The Indianapolis 500 and Consumer Car Technology

Yesterday practice opened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500. The race is an incredibly exhilarating event to take in on TV, but especially in person. I personally view the start of the Indy 500 as easily the greatest moment in sports. Watching eleven rows of three cars coming down the front stretch at speeds surpassing 200 miles per hour is unlike anything else. The speed and competition, however, is not the only benefit the Indy 500 has provided. Many of the technologies we take for granted today stem from developments made on IndyCars.

In the early days of the 500, each year teams would debut new technological improvements to help them gain an advantage. Today the cars are much more standardized, and advancements in technology happen on a series wide basis rather than team by team. The early teams, however, had much more leeway and took full advantage. In the inaugural running of the 500 mile race in 1911, the winner, Ray Harroun, outfitted his car with a rear-view mirror, eliminating the need for a spotter to ride along with him. This reduced weight and helped propel him to victory.

The technological improvements over time became far more complicated and intricate. IndyCars for instance, were the first automobiles to use turbochargers. Freddie Agabashian’s Cummins Diesel Special in 1952 was the first to debut turbocharger technology which is now commonplace in diesel vehicles. At the time, the turbocharger was designed exclusively to increase speed, but today they are used on gas and diesel engines to get the most out of small displacement engines. Ford’s “EcoBoost” engines, for instance, get an incredible amount of horsepower out of a two liter engine. Similarly, Audi’s turbo diesel engine in it’s A3 delivers 236 pound-feet of torque while maintaining an EPA rating of 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway. Turbo’s clearly have a big place in the future of consumer car technology.

Several other innovations stem from IndyCar, including seat belts, crash data recorders, ethanol fuel, front wheel drive and four wheel hydraulic brakes. All of these innovations are today standard on passenger vehicles and were delivered by a desire for both speed and safety on the race track. While IndyCar may no longer be the leader in technological development, F1 certainly has a great deal of technology to offer the passenger car market, including its KERS technology. The future is certainly bright for racing’s connection to the consumer car market.

The start of the 2010 Indianapolis 500. Source: NYTimes

The start of the 2010 Indianapolis 500. Source: NYTimes

6 comments to The Indianapolis 500 and Consumer Car Technology

  • mayolj16

    Even if car races are still popular, the number of people following is declining. This made car manufacturers debate whether the statement “Win Sunday sell Monday” is still valid. Even if we find a decline in the relationship between winning races and increase in sales, it is true that races like the F1 keep introducing new technologies that will later make it to the market, like the KERS, as I explained in one of my previous blogs.

  • Kade Kenlon

    I disagree with your idea that the future is bright for racing’s connection to the consumer market. As the auto industry is shifting towards a more fuel efficient car with fewer emissions, companies are looking into newer engine technologies like solar, electric, fuel cell, or water. The main goal for Indy cars will always be, “how do we make our cars go faster?” With that mindset, these cars are unlikely to shift to a weaker engine to save fuel economy. In the future, the gap between a a typical consumer car and a typical Indy car will continue to grow, and the Indy cars will have less and less influence as the auto industry continues to look for updates that Indy cars have no interest in.

  • I know several people have written systematically on the technological contributions of car racing, though I can’t offer any bibliographic references. Turbos are now found in regular cars – my new Chevy Cruze “Eco” has a 1.4L turbo engine that’s peppy and fuel efficient. You’ve others on your list.
     
    Will racing continue to provide technological spinoffs over and above its value as a marketing tool? I can only offer a pro-con argument. One is that exotic materials and so on are too distant from regular cars. But then there’s the aluminum F-150, magnesium lift-gates, select use of carbon fiber and so on in mass-market vehicles. The other (Kade’s point) is that racing and road are diverging. I’m less sure: power matters, but so do stops to refuel. Watch rule changes and new alternative vehicle venues – my (poorly informed) guess is that the racing industry is sensitive to keep sponsors, to make their business hold value for mainstream car engineers, and toward that end they will set parameters to encourage innovations that enhance fuel efficiency and that show off “light hybrid” systems. If there aren’t already, then a test of this hypothesis is if we soon see battery-only races.

  • […] Kimbell claims that racing continues to be valuable as a breeding ground for technology. (See “The Indianapolis 500 and Consumer Car Technology“, Econ 244 blog of May 12th, 2014). His family have made the trek to Indiapolis for a couple […]

  • […] claims that racing continues to be valuable as a breeding ground for technology. (See “The Indianapolis 500 and Consumer Car Technology“, Econ 244 blog of May 12th, 2014). His family have made the trek to Indiapolis for a couple […]

  • […] claims that racing continues to be valuable as a breeding ground for technology. (See “The Indianapolis 500 and Consumer Car Technology“, Econ 244 blog of May 12th, 2014). His family have made the trek to Indiapolis for a couple […]

Leave a Reply