My Origin Story: James Richards

James Richards at the 1982 NHRA Winter Nationals, where he took Best Engineered honor (photo courtesy James Richards).

James Richards’ entry into the gear world might have started as a hobby, but it eventually grew into an important source of gear processing technology.

When I was young, I made things — lots of things. We lived next to a very big hill, so I first became fascinated with downhill coasters, and that led to motor scooters and anything with an engine. My dad fed my passion for building by bringing home all kinds of single-cylinder engines and anything else mechanical he could find. Besides being a builder, I also tore things apart: adding machines, car transmissions, and engines. You could say I developed an obsession for learning the “whys” and “hows” that made things work. But what I was really after was the fun I experienced when the things I built were made well and out-performed my expectations. I learned very early that if I didn’t work hard enough and put the effort in, either the project never got done, or it simply didn’t work. And where was the fun in that? When all of my work ended as a big disappointment, it was worse than not having fun — it was crushing. From my earliest endeavors, I found that learning and improving with each new project was what delivered the fun. The pattern became an essential part of my DNA.

I built my first race car in the late 60’s, and as a result, my first paying job was working as a machinist for a race engine business. After all, I needed the best race engine I could possibly build, so I first needed to learn how to build a race engine. You should also know, as I built my race car, I had a desire to build as much of my first race car as I could, including things that any other racer could easily purchase; again, something in my DNA. Race cars have gears in their transmissions, engines, and drivelines. I developed a special interest and fascination with gears; yes — due to my racing. I was already learning and wanting to design transmissions. The “whys” and “hows” drove me on an unrelenting quest to learn.

In the 70’s, I was a minority owner of a marking business, which just relocated from El Monte to Costa Mesa, California. (Marking businesses create machines that add markings or labels to manufactured parts.) Coincidence or fate, whatever it was, my company relocated one block down the street from a business making racing transmissions and transaxles for Indy, Formula-1, and IMSA race cars. However, given my obsessions of the day, I did not meet many of my business neighbors. It took a good friend from my days working for the race engine business, Al Teague — who also happened to be racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats and was building an Unlimited Wheel-Driven Land Speed Record Car — to introduce me to the company down the street.

As it happens, Al had hired Pete Weismann from the racing transmissions business to build him a specially modified transaxle for his race car. Al realized I would make the perfect delivery-driver friend to bring back and forth Pete’s transaxle while Al fitted and modified the transaxle to suit the needs of his race car. Al knew I was able to communicate the fitting and transaxle changes he needed Pete to make. Pete and I became friends, and my passion for racing just meant I needed to moonlight for Pete in the evenings after I had placed the closed sign in the window of my own business.

I love pushing the envelope on making new discoveries and learning about a subject — and am delighted when I think I have reached a place no one else has been before. The first time I felt this way was while I was working for Pete. This feeling was something new to me, and I really liked it. It was precisely why I needed to work for Pete. I was learning at a staggering rate; learning things I wasn’t able to classify or articulate outside of this intensive, creative context.

Pete was also good friends with Jack Brabham, three-time F-1 World Champion who had just received the contract to design and build the Brabham F-1 team’s transaxle for the 1981 F-1 season. The first job Pete gave me was to design and fabricate the dry sump oil pickup tube assembly in the F-1 gearbox. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to design something on an F-1 car, let alone work on one.

Jack had sold his team to Bernie Ecclestone, and Bernie had Gordon Murray as his technical director and chief car designer. (Jack Brabham was mainly the celebrity lead of the team.) The deal Pete and Bernie made was for Pete to build Brabham’s transaxles, which required Pete to start building gears and to do all of this in-house. Bernie didn’t want anyone building his transaxle unless they could build the assembly 100% in-house.

Bernie started purchasing gear machines in Europe and air-freighted them to LAX where I would pick them up after customs. As I owned a business, it’s only natural my only vehicle was a truck! Since I had the biggest truck — a one-ton pick-up — it was only logical I got to go to LAX to pick up the machines. And it was also natural for it to fall to me to rewire these machines and get them working to our country’s electrical standards. One Italian machine had a real screwy gearbox and we took out the primary gears and put on a quiet chain drive to get shaft rotations in a more favorable direction.

After all of the machines were up and ready to run, Pete hired a veteran master gear cutting talent, Tom (last name unavailable), to teach us and to make the gears for all of Pete’s transmissions. The first shock that we encountered was that the gears we made had burrs! Tom told us to simply put the gears in the lathe and file off the burrs, like everyone else does. For Pete and me, that was a non-starter. Pete and I knew that, because racing gears are pushed to operate at very close to their breaking point, there is little or no margin for over design. With that said, the scratches and sharp edges produced from hand deburring these gears would probably lead to a gear failure. We knew we needed to produce the best deburring and chamfering quality possible.

James Richards.

