Imagine you’re watching a NASCAR practice session while monitoring a live video and diagnostics feed from your favorite driver’s car on your tablet. You notice its is a little slow exiting Turn 3, which has steeper banking and bumpier surface than Turn 2, and that it’s loose in Turn 1 when being drafted from behind.
You run the numbers on a algorithm you developed, and it suggests changes to the tire and suspension setup. Then it uploads the results to a website, along with those of several hundred other people who are doing the same thing. Everyone analyzes the posted data and votes on the most promising proposals, which the team’s engineer takes into consideration when the car pulls in to the garage before qualifying begins.
The adjustments are made, the speed is found, the driver takes the pole and wins the race, and the contributors share in the glory, and maybe the winnings. It’s a level of fan interaction that seems like a dream today, but it could be in the not-so-distant future of NASCAR.
Local Motors, the Arizona company that pioneered the idea of crowdsourced automotive design with its Rally Fighter off-roader, has teamed up with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series 2014 Rookie of the Year Ben Kennedy, who drives the #11 Toyota Tundra for Red Horse Racing, to work toward this type of goal – or perhaps a completely different one that’s dictated by the fans. One day everything may be in their hands.
Kennedy is in the unique position of being the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., so he has a personal interest in keeping the sport relevant in a quickly changing entertainment world. He also holds a degree in sports marketing from the University of Florida.
The partnership with Local Motors started out this year with a simple challenge: Come up with a new design for Ben’s helmet. The winner, a member of the Local Motors online community who lives in Croatia, took home a cash prize and a replica helmet, and had his name posted on Ben’s truck during the NC Education Lottery 200 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It’s so cool to get the community involved,” Kennedy says.
The next step could be redesigning the paint scheme for the entire truck before the project moves into more technical areas. Down the road, Ben and Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers think 3D printing could become part of the equation, tapping the crowd to develop parts that can be manufactured at the track almost instantly – within the parameters of NASCAR’s rulebook, of course.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Local Motors has already built a complete composite car using a giant 3D printer created through a partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and it’s currently working on a production version that will be unveiled later this year.
“Safety regulations and performance improvements are the things that drive the progress of vehicles along,” Rogers says. “There will still be steel in race cars, very much, as we go forward, and so the mixing of composites and steel to me is fascinating.”
It’s that sort of interest that the partnership with Ben aims to draw to the sport. If it proves promising, the project could grow with him as he works his way up the ranks, both on the track and potentially in management, spread across NASCAR, and truly turn its loyal audience into its driving force.