Success in auto racing lives and dies by innovation. After all, it was technological breakthroughs that led to motorsports in the first place, and we’ve been determined to improve performance ever since. But professionals aren’t the only ones who benefit from better technology: in many cases, innovations on the track have trickled down to the cars we all drive today. We examined at five of the greatest improvements to auto racing.
In 1932 the Ford flathead V-8 engine rolled off the line—and it brought unprecedented opportunity to the automotive world. Ford didn’t invent the V-8, but for nearly 20 years it dominated American automobile manufacturing as the only company to offer an affordable car with this powerful engine. Police departments, bootleggers, and anyone who wanted to push the limit of speed and physics bought a Ford. The flathead powered the first stock car races on the beaches of Daytona and in the hills of North Carolina.
When Bill France founded NASCAR in 1948, Ford was still the only American manufacturer to offer a V-8 in an affordable vehicle. The Chrysler Corporation invented their first Dodge hemi V-8 in 1951, but it wasn’t until General Motors rolled out the Chevrolet small-block V-8 engine in in their 1955 models that the Ford flathead met its match. Chevy’s larger bore and shorter stroke enabled faster acceleration, which finally answered the question that the flathead proposed back in 1932: where will we go from here? And just like that, Ford and Chevy entered a rivalry that pushes stock car racing and American manufacturing to this day.
Auto racing is intrinsically dangerous. From the FIA to NASCAR, administrators constantly look for new innovations that make racing safer, while maintaining the integrity of the sport. However, it often takes a dire circumstances to force change.
During the 1993 NASCAR season, Rusty Wallace crashed such that his car lifted off the ground and flew through the air—twice. The first incident happened at Daytona and the second at Talladega. Wallace was relatively unharmed after the crashes, thanks in large part to the car’s roll cage, but the events motivated NASCAR to find a solution that would keep cars on the ground.
When a car is traveling around 200 mph and air gets underneath it, the aerodynamic force can give flight to the vehicle. The physics are similar to that of an airplane lifting off. NASCAR sought a solution not only for the drivers’ safety, but also for the safety of fans and pit crews—the severity of Wallace’s airborne flips and tumbles left no doubt that a similar incident could send a car into the spectator area or the pits.
The solution was roof flaps. They sit along the trailing edge of the top of the race car, and they open by aerodynamic force when the car is turned around. When the flaps are open they disrupt airflow across the roof and dissipate the pressure that would lift the car; therefore, the car stays on the ground. Roof flaps were introduced for the 1994 season.
Before and after the implementation of roof flaps, NASCAR has required other revolutionary safety measures, such as the HANS device, which became one option for a mandatory restraining device in 2001 and the only required restraining device in 2005.
Kinetic Energy Recovery System represents a potential new direction for the automotive industry. When a car brakes, KERS recovers the kinetic energy that would otherwise turn to waste heat. The device stores that energy and converts it to power, which the driver can use to boost acceleration. Formula One implemented electronic KERS in 2009, and it didn’t take long for auto enthusiasts to call for manufacturers to offer KERS in factory vehicles. Since then, companies including Volvo and Jaguar have experimented with mechanical KERS, which unlike F1 vehicles, incorporates the flywheel to operate. Both styles have value beyond increased power: the device improves performance, fuel economy, and it releases fewer harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.
Drivers may take this performance feature for granted, but disk brakes revolutionized auto racing when they debuted in 1953 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Disk brakes were fitted to four cars, each from a new competitor: Jaguar. They took first, second, fourth, and ninth places. The result solidified Jaguar as a legitimate brand and planted the seed for a legacy of performance.
Jaguar first entered Le Mans in 1951, and they won—but many doubted the long-term success of the company. The title went to Mercedes in 1952, and the German company was favored again in 1953 before Jaguar subverted the odds—thanks in part to better braking technology. Today NASCAR, Formula One, and nearly every car on the road uses disk brakes as standard equipment.
The 2012 shift in the Sprint Cup Series from carburetors to fuel injection marked one of the most significant technical changes to NASCAR. One of the major advantages of electronic fuel injection is the ability to adapt to a changing race environment.
Tuning an engine with a carburetor took years of experience and a craftsman's touch. The mechanic would make minute adjustments based on his judgement of certain issues, such as the engine starving for fuel at higher RPMs or fuel spilling over when a driver came off a corner. With fuel injection, the mechanic can fine-tune the fuel system to the best throttle response, power, and fuel economy based on data provided by the electronic system.
In addition, fuel injection improves fuel efficiency. Because NASCAR race cars constantly turn left, not all the engine’s cylinders got the same amount of fuel: A carburetor mixes air and fuel on top of the engine and dumps it into the intake manifold. When the car turns left, centrifugal force pulls more fuel to the right-hand cylinders. This process meant crews had to tune the carburetor to add more fuel to ensure the left-hand cylinders received enough. A fuel injection system allows each cylinder to receive the exact amount of fuel it needs.