Legend has it that the first great technology breakthrough spawned by auto racing was the rear-view mirror, an invention as startlingly ingenious then as it is habitually ignored nowadays. Credit goes to a cunning ex-chauffeur and motorsports pioneer named Ray Harroun, who slyly bolted a reflector to the cowling of his Marmon racer back in 1911. His motivation? To eliminate the bulk of a riding mechanic, that soon-to-be-obsolete data-gathering unit whose duties included looking out for competitors attempting to pass.
Harroun and his single-seat Marmon Wasp went on to win the Indianapolis 500 that year - the very first Indy 500, no less - and ever since, industrial powerhouses have been pointing to this seminal accomplishment as justification for pouring millions of sponsorship dollars into the pursuit of the Victory Lane milk. Alas, an enthusiasm for competition overshadows the true facts of the case, this tale of early-day technology trickledown proving to be highly romanticized: Harroun readily acknowledged that he'd first spotted the rear-view mirror years earlier on horse-drawn taxis in Chicago.
No matter. Today, motorsports continues to grow in importance as a crucible for the application of science to automobiles, in engine development, suspension research, composite materials construction, and increasingly, in the harnessing of microprocessors for absorbing, analyzing, and codifying the vast data stream that flows in the course of a race. Sure, the earthbound dogfight that's televised most Sunday afternoons may offer a thrilling blend of bravado and strategic thinking, but there's also an R&D lab aspect to be exploited in the brutal conditions that must be endured during a 200-lap run around a high-banked oval in the heat of battle.
Not immune to universal economic laws, motorsports technology follows the money, its influence strongest where return on investment is the most tempting. Grass-roots weekend warriors shun the exotic materials and all-seeing data-acquisition systems, as much in an attempt to control the cost of participation as to maintain an emphasis on driving skills. At the opposite end of the scale lies the international Formula One Grand Prix circuit, where it might require a budget of $25 million per year to hire a driver such as Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, and teams have the wherewithal to dabble in beryllium alloy forgings, carbon fiber brake rotors, and witch's-brew gasoline blends.
Still, the cost-is-no-object approach to winning doesn't necessarily overpower the ingenuity and innovation found in other series, where rules restrictions require teams to look for their own competitive edge in more subtle ways. Southern-style stock-car racing is a shining example of this effect, as the strict regulations aimed at equalizing the opportunities for all teams seem to beg for the most creative interpretation. Such as: Years ago, when fuel-tank capacity was first standardized, some car builders saw no reason why they couldn't add yards of jumbo gas lines that would contain extra gallons (and bring the advantage of extra miles between pit stops), effectively detoothing the new limitations until rulemakers responded. All the same, the effect of the close competition in the top ranks of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) can be seen in flourishing brand rivalries, packed grandstands, and a devoted following that grows geographically as well as demographically.
Today, America's premier open-wheel racing series, and arguably its most technically sophisticated, is contested by the so-called "Champ Cars" of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) organization. Though the Champ Cars don't partake in the Indy 500 (excluded by a rift between the Indianapolis speedway ownership and CART) the series thrives, with a 20-race schedule spread across four continents on a mix of traditional oval tracks, purpose-built road race circuits, and temporary street courses. A fierce struggle for dominance among engine suppliers Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota fosters fan interest, as does the dueling of second-generation stars such as Michael Andretti and A1 Unser, Jr.
Contributing, too, to the series' popularity is the continual seesaw of team dominance and the spectacle of brilliant young rookies stealing the checkered flag finishes from seasoned veterans. Those past heroes aren't alone - yen the venerable Indy 500 is having some trouble getting respect. Like so many other institutions, the Memorial Day classic isn't what it used to be, relegated to second-string status without the big-name stars of CART.
CART's tightly enforced rulebook, held consistent through the years, helps to ensure that no single budget-bloating sponsorship deal can vault a team to the top ranks with purchased know-how. Most importantly, the principal limitation on horsepower - maximum turbocharger boost pressure of the small V8 engines is closely regulated by CART itself, which maintains and distributes the bypass valves that level the playing field. Instead, the team's ability to innovate and execute - particularly in the areas of aerodynamics, chassis tuning, and fuel management - are the keys to success.
