It’s an understatement to say that the automobile is an integral part of life today. Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by cars, trucks and motorcycles. We use them to get to work, on the job site, getting groceries or picking up the kids. On television, we are bombarded with ads telling or reminding us how great one company’s vehicles are versus another. What makes Company A’s car better than Company B’s? Often, we are shown a list of innovations, improvements, luxuries and safety features which are supposed to convince us that a certain vehicle is the best. We hear of crash test results and ratings handed out by various Automotive safety and quality organizations. Indeed, in a little over 100 years, the automobile has benefitted from some significant technological and many simple design improvements. But where do these improvements come from?
There is no doubt the lab, test facility and everyday motorist experience has helped to evolve the automobile over the past decades. One area many often overlook, however, is the innovation which comes from the race track. Over the past hundred years, design and race teams around the world have all contributed in various ways to pushing car development and integrating new technologies into designs. A lot of what has happened on the race tracks of the world has not only affected the world of motorsports, but has also found its way into the vehicles sitting in our driveways and garages. Known today as IndyCar, the premier American open-wheel race series has introduced, demonstrated and helped promote a number of technologies and safety features, many of which are found on our cars today.
Of all the IndyCar races that take place during a season, the most famous and widely watched is the Indianapolis 500. While the race has been filled with great duels, spectacular crashes and controversy, the Indy 500 has also seen the introduction of a number of groundbreaking technologies and innovations to North American racing over the past 100 years. To varying degrees, what these drivers and designers brought to the track eventually found its way into the personal and work vehicles we drive today.
10 Ray Harroun – Aerodynamics, 1911
When most people think of aerodynamics in automotive terms they picture a sleek and modern designed vehicle that looks fast even when it’s sitting still. Unfortunately for that kid down the street, he pictures a massive non-functional spoiler on the back of his Honda, but no one can bring themselves to tell him it’s actually un-aerodynamic – they’re too busy laughing.
Part of the push to make cars sleeker and better at ‘cutting’ through the air came from the Indianapolis 500. In 1911, legendary driver Ray Harroun brought his 110hp Marmon “Wasp” to the inaugural Indy 500. By today’s standards, the car looked very primitive with a long tubular body and blunt front end. At the back, the body was tapered to a ‘tail’ with a fin which helped reduce turbulence and drag. The thin tires had solid aerodynamic hubcaps, meant to cut down on wind resistance. All of this helped Harroun to win the first Indy 500 ever.
9 Harry Miller – Front-Wheel Drive, 1924
Most car enthusiasts and fans of racing know that Austin Mini Cooper introduced the transverse mounted FWD car to the general public in 1959. The design and concept was revolutionary and today most of the cars we see utilize this type of drivetrain setup. For the consumer, FWD made the engine bay smaller and produced a car which was generally better handling in poor weather and on loose surfaces. Most people don’t think of FWD when they think of racing, but it does have a strong historical link.
Harry Miller was one of the great innovators in motorsport history. In the mid-1920s, four out of five cars which took to the track at Indy were designed by him or used his engines. Miller had designed a FWD race car for 1922 Indy winner Jimmy Murphy. The Miller car weighed around 150 pounds less than previous cars thanks to no need for a long driveshaft and rear differential and allowed the driver to sit lower in the car. Miller’s car came in second in 1925 and four years later limited runs of FWD passenger cars were being made for the American public.
8 Harry Miller – Four-Wheel Drive, 1932
Not finished at switching from RWD to FWD, Harry Miller continued to develop the drivetrain of the racecar, bringing about the Four-Wheel Drive racer of the 1930s. The first 4WD racecar was built in 1932 as a way to compensate for slippery tracks and thin-low gripping tires. On the track, Miller’s cars weren’t any better than the two-wheel drive racers because they were heavier and slower. Nonetheless, 4WD continued on in Indy racing with Bobby Unser even taking the wheel of a 4WD car at Indianapolis in 1964.
It may have not been a huge hit on the Indy circuit, but the demonstration of 4WD influenced other racing fields and civilian production. Formula 1 enjoyed a brief fling with 4WD cars in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the North American market around this time, there was also an explosion of consumer cars and trucks equipped with 4WD. The interest in having all four wheels powered inspired Audi to develop All-Wheel Drive (related to 4WD but different in operation) further providing the foundation to the explosion of 4WD and AWD cars we see today.
7 Barney Oldfield / Ray Crawford – Seatbelts, 1922/1956
Many readers here probably remember a time when your parent would put you in the car and you didn’t have to buckle up. Nope, you were free to bounce around the confines of the car, oblivious to the dangers even a slow speed collision had in store. In North America, seatbelts became mandatory in the late 1970s and 1980s (depending on where you lived). Since then, it is almost unbelievable that we went without them for so long. In large part, we have motorsport and Indy drivers to thank for their eventual addition to vehicles – and subsequent regulations for use.
In motorsport, if you crashed, it was a near certainty that you would be ejected from the vehicle at high speed. Allegedly, this led driver Barney Oldfield to visit a parachute manufacturer in 1922 for the purpose of having a harness installed in his car. Unsurprisingly, Indy drivers were very reluctant to strap themselves into a vehicle which was little more than a gas-tank on wheels. The fear of burning to death led many to ride free of restraints for the next few decades. In 1956, Ray Crawford opted to buckle up and set the standard since. It’s a good thing he did too, because in that Indianapolis 500, Crawford suffered a frontal crash but walked away with minor injuries thanks to his restraints.
