By on August 28, 2014


Well, clearly racing does make money for someone, at least enough to be a mini-industry. Does it though make sense for the Fords and Hondas of the world? Two students staked out roughly opposite positions on racing’s value as a technology driver; I’ll leave my thoughts to the end.

Clearly there is a marketing angle. A century (or more) ago racing helped publicize this new-fangled thing, before most people had driven one. That was true in Europe, in the US, and in Japan. That need is long past. In the 21st century, how much is a good performing team worth in advertising? – does what wins on Sunday sell on Monday? Does racing disproportionately attract likely car purchasers? Is it attracting as many as in the past? And does the audience for racing in the EU or Brasil (to pick but two countries) resemble the US? Anyway, this post is not about racing as a sport.

Another minor angle that I won’t argue further is that, if you are going to race, then by all means use it to train engineers. Honda is famous for that; top management, at least on the engineering side, must cut their teeth in racing at Honda R&D. Similarly, Ford just opened a technical center in North Carolina devoted to motorsports, and talks of the value of racing to attract good engineers and give them program responsibility at a young age. Well and good, but that’s certainly not the only way to train future leaders, and it’s very expensive. (See more here.)

Our topic – two students and myself – is racing as a proving ground for new technologies? I’m not a racing historian to vouch for details, and I’m sure TTAC’s readers with an eye for detail will pick on us. We can learn from that. But at the same time step back, or rather pitch in: which side of the debate has the stronger case?

First, Joseph 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 generations, as is clear below.

“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, teams would debut new technology to help gain an advantage. Today the cars are much more standardized, and advancements happen on a series-wide basis rather than team by team. The early teams, however, had much more leeway and took full advantage. Such technologies ranged from the simple to the sophisticated, but all made a contribution. 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.

Later IndyCars were the first automobiles to use turbochargers, when Freddie Agabashian’s Cummins Diesel Special debuted them in 1952. They are now standard in diesel vehicles and commonplace in gasoline engines. At the time, the turbocharger was designed exclusively to increase speed, but today they are used to get the most out of small displacement engines, enabling down-sizing for fuel efficiency. Ford’s “EcoBoost” engines, for instance, get an incredible amount of horsepower out of a two liter engine. Similarly, Audi’s turbo diesel in the 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 consumer car technology.

Other innovations include seat belts, crash data recorders, ethanol fuel, front-wheel drive [ca. 1925, albeit with many precedents] and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. All of these are today standard on passenger vehicles. 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.

In contrast, Tyler Kaelin argued that technologies now are more likely to move from road to race. He too loves racing, but prefers Formula 1 to Indy and Nascar.

Since the beginning of the automobile industry in the late 1800s, auto racing has been pivotal in the technological progression and proliferation of the modern motor vehicle. Developments often taken for granted in modern cars are attributable to innovations originally intended to shave seconds from a lap time. Advances in transmissions, engine efficiency and power, aerodynamics, suspensions, and safety technology are examples.

But has auto racing seen the end of its useful life? Has technology reached such a point that advances in racing technology are no longer likely to trickle down to our mundane road cars? Have racing cars distanced themselves so greatly (for safety, speed, and regulatory reasons) that they no longer contribute to a culture of people buying cars because they perceive their brand as a winner?

Take Formula One, the pinnacle of automotive performance. Formula One race teams spend enormous sums to develop their cars; Red Bull Racing has an annual budget somewhere north of US$296 million. Its cars are capable of speeds over 225 mph and 5 g’s of sustained cornering force (about 5 times what your road car can hope to achieve). One has to wonder if the cars have diverged so far from their road-going counterparts that their innovation and sales boosting potential have been diminished.

Some of this is in the name of sport. Pirelli, the official supplier of all Formula One tires, intentionally engineers its tires to fail rapidly and unpredictably to generate pit stops (which break the routine) and not coincidentally to highlight “tire strategy.” Such innovation does not benefit road cars.