When Bernie bought machines and sent them to us, he didn’t include any machines for deburring and chamfering. We didn’t ask — but assumed no one had told Bernie we needed a deburring and chamfering machine. After a quick research effort, we couldn’t find any company that made gear deburring machines. Pete and I went to dinner one night and traded thoughts and came up with a direction on a deburring machine design. In essence, I would go back to my primary business over the next few nights to design and build a deburring machine.

In my day job I designed and built custom, production marking machines for food and pharmaceutical companies, and already had a few patents to my name. As it turns out, this experience was perfect background for designing a deburring and chamfering machine. Pete purchased all the parts I needed to build a really basic deburring and chamfering machine. A week later, I brought my new design over to Pete’s — a finished deburring machine. Right out of the box, you might say, it worked, and I know that same machine is being used to this day.

Not seeing any listings for companies building gear deburring and chamfering machines caught my attention and became indwelled in my brain. Pete went on to finish making the gears for his gearboxes and transaxles, while I continued to moonlight for him for a couple more years. Pete’s F-1 transaxle contributed to Brabham winning the World Formula-One Title, our transverse gearbox won the Indy 500, and a modified transverse box won the IMSA GTP and a straight, 5-speed gearbox won IMSA GTO World Championships in 1982. (Oh, and I got to design the GTO gearbox; Pete only made one small change to it before we built it. His change was right on, by-the-way, but it initially was the only thing that failed on the gearbox until we made a dimensional tolerance change to it; a great incident because I was able to razz him about it over the years.) My drag car won the Best Engineered honor at the ‘82 NHRA Winter Nationals. Pete did really well in ’82, and I had a lot of fun being part of all this.

I didn’t think about it then, or even realize the magnitude of the experiences I was being exposed to as a member of all these winning groups of talented people. At the time, I just thought this was what everyone did. I have never had any other jobs in my life by which to judge how people work. However, the tempo and speed of doing things within the world of automotive racing did rub off on me. I learned what it takes to win at such an intense level of competition. My work ethic and commitment to doing a job to achieve the very best possible outcome was seared into my being. These kinds of jobs are exciting — competition makes them exciting — and if you don’t mind the long hours, these jobs are fun. 

In 1983, a retiring CEO of a Fortune 500 company made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I took on a huge custom job to build an air preheater production line for a company in West Virginia that the CEO just acquired. I was turned loose to design and build the absolute best product I could build — no “if’s, ands, or buts.” It took six months to build and deliver a production line that took 7 semi-trucks to deliver. This opportunity was huge; I was so fortunate to be given this chance to further my design experience. I consulted for the company for two more years. Then, I had a big decision to make: what was I going to do next?    

The spark I experienced while working with Pete came back. Gears still held my attention, and I wanted to follow up on what I had started at Pete’s. In October 1986, I ran a product release announcing my small, bench-top deburring and chamfering machine to test the waters with my new product. The response was huge. In December, responding to a request for a demonstration at New Process Gear in New York, I flew in and demonstrated my simple machine. The group of manufacturing engineers in attendance was ecstatic with what I brought to show them.

After the presentation, the lead engineer asked me if I could possibly come back in January for another official presentation when he was hosting a much larger group of manufacturing engineers. I said sure. On my way home on the airplane I knew, even though the manufacturing engineers hadn’t seen it, the machine I had shown wasn’t up to the job they were asking my machine to do. I had never in my life been to a transmission manufacturing plant. I was in awe of its size and the humbling effect it had on me.

As soon as I got home, I designed and built an all-new deburring and chamfering machine with the wish list of features the group of manufacturing engineers had asked for, including all the things I saw that it needed but which hadn’t been asked for. In the process, I had scoped out yet another rapidly approaching, steep learning curve — just the way I like it. This new machine became my first Model 562 table-top deburring machine. When I returned to New Process Gear for the next meeting, all were dumbfounded by what I demonstrated. Needless to say, they liked the new machine and promptly bought five units and reordered four more within weeks. My instincts and ambitions were rewarded with this first test, and I have stayed the course.

To this day, I remain in the gear deburring, chamfering business. The beginning was a long time ago. The first 562 was my most successful and longest-running product, and it is still being produced today. For years, the 562 was the only machine I designed based on what I intuited and believed my customers needed. In other words, I didn’t start my design work by asking my customers what they wanted in a machine. Since the 562, I have built a lot of machines by first asking my customers what they want, then building it for them. That process hasn’t lead to my best machines. I just came out with the latest technology in a machine I call The MAX. I have come full circle back to my origin story, and have returned to designing and building what I feel and know my customers need.

James Richards professional career began in the world of automotive racing, but soon paralleled his business career, with his joining in 1973 the Kwik Mark marking company as vice president and co-owner. Since 1980, Richards opened and has been operating his own manufacturing technology company — James Engineering. Well known for scores of game-changing, industrial automation innovations introduced by his business, Richards still credits his roots in the competitive world of racing for his every success.

About Charles D. Schultz 672 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.