Inside look at the making of Memorabilia Cards

(Editor’s Note: Part I of a two-part insider’s look into the making of memorabilia cards. Part II will be featured in our next issue.)

By Jim Nicewander

They have been the driving force behind a good part of the entire card collecting hobby for the past decade. They have even retained their popularity with collectors in the middle of a terrible economy. They are memorabilia cards, a lot like regular base cards, only imbedded with real pieces of authentic stuff used by the athletes, such as bats and balls and uniforms.

When it comes to NASCAR cards in particular, collectors have a healthy amount of memorabilia cards to choose from. That’s because there’s a much wider variety of race-used material used on cards than there is game-used stuff in the other sports. For our racing cards, we have tires, sheet metal, car covers, lug nuts, pit signs, wheel covers, and bumper stripes, in addition to all the apparel such as driver-worn firesuits, caps, shirts, shoes, and gloves.

NASCAR card collectors have a major advantage in that the memorabilia we get on our racing cards is much more likely to be from a big-name driver. While there are literally hundreds of pro ball players on cards in each of the other sports, there are only about 40 drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit. So there is no watering down the card line-up in NASCAR.

Tom Farrell, VP of Brand Management at Press Pass, puts memorabilia cards into a timely perspective and rightly touts his company’s contributions to the phenomenon:

“Since Press Pass introduced memorabilia cards to the trading card industry in January, 1996, with Burning Rubber race-used tire cards, memorabilia cards have become the pinnacle of collectability. To own a piece of a car that raced around the track at 190 mph or a tire that took a driver to victory lane is a unique experience, and Press Pass is proud to bring collectors and fans a piece of the action.”

Some Questions
But as popular as memorabilia cards are with racing fans, there are may unknown aspects to them. How does Press Pass go about getting all the race-used material from the teams? How do they cut up all that stuff into pieces small enough so that it fits on a card, and how are the printed card stock and the processed race-used materials put together into a finished trading card are just a few.

Hovering over all those questions is another one regarding memorabilia cards: When we pull a card from the pack and it says it contains a piece of tire from Dale Jr.’s #88 Chevy and perhaps more importantly, how does Press Pass ensure we can be 100 percent confident that’s what’s really on the card?

Thanks to the help of the folks at Press Pass, we now have some answers to these questions. They have shared with us some of what goes on behind-the-scenes in making memorabilia cards. Among the company people whose help was invaluable in putting together this story were the previously quoted Tom Farrell; Jesse Leadbetter, the NASCAR Product Manager; and Aaron Owens, Production Manager. And there was Larry, Production Manager at one of the vendors Press Pass contracts with in making the cards.

As you read this material, it is important to keep in mind that Press Pass is a business that has worked long and hard and very successfully at developing production processes and a network of manufacturing vendors which most effectively create memorabilia cards. For this report, the company shares plenty of previously unreported information so that we can learn a lot more about how the process is done. But Press Pass is still a private business, with a wealth of proprietary processes, confidential agreements with the drivers and teams, and a group of essential vendors. Consequently, a few proprietary details could not be revealed.

In this the first of our two-part insider look we’ll examine the details regarding the in-house activities at Press Pass. In Part II, we’ll look at what is done by the outside vendors who carry out the specialized production work. In addition, in both installments, we’ll consider what is done in steps along the way to ensure the integrity of the cards and the race-used material.

Some unique considerations
Memorabilia cards may have the same size and general look as regular cards, but there are some unique challenges to overcome in getting them from concept to planning and production to packs. During the course of a year, Press Pass may release 25-30 different series of race-used cards, with many of those having several parallel versions. For example, with the 2009 Main Event, the Stop and Go Swatches alone had 17 versions of race-used cards, with up to 18 drivers in each.

That’s a lot of cards to direct the production of and keep track of, and all nine Press Pass racing brands have to be kept on their schedules over the course of the year. The best way to consider all these things together in the most reasonable way is to present the questions we posed to Press Pass and then give the answers provided by their people. 

