3. Pay attention to vehicle dynamics. Although race engineers cite dampers as a critical way to gain a competitive edge, they acknowledge that other aspects of vehicle dynamics are only slightly less important to the performance of the car. "Springs, anti-roll bars, and suspension geometries all play a big role," said Eddie Jones, a race engineer for KV Racing. "The rules give us just enough room to tune the vehicle dynamics the way we want them. The rules also give us enough room so that, if we do it wrong, we can get ourselves into trouble."
4. Study the vehicle's aerodynamics. On an oval course such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, aerodynamics can make a huge difference. By increasing the downforce on the vehicle's wings, engineers can make it ride higher or lower, faster or slower. They adjust the vehicle's drag in two ways. First, they place so-called wickers -- pieces of angle iron -- on the vehicle's wings. Second, they test the wickers of varying sizes and angles in wind tunnels. The wind tunnels enable the race team to create an "aero bit map," which, when used with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software, provides a full understanding of how the car will behave on straightaways and in turns. "Our job is to find each one of those bits and know how it will be affected under every condition," Johnson said.
5. Make liberal use of simulation. These days, simulation is the best way for an IndyCar team to understand its vehicle. Simulations offer more data at a lower cost. "It's so much more economical to simulate than to take your car out on the track," Johnson said. "You get more accomplished through simulation, whether you do it through shakers, wind tunnels, or CFD."
[Learn more about IndyCar at Littelfuse's Speed2Design site.]
The comment about the aerodynamic vacuum under these cars at speed reminded me of the Chaparral 2J car from the Can-Am series in the 70's. The car has side skirts and an on-board "vacuum cleaner' powered by a snowmobile engine which generated a downforce which exceeded the weight of the car. It was so much faster than the competition that it was banned under a questionable rule interpretation. Unfortunately, engineering brilliance in car racing can be overruled by the need to put on a good race for the fans (unfortunate) or by the need to hold down top speeds for safety reasons (probably a good idea).
Absolutely, there is far less room for error (likely no room in fact) for those 500 miles since at those speeds, lives are at stake. One teensy, little glitch in something as small as a misplaced fastener, and you could be primed for disaster.
Good point, Beth. It's amazing to learn that IndyCar's number one engineering challenge -- vehicle reliability -- is the same as for production cars. It's true they only need to go 500 miles at the Indy 500, but it doesn't mean that reliability is any less important. In fact, a simple failure -- like the one on Parnelli Jones' vehicle in 1967 -- can be devastating.
Nice job Chuck, on translating the thrill of racing into engineering challenges that other engineers, even if they don't work on the race car circuit, can relate to and are grappling with every day for their own types of products. Those minor design tweaks and keen attention to simulation outcome are what can set one company's offering apart from another--whether it's a highly competitive IndyCar race or components for commercial cars.