NASCAR is another example of racing’s departure from pedestrian vehicles [pardon the image!]. Up until the mid- to late-1960’s NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) involved stock cars, upgraded slightly for power and safety reasons. A Ford Mustang that you could buy off of the showroom floor was not all that different from what you saw the superstars of circuit race on the weekend. Today the cars employ non-stock chassis, engines, and bodies. Indeed, all NASCAR vehicles share a common body template so that a “Toyota Camry” has the exact dimensions as a “Ford Fusion”. The car in a dealership now nothing common with its NASCAR brethren. (As a result, does a “Fusion” sticker on the front of a NASCAR vehicle really lead to increased Fusion sales?) The key point though is the disconnect between road and race.

As an auto enthusiast and an avid racing fan (of the Lotus F1!) I want racing to continue as a source of innovation and inspiration. However, I fear racing has run its course. Shaving even one second from a lap time is becoming exponentially more expensive as more exotic and expensive materials and technologies are required.

ThatOne possible connection remains: weight reduction. Materials like carbon fiber and advanced aluminum alloys make cars both faster and more fuel efficient. Until recently such materials were too difficult to work with and too expensive to use. Economies of scale and technological developments today mean we do find aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber in regular cars. However, that doesn’t mean that racing was key.

With the cost of fuel, consumers no longer need (need? does anyone “need”?) the 400+ horsepower gas-guzzling “muscle cars” of the 60’s and early 70’s. Maybe racing does still serve a role, but that role has changed.

Road cars have been a reflection of racing. No longer!

Now it’s the Prof’s turn.

As a judge for the Automotive News PACE supplier competition, which recognizes innovation, we used to see things coming out of racing into high end vehicles and then migrating towards mass market cars. Now PACE sees examples of the opposite. A caution: such examples are not data, and do not a trend prove.

There’s one more possibility: racing is adapting. They need the car companies, and have a strong incentive to lessen the technological disconnect. My claim: If you can’t bring the car companies to the race, you can bring the race to the car companies.

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22 Comments on “Does Racing Make Cents?...”

  • avatar

    My two cents…

    Racing is only interesting for me if it is a 100% factory team in a showroom stock, road course, endurance setting, or a Pro-Rally. It displays the company’s competence and skill in accomplishing a task under duress, in competition, now, without the production constraints. For me, that is more of the competition aspect than a 0.01 second margin of victory.

    Second to that is the individual racer team, who with less means, may beat the factory teams.

    And then there’s all the rest of the racing scenarios. If TV has a circle track race (and if the pansies park when it rains), or if it’s an infomertial for curing baldness, I’ll go mow the lawn.

    As a technology driver for production cars, the racing environment is not the same as the customer environment. There is some overlap, there is an occasional sliver of value, but the bulk of this notion is a lot of marketing nonsense. The technology driver of racing was more important decades ago than now; CAFE and cost-cutting drives everything today, it seems. Oh, and lawsuits. Oh, and the promise of scary blonde-headed freaks in commercials and Volt dances.

    On training engineers, all experience helps. But if said company is a top-down, ‘do it and shut up culture,’ you are just training them to see future mistakes unfold, not prevent them.

  • avatar

    I for one am excited about Formula E as a race series relevant to real-world innovation.

    I’m also enjoying the fact that F1 has ticked off so many traditionalists in its quest to remain relevant to road vehicles (by introducing V6/hybrids/fuel flow maximums etc). To me F1 is better this year than prior.

    • 0 avatar

      Has Formula 1 ever been relevant to road vehicles? Save perhaps uber-lux hyper-exclusive products?

      I’m not much of a Formula 1 fan, but my impression has always been that Formula 1 was supposed to be this ‘Nee-Plus-Ultra’ of motorsport, bleeding edge of Everything performance-related. A ‘Green’ F1 race to me makes about as much sense as a Vegan Steakhouse.

      And really, once the novelty wears off how many fans will Formula 1 have after this move? Is there much crossover between people who consider the Prius-C to be the epitome of what an ideal car should be and people who enjoy watching crazy people drive in a squiggly circle in screaming cars at 100-200mph?

