Auto Clip # 2

Symposium gets engines revving
Some of racing's best in town to discuss future, economics of running cars.

Ann Arbor News
April 11, 2002

    Anyone who wandered into the University of Michigan lecture hall Wednesday afternoon might not have been surprised by the themes being discussed.
    The tension between commercialism and independence. The inherent conflict between technological progress and the status quo. The constant give-and-take between creativity and pragmatism.
    The surprise stemmed from two of the unlikely speakers expounding on those academic standbys: Former Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal and NASCAR team owner Jack Roush.
    Sharing the podium with former Jaguar Racing CEO Neil Ressler and executive director of GM Racing Herb Fishel, the two figures from the dust-and-pavement world of automobile racing spoke about "The Role of Science and Technology in Motorsports." The talk was part of a day-long symposium on the topic sponsored by U-M's Physics department, an event that concluded with a speech by racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart.
    The speakers said today's racing world has three overriding themes: The car companies desire to design faster and better cars, the sponsors' need to make money and the fans' craving to be entertained by races that are faster and more competitive.
    "Those three things have very little to do with one another," said Rahal, who won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and now co-owns Team Rahal with "Late Show" host David Letterman, a team that sponsors two CART cars.
    For example, Rahal said mechanics, drivers and other members of a racing team like to frequently experiment with technological innovations, which conflicts with Detroit's philosophy of introducing technology slowly and conservatively.
    Roush said another conflict has arisen with the current drive by the sport's sanctioning bodies to limit speeds as a safety measure.
    "The best way to address that is the tire," said Roush, noting that current efforts to limit engine strengths and place more drag on cars are misguided. "If you limit the power too much, you limit the ability for a car to excel."
    Fishel also criticized the racing organizations. He said they have been too resistant to adopt technological advances.
    "Wouldn't it be great if this reservoir of knowledge were used to design 21st century race car where the technology of the race car matched the entertainment demands of the TV networks," he said. "A real major challenge today is to balance the technology of race cars with the entertainment demands of the TV networks."
    On the flip side, Rahal noted that the one-engine rule adopted by NASCAR and CART - forcing drivers to use the same engines they practice with -is a recognition of the new economic realities of a sport where the development of engines can cost upward of $60 million. Whether that will be effective, he noted skeptically, remains to be seen.
    Despite the conflicts, Rahal said he doesn't doubt change will come. He recalled the car he raced in 1982, which was then considered cutting edge.
    "I look at it today and I question what frame of mind I was in to get into that thing," he said. "I wonder what we're going to think of cars 20 years from now."