Does Press Pass have a lot of different creative and production teams to make it all work?
“One of the benefits to Press Pass’ lean company structure is that everyone gets to be involved in the product development process to some degree.  Brainstorming meetings often include the whole company because you never know where a good idea will come from. In terms of executing the NASCAR brands, there is a product manager, a licensing person who handles the daunting task of approvals, a photo manager, and a production manager.”

Give us an example of just how that works.
“Let’s take Danica Patrick’s first race-used cards, which will be her Press Pass Premium Hot Threads firesuit card. The first step in the process was acquisition. Tonya Clarkston, the Press Pass Licensing Coordinator, contacted JR Motorsports as soon as we heard Danica was going to race in the Nationwide Series. We requested several memorabilia items, including a race-used firesuit, which arrived the week after Daytona.”

“Jesse, our NASCAR Product Manager, photographed the firesuit and entered the item into the Press Pass Inventory Management System.  Then he identified which pieces of the firesuit would be used for the different levels of Danica’s Hot Threads card (color 1, color 2, multi-color).  He also had to identify the specific patch for the Hot Threads Premium Pieces patch card. Patches were also earmarked for some of Danica’s upcoming Showcase autograph memorabilia cards.”

“NASCAR race-used firesuits are some of the coolest memorabilia items in the industry because of all the great patches on the suit. So it’s important to plan ahead and assign what product each patch will be used in. All this information is then passed along to our Production Manager, Aaron, who coordinates with our vendor partners.”

Can you explain more of the acquisition process of obtaining materials from the racing teams?
“The first step in the race-used memorabilia acquisition process is to request the material from the teams. Most of these items are covered under individual agreements between Press Pass and the drivers and teams. Prior to the start of the season, we give them a memorabilia request chart for the upcoming year.”

“Press Pass requests firesuits, gloves, shoes, sheet metal, and a wide range of additional race-used items such as spark plugs, seat belts, and window nets. Each item has its own deadline, depending on when it will be used in our production schedule. Exceptions to that timing are the race-used victory tires. We obtain those on a weekly basis, when the teams come back from the track.”

“When material is ready, a Press Pass employee drives to the race shop and picks up the items. We get as much information as we can about which races the item was used in, but that’s easier for some memorabilia items than others. For example, some drivers wear the same gloves for a whole season while others use a new pair for each race. We document all this information, and for collectors we note it on the memorabilia card where possible.”

Let’s consider production scheduling. With memorabilia cards, you have the regular design and printing times plus the complications of the race-used material. What affect does that have on scheduling?

“The time it takes to produce race-used cards is obviously longer than the time required to produce base cards, so the process must start earlier. This is primarily due to the time it takes to produce the individual pieces for the cards and the time it takes to assemble each card with the piece of race-used material, all of which are done by hand.”

“Printing and assembly typically require about three weeks, though processing the race-used materials varies. Items that can easily be cut like firesuits may only take a few days. Tires, sheet metal, and unusual material can take much longer, in the three-week range, depending on quantity and the size of the roster. Additional time may be added to that for unique piece sizes requiring special cutting dies to be ordered. After production is completed, packaging and shipment of the final product typically takes about a week.”

For the Press Pass creative staff, what are some unique technical challenges in making race-used cards?
“From a design standpoint, our creative team has to be cognizant of unique characteristics and guidelines regarding memorabilia cards. For example, there are minimum distances that are required between die-cuts on multi-piece memorabilia cards, and there are also specs on how close to the edge of the card die-cuts and sequential numbering can be placed."
“Thickness of the race-used material can be a major challenge. For example, there are many areas on the back side of the sheet metal that prevents us from using that area, such as where two pieces are welded or riveted together, creating a seam. Punching a piece from an area like this even one time could destroy the die and potentially damage the press.”
“Creating large areas of tire or firesuit material on a card tends to make the card less stable. There is less glue and paper to keep that card nice and square, flat, and held together in general. Beefing up thickness of the card can help, but only so much.”

