Has Auto Racing Outrun its Usefulness?

Since the beginning of the automobile itself, auto racing has been pivotal in the technological progression and proliferation of the modern motor vehicle. A large majority of developments, often taken for granted, in modern cars are attributable to innovations originally intended to shave seconds from a lap time, not your daily commute. Many advances in transmission, engine efficiency and power, aerodynamic, suspension, and safety technology were first intended for racing. Racing has not only contributed to the automobiles technical progression, but also to its social popularity. As the old saying goes, “what wins on Sunday sells on Monday.” Customers enjoy owning cars with racing pedigree’s. Even if your base Chevy Malibu will never enter itself in a road race, it feels a little more special because its (somewhat distant) cousin is currently dominating the NASCAR circuit.

But has auto racing seen the end of its useful life? Has technology reached such a point that advances in racing technology are no longer likely to trickle down to our mundane road cars? Have racing cars distanced themselves so greatly (for safety, speed, and regulatory reasons) that they no longer contribute to a culture of people buying cars because they perceive them as winners? Take for example Formula One, what many would consider to be the pinnacle of automotive performance. Formula One race teams spend enormous sums of money in order to develop and produce their cars, Red Bull Racing has an annual budget somewhere north of 296 million dollars. Its cars are capable of speeds over 225 mph and 5 g’s of sustained cornering force (about 5 times what your road car can hope to achieve.) While technologically impressive, one has to wonder if the cars have progressed so far from their road-going counterparts that their innovation and sales boosting potential has been diminished. For example, tire technology has advanced to the point that Pirelli, the official supplier of all Formula One tires, intentionally engineers its tires to fail rapidly and unpredictably, so that pit stops and “tire strategy” become a bigger factor in races. Instead of innovating in a way that could benefit road cars, the focus is now on ensuring the sport remains entertaining.

NASCAR is another example of racings departure from pedestrian vehicles. Up until the mid to late 1960’s NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) literally involved major manufacturers racing stock cars, upgraded slightly for power and safety reasons. A Ford Mustang that you could buy off of the showroom floor was not all that different from what you saw the superstars of NASCAR racing on the weekend. Gradually, the cars began to employ non-stock chassis’, engines, and eventually even bodies. Today, all NASCAR cars share a common “body template.” A Toyota Camry race car shares the exact same body dimensions as a Ford Fusion (only the stickers differ). Your showroom floor Fusion now has about as much in common with its NASCAR brethren as it does a NASA space shuttle. As a result, one has to wonder, does a “Fusion” sticker on the front of a NASCAR vehicle really lead to increase Fusion sales?

As an auto enthusiast and an avid racing fan (Lotus F1 fan here!) I want auto racing to continue to be a source of innovation and inspiration for the auto industry as a whole. However, at this point in time I can’t help but wonder if auto racing has run its course. Shaving even one second from a race cars lap time is becoming exponentially more expensive as more exotic and expensive materials and technologies are required to do so.

Luckily, one bright spot of racing innovation remains. Weight reduction, the process of making a vehicle of the same size and strength physically weigh less is currently a major focus of racing teams. Materials like carbon fiber and advanced aluminum alloy’s not only make cars faster, but also more fuel efficient. As auto manufactures struggle to meet fuel efficiency standards weight reduction is a major point of emphasis. A lighter vehicle, all else equal, will consume less fuel. Materials like carbon fiber are incredibly strong and light, but until recently were both difficult and expensive to produce. Luckily, as automakers experiment and observe in the racing world, economics of scale and technological developments have made materials like carbon fiber more feasible to use in your average road car.

The advancements currently being developed on the racing level mimic the current needs of the auto industry. With the ever rising cost of fuel consumers no longer need the 400+ horsepower “muscle cars” of the 60’s and early 70’s that barely achieve 10 miles to the gallon. Maybe auto racing does still serve a role in the advancement of automotive technology, but, that role has changed. As the requirements placed on the modern automobile change, so do the requirements placed on the race cars. At this point, I see racing as a reflection of the needs of road cars, when classically, road cars have been a reflection of racing.

2 comments to Has Auto Racing Outrun its Usefulness?

  • andrew

    Auto Racing in the sense of technological inovation may have jumped the shark. However, the sport and skill of the drivers are still present and thriving. It may not come down to who has the best car any more,but this fact opens the arena to who has the best skill. On equal planes, the drivers now prove themselves and not their cars. The machines themselves may no longer be improved, but the drivers ability is now more heavily relied upon. This fact may give scientific data to help worse drivers improve their skills on the real roads. Even if the cars are prohibited from improving this fact does not strangle innovations inspired by racing, it simple must look for a new avenue. The improvements may have died, but the sport and skill are thriving.

  • Mr. Cosgrove, one of our speakers next week, was on the board of the Jaguar F1 racing team. He can give some tales!

    In terms of the content of the post, in the PACE supplier innovation competition, we used to see things coming out of racing into high end vehicles and then migrating towards mass market cars. Now we’ve seen some of the opposite, innovations launched on volume vehicles first then diffusing to niche markets. So this is a very interesting thesis.

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