A car is a significant investment. Not only because of the cost of the vehicle. It is also because it is an extension of the owner’s personality. To some, it can end with merely picking the right make, model, and color of the car. That is enough and will be satisfying to the owner already. But to the people who hold vehicles to a much higher standard -the car enthusiasts- it goes beyond that. Engine size, cooling system, electronics, exhaust, suspension, and so on, all play a part in their decision making. Car enthusiasts and buffs will take all of these into account when selecting the car of their dreams, and for the most part, there exist cars that fit each and everyone’s specifications.
When there is none, however, or if it just falls short of what the enthusiast wants, or if they wish to improve on it further, car customization comes in. When customizing a car, everything can be changed and developed: from the aesthetics such as paint, body kits, and lights, to the engineering like adding superchargers. The electronics can even be customized to be more responsive or be able to control other amenities like LED screens and others.
And within that group of car enthusiasts, there exists an even more esoteric group that is focused on one thing primarily: racing. Now, this doesn’t mean customizing a car just individually for racing on a track. Rather, customizing the vehicle to have racecar qualities that make it capable of smooth everyday driving, as well as fast and intense racing in a record if needed.
These customizations don’t just happen underneath the hood of the engine, though. Racing customization can be both functional and aesthetic, and it is this combination of form and function that most racing customs have. A car spoiler, for example, adds new geometry for aesthetic lines and also helps keep the car pressed on the ground, adding more traction. Same with body kits lowered suspensions, and so on.
One aspect of racing customs that most people who are not in the know often don’t think of immediately is the wheel. Racing wheels add not just a visual flair to a racing custom build but are also functional in many different ways. But what exactly are racing wheels, and what makes them different from regular wheels? In fact, what are wheels, exactly?
The History Of The Wheel
It’s easy to dismiss the wheel as a pure invention that cavemen developed during the Stone Age, and fast forward to how we see the wheel today. I mean, it’s just a round object used to move things from Point A to Point B, right? However, to fully understand what racing wheels are, it’s essential to know where the wheel came from, and why racing wheels are a cut apart from the regular wheels used and seen today.
One thing to note is that the wheel itself is not as simple as most people think. Before the first wheel was invented, the human race was already manipulating metal in ways that thought of as advanced. Not only that, construction projects and other high-level engineering projects were already being built before the first fully functional wheel even rolled off the assembly line. So the notion of cavemen building wheels because it is a simple item to construct is now debunked. Well, to be specific, the wheel itself is a simple idea, but connecting said wheel into a system that makes it useful, now that’s the tricky part.
The wheel itself isn’t what made transportation much easier over time, although it was undoubtedly the focal point of this historical development. The real innovation is not just the wheel, but a system that uses the wheel: the wheel-and-axle system. It is because of the complexity of this system that made the wheel so difficult to invent. The human race even got to cast bronze alloys before the first functional wheels came.
The basic concept of the wheel-and-axle system is still in use today, which is a testament to the simple yet complex idea behind it. For the system to work, smooth engineering had to happen. That is, the ends of the axle and the central hole of the wheel should be as flat as humanly possible. It is to avoid friction and unnecessary vibrations when the wheel turns. If this happens, the wheel can freely turn and not end up eradicating the entire system.
But then there’s the problem of attachment. A wheel has to be able to move freely from the axle, but if it is too loose, then the wheel will not be able to perform its function. If it is too tight, however, the wheel cannot rotate from the axle and can even damage or outrightly destroy the connection. For the system to work, there has to be a “Goldilocks ‘just right'” scenario.
Fortunately, as the ancient engineers eventually figured out, the key lies in the axle itself. Specifically, how thick and large it was. An axle should be large enough to support the tire and the stresses of the forces it will generate. But it cannot be too long because it will run the risk of the axle snapping. To accomplish this, the first engineer who developed the first wheel-and-axle system must have had access to all sorts of possible materials.