Aaron Owens, the Production Manager at Press Pass, had some additional insights into this area:

“I am frequently given tasks dealing with interesting or far-out ideas by our product team. Memorabilia cards in general tend to command much of my time, but cards containing sheet metal swatches can be a real challenge. We received some really interesting but thick metal composite swatches from Kevin Harvick’s team earlier this year. They were about ¼” thick, so it would be tough to make cards with them. By the time you encapsulated them, the Harvick card would end up being much thicker than the rest of the batch.”

“We only obtain whatever the teams are willing to part with. Usually that means a torn up piece of a race car or a piece that has been used for a while. Nice fresh, flat panels used for a race or two are a rarity, especially in these economic times when even the race teams are being more frugal.”

“A related wrinkle thrown in recently is the Car of Tomorrow. Teams are now required to reinforce certain areas of the cars, and some of them use a honeycomb structure in the driver area. The composite is permanently affixed to the inside of the sheet metal, making the swatch thicker than normal and tougher to punch acceptable swatches from.”

“That punching process is a slow one. The punching press and dies are really intended for making very uniform pieces in a machine shop setting where thousandths of an inch are measured. The dies are made and calibrated for a specific thickness of metal. So you can imagine what happens when you begin punching sheet metal that is all over the board in terms of thickness.”

Production numbers in a given race-used series often vary considerably by driver. How do you determine the various quantities?  (for example, the 2010 Eclipse Spellbound Swatches have 250 of Dale Jr., 125 Gordon, 99 Stewart, and 3 of Dale Sr.)

“For the most part, the quantities are determined by the size of the item and/or the availability of materials. Firesuits, gloves, and shoes do not yield as many pieces as a car cover or a race-used tire.  And of course, Dale Earnhardt Sr. memorabilia is very limited, hence the numbering to 3.”

Do memorabilia cards create any problems on how cards are laid out on the printing sheets?
“We try and lay out the sheets as efficiently as possible, but sometimes, the rosters of multiple inserts that are run on the same sheet don’t optimize every space. Ideally, every press form would have a card in each position.”

“But sometimes the math (needs per card) and timing don’t cooperate. A memorabilia card form is more likely to have a blank spot or two. Base card and regular insert card sheets are easier to plan for space-wise, and those don’t ever have blanks.”

Considering the security issue, once race-used memorabilia is acquired, what steps are taken to ensure the accuracy of the identification of all the pieces during production?

“As soon as each item is picked up from the race team, it is photographed digitally and logged into our memorabilia inventory data system. It is placed into its own container and labeled with a unique ID number that stays with that piece throughout its lifecycle. The inventory system contains information about when the item was acquired, who picked it up, what race the item was used in, patches that are available, reference photos, and the item’s current location. This system is instrumental in tracking each memorabilia item and preserving its authenticity and the integrity of the cards.”

“When an item is shipped to a processing vendor, it’s new location and ship date are updated in the inventory system by the Press Pass person who shipped it. We constantly track the current location of each item within the database. The ID # is the key communicator between the processing vendor and Press Pass.”

”The receiving vendor checks the items that arrive and confirms that each piece on the packing list is accounted for. The vendor processes the memorabilia, returns it to its individual container, and ships it back to us.”

“When we receive the item, it is analyzed to determine how much of it was used and how much material remains for our future use. This is a particularly important step for a product like Press Pass Showcase, which has larger memorabilia swatches and uses so much material that additional items like firesuits and sheet metal may have to be secured to replenish our memorabilia inventory. After everything is analyzed and documented, the information is updated in the inventory system, and the item is stored in a secure area until it is needed again.”

So there you have some of what goes on behind-the-scenes at Press Pass. Next month, we will move on to the work that their outside vendors do in making memorabilia cards. We will look at the rest of the story in terms of how things like a firesuit or a big hunk of sheet metal from a NASCAR car become part of a card. We will also continue looking at the unbroken chain of security which assures collectors that the memorabilia on the card is exactly what it says it is. SCM


Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part look inside the making of memorabilia cards. The behind-the-scenes look is courtesy of Press Pass, the officially licensed card company of NASCAR.)

