By on August 16, 2013

neonjack

The Internet’s alive with schadenfreude regarding ROTA wheels. The company recently warned consumers that fake ROTA wheels were being manufactured in China and distributed in several of the markets in which ROTA has a presence. This has made a lot of people laugh because ROTA themselves are considered to be “copiers” or “counterfeiters”.

Your humble author has been racing on ROTA wheels since 2008, as seen above in a rather hilarious-in-retrospect incident featuring a spinning open-cockpit racer and my Neon. Naturally, I have an opinion about this.


When I bought my first racing Neon, it came with two sets of ROTA “Slipstream” wheels. At the time I was not aware that they were copies of the Spoon Sports SW388, because I’m an American who moved out of his mother’s basement in 1989 and I have no idea what the Spoon Sports SW388 is. Jeff Seelig, the Neon’s previous owner (which whom I reunited last year to run a Neon at the Buttonwillow LeMons 24h) told me he’d picked the Slipstreams because they were cheap and light. I had my doubts and when I bought my next set of wheels for the Neon I bought Rials that were made in Germany. To my consternation, they were heavier than the ROTAs and didn’t seem any more durable.

ROTA makes their wheels in the Philippines, where labor is cheap and the OSHA isn’t there to keep children from handling molten aluminum. That’s a joke. I have no reason to believe that child labor even exists there. But seriously. It’s cheaper to make wheels in the Philippines than it is to make them in Japan, which is almost certainly why the latter country invaded the former in 1942 and forced “Dugout Doug” MacArthur to flee while Jonathan Wainwright stuck around and did two years in a POW camp. The definition of hero isn’t always cut and dried, you know. History picks winners and losers and it’s not always right.

But I digress. While Spoon Sports wheels and many other great racing wheels are forged — by taking a “blank” wheel shape and ramming it into a mold at high speed and/or pressure, preserving the original grain of the metal — the ROTAs are cast, which means they pour hot metal into a mold and let it cool. The result is a wheel that is usually heavier, less durable, but considerably cheaper. The Slipstreams I have for the Neon originally cost about $110 apiece. The real Spoon wheels cost about $450 each. That’s a real difference when you need three sets to race a crappy FWD econobox. I’m sure Christian Horner doesn’t stress the price of forged wheels for his race team but I sure as hell do.

There’s nothing original about the design of most ROTA wheels. They’re copies of better wheels. So who cares if they are knocked-off in China? Well, I do. ROTAs might not be terribly original but they are safe, decent wheels that are perfectly suited for don’t-give-a-f** activities like club racing. I wouldn’t put them on my 911 but then again I don’t drive my 911 into walls at high speeds the way I do my Neon. Everything’s relative.

ROTAs never pretended to be anything but ROTAs; they came with a ROTA cap and the company publicized their products. These fakes, on the other hand, are made to unknown safety standards by unknown people and they are intended to be passed off as “real” ROTAs. There’s a real risk there, particularly in high-speed applications. Freeway use, by the way, is a high-speed application. If you don’t believe me, loosen all your lug nuts and try a run down a six-lane at 70mph.

There is something ironic about a “copy company” being targeted by counterfeiters, but it’s worth remembering that Toyota used to copy the Chevrolet Stovebolt Six. This kind of thing isn’t always cut or dried. Ask ROTA, or Spoon Sports, or that other noted victim of Philippine flattery-by-imitation, Steve Perry.

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34 Comments on “Yes, It’s Ironic That Rota’s Being Knocked-Off, But It’s Still A Problem...”


  • avatar
    Quentin

    Rota does have a somewhat spotty quality history. I don’t recall which Rota wheel it was, but there was at least a batch of 5 spoke wheels that the Subaru guys ran that were catastrophically failing ~8 years ago. Track days and auto-x guys were finding their car riding on the brake rotor. I haven’t heard of any trouble spots of late but I haven’t exactly been looking/listening.

    I considered Rotas on my Imprezas many times. It was hard to justify when my Imprezas had a 16″x7″ stock wheel that was pretty light for the time.

  • avatar
    grzydj

    Toyota built the F series engine under license from GM.

  • avatar
    niky

    ROTAs, believe it or not, are made to specific safety standards, and all wheel designs have to pass a validation stress test.

    I’ve been running ROTAs for years. And yes, they copy designs. Hell, many companies copy designs. But they also build OEM wheels for manufacturers and make replicas of out-of-production wheels.

    And their wheels are not extraordinarily heavy. They’re lighter than most OEM. A set of 15″ Auto-X wheels weighs about 11 lbs a corner. That’s pretty damn light for a cast wheel.

