and out the door that night. Crazy stuff like that. When you’re doing it you don’t realize until you reflect back – and we can now reflect back as old guys, 20 years later, and that was really cool what we were trying to accomplish.”

“When I think about all the different manufacturers — you know, Ford Probe, BMW, GTP, Corvette, Jag, Porsche – and this is actually before the Nissan and the Toyota Jag year, but there was nobody else – certainly in the wheel industry – but there really was nobody else in any part of the industry that could do what BBS did. Everybody had a different clutch, a different shock, even different tires. But not too many people could do what we were able to accomplish there as almost the sole supplier to an open series like IMSA. They all had choices and chose us. That was really something to look back on and be proud of.”

They’ve led amazing lives – both were in at the ground floor of the GTP era – especially Donnelly who pre-dated it by a few years. Their three-piece golds to wheel fans to the first one-piece magnesium wheels, BBS has been a quiet partner and witness to the finest years of our GT and prototype heritage.

Looking at the stunning one-piece gun metal grey magnesium wheels that are so popular today, I had to ask what it would take to get a set of new BBS ALMS wheels done in gold? Donnelly thought I might be on to something. “You’re right. We should do that just to mess somebody up. Maybe we can start a trend like with the wheel fans…if we let one set of gold wheels go to winning team maybe the rest will come asking for them…”

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Comments

One Response to “GTP: Wheels Of Fortune”
  1. zimone says:

    It`s like you asked me what 1980`s videos and pictures
    i want to see!
    It is definitely great.The BBS tribute!!Way to go

    Zimone

    Zagreb,Croatia

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