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« Conspiracy Theory Analyzed | Main | Las Vegas High-Rising »

December 28, 2009

Speed and the Breed

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"Racing improves the breed" is an old saying applied to cars and planes. Maybe even horses as well -- horses are almost entirely off my radar, so I'm not sure.


Anyway, I finally got around to reading Race with the Wind cover-to-cover. Its author suggests that racing might have helped advance aeronautical technology during the first two or three decades of flight. But by the mid 1930s, American racing planes actually fell behind military fighter designs, effectively contributing nothing to the World War 2 generation of fighter aircraft.

This was definitely the case for engines whose research and development costs went far beyond the means of the small companies specializing in racing planes. It was largely the case in the realm of aerodynamics as well, nothing particularly innovative appearing on racing planes after the very early Thirties.

The same seems true for cars -- at first glance, anyway -- especially if the cut-off point is someplace in the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Early racing cars were not grossly different from everyday automobiles, and there surely was a good deal of cross-fertilization. Current Formula 1 machines, Le Mans racers and Nascar iron are far removed from what can be found at your local dealership unless, just maybe, that dealer can sell you a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Bugatti or something similar.

Provisional conclusion: racing improves the breed only during the early evolutionary stage of development; once the basics get sorted out, racing becomes less relevant.



posted by Donald at December 28, 2009


Wasn't the Spitfire developed from a racing seaplane?

Posted by: dearieme on December 28, 2009 1:18 PM

dearieme -- Reginald Mitchell designed the S-series racing planes that eventually captured the Schneider Trophy for Britain before moving on to the Spitfire. No doubt the Spitfire benefited from knowledge Mitchell gained from this effort, particularly in aerodynamics.

But the Spitfire came several years after the the last Schneider race, and between was the Supermarine Type 224 prototype build in response to specification F7/30. The 224 was a monoplane with at least partial metal construction. But (if I recall correctly), it was really awkward-looking, having inverted gull wings and an open cockpit. Wikipedia has some details. The 224 lost out, so when the specification that led to the Spitfire was issued, Mitchell produced something that looked more like the racers.

Rolls-Royce made the motors for the final Schneider racers and this effort probably provided insights regarding the Merlin.

But the racing planes were highly task-specific designs and couldn't easily be directly adapted as a combat plane.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 28, 2009 10:47 PM

The contemporary equivalent might be computer chess competition. IBM and some other large computer firms have applied leading-edge technology to bulding the most powerful chess computers possible.

I don't know of any technical development that has arisen from this competition, but ISTM that it would at least provide a rigorous test of many aspects of high-end hardward design.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 31, 2009 2:57 PM

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