8 July 2014

Cheatin' the Wind

Anyone ever seeking funding for racing has insisted that “racing improves the breed.” Better brakes, tires and suspensions, as well as sequential gearboxes and more efficient and responsive engines are the proof. Aerodymaic aids, too, play a key role. Sometimes, though, you have to scratch your head and ask how much a nose that’s longer by 18 inches, a wing mounted two feet above the trunk lid or a massive front air dam help when negotiating speed bumps, dropping the kids at school or cruising down the interstate at 65.

Rising Speeds

Some particularly slick shapes, like the 1963 Corvette, acted like airfoils and generated lift at racing speeds. Crews found that the addition of a small lip beneath the nose would keep the front end securely planted and have the added benefit of sending air over the top of the car. Those “spoilers” evolved into “air dams” or “splitters.” At the same time, small lip spoilers on a car’s rear edge generated downforce and improved traction.

Innovators were always trying to gain an aerodynamic advantage, and in 1956, a rear wing on Swiss engineer Michael May’s Porsche 550 Spyder lowered his lap times. By 1966, Jim Hall’s Chaparral sports and Can Am cars had progressed from deck-mounted spoilers to raised, strutmounted wings. By 1968, raised wings appeared on Formula 1 cars, including the Ferrari 312 and Lotus 49B. Mounted high to work in clear air for optimum efficiency, these wings generated downforce (and the struts worked as stabilizers) while creating less drag than a lip spoiler.

Wings for Everyman

Wings came to NASCAR a little later. With speeds creeping up to 200 mph on the superspeedways, the production based race cars needed more downforce and greater stability. Ford led the way with revised noses and lowmounted wings on the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler and Torino Talladega in 1969, followed by the Dodge Charger Daytona with its distinctive long snout and more effective raised wing. But NASCAR rules would only allow wings, spoilers or other major modifications if they were offered on production cars. In each case, Ford, Mercury and Dodge all had to prove that at least 500 examples were built for public sale. As a result, these outrageous cars ended up on the street, where shapes designed to cut through the air and remain stable at 200 mph at Talladega and Daytona were used to shop and commute and add comedy to parallel parking. For 1970, Plymouth dealers had their own winged wonder, the Plymouth Road Runner Superbird, which looked similar to the Charger Daytona but shared no sheet metal. Soon they ruled the speedways in Petty Blue.

Flight of the Batmobiles

Across the Atlantic, for European touring car racing, BMW offered a lightweight version of its lovely 3.0CS coupe called the 3.0CSL, which soon became known by fans as “Batmobiles.” Also offered to the public for homologation purposes, the extensively lightened CSL used a large front air dam spoiler, a roof-mounted wing-like spoiler and a large wing mounted on the rear deck. Completely illegal on German roads, the homologation requirements were met by delivering the contraband wings in the trunks of the new BMW coupes.

These spoilers and wings worked well at high speeds, offering much needed downforce without adding excessive drag. But even before the 55 mph national speed limit of 1973, on ordinary roads they were as useful as swim fins in the Sahara. However, they were great conversation starters, and the Cyclone Spoiler IIs, Torino Talledagas, Dodge Charger Daytonas, and Plymouth Road Runner Superbirds available at the local dealer looked just like the cars driven by NASCAR heroes like David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Richard Petty. Their biggest legacy today is that they are limited-production examples of the lengths and expense to which major manufacturers would go to beat the competition. But instead of the old motorsport adage of “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” it was more like “Sell on Monday to win on Sunday.”

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