Blowin In The Wind

I’ll admit that I’ve always been fascinated by wind tunnel testing. After all, if you’ve seen those films where they funnel the smoke along with the wind so that you can see where the air travels around a vehicle, you know how mesmerizing it can be.

The coolest one I ever saw was of a Chevy truck right when the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series was getting started. If you saw how that smoke was blown around, you’d wonder how these racing trucks ever topped 100 mph.

These testing always seem to be at some abandoned military installation and I can’t help it but my mind floods with images of Charles Lindberg, Chuck Yeager, the astronaut heroes of my youth,zero-gravity testing, Area 54, Mr. Spock, Yoda and a host of other remotely-connected visions of speed and aerodynamics.

Despite all this, I’ve always agreed in my mind with third-generation Winston Cup driver Kyle Petty, who’s been exposed to not only old school thinking but also older school thinking as the son of Richard Petty and the grandson of Lee Petty.

The two older Pettys won 10 NASCAR championships and eight Daytona 500s between them. Kyle, alas, might be locked in a time warp in hairstyle and everything. At any rate, Kyle’s won only eight Winston Cup races, a good season’s worth for his father the King or Jeff Gordon -- in his long career. And he’s been one of the worst drivers on the circuit for the past four or five years.

But Kyle’s always been a great quote and I love everything about him. I’d be proud to have Kyle as my father, son, brother or friend. Furthermore, I trust Kyle, which is more than I can say for many better drivers. Even furthermore, I already felt the same way as Kyle about wind tunnels. I just like the “run what you brung” attitude that used to be the backbone of NASCAR.

“Wind tunnel testing is great,” Kyle once told me, “if you are going to go race in a wind tunnel.”

Yet despite my mistrust of wind tunnels, I recently found myself take a tour of one. My fascination now is an insatiable infatuation.

They really are cool. I was blown away.

I went to the Auto Research Center in Mooresville, N.C., a joint project between a couple of big racing names, Reynard and Penske. ARC is not a full-scale wind tunnel, but one that operates with race cars that are roughly 40 to 55 percent the size of the real thing.

An IRL car was testing, and I was sworn to secrecy, bringing my vision of secret government agencies, the space race and technological conspiracies of intrigue. My hosts explained it as client confidentiality.

I’m not sure exactly what was happening, but everybody sitting in front of a computer was looking and acting important. The computer was pulling in data as fast as its little Pentium chips would let it. I was impressed. Every definitely looked expensive.

Soon, I was pulling in data. Among the things I learned:

* Teams testing at wind tunnels will use clay on their carbon fiber or sheet metal models to give it a new shape. Then they will run the car and compare the data. This way, in just a short amount of time and with little effort and expense, they can see how a little bit more spoiler or a more rounded edge would change the aerodynamics.

* NASCAR engineers are fascinated with the undercarriage of their chariots, believing it to the only remaining unchartered territory in the aerodynamics of a stock car. My thoughts went immediately to the deep seas and the recent discovery of a 40-foot species of squid. No telling what monsters NASCAR crew chiefs might be able to break lose when they attack the bottom of their cars.

* There are four such proportional facilities in the United States, including another ARC wind tunnel in Indianapolis, but almost all of the Formula One teams have their own at the team’s shop. There are also three full-scale wind tunnels available for rent in North America.

* ARC rents out for about $1,000 an hour, with a price discount for bulk renting. The North Carolina facilities once had 20 hours of testing in a single day, but normally they operate about 10 hours a day, six days a week. Full-scale facilities cost $1,500 to $2,500 per hour.

* ARC isn’t full scale because it would be too costly, but every team couldn’t have their own 1:64 scale wind tunnel and use die-cast version of their cars because the variance is too great once you get past 3:8 scale. At below this size, you lose the input of nooks and crannies such as the spots on the grill that NASCAR teams love to seal up with duct tape. ARC tech call these areas “slot gaps.”

* The floor rolls in the ARC wind tunnel, making it more expensive. The cars also sit on a big turntable, which can be manipulated so that the test can simulate various tracks (by changing the banking) or the car turning left or right.


Finally, midst the glorious wind tunnel and all its cool little gadgets, I had a revelation. ARC general manager John Moloney was my inspiration. He said, “This will never replace full-scale testing or on-track testing. It is just another tool for engineers. The beauty of our facility for NASCAR is that they can test here [in North Carolina] and then still go home and sleep in their own bed.”

His words, just like Kyle Petty’s, rang true. It made sense. It helped me believe what Kyle said, yet at the same time let me still think that the wind tunnel was pretty cool.

So next time some doubting Mark of a journalist or an aging hipster like Kyle Petty bad mouths the wind tunnel, you’ll know that what they are saying is just a bunch of hot air. You’ll be able to put things in perspective. Wind tunnel testing isn’t exactly like urinating up wind, but it’s also not an all powerful force such as a hurricane or tornado. It is just one of several tools at the disposal of a race team, and a pretty valuable and expensive tool at that.


It’s just another tool, Kyle, just like a vacuum cleaner or a hairdryer.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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