On any given weekend, the team's proficiency in adapting the vehicle dynamics to track and weather conditions will be a key factor in determining the difference between a front-row qualifying spot and a starting position many rows downfield. Experience is the best teacher here, and leading teams sift through their hard-earned data from prior years to establish a baseline car setup. No surprises here those that do the best job of building and mining their databases have the best shot for a spot at the front of the grid.
Before the advent of onboard dataloggers, the routine of adjusting the car to local conditions depended heavily on the driver's ability to detect weak areas and communicate them to his engineer: "It pushes at the entry to turn three, so let's increase the downforce by dialing in more front wing," or "We're bottoming out over the bump in the hairpin and we need to go up two clicks on the jounce damping." More often than not, the drivers with the greatest mechanical insight produced the best qualifying results.
To a large extent, the observation duties have been assumed by an impressive array of electronic sensors trained on every critical system of the race car. Tire temperatures are monitored by infrared sensors; ride heights are measured by laser beams; and the engine operations are monitored in dozens of ways, including rpm, oil pressure, exhaust gas temperature and fuel flow. "Typically the car will carry 15 to 20 sensors for a test session, some transmitting the data back by telemetry and some storing the information onboard for downloading later," says Bruce McCaw, the cellular network pioneer whose PacWest racing team fields two highly competitive Mercedes-Benz-powered machines.
No surprise, then, that when the car rolls to a stop in the pit area after a test session, the first person to reach it is often an engineer with a laptop and data cable. Not everyone on pit road is so sure that this improves the racing, though. Pat Patrick, a CART founder and self-made millionaire in oil wildcatting, does not mince words: "I'd like to get rid of about half of those sensors." The unstated translation: With a few less engineers out here, the guys who really know something about racing could excel. Not that Patrick has any grudge with technology - his team is a leader in research-and-development projects with broad applications in areas from data management to engineered composites.
Patrick Racing's years of success in Champ Cars may well be the result of early adoption of information technologies, not just accumulating the data but also feeding it into bespoke simulation programs that can predict tangibles such as gear ratio selection for various tracks as well as more arcane parameters such as the performance of a thermal management strategy. Pat Patrick's son, Steve Patrick, is a zealot for these leading-edge endeavors, and largely responsible for the formation of a six-person database department for the team and in shepherding emerging technologies into racetrack advantages. His collaborator in these efforts, Kenneth Happel, emphasizes the urgency that drives the projects: "These days there seems to be a decade between the phases of 'can't be done' and 'now in production.' That decade is called racing."
No small part of the tuning process is optimizing the aerodynamic tools, including wing angles and sizes, to achieve maximum tire grip through the high-speed turns without compromising straight-line speed. "In simplest terms, the car is an airfoil which can generate as much as 5,000 pounds of downforce pressure," McCaw notes. "We'll do as much of this development as possible in a new wind tunnel we just built next to our shop in Indianapolis." The tab, shared with partners, for a tunnel with a state-of-the-art "rolling road" surface (to better replicate racing conditions) and capable of handling 40 percent scale models: more than $10 million.
Keeping the driver informed is another area of escalating technology pressure, in some part because hardware developed here could conceivably follow a fairly straight path to production cars. Teams using the Mercedes-Benz V8 and accompanying engine management electronics by Italy's Magneti Marelli, an international supplier of automotive components and systems, are at the leading edge of in-car information systems with a display that employs a small LCD screen on the center of the steering wheel. First unveiled last season, the wheel-mounted LCD replaces a more conventional dash-board behind the steering wheel with a unit decidedly easier to read.
For 1999, the screen has been improved to make information even more readable to the driver. "This year, the Mercedes-powered drivers have a screen with six options [up from three last year] they can scroll through to receive custom information about the engine and the race car," says Giancarlo De Angelis, who is responsible for Magneti Marelli's motorsports program. "The information on the screen can be programmed to give the driver any information they want in any format."
