Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shot in the Throttle Foot

I remember my dad remarking that he did not feel as if he were growing older. In fact, he explained his memory was getting better because he was able to remember events from longer ago than when he was young. I now seem to understand what he meant. I can remember watching my very first major automobile race, the Can-Am at Texas International Speedway in November of 1969. Bruce McLaren won in the high-winged, aluminum big-block Chevy powered McLaren M8B he had built in his shop in England. Mario Andretti led the first lap, though, using a 494 cubic inch Boss Ford in his McLaren, modified by Holman-Moody, called the Honker II. The Chaparral 2H with its unusual driving position and de-Dion rear suspension did not start the race, having been damaged earlier in the week. Chaparral had left behind their high wings as other teams began to discover them. Chris Amon drove the Ferrari 612P and Jackie Oliver was in the Ti22 which made as lavish use of titanium as the F1 car Dan Gurney had built in which he won four Grands Prix.

Regrettably, I did not see other cars that weekend which have become famous over the years. I missed the Trevor Harris designed Shadow Mk1 which looked like a go-kart with a big-block Chevy in the back. Joe Leonard drove a four-wheel-drive McKee powered by a twin-turbocharged aluminum Olds. I did not get to see the Mark Donohue developed Porsche 917/30K in its glory or the Jim Hall designed and built Chaparral 2J "sucker" car.

Looking back from the 21st century, you can see what a special time that was in motorsports. During that magical time, Jim Hall developed both wings and ground effect for race cars, he was the first to use structural composite construction, he invented the modular wheel and used a clutch-less transmission. Although supercharging had been used in race cars 40 years earlier, turbo-charging was relatively new. Gene Crowe was the first to try it in Can-Am in the McKee. It would be more fully developed only a few years later by Mark Donohue and Porsche engineers. Four wheel drive had been tried in the Ferguson F1 car and Crowe also used it in the McKee. Donohue invented the blade adjustable anti-roll-bar and first realized the reduction in pit stop times from unlimited height of refueling rigs. He remarked that only 20% of all his bright ideas actually worked and that seemed to be common. Many things were tried, but only the best concepts survived.

The wings and ground effect tunnels we now take for granted, the turbocharged Cosworths, the driver adjustable handling, carbon fiber construction and many other innovations came directly from free thinking racers and engineers during a time when racing was charged with creativity and imagination. Sadly, we seem to have lost that element of racing. Most racing series today have become "one-make" or "spec" series in which only one engine and chassis is available and in which no modifications are allowed. A few years ago, I worked as engineer in one such spec series, Formula Mazda, and removed the mirrors and taped over the oil cooler for single car qualifying on an oval. Those simple modifications seemed to make proper good sense in setting up for conditions. Race officials soon informed me that I would receive no qualifying time unless I undid my handiwork to make the car, once again, absolutely identical to all its competitors.

Even the top levels of motorsport have now been relegated to one make series. Champ Car allows only the Panoz chassis and Cosworth engine. Formula Atlantic is the province of the Swift chassis and Cosworth/Mazda engine. The Indy Racing League allows any chassis or engine that meets their rule package. Currently the Dallara and Panoz are the only cars offered, and Honda has the only available engine. The reality is that most teams opt for the Dallara so everyone runs a Dallara/Honda. Indy Pro uses a Dallara chassis and Infinity engine. With NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, the only choice is engine. Otherwise each team uses the exact same equipment. It seems to me that one-make racing series are tantamount to requiring every NFL linebacker to be exactly 6'-6" and 280 pounds! The only exception presently is the LMP1 class in ALMS where five different chassis are competing.

If teams running one-make series were at least allowed to modify and improve their cars we would be moving in the direction of the creativity and innovation of the Can-Am era, although still at a snail's pace. Unfortunately, though, most sanctioning bodies tell teams which wings and wickers to run at a given track, which gear ratios are acceptable and seal the shocks to keep them from being re-valved in case someone should, God forbid, go faster. Tire make, size and compound are dictated by the sanctioning body and the only fuel allowed is that available at the track. Only manufacturers of road going cars now experiment with such advancements as constantly variable transmissions and dynamic computer control of shock stiffness. They do so with no governing regulations of any kind except the law of economics which requires they see a return on investment. Mechanics of independent teams and racing engineers alike are now bound by a thicket of rules which expunge any such creative ideas which might briefly flitter through their heads. They find their hands tied behind their backs and the poor drivers have been shot in the throttle foot!

