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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Time to Pay the Piper

There are many that think that the reason the Hendricks cars are at the top of the pyramid week in and week out is because 'they cheat'. Frankly I don't believe that, not even close. But one thing I do see at HMS is their commitment to keeping up with technology and trying to use that at an advantage. Enter the 'Seven Post Rig'.
A NASCAR chasis being tested on the seven-post rig at Auto Research Center, Mooresville, N.C. in 2004

While this multi-million dollar technology has been around for almost a decade, it is just now making it's impact in Nascar, and more specifically, the financial impact to the teams. But if this technology has been available for years, why have the teams ignored it? The answer is pretty simple. What seemed to originally be a good idea to 'limit testing' by Nascar in order to help the teams save money, has turned into a 'keeping up with the Jones' dilemma for race teams. Since testing limits have been imposed, the teams that have ponied up their 'artificial testing' program are the teams that have gained a weekly advantage.

Ray Evernham said last week that he 'just spent more money on one piece of equipment recently than he spent for the entire 1998 championship season'. Now I don't know if this megabucks piece of equipment actually is a seven-post rig, but I think it is a pretty safe bet that it is. Robert Yates also announced this week, that he too is now a proud owner of one of these machines. Ginn Racing also has made a recent purchase as well. The list will surely continue to grow.

So just what does the 'magic machine' really do? Seven-post rigs at once test setup of an entire car including all four shocks. They incorporate seven hydraulic actuators, one under each wheel, one or two beneath the rear bumper area, and the rest under the front of the car. The actuators apply dynamic loads to the suspension and chassis to simulate the bumps, turns, banks, braking, and aerodynamic forces that a car would experience on a racetrack and they can do all of this in the cozy confines of the race shop. Pretty neat huh?

But here is a catch. While Seven-post rigs do simulate close to 90% of the cars reaction to a physical on track test session, there is one element missing. That element might be the most important too, the driver still has to understand, classify, and prioritize the reactions of chassis changed and the preferred 'feel' of the car. Or on the other hand, the absence of a driver in these 'tests', only show that the engineers are findings more ways to make a car go faster, and it is up to the driver that can adjust to that. I'm thinking the drivers that can do that in the near future are the ones that we will see as 'front runners'.

So what were good intentions by Nascar to save money for the teams may have not turned out the way they expected. This problem may only get worse, as when this very expensive technology surge becomes balanced among the full time teams, it will be only a matter of time before teams will be force to purchase even more expensive technology that is already being used in Formula One. Currently in F-1, 11 post rigs are being used. This even more expensive technology applies vertical forces to the wheels and chassis like the 7 post rig, however also apply side loads to wheel posts for simulating cornering, lateral, and g-force. Some rigs spin-up wheels to quantify changes in tire spring rate with rotational speed, while others allow steering input. We are talking big bucks here and it is just a matter of time before some owner feels the need to buy one. Then the cycle starts all over again.

So it looks like Nascar owners will have to pay the piper because of the rules in an attempt to maintain some competitive edge. But I can't help to think that this reality has been going on since the days of the 'Beach Course'. Nobody said that going fast and turning left would be cheap did they? Of course some 'knee-jerk' reaction fans might think that just because their favorite driver's owner has now purchased one of these 'maricle' machines, they should see some sort of improvement next race. But it most likely will not return immediate results, after all, just as the wind tunnel technology took time to perfect, this will as well.

1 comment:

4ever3 said...

I heard about this too. If you take this and combine it with the new wind tunnel that Haas is developing you may never need to actually test again. OK, I might be a little over the top, but it would simply make testing and racing a whole lot easier.