By Jim Nicewander

Last month, we opened our two-part series on making race-used memorabilia cards by looking at the Press Pass in-house work that goes into producing the cards. This month, we finish the story by considering what is done by the outside vendors Press Pass uses for the specialized production work. We also continue our look at the security steps taken along the way, ensuring that what we see is what we get, so we can be 100 percent confident if a card says it contains a piece of Dale Jr.’s tire, then Jr.’s tire it is.

Contracting Out For Specialized Processes
Press Pass has some of the most creative, talented, and productive people in all of sports cards. However, they do not do all the memorabilia card work in-house. For processing big hunks of Chevys, Fords, Dodges, and Toyotas, as well as the tires and other race-used materials, they contract out to other companies for most of the operations. It often requires the specialized equipment and unique skills of outside vendors, so Press Pass hires the best.

As we put together this part of our story, two sources were particularly helpful. They were Tom Farrell, who is the vice president of brand management at Press Pass, and Larry (last name omitted for security purposes), production manager at one of the vendors Press Pass contracts with in making the cards.

Like in last month’s installment, there is one additional but necessary opening comment. You have to keep in mind that Press Pass is a business that has worked long and hard and very successfully at what they do. A critical part of their success has been their development of production processes and a network of manufacturing vendors that can most effectively create memorabilia cards. For this report, the company has shared plenty of previously unreported information with us so we all can know more about how they do it. But Press Pass is still a private business, with a wealth of proprietary processes, confidential agreements with the drivers and teams, and a group of essential vendors with highly skilled personnel. So some proprietary details are not revealed.

Aaron Owens, production manager at Press Pass, gets us going forward on our subject:
To what extent are the outside vendors involved with the design process of a given series of memorabilia cards?

    “Typically, they have very little involvement, unless there is something especially unique about the project. Examples of that would be very intricate die-cut windows or foil applications.”

How many different vendors do you use in processing pieces of race-used material?
“Tires and sheet metal are sent to specialized shops or machine shops. Cloth materials are fairly straightforward to process, so they are typically cut by the printer responsible for the specific project.”
When the race-used materials are under the control of the processing vendors, how secure are they?

“Press Pass uses only a handful of longstanding, trusted vendors to perform memorabilia work. We are on site at these facilities on a regular basis, and they clearly understand the security and integrity of the work involved.”

In considering just how that all works, we were given some insights by the production manager at one of the Press Pass vendor partners. His company receives the raw race-used materials from Press Pass, and their job is to cut them up into the pieces that are eventually assembled between the printed front and back card substrates. Larry provided details on their involvement:

What materials and processes does your company deal with in your business that is not connected with Press Pass?
“We work on just about everything from all the sports: jerseys, pants, baseball gloves, bats, bases, footballs, baseballs, basketballs, soccer balls, helmets of all kinds, stadium seats, printing plates, hockey sticks, movie memorabilia of all kinds, and entrapment of delicate memorabilia such as stadium dirt, hair and other ‘DNA-type’ memorabilia from history. Very few items are out of our ability, and we are always looking for a challenge for new items we have not worked on before.”

“Our processes include steel-rule die-cutting, laser cutting, sawing of various types for different substrates, splitting, laminating, engraving, some disassembly handwork, plus some proprietary methods for really unusual items.”
Is processing race-used materials for Press Pass unique or different from other materials or customers you work typically with?

“Processing the most common materials like jerseys and firesuits is very similar. But the tires and lugnuts are different. Tires are similar to processing other rubber materials such as baseball bases, on-deck circles, and home plates, but tires are unique in that they require a few additional cutting processes that are proprietary in nature. Lugnuts are prepared with a precision cutting process that is different from what we use on most non-metal materials. However, we have used similar cutting techniques in processing numerous other metallic items, such as airplane structures or facemasks.“

What is an example of special technologies you have had to adapt specifically for processing race-used materials from Press Pass?

“The best example might be the proprietary cutting steps we use for tires. They are specific for just that item. Tire processing is a five-step cutting and thinning process to produce the thin sidewall tire swatches used on the cards. The challenge of these multiple cutting processes is even greater when the swatch sizes are increased to the larger sizes, because in those cases the thickness tolerances are more difficult to maintain.”