    They’re not as strong as forged, but a lot of racers swear by them. And there are entire grids running on ROTAs. Aside from a number of dubious pictures (many taken out of context) on the internet, I’ve never heard of one spectacularly failing without reason. I’ve hit deep, square edged potholes at over 100 mph without breaking a single ROTA. I’ve bent quite a few, but that’s to be expected the way I drive.

  • avatar
    ash78

    Call this an urban legend along the lines of why the Chevy Nova allegedly didn’t sell well in Mexico, but Rota means “broken” in Spanish.

    And it’s even in the right gender: Rueda Rota = broken wheel

    Just a data point from someone with nothing to add.

    • 0 avatar
      carlisimo

      Yeah, this one works, unlike “Nova” (since that’s pronounced NO-va instead of no-VA, and “no va” = broken isn’t used in all Spanish-speaking countries, possibly including Mexico).

      On the other hand, there’s a city and naval station called Rota in Spain, so it’s not too weird to use it as a proper noun.

  • avatar
    cgraham

    “But I digress. While Spoon Sports wheels and many other great racing wheels are forged — by taking a “blank” wheel shape and ramming it into a mold at high speed and/or pressure, preserving the original grain of the metal — the ROTAs are cast, which means they pour hot metal into a mold and let it cool. The result is a wheel that is usually heavier, less durable, but considerably cheaper.”

    Castings are ususally lighter than forgings, castings have voids in the metal where forgings do not. Poorly done castings also ususally require considerable re-work in the form of manual grinding and welding (filling those voids). Without proper heat treatment the castings could warp due to the heat added during the welding process. Also, having the weld repairs done by hand will drive up the cost, but not to the point of a forging. But yeah, forging = heavier.

    • 0 avatar
      cgraham

      So maybe run the google machine before running your mouth. Due to the structural weakness of castings, increased tolerances are required, meaning more material. Idiot! God!

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Let’s agree that you’re right — casting is a lighter way to fill a certain space — and I’m right — forged wheels tend to be lighter :)

        • 0 avatar

          FWIW, a forged piece does not “preserve the original grain of the metal.” The main value of forging is that it does not preserve the orientation of the grain of the metal blank, but instead reorients the grain of the metal to follow the shape of the part being forged. As the sometimes-authoritative Wikipedia notes, “As a result, the grain is continuous throughout the part, giving rise to a piece with improved strength characteristics.”

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Baruth

            http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/08/yes-its-ironic-that-rotas-being-knocked-off-but-its-still-a-problem/#comment-2093504

            I didn’t express myself well. :)

          • 0 avatar
            redav

            To an extent. Cold forging, such as rolled threads does that. But I would claim the main benefit of cold forging is it introduces dislocations in the crystal structure which increase strength. Orienting the grain structure benefits reduced crack propagation, which I see as a secondary benefit.

            Hot forging, which is forging performed above the recrystallization temperature, also causes those dislocations, but because the material can recrystallize, it forms a new, finer grain structure which improves strength, ductility, and toughness.

            Castings are typically not as strong as forgings for several reasons. Liquid metal absorbs gases which then migrates out during cooling which causes porosity (hence castings are not as dense). They also have less favorable crystal structures including poor shape (dendrites), uneven chemistry, etc. Castings will often have residual stresses due to uneven cooling rates. And on top of all that, different alloying compositions (e.g., to improve fluidity during mold fill) can also reduce mechanical properties. Because a cast part won’t be as strong as a forging, larger cross sections are needed to maintain total strength, hence the final structure is heavier despite the lower density.

  • avatar

    Cast wheels – $150 +
    Forged wheels – $950 +

    Gotta have wheels.

  • avatar
    jz78817

    “But I digress. While Spoon Sports wheels and many other great racing wheels are forged — by taking a “blank” wheel shape and ramming it into a mold at high speed and/or pressure, preserving the original grain of the metal”

    Forging actually *alters* the grain of the workpiece, which assuming the dies are designed properly will increase the strength of the part along the desired dimensions.

  • avatar
    SomeGuy

    Hey Jack, would you ever consider doing a “Beginners Guide” to something like road / club racing?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      We’ll do better than that… we’ll get somebody qualified, like Peter Krause or Ross Bentley, to do it.

      *runs to email*

      • 0 avatar
        number9ine

        Ross Bentley is a fantastic coach, and Speed Secrets is a fantastic book. He headlined our recent PCA HPDE instructor seminar.