What is the reason for the present climate which stifles technological innovation? At first, sanctioning bodies explained it would keep a lid on costs. But tightly controlled Formula Mazdas which had no fair market competition sold for higher prices than the more advanced and diversified Formula 2000s. They look to the less restrictive rules of Formula One which require operational budgets of $200M per season as evidence their caps are working in other series. A Champ Car or IRL car can be run for as little as $6M they point out. That figure might allow a team to run at the back of the field, but I wonder how much Penske, Andretti-Green and Newman-Haas each spend to run at the front of their one-make series? Although they race more than their open wheel cousins, Nextel Cup operational budgets are even higher.

The latest stated reason is to ensure close competition and a good show for the fans. I will admit that watching three IRL cars cross the finish line abreast of each other is exciting racing. Kevin Harvick's win over Mark Martin at Daytona this year was a nail biter, but at what cost? How will fans react to a Monte Carlo "Car of Tomorrow" racing nose-to-nose with a Taurus or Camry when the cars are distinguishable only by a Ford, Chevy or other manufacturer's sticker? The fans are intelligent. They know the cars they watch are not, in reality, Fords, Chevys, Dodges or Toyotas. They are, in fact, just NASCARs, each built from the same blueprints in race shops in North Carolina. Perhaps there are better ways to provide close competition.

In the days of CART, a "parachute" called the Hanford device was attached just below the rear wing which increased drag and slowed the cars on super speedways. It also made drafting more important. I remember a 500 mile race where it was used (I think it was Michigan) in which there were 52 official lead changes. Can sanctioning bodies not find similar ways today to ensure close competition among cars which differ in engineering philosophy?

I have been trying to remember the most recent time a lasting innovation came into motorsports from the mechanics, drivers and engineers who actually race the cars. They have so little freedom these days that innovations are rare. The marvelous HANS device comes to mind developed by Jim Downing. Before that Rick Mears brought Fox Shocks to Indy from off-road racing. Fox, and later Penske, Ohlins and others revolutionized shock technology in the time when shock regulations were still free. Most technological advancements in racing are now only the trickle down effects of advancements of automakers or major corporations. Audi has now fully developed all-wheel drive and seems to be closing in on performance diesel applications. I recently saw an ad in Racecar Engineering magazine which proclaimed, "Innovation from Bosch? YES Seven Le Mans wins in a row and the know-how is for sale."

If racing is ever to regain its former position as leader of technical advancement in the automotive world, what should be done? It is a tough question which some very smart people are trying to answer. The cost of racing is a factor as is the need for sanctioning bodies to put on a good show. Perhaps we should have a series in which one particular area is left open, such as gearboxes. Individual teams might then look for a performance advantage in CVTs, computer controlled shifting or more efficient power transmission. Alternative fuel is certainly a hot topic now. Maybe rules could be written allowing a variety of fuels but with supplies limited to equivalent BTU ratings. Would the performance/mileage equation foster advancements in fuel efficiency? Would new technology be developed which enhanced the attributes of a certain fuel? Such a class would seem to be a natural for endurance racing.

Dan Gurney says limiting tire size takes emphasis off making horsepower and instead maximizes the importance of using the rubber a car does have efficiently. If there were a class with limited tire size but unlimited suspension, what would be the result? How would such an advancement impact road car suspension which uses narrow tires because of space limitations? Perhaps one answer to the lack of racer developed technology might be a class virtually devoid of rules, as Can-Am used to be, for hybrid cars.

I now understand how my dad must have felt about memories from his youth. I still remember high wings glistening in the sun and the magnificent roar of big-block Chevys not quite masking the high whine of a Ferrari V-12 among them. I remember the diversity of the field and the imagination that created each car. I am fearful that, if we continue our course of one-make classes and tightly controlled rules, we might one day be racing electric cars, all identical and painted drab olive green, which each emit the same boring whir as it goes by. If that time comes one day when I have retired from racing, I hope I can still remember the Can-Am in its glory of innovation and creativity. Many of the features we take for granted in our race cars of today, we owe to the racing climate of Can-Am which encouraged thinking outside the very same box in which we now seem to be trapped.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?
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Robert Metcalf
March 2007