Motorsports needs to re-bond with auto industry

  • 19-Apr-2013 08:47 EDT
Nissan racecar.jpg

Endurance and durability are fundamental wants for racecars and production vehicles. The number 25 G-Drive Racing by Delta-ADR entry won at Silverstone, U.K., on April 14, 2013, in the opening round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. Nissan-powered cars took the top eight positions in the 6-h season opener.

Hybrid-electric vehicles and alternative-fueled vehicles are getting plenty of attention as production vehicle offerings, yet the majority of racing circuits are still focused on gas-guzzling big-displacement engines.

“There’s no reason why we can’t allow (more variety) because there might be people who get interested (in technologies) if we’re using alternative fuels or racing hybrids,” said Scot Elkins, Chief Operating Officer of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). Elkins’ comment came during the April 17 panel session “Does Motorsports Have Any Relevance To The Auto Industry?” at the SAE 2013 World Congress.

ALMS racing features various classes, including P1 (prototypes that are purpose-built), GT (production-based, moderately modified two-wheel-drive racecars), and P2 (prototypes that are purpose-built, but smaller and less powerful than P1).

Examples of close-ties between racing and production vehicles are scattered throughout motorsports’ various racing circuits around the world.

For instance, “the engine that HPD (Honda Performance Development) provides to the P2 begins its life in a minivan. It’s a good story for them to tell because it covers both marketing and the technical side of their company. HPD takes the Marysville (Ohio-assembled) engine and turns it into a race engine—small-displacement, turbocharged engine,” Elkins said.

Pete Spence, Group Vice President, Technical Director of Toyota Racing Development (TRD), said racing circuit rule changes could influence a greater use of production-based technology.

“Set the rules so that the rules mandate the use of technologies which are further in line with OEM technology. The reality is it’s very difficult to use a production engine in racing because by definition a production engine is optimized based on emissions, cost, (and other parameters). But in racing, we’re optimizing around the rulebook and around performance,” said Spence.

While Audi and Porsche are high-profile examples of motorsports programs with ties to the automaker's R&D department, many automakers tie their motorsports efforts to the company’s marketing department.

Ben Bowlby, the designer of the DeltaWing racecar that debuted at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012, said other automakers might be swayed to put their motorsports program under the R&D budget with the right incentive. “It would be a fantastic return on investment,” Bowlby said, adding that the key would be to match the type of technology that could be developed to the right racing series. “Then you’d work at how you would develop that technology, how you’d integrate it, message it, and so on,” Bowlby said.

John Maddox, Roush Yates Performance Engine Group, said motorsports can gain relevancy by tapping into racing’s biggest appeal. “It’s all about entertainment for the public. Our whole industry is based on entertainment, so how do we turn technology into entertainment?” Maddox asked.

Bowlby said a successful entertainment offering could entice kids as well as adults to watch racing and learn about racecar technology. He suggested a mobile phone app as an interactive informational conduit. “There are many possibilities. You could learn about motorsports at a level that interests you,” said Bowlby.

Bob Larsen, President of Obo Tech Renewable Energy, said today’s media coverage of motorsports typically doesn’t include explanations about racecar technologies.

“We’re missing a really important opportunity to engage people and educate them about the impacts of technology. Even on something as sophisticated as the F1 races, no one really talks very much about the impact on aerodynamics, or has a segment where a race engineer explains what’s going on and how that relates to production vehicles,” said Larsen, adding, “There’s room to help raise the technical engineering literacy of our society.”

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