23 August 2011
ELKHART LAKE, Wisc.–Jay O’Connell is a competitive engineer with a bear leg-hold trap around his ankle.
Jay, a product of Cornell’s mechanical engineering program, is chief engineer for the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan BMW race team. This group of road-race warriors, led by the legendary Bobby Rahal, are eating the competition alive this year in GT-class racing on road circuits around America, as part of the American Le Mans series.
It’s a highly efficient, hyper-professional organization driven by Rahal, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 (I covered his races there in ’84 and ’85 as a young wire-service reporter), finished second there once and third twice. Rahal’s been a car owner since 1992, and he’s been successful at it. On the American Le Mans circuit, he’s so successful, they’re trying to slow him down.
I asked O’Connell, his chief engineer, about this. Race organizers analyze every car’s top 20 percent lap speeds and try to ensure that all teams’ cars are within one-half of 1 percent. They try, by allowing engineering tweaks, to ensure slower teams improve and the best teams don’t get too far ahead. There are many who grumble under their breaths (and privately) that this is, shall we say, un-American.
But it is what it is. Rahal’s cars (American Le Mans allows each team to run two cars in each race) have three of five ALMS races this year and won the pole, as of last Friday, five out of six races. Indeed the competition between teams can be so razor-close: Rahal BMW driver Dirk Mueller won the pole Friday afternoon by 5 one-thousandths of a second, with a fastest lap around the 4-mile course of 2:05.447.
So how’d the team finish on race day? No. 2 and No. 3.
It’s really an astonishing feat that sits squarely on the shoulders of engineering.
Listen to what O’Connell had to say about the limiting of innovation: