Published on Friday, 01 July 2011
One of Canada's premier auto races is the Honda Indy Toronto, which takes place on the streets around Exhibition Stadium next weekend. As that event draws near, I'd like to reflect on the relationship between auto racing and passenger vehicles over the past century.
The first recorded auto race in North America occurred in 1895, a 54-mile course that started and finished in Chicago. The race attracted six vehicles, and the winning car achieved an average speed of 7.4 mph.
The winner of that race, J. Frank Duryea, earned $2,000 for his efforts. He invested his winnings – and the reputation that his car earned for speed and endurance – to start manufacturing his own cars, based on his original design. Thus, the American automobile industry was born.
Since that first race, automobile manufacturers and suppliers have realized the importance of auto racing. One of the benefits in aligning themselves with this sport, aside from the obvious marketing and branding opportunities, is the pursuit of research and development.
Since the early 20th century, countless automobile design and engineering innovations that proved successful on race cars have been adopted for passenger vehicles.
ABS brakes, fuel injection, keyless ignition, seat belts, semi-automatic transmission, and high-performance tires are some of the well-known innovations inherited from race cars.
The first documented use of race car innovation adopted for passenger cars is the rearview mirror. In the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, a driver saw an advantage in riding solo, instead of with a partner. He devised a makeshift mirror onto his car so that he could see cars coming up behind him.
That simple innovation provided an immediate speed advantage on the race track, and soon passenger vehicles around the world had adopted rear view and side view mirrors.
Most of today's race cars have black boxes (data loggers) to either store information, which is then downloaded when the driver stops in the pits. Data loggers (either real time or burst system) allow engineers to see exactly what both car and driver are doing on the track.
Many black boxes in vehicles today now have the storage capability to allow the dealer to check in on the drivers' habits, top speed, average speed – and driver errors (so keep your eyes on the road!).
The passion for speed and winning on race tracks has directly influenced automobile sales as well. There's a popular slogan in automotive circles, "If you win on Sunday, you sell on Monday."
The belief here is that whichever vehicles roared to victory on Sunday would receive widespread media attention the following day. This, in turn, would influence car buyers to favour the winning manufacturer's models.
A 2009 Foresight Research study concluded that 25 per cent of all car buyers had watched at least one auto racing event on TV during the year before their purchase, and 10 per cent had actually attended an auto race.
Checkered flags and auto sales aside, however, the sport has allowed auto manufacturers and suppliers to test new materials and technologies. The intense strain of automobiles during a race is useful in understanding engine design, braking, ignition and tire construction.
Today, research and development of the body construction and experimentation with composite materials are two areas of research that have produced groundbreaking results.
The next time you view an auto racing event, pay close attention to the designs and technologies of the vehicles on the track. The cars will reach incredible speeds using the most advanced body materials, the most efficient fuel and braking systems and the most fine-tuned engine components.
It's likely that some of the groundbreaking new technologies of today's race cars will wind up in tomorrow's passenger vehicles.