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Article: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines! - - - Is NASCAR ready for the autonomous car?

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Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

Ever since the first automobiles came into existence, racing has been a part of the evolution of the ever improving car, and that’s no different even today. Whether it’s on an oval track, a street course, or down the quarter mile, men and their machines have rocketed down the track at high speeds to prove who was fastest or had the better car.

Long before there were really any roads to speak of, manufacturers were out to prove their car could out last their competitors’ products by taking on the arduous task of a cross country trip. Some made it, and some didn’t. Car manufacturers even went as far as taking their production models and racing them on the oval tracks, which led to the old saying, “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday”. This is still somewhat true even today, the part about racing that is. Racing their creations did a lot more than just show who was faster or better, it also showed engineers ways to improve on their designs. So, we owe a lot of what we see in today’s cars to the racing world.

Not long ago, NASCAR finally removed the carburetors and restrictor plates and adopted the fuel injection systems. (They held onto carburetors a lot longer than I thought they would.) Now most all racing forms have gone with injection systems, although be it slightly different in configuration than the modern production car injection systems. Even with the injection systems NASCAR, as well as many other forms of racing, each car has to conform to some very strict rules. Every car in the race is basically the same in every aspect, and are constantly checked and rechecked to make sure everyone is following the same rules, which puts almost all the burden of winning or losing to the skill of the driver and their pit crew. The better the driver and crew, the better their chances are of finding that winner’s circle. Believe me, it ain’t easy controlling all that power. It takes the skill of a highly trained driver with the nerves of steel, and a dedicated team of mechanics to accomplish it. I’ve been around a track at 150mph+ myself (that was plenty fast enough for me), and even though I didn’t scream in fear, I was definitely scared half to death as the driver came within inches of the wall going into turn three. WOW, what a ride!

There’s no doubt driving in a dense pack of cars traveling at those speeds requires the utmost in precision driving. Probably a good reason we have speed limits. Not everybody has those types of skills out on the public roads, although... some “think” they do. I suppose it might be one of the reasons we are seeing an influx of the latest technology, the self-driving car. It really is incredible; a car that can not only steer itself, but can maintain a safe distance from other traffic, as well as the capability of avoiding obstacles. This new technology has come a long way in a very short time, and I believe it will be part of our driving future. Fewer accidents and traffic snarls, better fuel economy, and ... I hate say, even fewer operator skills needed. A good thing? Maybe, maybe not...time will tell.

That gets me back to thinking about the racing circuit again. How exciting would it be to watch a couple of dozen self-driving cars making left turns on an oval banked track? Why even put a driver in the seat? The car doesn’t need you in there; it can do the whole thing by itself, you know, round and round… and round and round. I wouldn’t put it past some promoter to put on some sort of race like that. So where’s the skill in driving at high speeds now? Can you imagine a race with no more accidents, no more yellow caution flags, and no more drivers? Who’s going to get into the fist fight on the apron?

It doesn’t sound very entertaining to me. And, can you imagine a demolition derby with GPS controlled cars that have the latest crash avoidance systems installed? Why, the cars would literally creep around the track, backing up carefully giving out their warning beeps, gingerly cruising around obstacles or just come to a complete stop while another car causally drives by in front of them. It would be like watching a parking lot attendant trying to shuffle cars. Nobody crashing into each other, no crumpled fenders, and hardly a chance of any fires or billowing smoke from under the hood. I don’t know about you, but for me, it just seems like a waste of time to even watch something like that.

I suppose in the future all this technology will separate the racers from the general driver. The skill of driving will come down to just a handful of old school car collectors and those willing to strap themselves in a 1000 horsepowered four wheel rocket and head down the quarter mile. Even though in today’s time we can’t imagine every car on the road to be some sort of autonomous vehicle, I’d be foolish to say it would never happen. Probably not in my lifetime...but some day. I still don’t think the self-driving-crash-avoiding-self stopping car has any place at 200 mph on the race track… at least any time soon.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see a 500 mile race with nothing but electric vehicles zipping around the oval. The sad part would be the smell and noise of those past powerful engines roaring by the grandstands will be replaced with the whiz and whine of the electric power plant under the hood. And, can you imagine what a pit stop would be like? The driver silently glides down pit lane as the crew jumps over the retaining wall with an extension cord in hand. One guy plugs the car into the wall socket, while everybody else stands around for several hours waiting for the battery to recharge. Kinda takes the fun out of being there doesn’t it?

Ah, times... they are a changing; however there are just a few things about the car and racing I’d rather not see changed. Leave the driving to the skill of the driver, and the performance with the mechanics. As a car guy, I’m still hooked on the rumble of a big block engine, loud obnoxious exhaust, and the smell of nitro in the air. You can have all the self-driving autonomous cars you want, just leave the race track to us humans so we can smash, bash, and run door handle to door handle.

 

At least for now, the race track is the one place that a lot of this technology will probably have a hard time to be incorporated. Whether it’s an electronically controlled autonomous race car or a full on electric car, racing them doesn’t have the same appeal. Even though Formula One has gone hybrid on a lot of their cars, there’s still a turbo engine that’s making a whole lot of horsepower and plenty of noise. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but seriously, I’d hate to go to the track some day and hear the announcer say, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” …. and, the only sound you hear … is nothing at all.

 

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