The flow of technology from high-speed racetracks to a dealership's showroom used to be a one-way street. Not anymore.
Take rearview mirrors. In 1911, Indianapolis 500 racers were the first to use them. Production cars picked them up years later.
But at the 79th running of Indy this weekend, the biggest news is that all 35 cars will be using engines that come straight out of passenger cars.
V-8 motors from Oldsmobile and Infinity are so sophisticated that Indy officials could mandate - for the first time - that production-car engines be used for the race. They did so to give this year's cars more in common with what TV viewers and spectators can buy for themselves.
And racing fans are starting to see more innovations trickle up to the track, including electronic fuel injection, power steering, disc brakes, antilock brakes, and automatic transmissions.
Some of these technologies were just too good. Antilock brakes and automatic transmissions were outlawed at Indianapolis - though not in all types of racing - because they allow cars to go too fast, says Michael Seal, director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
The relationship between production cars and race cars "is more of a cross-pollination now," says Rick Voegelin, spokesman for Oldsmobile Motorsports Program.
While Indy spawned the original rearview mirror, this year Betty Lou McClanahan is taking that technology one step further. The racing director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology racing team has invented a crash-avoidance system called the "Rear Speed Display." The idea, intended originally for passenger cars, was that putting a speedometer at the rear window and making it visible via the rear-view mirror would encourage drivers to check their mirror more often.
But Ms. McClanahan's racing experience told her the device could be useful on race cars as well, and she decided to try it out in January with Chrysler's help.
The results were dramatic: NASCAR drivers could read their tachometers 30 to 50 percent faster in the rearview mirror than when they had to refocus on the dashboard. "What we're trying to do is move the street technology to the racetrack," she says.
Backed by Chrysler, the innovative speedometers should start showing up in race cars later this year (although not in Indy cars, which no longer use rear-view mirrors, only side-view ones).
On the other hand, high-performance carmakers such as Porsche and Ferrari refine production-car technology on the track. Such development has brought street cars such wizardry as automatically adjustable wings and spoilers on car bodies, glare resistant windshield wipers, and further refinements of disc-brake technology, says Porsche spokesman Bob Carlson.
Racing improves the breed in other ways. With their new production V-8's cranking out 650 horsepower at a bumble-bee-like 10,500 r.p.m., Oldsmobile and Infinity are testing the outer limits of piston-engine technology. "The racetrack is like a crucible. You can accumulate more data in one race than you can in 500,000 miles of test driving," says Mr. Voegelin.
Racetrack still a proving ground
And the racetrack is a great training ground. "It develops engineering talent, because people have to get things done in a hurry. The engineers learn to work together."
The track has special teaching advantages, says Harry Law, co-director of Motorsports Engineering Program at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. "It's an incredibly severe environment on components. It's a place if something's going to break, you're going to find out about it real fast."
A lot of racing technology never makes it to street. Composite body construction, for instance, could yield 100-miles-per-gallon cars. But they would be so expensive no one would buy them.
"They used to say if you won on Sunday, they'd be in the showroom on Monday," says Robert Wynn Jr., an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. "That's not as true anymore."