For a race that's on a temporary course through city streets, such as Long Beach in Southern California, it's likely that engine rpm, oil pressure, or gear selection will be the most critical to the driver; others may choose to see tire pressure and lap times, although the driver can have it any way he wants it for any given race. For instance, sometimes a driver is more concerned with fuel consumption than other information. That was the case at the season-opening race in Florida, where polesitter Greg Moore used the ability to monitor his fuel situation to map his strategy on the fly. Knowing the consumption rate and projected range, Moore was able dial the fuel economy and adjust pit stop timing to make sure he gave up no positions on the track until there was an opportunity to refuel under a yellow caution flag.
"We went from a lot of information packed onto three screens, to more information spread over six screens in a larger format," said De Angelis. "This made it even easier for the driver to read, which was the reason we moved the dashboard [LCD screen] onto the wheel in the first place."
As an added bonus, there are now eight additional screen options that can be used by engineers to run checks on the engine, electronics, and fuel management system when the car is not on the race track. This saves them the time of having to download the information from the Magneti Marelli datalogger or connect a lap-top computer to the race car.
"Marelli's technology is beyond what other CART teams are racing with, and we feel it gives us an advantage" says Paul Ray, vice president of Ilmor Engineering, the race-engine design and manufacturing arm of Mercedes-Benz.
Given the sophistication of today's equipment, perhaps the closest parallel between Ray Harroun's inaugural Indy winner and an end-of-the-millennium Champ Car is that rear-view mirror. But the lessons of top-level competition still carry mighty implications for the world outside of racing. Automakers like Ford assign their engineers to teams powered by V8s from the company's Cosworth Racing subsidiary, both for the first-hand lessons in durability and performance as well an education in the team-oriented rapid-development process, where solutions are instantly tested in the harsh light of real world conditions. Confided one Detroit engineer: "Out on the racetrack, we accomplish more in one day than we can do in six months inside the lab." Knowledge travels in the other direction as well; every member of PacWest's 86-person organization has been through Six Sigma training provided by Motorola, sponsor of the car driven by the team's Mark Blundell.
"Racing is the ultimate time management business," says PacWest's McCaw. "Time is one of the critical resources a team must manage, so we always have to be at full readiness. In this game, if you lose 1 percent of your performance, you go from the front of the field to the back of the pack."
ME & MY CAR
Robert A. Lutz
Chairman, President, and Chief Executive
Exide Corp., Reading, PA, and Auburn Hills, MI
Born: Zurich, Switzerland Age: 67
First car: 1948 Volkswagen Beetle, modified with a Porsche engine.
Current inventory: 1934 Riley MPH; 1952 Aston Martin DB2; 1957 Chrysler 300C; 1971 Monteverdi High Speed Coupe; 1985 A.C. Autokraft Cobra; 1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 roadster (serial number 0002; pictured below); 1999 Chrysler LHS; 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 5.9 (partial list).
Next acquisition: Though now sworn to a "one-in, one-out" program, he's keeping his eyes peeled for a pre-WWII Delahaye or Talbot.
One that got away: Uncle Charlie's 1973 Ferrari GTB coupe, because his father would not loan him the $30,000 purchase price, considering it a bad career move (the younger Lutz was, at the time, the head marketing executive of BMW Europe).
Hero: Multi-time world champion motorcycle racer Giacomo Agostini.
(Personal) Best moment in motorsports: Driving the Zakspeed turbo Capri race car in the European Touring Car championship.
Quote: "There is no such thing as having enough horsepower."
OFF THE TRACK
* Porsche 911: It makes sense that a driver can do a better job of controlling the car when his hands are on the steering wheel. In some forms of racing, transmission gear selection is now controlled by steering-wheel-mounted "paddles" that electronically actuate upshifts and downshifts as signalled by the driver. Porsche incorporated gear selector buttons in the steering wheel of the flagship 911 for its advanced Tiptronic transmission.
* Corvette: A deflating tire on the road may be an inconvenience; on the race track, it can be life-threatening. Tire-pressure sensing technology developed in motorsports now allows miniature transmitters inside the wheels to report the vital psi on the dashboard. Chevrolet may get the best break here: By combining this system with Goodyear's Extended Mobility tires, it has eliminated the cost and weight of a spare tire on the latest generation of Corvettes.
