Roger Penske and his engineers have a long history of adapting NASA technology to their racecars. The seats in his ultrasleek Indy cars, which have won an unprecedented 14 Indy 500s, are custom fitted to each driver using technology borrowed from NASA. The process begins by filling a large bag with Styrofoam pellets about 1⁄8" in diameter, placing it in the car’s narrow cockpit, and having the driver sit in it and squirm around until he’s comfortable. Once the basic shape of the seat is established, resin is pumped into the bag, the driver resumes his position, a vacuum is used to suck all of the air from the bag, and the driver sits there for about 30 minutes until the resin sets. After the mold fully hardens, a process that takes about eight hours, it is finish-trimmed and covered with a thin layer of Nomex.
Aside from driver safety and comfort, space-age technology has also been used to significantly improve vehicle performance. Take carbon-based composites, for example. Carbon fiber composites have been commercially available for 40 to 50 years and found their earliest applications in the aerospace and military markets.
Carbon fiber technology involves using sheets of woven carbon filaments impregnated with resin to mold structural components such as wings, fuselages, missile nosecones and, since 1981, racecar chassis. The first to do so was British Formula 1 (F1) designer, John Barnard, whose revolutionary McLaren MP4 featured a monocoque chassis made completely of carbon fiber composites. Until that time, state-of-the-art F1 chassis were all made with conventional aluminum honeycomb panels. The car generated a lot of controversy because critics believed that carbon fiber, like fiberglass, would tend to shatter on impact — not a good thing in a racecar. But a series of high-speed crashes throughout the year, including one at 170 mph from which driver John Watson walked away unscathed, soon convinced them otherwise. Since then, most single-seater monocoque chassis in all but racing’s entry-level classes have been made with carbon fiber composites.