Since the early days of racing, car manufacturers have used the sport of motor racing to improve their products. Because they’re faced with higher speeds, race car drivers in particular have looked for ways to improve safety in their sport to extend their careers…and their lives. Fortunately, safety in motor racing has only grown in importance over time, with many improvements and regulations becoming commonplace.
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With motor racing being used as a proving ground for a number of manufacturers’ technologies and research, many of the safety improvements have trickled down from the track to the showroom floor. We bet you didn’t know how many of these common safety features started racing!
Ray Harroun was the only driver in the first Indy 500 without a driving mechanic. The rest of the peloton used the riding mechanic to watch the traffic behind them. Harroun’s elimination of the mechanic removed a large amount of weight, making the car faster. (There was also a benefit in fuel economy.) He had seen rear-view mirrors on horse-drawn carriages, so he mounted a 3×8 rear-view mirror to keep track of the drivers behind him. Harroun won the race and the mirror was banned from Indy racing for a number of years, but automakers introduced the mirror to production vehicles in 1914 and it has been around ever since.
9. Seat belts
Seat belts were first used in 1885 to prevent ejection from horse-drawn carriages. Restraints were later used on airplanes and racing cars, but before racers used seat belts they actually preferred to be thrown free (or in some cases jump out of cars) before impact . As cars became sturdier and safer, racers began to realize the importance of seat belts. Over time, car manufacturers also began to see their importance. In 1959, Volvo was the first car to be fitted as standard with the three-point lap/shoulder belt. Automotive seat belts became standard equipment on the rear outboard seats in 1967.
8. Disc brakes
Disc brakes are considered superior to drum brakes; although drum brakes were the main type of brake used in the early 1900s, disc brakes last longer and provide more stopping power. Jaguar began using disc brakes in the early 1950s at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in Grand Prix racing. Jaguar won the race with one of the C-Types. Although some cars fitted with disc brakes were later made available to the public, these brakes were not mass-produced until the introduction of the Citroën DS in 1955. Almost all vehicles today use disc brakes.
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7. Safety cages
In the 1950s, Spen King pioneered the roll cage (or roll cage) for Rover racing cars. The system was the precursor to the energy-absorbing vehicle structures that today allow people to walk away from violent high-speed collisions. The safety engineering that protects a race car driver today continues to evolve as governing bodies and race teams work together using new technologies to reduce injuries as higher speeds are reached. This technology carries over to your passenger cars. You can see the roll cage in the race car, but the structures that keep road car passengers safe are hidden behind trim panels.
6. Tires that really grip the road
Racing is incredibly demanding when it comes to tire performance. Manufacturers must combine traction, grip and durability to create a winning formula. Tire manufacturers are using racing to design new tread patterns that can help cars maintain traction in the wettest conditions, rubber compounds that maintain grip in extreme temperatures, and core designs tires that can take more abuse in an hour than most tires will take in a lifetime. Whether it’s a Formula 1 tire that can pump hundreds of gallons of water per minute from its surface or a Kevlar-lined rally tire that resists punctures, much of the technology in tires sought after in racing trickle down to average consumers.
5. All-wheel drive
AWD offers more control on slippery surfaces in passenger cars as well as when racing. All-wheel drive came with high-performance cars that used all four wheels to transfer engine power to the pavement, like the original Audi Quattro rally car. Fiat SpA’s legendary Lancia Delta Integral Group B rally car popularized all-wheel drive for performance cars in the 1980s. If you look around today, all-wheel drive is available on almost every automobile.
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4. Traction control and anti-lock brakes
Traction control and anti-lock braking systems were banned from Formula 1 in 1994, but that doesn’t mean there was never any testing and development of these systems. As early as 1960, the Ferguson P99 all-wheel drive car used a mechanical anti-lock system. Anti-lock braking systems reduce stopping distance in many cases and have been standard equipment on cars in the United States since 2011. Anti-lock brakes prevent the brakes from locking up, while traction control allows drivers to accelerate without spinning in turns and in difficult weather conditions. .
Your car’s handling is one of the foundations of its safety, and a large part of that lies in the suspension. Production car suspensions evolved almost directly from race cars. Cars run best when all tires are in contact with the ground, so they need to be able to move independently of the other wheels when driving over bumps, potholes, and other uneven surfaces. Two types of independent suspensions that have been developed for racing cars are multi-link suspension (which originated in Formula 1 cars and are ideal for off-road driving) and MacPherson struts (which originated in NASCAR vehicles) . When it comes to modern suspensions, you can thank Ayrton Senna and Lotus, whose 1987 Formula 1 car used a computer-controlled active suspension system that adapted to changing track conditions. Although such systems have been banned from production today, you can buy cars and trucks for the street that use the same technology.
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2. Head and neck restraints
Porsche knew from racing experience that head restraints help keep the driver in the seat and drive more efficiently. By 1950, the company was supplying 356 passenger cars with head restraints. Optional head restraints began appearing on North American cars in the late 1960s and were mandated by the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in all new cars sold in the United States after January 1, 1969. The trend continues as sanctioning bodies like Formula 1 require data boxes that record impact measurements during crashes and use this information to prevent injuries.
1. Deformation zones
Crumple zones work by managing the energy of a car crash. The redistribution of force protects car occupants from injury. This is achieved by controlled weakening of the sacrificial exterior parts of the car. Many Formula and Indy cars look fragile when destroyed when parts explode from the cars, but the parts that come out of the car are designed break and fall. They are made to detach to absorb energy before it is transferred to the driver in the rigid roll cage. This technology is part of passenger car safety today, with crumple zones and other areas of the car designed to detach on impact.
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The SM was the fastest front-wheel-drive car at the time, in 1970, with a top speed of 137 mph.
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