Racing improves the breed of automotive technology, as well as the skills of racing engineers. And, according to one of the greatest all around racecar drivers in history, on-board computerized data acquisition has been the key to unlocking development.
What has been the greatest technology advance in racing? The biggest breakthrough has been the introduction of the on-board computer as a data acquisition tool. It allowed us to stop second guessing and estimating forces and deflections on a car and to correlate what's happening to what the driver feels. And we even learn things that couldn't be felt before because, for example, the driver's foot may have been shaking on a pedal.
Quite honestly, that's when it started really being fun. I always felt I had a very good feel of the car, but never was able to really understand or quantify the impact of making slight changes. I would have given anything if I could have taped a mouse somewhere in the suspension that could tell me exactly what was happening. All of a sudden that mouse started talking.
Are there any other benefits of computers? Computers have reduced the tracktime needed to reach an optimum chassis solution. At $5,000-6,000 a mile to run a racecar, the ability to do a setup in 35 to 50 miles instead of 200 miles represents a significant cost savings.
Do racing regulations stifle design creativity? The rulebook today is driven by knowledge. Back in the 70s, the book was 15 pages; today, it is 150. There were so many things that were unknown then and were not regulated. For instance, back then engineers couldn't make a racecar go so fast that the forces on the human body would be too great to drive it. Today they can. So with knowledge to produce such high performance, you have to regulate the racecar so a human being is able drive it.
What racing technologies have had the greatest impact on automobiles? Things like traction control and electronic shift control for managing and adjusting the shift points to allow engineers to spread the torque from the engine. Engine efficiency has also improved for better mileage in street cars.
Racing and automobiles are like NASA and general aviation. NASA's needs are so much greater, so they've learned a lot at a high level—developments like fly-by-wire are now in commercial aviation. Motor racing takes automobile technology to the next level and pushes the engineers to different limits. Sooner or later that knowledge is going to enter the production world.
How do engineers benefit by being involved with racing? Engine manufacturers, for example, rotate their engineers through the race teams they supply. Because of the quick turnaround between races and the high performance of the cars, the engineers develop a more urgent work ethic. Having to come up with solutions quickly stimulates their thinking and how they look at things. When they go back to the world of manufacturing, they have a sense of urgency in learning faster and solving problems.