Does racing really improve the breed?

Jan. 1, 2020
Henry Ford is quoted as saying, "Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built." It really is not that hard to imagine this occurring, because the need for speed has been one of America's passions since horsepower was determined by ho

History is filled with carry-overs from the track to the streets.

underhood motorsports racing technology engine technology vehicle technology repair shop training technician training A/C training automotive aftermarket Henry Ford is quoted as saying, "Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built." It really is not that hard to imagine this occurring, because the need for speed has been one of America's passions since horsepower was determined by how many horses you had hitched up to your wagon.

According to an 1895 Chicago Times-Herald account, the first official automobile race in America occurred that year on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. The purpose of the race was to showcase newly developing technology in the yet-to-be-formed automotive industry. The race started with only six vehicles competing — because most were still being developed — and ran 54 miles from Chicago's Jackson Park to Evanston and back. Frank Duryea won it in nine hours at a top speed of 7.5 mph.

Duryea, driving a vehicle built by him and his brother Charles, almost won the race by default, as only one other competitor, who was driving a Benz, finished the race a distant two hours later. With their winnings, the brothers Duryea started the Duryea Motor Wagon Company and became the first American manufacturer of automobiles. The story, however, does not say what happened to the owner of the Benz. But you can imagine that he probably went home to build a faster vehicle.

No matter whether it involves horses or horsepower, the perception that power and durability comes from track-testing and creates superior products for consumers, has driven advertising campaigns like the legendary "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," which have greatly affected consumer spending.

So, as legendary Honda Motor Car founder Soichiro Honda says, does "racing improve the breed?" Lets take a historical look at one advanced technology used throughout the automotive world, fuel systems, to see how the path to technological advancement was forged.

Beyond Carburetors

Any look at advanced technology must first consider the past, and in the case of fuel systems, the past is the lowly carburetor. Invented circa 1885 and patented in 1887 by Gottlieb Daimler, the atomizing carburetor was used to provide fuel to his prototype of the modern gas engine.

As we all learned in tech school, carburetors mix the fuel and air using vacuum created by the downward stroke of the piston with the intake valve open. Compared with more modern forms of fuel delivery, they are cheap, easy to tune and just as reliable. Before computer technology was available to drive more modern forms of fuel delivery, they were the only game in town.

While carbureted engines were used on nearly every gasoline-powered vehicle for decades, their use on production vehicles ended in America around 1990. Many consider the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser/Buick Estate Wagon to have the last carbureted engine.

Leaping to Fuel Injection

Concurrent with the development of the carburetor was the next leap in technology — mechanical fuel injection. Mechanical fuel injection had been used widely in diesel engines since the turn of the century and came into use with gasoline aircraft engines during World War II. The fuel injection units were far less susceptible to the G-forces encountered during air battles, and in high-altitude planes like the B-29 Super Fortress, it clearly gave the allies a power advantage.

After the war ended, Mercedes-Benz was one of the first to use the new mechanical gasoline fuel injection systems on a passenger vehicle. The Mercedes 300SL, which debuted in 1952, won the top two positions at the Le Mans 24 hour race that year, reaching a top speed of 161 mph.

A street version of that race winning car was produced starting in 1953 and also is considered to be the first gasoline fuel injected production vehicle.

A few years later, GM's Rochester division introduced its own mechanical fuel injection called the Ramjet and first used it in the 1957 Chevrolet cars, most notably the Corvette.

Later that year, Chrysler and Bendix teamed up to introduce the first electronic fuel injection system called the Electrojector. It used a complex system of two dual-point distributors, one running the fuel injection and the other the ignition system. Because it used vacuum tubes, the system was recalled shortly after its debut due to reliability problems, and customers' vehicles were retrofitted with two four-barrel carburetors.

In 1968, Bosch developed its famed D-Jetronic fuel injection, an all-electronic version of the same Bendix design, and installed it on Volkswagen Type 3/Type 4 passenger vehicles.

Bosch continued to develop electronic fuel injection for the next two decades, eventually combining the fuel injection and ignition controls into a single integrated system it calls "Motronic." This system paved the way for all other engine management systems to come. It was initially installed on Formula 1 racecars that, from 1983-86, won more races than any other engine management system. On the production end, Motronic was first installed in the BMW 7-Series, before being used on Volvo, Porsche and other European engines. Today, the engine management functions on all vehicles are completely integrated into one system.

What Can We Learn?

While this is by no means a complete motorsports history, we can see that fuel injection technology has been developed simultaneously in passenger vehicles, on the race track and borrowed from other areas to advance automotive development. So where does this leave us?

If racing really does improve the breed, why are some sanctioning bodies such as the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) continuing to embrace carburetors for their most prominent race classes, while organizations like Indy Car, Formula 1 and others are embracing fuel injection?

In reality, the electronics found in most passenger cars today are more numerous and technologically advanced than those found in most racecars. This is partly because of sanctioning body restrictions that provide drivers a greater influence over their cars as well as help keep a level playing field for private teams who lack major funding.

Another reason is that racecars and passenger vehicles are designed for vastly different audiences. While many manufacturers may claim that racing helps them design production vehicles, only a few modern manufacturers like Porsche or Ferrari develop and test their cars on the racetrack and then make the very same car available to the public.

However, while there might be some race technologies used in passenger cars, like modern fuel injection, most only vaguely resemble the racecars' system on which technologies were developed.

Comfort in a racecar means keeping the driver from being fatigued and protecting them from extremes of heat and the dangers of rapid deceleration (accidents).

Reliability on the track means the vehicle has to (just) finish the race without blowing up or otherwise expiring within the prescribed distance. For example in NASCAR, if a race is 500 miles, then whatever happens at 501 miles does not matter, as long as the car crosses the finish line on the last lap.

Maintenance intervals on circuit track racecars are measured in hundreds of miles, not the many thousands as on a street car. In the premier classes of the NHRA, the Nitromethane fueled engines are completely rebuilt after every quarter mile, 4 second, 333 mph run.

Most drivers will sacrifice ultimate performance for comfort, reliability, safety and ease of maintenance. The factory race teams will throw most of these on the shop floor just to shave half a second off a lap.

When speaking of his first win in Formula 1, Soichiro Honda said, "We will not be content with this victory alone. We will study why we won and aggressively apply those winning technologies to new cars."

So it is not so much about where or when the individual technologies are being developed, but more about using them to create a feeling of enthusiasm for designers, engineers and the buying public who see racecars win on Sunday and want the same thrill of victory, but with air conditioning, heated leather seats, cruise control and extended maintenance intervals.

As the old idiom goes, "There is nothing new under the sun," only existing technologies used in new and different ways.

Jim Marotta is a freelance writer with more than 17 years' experience in the automotive industry. He currently works as a technical writer for

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