* Mercedes-Benz S-Class: Formula One racing engineers have dabbled with "active suspension" systems that use complex hydraulic systems for optimum cornering. The concept is seen in the S-Class's Adaptive Intelligent Ride air suspension. Sensors linked to a microprocessor read wheel movement and perform real-time adjustment to the damper struts, supporting Benz's quest to remain king of the hill for prestigious, tech-intensive luxury.
* Acura NSX: Honda's vast racing expertise trickles down into the lightweight Acura NSX sports car. Best supporting evidence is a set of costly titanium connecting rods deep inside the V6 engine of this $85,000 exotic. The goal of using such lightweight engine components is to produce high power output from a small (and thus more fuel-efficient) engine by running the engine speed limit up to a heady 8,000 revolutions per minute.
* Audi A6: Not so long ago, the leading edge in engine design stipulated the use of four valves per cylinder - two intake, two exhaust - for greater airflow and combustion efficiency. Audi takes a clue from the racing world and ups the ante to five per cylinder (three intakes) for its luxury line, benefiting the company's high-tech profile without any apparent sacrifice of smoothness or tractability.
See How They Run
Schedule your business travel around these upcoming auto-racing dates (but don't say we authorized it):
CART FedEx Championship
September 12, 1999: Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, CA. Wheel-to-wheel Champ Car racing on a tortuous road course along California's spectacular Central Coast.
NASCAR Winston Cup
October 11, 1999: Talladega, AL. Southern-fried stock car competition staged on a high-banked superspeedway in NASCAR's natural habitat.
FIA Formula One World Championship
September 26, 1999: Nurburgring, Germany. A classic of the Grand Prix circuit, set on the historic course in the picturesque Eifel Mountains.
NHRA Drag Racing
November 15, 1999: Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, Pomona, CA. The nitromethane-burning dragsters return to their ancestral homeland for an ear-splitting season finale.
Counting to 100
Roger Penske is living proof that winning in motorsports demands a businesslike approach. His Penske Racing team is the most successful in Champ Car history- 99 wins, including 10 in the Indianapolis 500 - and his closely held transportation services company, Penske Corp., is $6 billion operation with 28,000 employees. Among its enterprises are the Detroit Diesel Corp., where Penske is CEO, a truck-leasing venture with GE Capital, and a chain of auto dealerships, which includes the highest-volume Toyota store in the U.S. The company recently sold its racetrack holdings, bowing to a trend of consolidation that wields greater leverage in attracting advertising dollars.
Despite all that industrial might, Penske has been at the back of the Champ Car pack in recent years, with a frustratingly long wait for win No. 100.
Having started out as a driver himself, retiring to team ownership only when he acquired his first Chevrolet dealership, Penske is more accustomed to running a brainy, and dominant, operation. Among the potential causes of this prolonged slump: Penske's proprietary chassis design; stiff competition in the engine department, especially in the form of a Honda which outpoints the Mercedez-Benz racing V8 that powers Penske with stifling regularity; and loyalty to tire supplier Goodyear, when Firestone clearly has the competitive edge.
In the pits, no one doubts that dogged determination will eventually boost the surgically clean Penske cars back the winner's podium.
Still, there's no need to ask if Penske will at some point grow weary of the humbling experience and let it go: The safe bet is, so long as the team turns a profit for Penske the businessman, it will continue to field an entry - and seek the elusive win No. 100.
Warmup Exercises, Automated by R2D2
At the top levels of competition, nothing is simple, not even the morning wake-up call for engines. Mercedez-Benz engineers use a robot-like apparatus nick-named "R2D2" to warm up each Champ Car engine before it is started.
The improved version of a device that debuted last year, the faithful R2 will automatically heat water to 180 degrees and pump it through the engine to bring it up to operating temperature before it is started; the upgraded '99 model heats the engine oil as well (cleaning it in the process) and bleeds air from the cooling system.
Preheating is critical because the engine is assembled to such tight tolerances - so close that the engine requires no gaskets - that starting it at cooler temperatures could cause damage.
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|Title Annotation:||motorsports; includes related articles on racer Roger Penske and Mercedes-Benz' robot-like apparatus called R2D2|
|Publication:||Chief Executive (U.S.)|
|Date:||Aug 15, 1999|
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