Al Sommer was an aerospace engineer working on major defense contracts when he quit in 1973 to join a small consulting practice called Del West Engineering, Inc. Small as in one other guy – an engineering buddy named Matt Creager – a part-time secretary, and a machine capable of doing mechanical testing.
“What else can we do?”
Doing business out of a 1,400 square foot warehouse on the west end of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, they started with one research contract for aerospace giant Grumman. Four years later, they were up to their ears in aerospace research contracts and expert liability work – and bored, bored, bored. “We looked around,” Al said, “and wondered, what else can we do?”
That “what else” turned out to be titanium, which the pair had been researching for the Air Force for the last two and a half years. At the time, titanium was used by military aircraft and rockets – but little else, largely because most people didn’t know its capabilities.
Del West, on the other hand, knew what it could do, but not who needed it. “We had a solution,” Al said, “but no problem.”
For half a year they researched one commercial possibility after another, but nothing was a good match. Finally “we went back to the office,” Al said. “Matt and I were at our desks, facing one another. Matt said, “This is ridiculous.’ He reached back, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m getting the yellow pages. I’m going to find us a business.'”
By the time they’d gotten to “Auto,” they had found not just a business, but their future.
First NASCAR – then, suddenly, Formula 1
By 1984, orders for titanium valves and other engine components poured in so steadily that the company shut down its aerospace lab to focus completely on valve train component manufacturing.
The next decade saw Del West continue to grow its racing engine components business, with a particular focus on NASCAR. Then, in 1988, a rule change in Formula 1 racing sparked European interest in the kind of lightweight valvetrains Del West manufactured.
“An F1 racing team came to us and said they needed help because they were suddenly going to have to use valves that weren’t steel,” Al recalled. “They were asking for quality levels we’d never seen before, and they wanted lots of parts, at the same time that NASCAR was growing.”
A half-dozen years later, Del West valves ran in every car in the Indy 500 and the majority of the cars in Europe’s high-end racing series. “We realized we had to vastly expand our manufacturing capacity,” Al said.
To meet the demand of its growing Formula 1 customer base, Del West opened a second factory in Switzerland in 1996.
Throughout the 1990s, Del West continued to expand into the burgeoning race market and solidified its position as the market leader for materials and design in valve trains. By 1997, Del West had designed and manufactured its own air spring system and it was being raced on the F1 grid. As racing exploded in popularity – and as engine technology enjoyed a renaissance – such manufacturers as Mercedes, Toyota, and BMW entered or re-entered the sport. Del West worked with their engineers to transform ideas into components and systems that could allow the engines to turn ever-higher RPMs.
Motorcycles and Corvettes
Next up: consumer cars and motorcycles. In 2003, Del West started selling valves to KTM for the 450SX model of dirt bike. Within the space of a few years, Del West’s consumer division was supplying not only KTM, but also GM sports cars, via the Corvette program, and Ducati motorcycles. Soon enough, BMW, MV Agusta, Husqvarna, and other serial manufactures followed, driving technological advancement of efficient manufacturing of valve train components that, in turn, helped the quality of the race engine designated components.
But still, the company looked for new challenges.
Beginning in 2007, Del West also formed an alliance with Gamma Technology, LLC to manufacture highly durable and adaptable components made from a proprietary aluminum metal matrix composite.
“It was something that didn’t exist on the marketplace,” Al said. “It’s a composite that’s machinable. There are lots of composites, but none that you can turn so easily into parts.”
New ideas, new horizons
Today, Del West components help power the engines of race cars and high-performance street cars, as well as street motorcycles, dirt bikes and ATVs. They expand the design possibilities of luxury Swiss watches. Thanks to the partnership with Gamma Technology, Del West-manufactured aluminum metal matrix composite parts are finding homes in the aerospace and medical parts industries.
More than thirty years after Al and his partner, Matt, first flipped through those yellow pages, it still comes back to the same thing. “Ideas,” Al said. “That’s who we are. That’s why we moved from aerospace to valves to metal matrix composites.
“We are always pursuing new ideas.”
Del West. Precisely.