Although it may not be obvious to the untrained eye, a number of technical innovations developed for aerospace and defense applications have found their way into the sport of auto racing. Take thermal barriers and driver “cool suits,” for example. Heat coming from the engine, transmission, exhaust system, oil coolers, etc., can cause temperatures inside the fully-enclosed cockpit of a modern stock car to reach 140- 160°F. Because of its close proximity to the exhaust headers, the metal floorboards beneath the gas pedal can heat up to 330°F or more — hot enough to fry an egg...or a driver’s foot.
Burned feet were once a common malady among NASCAR drivers, leading to a variety of novel improvised solutions from plywood and stainless steel insulators to special heat-reflecting boots worn over a driver’s fireproof shoes. Some ideas worked better than others, but nothing came close to solving the problem until 1996 when a chance meeting between former NASCAR champion Bobby Allison and then Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Jay Honeycutt sparked an idea. While touring KSC, Honeycutt showed Allison some of the Thermal Protection System (TPS) materials used to protect the space shuttle. Developed by Rockwell Space Systems (now Boeing North America), TPS materials shield the space shuttle from the extremely high temperatures — as much as 3,000°F — experienced when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. That same material, Honeycutt suggested, might work just as well in stock cars.
Allison contacted an old friend, racing legend Roger Penske, who promptly shipped one of his Ford Thunderbird stock cars to KSC where Rockwell, NASA, and Penske personnel worked together to fit the car with TPS insulation. The material added less than four pounds to the car and lowered cockpit temperatures by 50°. The success of that experiment led to a number of companies introducing commercial products to insulate racecars.
Keeping drivers safe and comfortable for the duration of a 2- to 4 -hour race also has a lot to do with what they’re wearing. In the old days, drivers thought nothing of climbing into a car wearing nothing more than a tee-shirt and a pair of jeans. That might’ve kept them cool, but it provided no protection in the event of a fire. In the 1960s DuPont developed a fireresistant meta-aramid fabric called Nomex® that was originally used for parachutes in the space program. It eventually found a number of other applications, including the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) worn by space shuttle crews. Because of its fire-retardant qualities, it didn’t take long for the racing industry to discover it and before long most of the sport’s sanctioning bodies created rules requiring Nomex driving suits.
As often happens, solving one problem sometimes creates another. A full Nomex multi-layer driving suit, underwear, socks, and gloves may provide maximum fire protection, but they don’t keep a driver cool. Enter “cool suit” technology, developed in the 1960s to help regulate astronauts’ body temperatures in space. Although the designs used in racing have varied over the years, the basic concept involves some combination of vest, pants, and helmet liner all equipped with small tubes through which chilled water is circulated. According to published data, cool suits can eliminate as much as 40 to 60 percent of the heat affecting a driver.
Heat isn’t the only problem that affects stock car drivers. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas produced by internal combustion engines, can build up in the cockpit, sickening drivers. This problem gained widespread attention in 2003 when veteran NASCAR driver Rick Mast was forced to retire from the sport due to a medical condition known as chronic carbon monoxide poisoning. It took doctors months and countless medical tests to figure out that the dizziness, severe headaches, nausea, and disorientation he was experiencing were all caused by the air he was breathing every weekend, which was saturated with carbon monoxide.
Although not the first time a stock car driver had suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, Mast’s case was, by far, the most serious, ending his career and forcing NASCAR to find a solution. Around that time scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center were working with engineers at STC Catalysts (Hampton, VA) to develop a catalyst capable of converting the carbon monoxide generated by highly power-pulsed carbon dioxide lasers back into carbon dioxide. The catalyst was supposed to be part of a Laser Atmospheric Wind Sounder (LAWS) satellite that never got off the ground, but it proved to be just what NASCAR needed and once again, it was Roger Penske who made it happen. Working with STC Catalysts, Penske’s engineers designed a catalytic air filter that forced incoming air through an activated carbon filter and into a scrubbing catalyst, which consisted of a unique blend of platinum and tin oxide housed in a honeycomb structure. The reformulated air was then passed through a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter capable of removing 99.97 percent of all airborne particles as small as 0.3 micrometers in diameter before being cooled and pumped into the driver’s helmet.
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.
A subset of carbon fiber technology, known as carbon-carbon, was originally developed for use in the nosecones of intercontinental ballistic missiles and is now used in the nosecone and along the leading edges of the space shuttle. For the last 30 years it has also been the material of choice for F1 disc brake systems. A typical F1 car can decelerate from 200 mph to 50 mph in about 3 seconds. That much friction generates tremendous heat, which can rapidly degrade the performance of conventional steel or cast iron discs. Carboncarbon brakes, on the other hand, can withstand temperatures as high as 3000°F with no degradation in performance. They are also considerably lighter than steel or cast iron brakes and possess superior frictional and anti-warping characteristics.
Another potential application for carbon- carbon technology might be engine components such as high-performance pistons and connecting rods. Scientists at Langley Research Center successfully developed and patented a number of concepts related to carbon-carbon pistons that NASA has licensed to a company familiar with the technology for potential commercialization.
It’s hard to predict what other spaceage technology might one day find its way into auto racing, but you can be sure of one thing — if it improves vehicle performance or driver safety, it will be adopted with speed.
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