Limiting innovation

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:


mikedunn August 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm

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Auto racing is a sport and a business. Many folks mistakenly believe that it is only about going fast and winning [which it is to individual teams]. Racing organizations are not happy if someone is always ‘running away from the field’. They want the entertainment value of close races [which translates into more dollars]. As racing machinery becomes more sophisticated, total system design [within a very narrow set of rules] becomes more important. Teams that are on top of the system engineering, like team Rahal, will continue to rise to the top.
Folks like Jay O’Connell are to be commended – they must work within a tighter set of constraints than most of us and I have tremendous respect for their results.

Brian August 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm

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Mike, thanks for you comment! It was a revelation to me to get a close-up look at this business and its technology. I haven’t been to a race track since covering the Indy 500 in ’84 and ’85. Race organizers, teams and their sponsors do a fantastic job of creating an excellent and entertaining experience.

And the in-race optimization that teams are doing is mind-blowing to me.

Dave Wyland June 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm

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Dave Wyland June 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm

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And tight rules make it boring. If the cars are identical, as close as possible, then the only difference is the drivers. But car racing is about the cars first, drivers second. If we want to watch 1-on-1 sports, we have tennis, golf etc., and team sports such as football and basketball. The tension in car racing is between the combinations of drivers and cars. A better car with a good driver may beat a good car with a better driver, and vice-versa. Indy had a real opportunity when the STP gas turbine car almost walked away with the prize. It was so much better than the field, but it broke on the last lap. Immediately rules were passed that effectively eliminated the possibility that this could happen again. What we have now is pure nostalgia. Somebody will win – and so what? The excitement of a close race is when you have real competition between car-driver pairs that are significantly different. If Indy wants to get better, it should shift to an electric car race, for example, with looser rules to allow the creation of underdogs that can win.

Peamicrockkic December 12, 2012 at 9:45 am

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