Learning to Letter

Your race car’s design can make it a real eye-catcher; whether it’s simple and stunning or elaborate and elegant. Designing a race car is like makeup on a girl, the naturally pretty ones don’t need a ton of it to look good. However, too many race cars end up looking like Mimi from The Drew Carey show.

Color choice is the first step to a great-looking car. “Use contrasting colors,” says Jim Hansen of Tri-Star Graphics. “It’s not going to show if a guy has a dark blue car and wants red letters with a black outline since most short tracks aren’t well lit and dirt tracks can get dusty.”

Before you call any sign shop, make a color drawing of your design and create a list of sponsors and properly spelled names. (They don’t know how to spell Krisheviezneysteski.) Write everything down and wait a couple days before calling to order; it is the best way to remember everything you want on the car.

Describing your sponsor’s logo can be a challenge for someone to duplicate based only on your verbal description. “Visual aids can help,” says Hansen. “A photo of your car from last year, a business card, website link or a something similar from our website [tsgracingdecals.com] help us understand what you want.”

Determine the location for each decal and measure the available areas on the car. “It’s not enough to say it goes on the left rear because I don’t know how much it’s been trimmed, even if you have a conventional body from a manufacturer, the doors might overlap differently, the wheel well may be forward or back because of how you installed the body. If it’s a Five Star Monte Carlo late model that runs in Wisconsin, we know how it should be laid out, but still need really good measurements.” Be sure to tell the sign company where you intend to apply each decal.

Maximizing the space available doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be filled with letters. “Racers tend to want to put too much information in each decal,” says Hansen. “A sponsor’s dot-com and town is okay, but not a street address or even a phone number—how many times have you written down a sponsor’s phone number at a race track? You’re better off with a bigger decal since it should be readable from the grandstands. If somebody gave you money to put their name on the car, they should be able to see it from the grandstands. Even a big hood decal should be mostly the sponsor’s name.”

Old decals come off easily with a heat gun. Use a cleaner for glue residue and dirt. “Rub the body down with alcohol or use glass cleaner—be sure there’s no ammonia—to remove the old wax and decals,” says Hansen. “If you use something that has a citrusy smell, just take a wet rag and wipe the car with water after you’ve used it. You don’t want problems with some kind of film on there.

“When I start to letter a race car, I set the it at ride height and typically make the decal level as the car sits, but there are different situations on how you’d lay things out. I might follow the bodyline on a decal that is narrow and long, but I may not follow the bodyline on a larger decal because it’s going to look crooked from 15’ away.”

All of Tri-Star Graphic’s decals arrive on square paper. “The decals are on paper that’s been cut straight,” says Hansen. “It costs us more vinyl to do that, but it’s easier for the customer to line-up a square decal.

“Scribe a grease pencil line along the bottom or top of a door. The paper is square, so it will be level to the line. Tape all the decals on the car with masking tape to be sure they’re where you want them.

“Mark the top corners with a grease pencil by making marks in both [vertical and horizontal] directions right across the transfer tape onto the car. The line-up marks don’t have to be level and square. We do the corners so left to right and up and down have reference marks on each corner. Tape all the decals on the car before you do anything and see what it all looks like. Guys want to put the numbers on first, but you should start with small stuff like your name or crew names to get the feel of what you’re doing. Then do the big items like numbers and sponsors.

“Lay the decal face down and gently peel the backing off of it,” says Hansen. “Spray with soapy water. We sell an application solution, but it works too fast for most guys (you don’t get as much time to squeegee it out). You can move it when it’s wet. Force all the soapy water out [from behind the decal] with a squeegee.

“Generally everybody gets a few bubbles. They’ll go away in a couple days. They can mostly be popped with a small pin if they don’t. Vinyl breathes, so if you do them wet it’s not that you’re getting air trapped, it’s liquid. That will dry up. Those are small bubbles. If you do it dry or don’t bother to squeegee it, that’s a different story.

“The other big mistake is rushing. Paint takes about three days to cure if it’s not done in a paint booth. And as it does it lets off a gas. The solvents are coming out of the paint. If you paint the car Friday night at home and stick the decals on Saturday morning, by Saturday afternoon, they’re all going to be bubbling. All that gas is coming out.

“Lettering is not as difficult to choose and apply as many guys think, but takes a little patience: Take your time and they’ll layout nice.”


Tri-Star Graphics
P.O. Box 698
Bethel, CT 06801