Wood was the primary choice as it is more comfortable to manipulate at this time and arguably more durable than the metals available. That’s not to say metals weren’t used. They were also important, as tools, bindings, and so on. On top of that, expertise in carpentry and assembly were also necessary. So much so that the typical stereotype of big browed burly cavemen chiseling stone wheels and attaching them to pieces of wood is not accurate. Because while indeed stone wheels were used in history, the people who made and used them were far more than just primitive folks.
Now, notice how we never mention anyone specific when it comes to the first wheel. It is because even the experts have no clue who, where, or even when exactly the first functional wheel came. The consensus is that, for the time, it was such a complex concept to execute that it probably happened only in one place, and from one civilization. Some experts believe, however, that this origin of the wheel occurred in Eurasia or the Middle East, where some of the oldest wheeled vehicles like carts exist. From there, the wheel quickly spread throughout the ancient world.
Once developed, however, the wheel found many uses in the ancient world. From pottery to cargo, you name it; the wheel was used for it. Windmills, for example, had a system of axles and wheels that were mainly used for grinding wheat and other grains. But it took a while for the wheel to be used for transportation of cargo and people honestly, and that relied on the further development of not just the wheel itself, but also the axle system.
Further Advancements And The Birth Of The Modern Car Wheel
It took a while for the wheel-and-axle system to be used for efficient transportation because the first wheel-and-axle systems, while active, still had a lot of room for improvement.
The first variations of this system had both the wheel and the axle fixed together. As such, both the wheel and the axle moved and turned. While effective, due to an extensive system in motion, it was inefficient. Over time, ancient engineers cart frames featured holes where the axle would go through. It still had both the axle and the wheel turning together, but they could now be separate pieces attached to the assembly.
Eventually, a “fixed-axle” system was developed where the axle was directly attached to the cart and did not rotate. In this system, the wheels were now able to rotate freely, and most importantly, independently of one another. Before this, one axle usually had two wheels, one on each end, firmly fixed. It made turning a cart very challenging and put a lot of stress on the structure. Once the fixed axle was invented, turning became so much better and in turn, made the carts so much more stable. It is during this innovation that many experts consider the wheel truly invented and complete.
And yet, the story of the wheel isn’t over, however, and it took a few more steps before reaching the stage of the new racing wheel.
The first wheels were made of wood. These are solid pieces of wood for heavy-duty use or in spokes to maximize the size while making it efficient for speed and mobility. The first significant development was the inclusion of iron rims around the wheels. It is this innovative spoked wooden wheel design that would lead to vehicular sports, even in the ancient world. One such famous depiction of this is the movie Ben-Hur, which showcased old chariot racing. It could arguably be among the first vehicular sports, which makes the spoked wheels of this time the first racing wheels ever made.
This design was so cutting-edge at the time that it took nearly two thousand years before the next significant evolution of wheel design came. The wire tension spokes in wheels arrived in 1802 and are still very commonly used today in bicycles, and vintage car wheel builds. This wheel is lighter, stronger, and lasted longer. For a time, however, it was difficult to use the wire tension spoke wheels. But when the pneumatic tire arrived for bicycles, the wire tension spoke wheels found the perfect partner. John Dunlop’s improvements on the initial patent for the pneumatic tire made it possible to replace the hard rubber that was common in bicycles then, thus, signaling the birth of the new wheel and tire combination.
The Wheels In Cars
With the coming of the pneumatic tire, the stage was set for the modern wheel to be an integral part of automobiles. Before that, the first wire wheels in cars used hard rubber, just like the bicycles of the time. But in 1910, the B.F. Goodrich company came up with the brilliant idea of adding carbon to rubber to vastly increase the tire’s durability and strength. With the arrival of stronger tires also came the advent of stronger wheels, and in 1927 the first steel welded-spoke wheels entered the fray.
But there is a reason why today, steel spoked wheels are mostly seen in classic car builds. Because even when the wheel seemed to have reached its peak, it evolved even further beyond. When the invention of the steel disc wheels happened, it changed the game again. Because the steel disc wheels were so much cheaper to make, it arguably also altered the way automobiles would be accessible to the public.