  • avatar

    For me, the best recent (last 20 years) technology improvement in cars is the magnetic ride control pioneered by GM. Was that racing or retail derived?

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Smitka

      The initial application was a PACE Award winner in 2003 as “MagneRide variable suspension damping.” It was developed by Delphi (then independent from GM) with a magnetic fluid from the Lord Corporation. It did though first appear on GM products, on 2002 & 2003 Cadillacs, and not on race cars.

      I think that’s true as well for the progression from antilock brake systems (ABS) to traction control to full stability control (ESC). I’m sure one or another racing enthusiast would know that, as well as in which corners of the racing world such technologies are permitted.

  • avatar

    Racing innovations still trickle down to the production market, but the technology is no longer applicable to the vehicle components. In the current era, simulating, stress testing, real-time onboard telemetry, and precision manufacturing are what consumers ultimately inherit from the race track.

    Racing could be more relevant to the vehicle component designs, if the series stopped traveling down the road to perdition and reversed their course. Once upon a time, prototypes were nothing more than a next-generation production engine and chassis. Today, racing prototypes are closer to aerospace-grade technology than to production vehicle technology. Furthermore, engineers realize that drivers are a limiting factor in the speed of the vehicle so engineers use driver aids to usurp control from the drivers.

    F1 has gone too far down the road to perdition to change course and the fans see technological/financial debauchery as an integral part of the sport. However, the industry cannot sustain prototyping in a dozen different series around the globe so other racing series should return to their roots by using production equipment or near-production equipment, particularly engines.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s an idea I just had for a new racing-series. A racing series with both distance and special rallyig races and LeMons-style endurance races, to win the championship though you have to participate in all or most of the races in the calander, and you must participate using the same car with minimal modification between.

      Now here’s the kicker.. the cars must be certified road-legal in the location where they are being raced, even when the races happen on closed-course tracks.

      Maybe divide it up into classes based on type. (Manufacturer, ‘kit’-cars etc..)

  • avatar

    While not in passenger cars, the turbocharger was used in automotive applications in the 1930s and in marine applications before that so they were bound to come to production cars regardless of their use in Indy Cars. Even so, gasoline powered turbocharged engines were in production in passenger cars before they were used at Indy. (1962 v 1966)

    Turbo diesel production cars weren’t sold until the 1970s. Late 1970s? Mercedes I think.

    That isn’t to say the Indy 500 didn’t have some influence on those technologies, but they were already in development before the races in some cases and not used in production cars for many years afterwards.

  • avatar

    Great topic, finally a thoughtful motorsport article on TTAC! LeMons reports are great, but 30 year old beaters aren’t going to make motorsport relevant again.

    So, “Does Racing Make Cents”? Well… make “cents” for whom?

    It makes “cents” for team principals that rake in money from sponsorship and purses. It makes “cents” for automakers who sell ready-to-run race versions of their cars, and offer a la carte trackside servicing (Porsche, Audi… looking at you).

    On the “Sense” side, automakers only benefit from motorsport derived technology if the series allows for innovation. New technology will never be discovered racing a 20 year old car in amateur racing, obviously. It has to come from the top levels of the industry (F1, WEC, WRC). Advances in tire compounds, braking systems, on board diagnostics, lightweight materials, transmissions, etc HAVE come from motorsport and continue to do so. Motorsport (in an unlimited sense) allows cars like the R18 Etron to exist and learn from under grueling conditions. Likewise for the flywheel-powered electrical KERS 911 RSR Hybrid. Not to mention carbon fiber (chassis, brakes, et al), dual clutch trans, twin sroll turbos, improved aerodynamics, and thousands of other lightened/strengthened/improved parts or processes derived from track testing and competition.

    BUT technology advances are only as good as the rules in the series. FIA’s World Endurance Championship encourages true forward thinking (although within more limits than ever before). On the other hand, I can’t think of one new innovation that NASCAR has provided in the last 20 years. Production based series are too often spec series, with no room for improvement. Spec series like Ferrari Challenge are not innovative series, they are advertising opportunities and cash cows the way their business model is structured.

