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.