Today, the modern wheel uses a combination of solid disc and solid spoke designs, depending on the style and purpose of the wheels. And today’s wheels have come in two categories: steel, or alloy.
Steel vs. Alloy
While today’s modern engineering advancements have produced other wheels using different materials, steel and alloy prove to be the most common choices. But what exactly are the differences between the two, and which one is better when it comes to the best racing wheels available?
The short answer is: for performance and aesthetics, and you pick alloy wheels. For strength and durability, steel wheels are the choice. But why is that?
First, let’s take a look at steel wheels.
Steel wheels are the direct descendants of the steel spoke wheels of the early years of automobiles. They are sturdy and durable, and in some cases, vastly stronger than alloy wheels. They bend when damaged, which makes them easier to repair. They are also heavier, which helps the tires bite the ground more, which is especially useful during winter or when driving in snow. And because of the weight, the center of gravity of the car is virtually lowered. It gives a feeling of more stability and control. One other advantage of steel wheels is they are so much cheaper than alloy wheels. Unlike in the early days, these days, steel wheels can be made using better and more affordable methods. So if there are so many perks to steel wheels, why would anyone get alloy wheels?
Despite the advantages of steel wheels like its durability, strength, and price, some disadvantages make modern car enthusiasts hesitate — specifically, the racing car builder crowd. First, the weight of the steel wheels becomes a disadvantage, especially with cars that come standard with alloy wheels. It is because the suspension of these cars does not support certain parts like the wheels, brakes, and tires. So the added weight gets felt. The lowered center of gravity the steel wheels provide can also make the car handle and move sluggishly, especially during hot weather seasons.
But perhaps the most crucial disadvantage is that the design and sizes of steel wheels are minimal. It is partly because of the material itself and partly because of the construction methods.
Steel wheels cannot be made too big. Otherwise, they would be too heavy. So often, they come in 16″ or 17″ but nothing more significant. It is a problem for most cars, especially the models that would be used for racing builds, as they often have oversized brake calipers, modified suspension, and so on. Because of the size restrictions, steel wheels have a more limited selection of design options, and this is also due to the construction methods used. And lastly, steel wheels do not dissipate heat as fast as alloys. It is another reason why racing car builders hesitate when it comes to using steel wheels. A car that will quickly accelerate and brake regularly will produce a lot of heat, and if the steel wheel cannot dissipate the temperature, it could spell trouble.
Nevertheless, steel wheels are still a common choice for most cars and car enthusiasts, but mostly because of practical reasons.
These days, carmakers usually use alloy wheels as part of the stock kit of a vehicle. It is because alloy wheels are more versatile, much lighter, and provide other performance perks. Alloy wheels are cast, which cannot be done using steel without risking the durability and strength. The ability to be cast gives alloy wheels one distinct advantage: the sky’s the limit when it comes to the designs. With a nearly limitless set of options when it comes to the aesthetics of alloy wheels, people can customize their cars so much more. Not only that, but alloy wheels can be chromed, painted, or just polished as is. The different textures and finishes give even more cosmetic options. And when it comes to racing builds, this is very important because most people who would have a racing car-build for the street want visibility.
The weight difference also gives a distinct advantage. Alloy wheels are usually of aluminum and nickel alloy. The combination of the two makes for a strong and durable alloy, and at the same time, one that is lighter than steel. This results in giving the car more maneuverability, better zero to x acceleration, and an overall much better performance. Not only that, because the wheels are lighter, they put much less strain on the suspension of the vehicle, which makes the suspension last longer and perform better.
The aluminum and nickel alloy is also able to disperse heat so much faster than steel. It means that repetitive braking and accelerating that is often done by cars with racing-builds is possible. It can be done so much more without the risk of damaging the wheel and other parts involved.