    The goal of being fastest in a race is age old, motorsport or otherwise. Allow that goal to be pursued openly and with minimal restrictions, and we will see the real brilliance of engineers and designers and they will, inevitably invent ways to apply that technology to the street. A part designed to be fastest in F1 may also be the most efficient part to adapt to a street car.

    Yet many of the series’ rules are like asking an architect to build the tallest skyscraper in the world out of wood. Maybe it can be done, but what’s the point?

    • 0 avatar

      WEC is just another way for the manufacturers to waste money on powertrain prototyping.

      The fundamental problem is that racing is still trying to ally itself to the entire automotive industry. Perhaps this strategy was worthwhile in previous eras, but it is an immense waste of time today. The production market is moving towards small-displacement Atkinson-cycle engines, CVT’s, start-stop ignition systems, CFRP (not hand-laid carbon fiber), low-rolling-resistance tires, and low-output hybrid systems, including mild-hybrid that share virtually nothing with race cars.

      There is little crossover between serial production vehicles sold to the common motorist, and the sophisticated small-displacement hybrid prototypes in motorsport. Consequently, motorsport should align their activities to reflect production sports cars, particularly exotic sports cars.

      IndyCars, LMPs, etc should be powered by stock or lightly modified production engines. What incentive to Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi, and Bugatti have to participate in a series with prototype engines? Virtually none. Now imagine they must get their respective V-12, quad-turbo W-16, twin-turbo flat-6, turbo W8, and V10 up to snuff with other sports/luxury marques who compete.

      • 0 avatar

        Oooh, I am liking this idea.

      • 0 avatar

        The street car/race car gap is widening, totally agree. The article was about widespread industry innovation… not necessarily about improving a specific series production car. Some series aren’t designed to be production based, they are designed to push the limits.

        But on the production based side of motorsport we have Pirelli World Challenge and Continental Tire Challenge and the GTD cars in IMSA. Those are all production based chassis and motors, including the Bentley you mentioned. They are great series, particularly World Challenge which has figured out how to keep excitement levels high by doing 55 minute Sprint races instead of 2.5 hour mini-enduros.

        As other comments suggest, bringing back more homologation rules would be so unfathomably awesome I can’t even wrap my head around it. Race-based cars for the street will always be a favorite. It just never seems to make much business sense for the mfr’s to do it.

  • avatar

    If manufuactures actually participate in the racing program than sure it has value. If they just call someone up, “hey make us a racecar” and then use it for schmoozing, then I don’t know.

    ps this article just showed up in my feed

    Personally I have a lot more respect for a performance car if I see it on the track, especially if it’s in a stock class.

  • avatar

    If I recall, most automotive innovation comes from third party companies, not from the OEMs. It seems to be driven more by expectations of consumer demand (and more recently, the need to comply with regulations) than by racing.

    On the other hand, racing is a good way to test cars at the limits, which should deliver incremental improvements that filter down to regular cars. It probably also helps in cultivating a better pool of engineers, as it gives them something to be excited about. It may not be cheap, but I would bet that racing ends up providing a net benefit, albeit one that isn’t easy to quantify

  • avatar

    Modern racing is mainly a marketing tool for OEMs and not really a technology driver. The narrow aims of racing simply don’t have much in common with the broad design goals of consumer vehicles. This is why race cars are custom creations that share nothing with road going vehicles except their name.

    Add to this that racing industries such as NASCAR and even F1, spend considerable effort on restricting technological innovation to keep the results closer and it becomes clear that racing is just for the entertainment of the viewers and the advertising revenue it generates.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree with this. In the good old days, racing was actually advancing automotive technology. Us old guys remember the 494 ci Can Ams and the mega turbo boost big wing Indy cars. Now technology allows so much speed that in the interests of safety, we have to throttle technology significantly.

      It’s still good stuff, but far more restricted on the innovation side.

  • avatar

    I doubt it actually does any good for the majority of the car buying pulbic. The car on the track has absolutely nothing to do with the car I can buy. Different engines and transmission, and the cars don’t even look similar to the ones on the showroom.