        What stands out about Bentley in my mind is that modern learning techniques and motivation are at the forefront of his coaching strategy; you can’t give someone the tools to drive well without them.

        I haven’t had any experience with Peter Krause but will look him up on your recommendation.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought Ross Bentley’s book that Jack recommended and still trying to get my wife to read it…

  • avatar

    It’s funny that copycat wheels are an issue because on off the first successful aluminum wheel designs that were popular on imports and sports cars (as opposed to the Cragar, American Racing and other styles popular on American iron) were the BBS cast spoke wheels, a design pretty much stolen from Jim Hall’s Chaparrals. Hall has said that one of his bigger regrets was not securing the intellectual property rights to those wheels.

    http://media.caranddriver.com/images/media/108202/chaparral-2e-wheel-photo-131938-s-1280×782.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      racer-esq.

      A design patent filed in 1965 would have expired in 1979. I’m not sure of the timing of BBS rims, but I thought it was kind of an ’80s phenomenon, so I’m not sure IP would have been of any help.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    The problem is that they are copying the ROTA name, not just the design. That is the difference between screwing the company (which sould have applied for a design patent) and screwing the consumer.

  • avatar
    Redshift

    As a random bit of trivia a think I remember from my old Honda days(which I admit might be slightly off, due to time passing) the Spoon Sports SW388s are manufactured in Russia to take advantage of lower labour and materials cost.
    Spoon doesn’t actually make them. They are manufactured for them under contract.

    I have a rather disturbing number of wheels in my garage. Anybody else out there tend to collect them?

    • 0 avatar
      Preludacris

      You’re correct, the Spoon SW388 was actually a Desmond wheel. The Spoon steering wheel is a Momo Monte Carlo. Their newer brake calipers say Nissin on them. These are all great parts, but they’re super overpriced.

    • 0 avatar

      A factory in Russia used to make stamped titanium wheels at some point. A couple of months ago they announced that they are so busy with military orders that they discontinue the civilian wheels. Unfortunately, I forgot the name of the brand.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    There’s an imitation Steve Perry running around in the Philippines? When I was in the Navy, circa 1970, the Filipino cooks all had Wayne Newton records and would sing along. Some of them did Wayne Newton better than Wayne Newton.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I work for a US mfr that has suffered revenue loss in the past due to knockoffs of our products. Sadly, some of these knockoffs have been better made than ours, and some have been re-engineered to boot – not just copied. All this happened because we foolishly neglected to protect our work.

    Ironically, today we are now offshoring so much mfg that nobody will bother to copy our stuff because they can’t make it any cheaper than it already is. However, it takes an inordinate effort to maintain our quality standards on these items.

    When it comes to safety equipment like wheels, though, the stakes are higher (my company doesn’t produce anything safety-related). Their consumer warning is legit – the knockoff mfr won’t care about anything but shiny paint and the buyer could be in serious jeopardy with such a product.

  • avatar
    Styles79

    Meh, I’ve got a set of Rota’s for my Celica, I have full faith in them.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I hope you realize that a lot of wheels for mainstream and luxury OEMs are coming from China nowadays. Cast or forged, it doesn’t matter. And the quality of the stuff I’ve seen so far is good.

    I also hope you realize that to put a wheel on the street you need to comply with some basic tests and standards (the fatigue and curb one come to my mind).

    Cast wheels CAN be made lighter than forged ones without compromising its strength. That little fact potentially creates issues with Marketing later on.

    And you must understand too that “lo que es igual no es trampa”.

  • avatar
    MK

    Unfortunately, we’ve outsourced so much manufacturing to china (and since they don’t necessarily have the same initial understanding of Quality) we’ve spent a lot of time, money and effort to make them good at stuff they haven’t traditionally been very good at.
    That said I know nothing of Rota or their Chinese knockoffs but much like discussions of Hermosillo manufacturing capability, it’s no longer a given that Chines made automatically equals junk.

    There are plenty of people walking around with various life sustaining medical implants made in China or Mexico or Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic or all sort of other places you wouldn’t be necessarily associate with an appreciation of Quality.

  • avatar
    Sky_Render

    “ROTAs never pretended to be anything but ROTAs; they came with a ROTA cap and the company publicized their products. These fakes, on the other hand, are made to unknown safety standards by unknown people and they are intended to be passed off as “real” ROTAs.”

    I found that statement humorous, because ROTAs themselves are fake and made to unknown safety standards.

    And you’re insane for using ROTAs in a track application. Google search “Rota track wheel failure.” I dare you.


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