With all of these advantages, though, unquestionably, a decision between alloy and steel wheels is easy to make?
Well, alloy wheels are so much more expensive than steel wheels. It is because producing alloy wheels, while arguably more straightforward with casting, is also more costly. This is also partly due to the various design options available in the market today. So definitely, someone with a tight budget will be hard-pressed to choose a set of alloy wheels.
Besides, alloy wheels, while still durable, bend easier and are prone to cracking on severe impacts. It makes it much harder to repair alloy wheels when damaged. Steel, on the other hand, often bends even after gruesome implications, and is thus easier to repair. While some alloy wheels also bend depending on the amount of nickel in the mix, the tolerance is often lower than steel wheels.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the best racing wheels out there, most if not all of the choices are alloy wheels, and as such, it is the only choice for people looking to have a racing car-build for a project.
What Are Racing Wheels?
As the name implies, racing wheels are wheels explicitly designed for car racing. Racing wheels will have alloys that maximize performance and durability while reducing the weight as much as possible. At first glance, some of the wheel designs seem like they are fragile, featuring spokes that appear thin or have too little material. However, the best racing wheels are often engineered by teams and companies with vast experience in racing already. It means that despite the appearance, most racing wheels will perform as intended with maximum durability and safety.
While the best racing wheels are mostly alloy wheels, there now exist a series of racing wheels made of more advanced materials like carbon fiber. It comes at a price, however. Namely, a high price. But if that is what you need for your racing car-build, and you have the budget for it, then definitely carbon fiber is the current top-end choice for those looking for the best racing wheels. For everyone else, alloy wheels are more than enough.
The Best Racing Wheels
Best Overall Racing Wheel – OZ Racing Ultraleggera
Country of origin: Italy Material: Cast aluminum alloy General design: 10-spoke concave The Ultraleggera is for one thing: high-performance. The design and the weight of the Ultraleggera are explicitly intended for racing and are our top pick for the best racing wheel. There are three options for the Ultraleggera: the HyperGT HLT, the Ultraleggera HLT, and the Ultraleggera HLT CL. The last two are recommended for the average road car upgrade, but the HyperGT HLT is truly explicitly built for GT3 racing. The Ultraleggera also features a concave design. Concave wheels are designed for racing because it is a stronger, more durable shape. Not only that, should they be damaged, they are easier to repair as well. And the Ultraleggera comes in 17-inches minimum, to 20-inches maximum, which makes it an ideal option for those looking to customize their car truly. Above all else, however, the Ultraleggera is for performance. Its 10-spoke concave design is capable of withstanding the heavy stresses of racing. From sudden braking to instant acceleration, sharp turns to long stretches, all while giving the car good and stable traction. It is also from Italy, a country where form and function blend to become real works of art.
Best Streamlined Racing Wheels – Enkei RP03
Country of origin: Japan Material: Cast aluminum alloy General design: 5-spoke concave The Japanese racing wheels are known for cutting-edge technology manufactured at the highest of standards, and the Enkei RP03 is no exception. This set of racing wheels are made using a combination of what’s called Most Advanced Production and flow-forming forging. It is the same manufacturing method used for wheels that are suited for Super GT racing and Formula One racing. So you get the most advanced tech possible when installing these racing wheels in your build. The 5-spoke design is both tough and suited for the stressful rigors of racing. It is so tough that the manufacturer offers a lifetime structural warranty for their product. And if there is something to be said about the Japanese is that they manufacture high-quality products with no cutting corners.
Best Multi-Spoke Wheel For Racing – BBS Super RS
Country of origin: Germany Material: Forged aluminum alloy General design: multi-spoke concave Designed with a classic look in mind combined with cutting-edge technology, the BBS Super RS harkens back to the good ole’ days of multi-spoke wheels while still adhering to modern standards. It is different from the usual selection of racing wheels in that, rather than cutting an aluminum stock to create the wheel, and forged. Forging the aluminum forces the material to keep what’s known as a high-grain density matrix. This matrix makes the aluminum stronger and tougher under extreme conditions. Don’t let the multiple thin spokes fool you. The BBS Super RS is tough as nails and is made by a company that has continuously received numerous awards for quality in the automotive industry.
