Ford’s Performance Center doesn’t just develop race cars. It’s a research lab, too.
If you’re like me, all I want in my car is great fuel efficiency, a beautiful and functional interior, and reliability that means I never have to take my car to a mechanic. You know who you are. ????♀️
And while the auto industry is working on this, they also keep putting cars on the road with ridiculous horsepower, race-winning technology and enough computer power to put a rocket into orbit.
Why do they do this, a friend asked? Good question. All the horsepower in the world doesn’t help in crawling traffic on the New York State Thruway or in my 25-MPH neighborhood.
Henry Ford Was a Failure (at First)
And then had his first race win in a car named Sweepstakes. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Ford. He learned the marketing value of winning a race, but he also learned the engineering value: He had to put all he knew into Sweepstakes to win that race. If he put all he learned from Sweepstakes into his production cars, he could win that race too. And he did.
What Ford Learns on the Track Translates to Your Family SUV
Fast forward 119 years: cars have gotten more efficient, more advanced and more reliable, all without a huge hike in price. Have you wondered why?
I did, so when I was invited to visit the Ford Performance Center in Concord, NC, I jumped at the chance. Concord is just outside my hometown of Charlotte and the epicenter of auto racing and race technology. NASCAR is headquartered there, and key Ford partners, including Penske and Michelin, are nearby. Oh, and it’s home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR’s top tracks.
Ford wanted to show us how it develops and tests its technology on the track and then transfers what it learns to the cars its customers drive: The Explorer, the Edge, the F-150 pick up truck, the Fiesta, the Fusion and of course, the Mustang.
Why Racing Matters to You, Even if You Don’t Have a Need for Speed
The nature of racing is to learn, refine, test, learn, refine, test, all to get better at what you do. In this competitive environment, if you can shave a billionth of a second off your time or get an extra 2 feet of braking from your tires, that can be enough to win.
And racing has always been where auto brands prove themselves: if you can win at LeMans, you can probably win in the daily commute to WeWork.
For a long time racing was also seen as marketing: A way to equate a car’s name with excellence for its accomplishments on the track. But for car buyers what racing really means is that a process is in place that forces learning, refinement and testing of engines, transmissions, suspensions, tires and other systems that can make the daily school drop-off a win, too.
Ford Performance Center: An R&D Lab For Race Cars and Family Cars
Ford opened the Performance Center in 2014 with the mission of testing its race technology with its partners and also, in response to a new rule that NASCAR put in place: the “No Test” rule. This limited race teams ability to rent out a track when they wanted to test a new technology on its race cars (teams can still test on designated days, but test time has been reduced). This made racing more fair and less expensive but posed a challenge to teams who depended on track rentals for pre-race testing.
Needing a way to keep improving its race cars, the Performance Center began to focus on simulators, model building and testing, and collecting data to simulate everything—and more— that could be learned on the test track.
How Changes In Testing Led to Improvements in Your Car
In the four years since, Ford Performance Center engineers have evolved simulators that produce predictable and reliable results. Exactly as if cars were tested on the track.
The simulator collects every possible data point, from tire temperature to stress on the car’s frame to the downforce on the rear end from the spoiler. Then, the team can identify solutions and use 3-D printing to build parts, make changes, correct issues and build scale models, all of which can be tested and the data tracked.
And, the process reduces costs, which of course, are passed on to customers – hence the relatively steady prices of cars over the last decade, despite the tremendous advancements in technology).
3-D Printing, Simulators and Computer Models: How Reliability and Efficiency Are Discovered
The simulators are just the first step. Once data is collected, the Performance Center’s 3-D printing capability allows engineers to make new or replacement parts, to strengthen or reshape a part, something that in the past would require a refitting of the manufacturing process.
“It used to cost $100,000 to build a test model,” Eric Zinkosky, who runs the simulators, told us. The simulators allow issues to be discovered, a solution to be put in place, and a new test to run. The cost to develop technology was cut in half.
Technology That Trickles Down… From 24 Hours at Le Mans to Your Ford Edge
So how do innovations and solutions found through simulation testing really benefit Ford buyers? A few years ago Ford had a huge win at 24 Hours at Le Mans, one of the most important international races, with its new GT. During testing it was discovered that the glass on the headlights dimmed the light, making it hard for the driver to see, and since it’s a 24 hour race, night vision was important. The Performance Center team developed a solution that delivered optimal visibility in the GT and helped the team to win at Le Mans. This technology, originally developed for the race circuit, has been implemented across Ford’s lineup.
Another issue that perhaps wasn’t so visible, but maybe more valuable, was an issue that was discovered at the Performance Center that was caused by a tool a supplier was using. Because the team was able to quickly track the source of the issue, Ford’s production team was able to head off a potentially expensive, and for the customer inconvenient, problem before it developed.
And … Didn’t You Say Most Fuel Efficient Cars?
It’s the Holy Grail of automotive: Getting more energy out of every drop of fuel. And that is the overarching idea at the Performance Center, too. Every function, from continually refining the fuel efficiency of the company’s Eco Boost engines to getting more power out of its production engines to continually improving MPG stats, its something that Performance Center leaders and technicians are focused on every day. For the track and for the drive to (and from) the track.
Disclosure: I was Ford’s guest at the Ford Performance Center; travel and accommodations were provided. All opinions are my own.