    That said, if next week dodge goes out and puts the hellcat on the track and it blows everyone else out of the water, I’ll be a the dealership monday to get one becasue I saw it happen, and seeing is beleiving.

  • avatar

    I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. In some cases, there are obvious connections between racing and road cars- I’m certain we will see e-turbos like they have in F1 within the next decade, for example. But then you look at a sport like MotoGP or even NASCAR, and you can find vehicles on the street that are more technologically advanced (in some ways). Some racing orgs restrict technology to the point that it doesn’t make sense- take MotoGP’s ban on dual clutch transmissions, and the eye wateringly expensive workarounds the factories have come up with to gain their technical advantage while staying within the “rules”.

    I do really like F1’s incorporation of energy conservation as part of the sport. I don’t watch F1- too complicated and the action just doesn’t grab me like MotoGP- but I do like the direction they’ve gone in froma technical standpoint. Very shrewd. Other racing orgs could do a lot to make themselves more relevant by using the sport to help solve important problems.

  • avatar

    I think it depends on your perspective; for a manufacturer like McLaren or Ferrari, their F1 development (supposedly) carries over to their road car models, whether it’s gearbox, software, aero, etc. For Ford, Honda, and other major manufacturers, I think it’s hard to argue that it makes any business sense.

    We have to keep in mind that safety was not as heavily regulated in the past; like the article says, NASCAR used to be essentially road-going models used for racing. We used to have a period of time where homologation models were released by manufacturers to be eligible for racing series. We no longer have those, and most racing cars these days are standard frames with silhouettes on top (like the current NASCAR).

    I like the idea proposed by TW5 earlier where production engines are used in racing classes; for safety reasons, it’s hard to get rid of the standard tube-frame/silhouette cars, but imagine driving a road car where you know that the engine is competing in a top-tier racing series.

    Taking that idea further, series like WTCC should be nothing more than road-going models which are roll-caged and sent to the track. I’d love to see a racing series where the cars are essentially what we drive on the street (obviously with the necessary safety equipment installed). A return of some sort of homologation series would be awesome, too (not to mention it would likely result in some awesome enthusiast cars).

  • avatar

    “The EU and Brasil (to pick but two countries)”

    Right, the EU is a country. 27 countries in fact. Good lord.

    Whether racing is applicable to street cars has been debated for decades, since the 1960s. You get the hopeless writers who should be writing advertorials repeating the trickle down theories. However, single- seat racing with mid engines isn’t mainstream, although recent F1 turbo engines and hybrid systems seem more likely to have relevance than anything in years. And at least Keith Duckworth invented the four-valve narrow valve angle combustion chamber that any reasonably modern engine features back in the 1966 DFV.

    I rely on LJK Setright, the only thinking automotive writer besides Kevin Cameron (but he does bikes), who wrote on this years ago. The answer is no – racing does not improve the breed. It’s too specialized to apply any knowledge gained to the street car. The McLaren 650 street car has a sort of modern version of active suspension from ’90s F1, and is extremely clever. That could eventually become mainstream, but no race car is so fitted. It’s banned. So much for inventiveness in racing.

    As someone mentioned above, suppliers seem to be on the leading edge of new ideas for road vehicles. Racing seems essentially irrelevant in that regard. Let’s put it this way – did Citroen use racing experience to design the 1955 DS, still more advanced than what even Mercedes calls ABC body control? No.

  • avatar

    It would be a balance with the production offering.
    Ferrari is always fine. Audi’s Le Man program seems to be working good, Subaru’s dominance in WRC went well for WRX to be legend.
    On other side BMW and Jaguar in F1 was disappointment when production offering was so nice.
    Honda during the Mclarren era had nothing sportier than prelude, and situation similar to today’s Renault, losing many potential buyers.
    IMO lancia’s success in muddy rally spoiled it’s luxury image, and alfa 155 DTM was too cool compare to it’s production sedan.

    But one thing sure is that without racing heritage, it would be hard to obtain any true respect to the marque. Talking about Hyundai.

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