Best Tough Lightweight Alloy Wheel – SSR GTV01
Country of origin: Japan Material: Forged aluminum alloy General design: 5-spoke concave SSR is known for making commercial wheels with virtually the same standards and methods as their racing ones. And the SSR GTV01 is no exception. This aluminum alloy wheel is manufactured from a single piece of an aluminum block and forged into a simple yet elegant five-spoke configuration. The design is all about durability and strength while retaining the lightweight necessary for high-performance racing. And you will get exactly what racing experts will agree on as one of the best wheels available out there today. The GTV01 is run through the rigorous tests and quality checks of the JWL to ensure your money is well spent on these high-performance wheels.
Best Power Racing Wheels – American Racing Torq Thrust
Country of origin: USA Material: Aluminum General design: 5-spoke tapered parabolic Made with muscle cars in mind, the American Racing Torq Thrust’s design first appeared in the 1950s. To this day, this classic look is still a top choice for those looking to build a powerful drag racing machine that will surely turn heads. The design is optimized for powerful acceleration. Not only is it durable and robust, but the contours of the wheels are made to enhance the cooling on brakes. It also has the added benefit of reducing the wheel’s mass, further improving performance. It also comes in varying sizes: from 14-inches up to 20-inch versions. It is to ensure that anyone who wants to pick this can do so for their build. This classic design has graced the covers of magazines since the 1950s, and with the way, trends are going, this won’t change anytime soon.
Best Classic Racing Wheels – Volk Racing TE37
Country of origin: Japan Material: Forged monoblock aluminum General design: 6-spoke
Don’t let the classic, vintage look fool you. The TE37 is for racing, and some say only racing in mind. Unlike most designs that feature five spokes, this six-spoke classic is stunning in its visual symmetry. The beauty is matched only by its performance on the road. The lightweight of the wheels and varying sizes ranging from 13 inches to 19 inches gives car builders and enthusiasts the ability to pick the size appropriate for their ride. This ensures maximum control and agility without having to worry about performance failures. Considered to be one of the more premiere alloy wheels today, Volk Racing TE37 sets the bar high for those looking to match its aesthetics-to-performance ratio.
Most Advanced Racing Wheel – Carbon Revolution CR9
Country of origin: Australia Material: Single-piece carbon fiber General design: 9-spoke This futuristic creation is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the wheel. Made with the highest standards in mind, what sets the CR9 apart is evident from the moment you lay your eyes on it: it is made entirely of carbon fiber. Engineers have barely begun to scratch the surface of the full potential of carbon fiber as a material, and this Australian company has made a breakthrough when it comes to wheel technology using it. Made of a single piece of carbon fiber, the CR9 is perhaps the lightest racing wheels available today. And yet, it is also among the strongest in terms of durability and toughness. It is this perfect weight-to-strength ratio that makes carbon fiber a wonder material, and to be able to use it in the form of racing wheels is to some, a dream come true. Now, other carbon fiber parts of the car, like the hood, spoilers, and more, can be matched overall by the wheels. However, being at the forefront of technology does have a price. And boy, what a cost this thing packs. At nearly $16,000, this cutting-edge racing wheel is perhaps for only the most enthusiastic racing car builders. But if you have the cash to spend and would love to get this for your dream car, then the CR9 is a great, albeit pricey choice.
There are so many alloy racing wheels available, but only the best racing wheels must be considered when finishing up your dream racing car-build. Just remember not to let appearances deceive you, and to trust established manufacturers to stand by their product. Whether it’s a classic like the American Racing Torq Thrust, or the optimized OZ Racing Ultralegga, a simple yet advanced wheel like the SSR GTV01, or the space-age Carbon Revolution CR9, the best racing wheels are out there ready for you.