6 Ken Wallis / Parnelli Jones – Turbine Engine, 1967
Ok, so we currently don’t have any gas-turbine cars on public roads today, but manufacturers like GM, Toyota, Audi and Jaguar have produced a number of concepts which integrate the engine technology, in some way, into automotive design. The advantages of turbine engines are that they can burn a wide range of fuels and give a car a very advantageous power-to-weight ratio. The significant downside is that these engines can guzzle fuel and are relatively expensive to buy and maintain.
In the Indy Racing League (IRL), turbine technology was implemented in the 1960s. Designer Ken Wallis (relative of the famous British scientist and inventor Barnes Wallis) worked out how to get a turbine engine into a racecar. He approached Carroll Shelby with the design but was turned away. Andy Granatelli of STP was far more welcoming and started working with Wallis on development of a racer for the 1966 Indy. Parnelli Jones drove the car (aka STP-Paxton Turbocar) the following year and enjoyed some time in the lead until a transmission failure ended his day. 1968 saw the STP turbine car entered in the Indy 500 again. Unfortunately, the car met its end after crashing into the wall during qualifying.
5 Delphi – Crash Data Recorder, 1993
Until the 1990s, understanding crashes and accidents on the track required an investigation of the wreck, interviews with other drivers who were witnesses and painstaking frame-by-frame examination of any available television coverage. Often, teams and officials were left with no definitive answers as to why a car lost control or crashed during a race. This situation changed in 1993 with the introduction of crash data recorders manufactured by Delphi.
Known as an event data recorder (EDR), the equipment was made a requirement by Indianapolis 500 officials during the 1993 season. Since then, the technology has evolved and even includes the ability to measure the movement of a driver’s head, transmit real-time telemetry data and provide immediate warning to other drivers on the track. Today, the majority of all new production vehicles come with some sort of accident and emergency recording ability which can be used by emergency officials, insurance companies and courts.
4 Ray Harroun – Rearview Mirror, 1911
This is the second time Harroun and the inaugural 1911 race have made this list. In addition to having some rudimentary form of aerodynamic design on his car, Harroun also did away with the second crewman which was standard in race cars at that time. Known as the riding mechanic, the extra crewman was less of a mechanic and more of a spotter who helped keep the driver up-to-date on where the other cars were. By getting rid of the extra person, Harroun also did away with the extra weight. In place of the mechanic, Harroun installed a rectangular rearview mirror which allowed him to see where the competition were – although reportedly it vibrated so much that it was nearly worthless. Harroun won and the other drivers called foul. In any event, this innovation from Indy found its way into personal vehicles just a few years after and has been there ever since.
3 Duesenberg Motor Co. – 4-wheel hydraulic brakes, 1921
One look at the Duesenberg Motor Company’s Indy record and you’ll see that this car company was a giant in auto racing. Now long gone, Duesenberg was a major innovator in motorsport and helped influence the cars you and I drive today. Before the 20s, racers relied on mechanical braking which could be tiring and inefficient, especially when driving in the Indy 500, at high speeds. In 1921, Duesenberg introduced hydraulic brakes to its racecars. Now, brakes don’t make your car faster but they did help reduce driver fatigue and make the cars stop a whole lot faster on the track.
In the civilian world, the Model A was the first to see the hydraulic brakes implemented. It was one of the fastest road going cars of the age, something made a little less dangerous thanks to the new powerful brakes. Disc brakes would come along in the 1930’s, thanks in large part to Harry Miller’s use of them in racing. Combined, hydraulic power with disc brakes would provide the foundation for braking systems used on the track and streets of today.
2 Leon Duray – Ethanol Race Fuel, 1927
Designers and drivers have known about the advantages of using ethanol since the turn of the 20th century. The first entrance of an ethanol powered racecar at Indy was in 1927 by Leon Duray. The car suffered a fuel leak and Duray was unable to finish the race. Ethanol disappeared into the background over the following decades, thanks in large part to the abundance and low price of gasoline. The spectacular 1964 crash of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald brought ethanol back to the discussion of race fuels. Gasoline, because it doesn’t mix with water, created fires that were extremely difficult for emergency crews to fight. Officals initially turned to methanol as a petroleum substitute in 1965. Forty years later, Indy cars now run E85, an 85-15 split of ethanol and gasoline which is similar to fuel available at some gas stations. It makes the cars safer in the event of a crash and also has the benefit of producing far less pollution than the gasoline powered cars of 40 years ago.
1 Freddie Agabashian – Turbocharging, 1952
If you’ve ever been in a turbocharged car you know the kick in the pants it can give you when you hit the gas. Turbocharging is a form of forced induction - that is a method of stuffing more air into the engine to make more power. Like a supercharger, a turbocharger allows more air and fuel to burn in the cylinder which makes more power. Supercharging engines started in the 1920s and used a belt driven compressor to push more air into the motor. The major limitation of this method was that it tended to lack power in the higher RPM range. Following World War II, many ex-servicemen and mechanics came home having witnessed how turbochargers made planes faster. The turbocharger uses exhaust gas instead of a belt to create power to push air into the engine. This system was not great at low RPM, but was fantastic for high-revving race cars like those found at Indy.
In 1952, Freddie Agabashian was the first driver to use a turbocharged car. His vehicle was the 6.6L 480hp Cummins Diesel Special. Even though Agabashian pulled out of the race after his turbocharger failed (due to a clogged intake), he had shown what a turbocharged racecar could do. Since then, racecars everywhere and a wide range of consumer vehicles have come equipped with the exhaust driven supercharger as a way of increasing power on relatively small four and six cylinder engines.