Remember when the space program brought us Velcro and Tang? For more than a century, the same kind of spin-off inventiveness has been going on in the world of auto racing. Drivers, manufacturers, and teams do whatever they can to win, and quite often those efforts yield breakthroughs in the consumer car world. It is why land-speed record-holder and car-builder Louis Coatalen famously remarked “racing improves the breed.”
Consider something as simple yet essential as your rearview mirror. The first known use of a fixed rearview mirror was at the 1911 Indianapolis 500. At the time, mechanics rode along to tend to the vehicles and act as a spotter for the driver. Driver Ray Harroun decided to place a mirror on struts above the dash, drove sans-mechanic, and went on to win the first ever Indy 500. Mirrors showed up on road cars in 1914.
Like the mirror, early developments from racing came in the form of rather basic elements, such as suspension systems, more effective brakes, and more advanced tires. Many of these technologies continue to evolve, and auto racing is pushing that evolution.
The best relationship between the road and the track is found in sports car racing. The Tudor United Sports Car Championship features Porsches, BMWs, Corvettes, and Vipers modified for racing. In some cases, these cars come right from the dealership and are prepped for a season of endurance races.
To learn more, we ventured to the 62nd running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. Deep in the heart of Florida, team owners shared their perspective on the race car–road car relationship among teams preparing for the grueling 12-hour endurance race.
Turner Motorsports is based out of Amesbury, Mass. The company was formed by Will Turner in 1993 as a BMW parts supplier—and a means to support Will’s passion for racing. In 1998, Turner began racing professionally; today, his team fields two BMW M3s and a BMW Z4 GT, shod in an eye-catching blue and yellow paint scheme.
“We take that car out of the showroom,” explains Turner, “and put safety modifications on it, a revised suspension, some bigger brakes, and put new tires on—that’s our race car.”
According to Turner, his team’s racing efforts can replicate hours and days of development for a manufacturer: “The whole race weekend is the equivalent of a couple thousand miles on a regular road car,” Turner says. “So if your left rear wheel bearing goes out here on the track, chances are the street car may encounter the same problem.”
Jens Walther is president and CEO of Porsche Motorsport North America. It is hard to find a brand that has more of a connection with its racing side than Porsche, and Walther was able to provide more examples of how racing is continuing to improve road cars.
“The PDK transmission was developed for the Porsche 956 in the 1980s,” says Walther. “It took a while, but it eventually made its way into road cars.” The PDK is a dual-clutch gearbox that is now available nearly across the Porsche lineup.
“More recently, we took the 911 GT3 R Hybrid racing,” continues Walther. “That hybrid technology is now available on the Porsche 918 Hybrid road car.” The GT3 R Hybrid raced in 2010 and used a flywheel, rather than batteries, to capture energy from braking. The 918 Hybrid road car debuted in 2013, showing just how quickly the technology can turn around.
Hybrids are no longer the understated fuel-miser. Now engineers can use the dual powertrains to wring even more performance out of a road car—without added fuel consumption. Buyers will still be able to get a Prius, but many more new hybrids will have some element of performance in them—lessons learned in sports car and Formula 1 racing.
The ultimate goal for any sports car driver is to make it to
“Many rules at LeMans govern fuel consumption,” explains Walther. “That forces everyone to think about lightweight designs, new drivelines, and sustainability methods. In some areas, we’re using glue instead of welding. That’s better for the environment, but it is also lighter.” Walther says this glue method, once perfected in racing, will make its way to road car production.
From developing new technologies, to proving durability of parts, the stresses put on cars in racing tell automakers a lot. Walther’s Porsche team, which won the GTLM class at Sebring, is in constant communication with the home office. Turner also sends reports back to BMW following the race. It is an unsexy bit of bureaucracy, but a necessary one. “Ultimately, manufacturers want to sell cars,” says Turner. “They want to show that their cars are winning on the track.”
For BMW, Porsche, and the rest of the pack, however, winning isn’t everything. Their presence on the track builds a heap of brand loyalty, even as it makes their road cars better in so many helpful ways.