What are some of the security precautions and procedures you use for the race-used materials during their processing at your company?

“When we receive materials from Press Pass, there is a checklist and ID tag for each item. Everything is checked-in upon arrival to verify that the proper items are being received. No discrepancies are tolerated and any item in question, for whatever reason, is questioned and resolved. Once the items are properly identified and marked with our inventory codes, the materials are individually bagged and ID’ed so they can be kept absolutely separate from each other. If an item is to be maintained in inventory for future use, it is checked in with additional internal ID tags and put into secure lockup.”

“When an item is received for immediate processing, or when it is pulled from inventory for processing, ID numbers are verified and double-checked with the spreadsheet work order information sent to us by Press Pass. The materials are then processed one item at a time per instructions from Press Pass, such as prime sidewall pieces, plain pieces, fiber pieces, patches, multi-color, etc.

“As each item is processed for each rarity level or parallel request, it is bagged and labeled with the ID number, driver name, name of the item, level of parallel, and that kind of thing. As materials progress through the various steps of cutting, we process only one item at a time. Then the processing areas are completely cleared of all scraps and extra good material prior to starting the next item. There can be no accidental mixing from one item to another. And then after processing, all items are returned to secure lockup.”

“The bagged and completed items are delivered back to Press Pass or to their finishing company that is constructing the cards. Each of those deliveries is complete with a detailed packing slip matching the Press Pass work order.”
Can you expand on the procedures you use to maintain the integrity of the proper driver identification matching the appropriate groups of race-used material?

“As an example, consider tires. Each tire will have an individual storage box, and each box is identified and labeled with driver, ID number, and other pertinent information. As a check and balance, the box will also contain the ID slip that Press Pass furnishes. The tire sections that have been processed through the first two of the five cutting stages are always contained within their single box. Those boxes are then isolated from one another during the final three stages of cutting, which are done one box and one step at a time for each driver/tire, so there is no chance of mixing of the memorabilia."

“The integrity of the memorabilia is always the No. 1 priority, and the procedures are never compromised for any reason. This integrity is the core of our business, and we have been doing this kind of processing for over 10 years for the vast majority of the memorabilia accounts.”

To wrap things up, Farrell filled us in on two more questions we posed:

Regarding sequentially numbered memorabilia cards, when during the assembly process are those numbers applied, including on the driver-signed cards?

“Cards are sequentially numbered after they are constructed and cut down to single cards. With the driver-autographed cards, they are sequentially numbered after they are signed. That way any smeared or unacceptable signatures will not be numbered and used.”

In the 2009 Legends Family Relics, with Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr. firesuits numbered to 99, most all of them have white uniform swatches for Senior and many have green swatches for Junior. However, at least one card has the green cloth under Senior’s picture and the white cloth under Junior’s.

But Dale Sr. never had green cloth on his firesuit, and this is not a patch. Is this an error card resulting from a mistake in the assembly of the card layers and cloth swatches? What is in place to prevent this kind of switching error?

“This was indeed an error we discovered after the fact. After investigating how the error occurred with the vendor, some current procedures were changed, and new additional checks were put in place to help prevent this moving forward.

While we strive to continuously improve each step of the process to achieve zero errors, we also understand each and every card we produce is carefully built by hand and vigilance is key.”

And there you have it – the rest of the story behind the making of memorabilia cards, with some of the details on how the cards are made and what procedures are used to keep everything straight and controlled to the maximum.

I must confess: knowing the uncompromised credibility that Press Pass has established in the hobby, I have always previously just assumed that the integrity of their memorabilia cards was there. But after learning about everything that goes into their production processes, I’m now 100 percent confident that when Press Pass says its memorabilia on every card is “authentic,” it really and truly is. And they do not just rest on their laurels. They constantly strive to improve how they do things, to make the processes even more secure.

So from now on, when you hold a race-used card in your hand, look closely at it and think about some of the specialized work that has gone into making it. Press Pass definitely has its production priorities in order. As a result, we collectors can get the ultimate enjoyment in our cards and have complete confidence in their authenticity. SCM

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