Strings or Lasers?
A Club Ford Driver Reflects on the Relentless March of Technology
I see in the latest racing glossy from across the pond that they've come up with a way of making carbon fiber chassis so inexpensively that they may be able to make FFords with it. But I like the space frame on our current runner and would refuse to buy a carbon fiber version. One of the alluring aspects of this great sport is the technology it involves and its constant march forward which usually allows the creation of faster machines. But although “faster” is a word that’s always in the front of racers’ minds, Club Ford racing cars are, in a way, frozen in time. They’re really early-sixties tech as in Cooper, Lola, Lotus - remember them? The little open wheel car we field is not much different from Jack Brabham’s 1960 World Championship Cooper except for the rocker suspension our car has at one end and a few other niceties which show we're not entirely immune to progress. The F1 cars of the 50's and 60's were remarkably simple by current standards and their construction was fairly crude. The mid-50’s Mercedes GP cars were an exception and with their drivers Fangio, Moss, Kling and America’s John Fitch, they won everything they entered.
Our own team is a lot like Scuderia Ferrari in that new technology comes to us slowly but not for lack of desire or funds! Enzo did not embrace monocoque chassis, disk brakes or even rear engines, for that matter, until others showed that it was the only way to go. So, technology may be hot stuff now in Maranello but it wasn't always that way. F1 is totally computer based and the cars can send info with a hundred parameters back to the pits where a veritable army of technical staffers analyze it and plan appropriate adjustments. Our idea of communication from car to pits is this: a few simple internationally recognized hand signals and a wonderful, florid flood of adjectives and verbs when the car returns to the paddock where the anxious crew proceeds to take tire temps with our Hi-Tech pyrometer. We thought once about investing in a G-Meter but figured that the driver wouldn't be able to do what the damn thing tells him to do. And besides, we don't want to know some of the things the meter will inevitably tell us.
We've seen people with those exotic optical alignment devices but we still prefer using strings and a fine machinist’s ruler. Our engine is a simple four banger with a carburetor and points ignition. No team of engine technicians in our garage! In F1 they go to great lengths with their engines and their budgets are colossal. The machines at Ilmor can work all night unattended, cranking out machined blocks or heads. But, you know, since Ernst Henry designed the 1913 Peugeot, no great leaps have been made as far as general layout is concerned. It's all been refinement since then by Miller, Columbo, Duckworth and Smokey.
For a capsule look at how technology has changed things, just look over the entire career of Mario Andretti. He first drove unbelievably rustic stock cars, then sprinters, Champ Cars and CanAm cars; he won the Daytona 500 in a Holman-Moody Ford and then drove for Ferrari and at Lotus he participated in the birth of the ground effects era, winning the World Championship. A veritable time-line of new technology can be found in this one man's biography.
So does technology really matter to the typical Club racer? Yes and no. It is an ever-fascinating and very important part of the auto racing world. But the heart of racing is the challenge and the competition, the sport and the camaraderie. What matters, too, is that cold brew at the end of a hot day at the track!