Peter Brock on the Birth of the Spoiler

Story by Peter Brock • Photograph Courtesy the Author

It seems difficult to understand why people are still so interested in the origins and concept of a 50-year-old racing car, but fascination in the aerodynamic details of my design for the Daytona Cobra Coupe continues unabated. There are books on the subject where I explain how its unique shape was derived from an obscure pre-WWII paper written by some very bright Germans.

But what’s most ironic is that the car’s most advanced component, a driver-controlled wing for downforce, was never utilized. The inspiration for that rear wing came long after that paper was published.

In 1963, my good friend Richie Ginther returned briefly from Italy and related a discovery he’d been involved with that changed racing forever.

He’d been hired on as a test driver for Ferrari, and his goal was to eventually drive in Formula 1, following in the footsteps of his friend Dan Gurney. One of Ginther’s first responsibilities was to develop a new mid-engined sports racer that was being prepped for Le Mans.

Testing took place on the tiny local circuit within walking distance of the center of Modena. Locals would often come out to watch when they heard the distinctive V12s fire up.

In France, the Auto Club d’Ouest officials in charge of establishing special rules for the famed circuit were more than slightly concerned about the ever-increasing speeds being reached on the 3.7-mile ligne droite des Hunaudières, a two-lane country highway better known to us Americans as the Mulsanne Straight. A horrendous crash on the circuit’s front straight in 1955 had almost turned world opinion against all racing, so the ACO’s main focus was on somehow reducing top speeds to increase spectator safety.

One strategy was to disallow the low racing windscreens of previous years. A new rule mandated an increase in frontal area, requiring high windscreens like those used on production cars in an attempt to increase drag and reduce velocity.

In testing, the Ferrari’s new windscreen reduced speed as expected, but it was also causing Ginther some discomfort behind the wheel. Air flowing over the higher screen created a low-pressure area in the cockpit, which tended to suck exhaust fumes from the rear of the car back into the driver’s area.

Ginther had been a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, so he had some understanding of basic aerodynamics. To counter the reverse flow of fumes, he suggested that his mechanics fashion a small, 4-inch-high aluminum “fence” across the rear of his car. This was done in a matter of minutes, and Ginther again ventured out to see if the problem had been solved.

It had, but the added “fence” also had an unexpected result: It allowed him to lap almost 2 seconds quicker!

At the time, no one realized the significance of attaching this simple strip of aluminum. But it actually marked the beginning use of downforce as opposed to just minimizing aero drag, which had been the goal of designers since the discovery of wind resistance.

The addition of this rear “spoiler” was at first simply a curiosity questioned by the French officials and members of other teams. Ferrari mechanics answered their inquiries with casual off-hand comments that it was merely a device to prevent exhaust fumes from getting drawn back into the cockpit.

Speed secrets don’t last long in racing. Others suffering flow reversals from the higher windscreens soon copied Ginther’s exhaust fume spoiler and discovered the additional speed, traction and stability gained by attaching the simple device.

Naturally, this additional rear downforce created a reactive loss of traction at the front, so it wasn’t long before Ginther had fashioned a compensating front air dam to regain lost steering sensitivity.

Not surprisingly, adding front and rear spoilers soon became a simple, generally accepted way to balance a race car’s adhesion at speed. So the ACO’s original intention to limit speed was negated by chance—and by Ginther’s clever innovation!

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4jarlson2
4jarlson2
2/21/21 11:25 a.m.

I always look forward to articles by Peter Brock. He was there during some of the greatest times in U.S. motorsports and made contributions whose importance cannot be over-emphasized. When it comes to history, maybe not so much. Twice in his articles Mr. Brock has described Richie Ginther as having been "a helicopter pilot in Vietnam." By the time there was a need for U.S. helicopter pilots in Vietnam, Ginther was well into his career as one of the most under-rated drivers of any era. He worked on helicopters and other aviation tasks during the Korean War (1950-53.)

aircooled
aircooled MegaDork
2/21/21 12:08 p.m.

Anyone else read "Peter Brock" the same way that Homer Simpson says "doughnuts"?

Mike_8TY4SPD_MNL13GS_Vettes
Mike_8TY4SPD_MNL13GS_Vettes New Reader
2/22/21 10:18 a.m.

Peter wrote Ginther had been a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, not pilot, in the above article.

Have no idea how Homer Simpson says donuts; who is he and who cares?

Peter provides historically relevent information.  One would presume to the best of his recollection.

Don't be so hyper critical.

 

 

 

 

 

4jarlson2
4jarlson2 New Reader
2/22/21 11:13 a.m.

I'm sorry that I said "pilot" instead of mechanic. Who knows where that brain cramp came from. The point is that Brock places him in a place and situation that isn't correct. I'm not criticizing him (note my regard for his accomplishments.) I'm just trying to keep the historical record accurate. When I come across something in an article that I know is incorrect it makes me wonder about accuracy of things I have no knowledge of.

Mike_8TY4SPD_MNL13GS_Vettes
Mike_8TY4SPD_MNL13GS_Vettes New Reader
2/22/21 12:39 p.m.

4jarlson2, I totally agree regards brain farts and cramps, all too well, at 74.

Accuracy ..... was reading a Trans Am press release the other day that put Corvair into the Pony Car category of Mustangs, Cougars, Camaros, Cudas, relative to the early years of TA.

Inaccuracies all over the place when it comes to decades and decades old automotive history.

The one that irritates me the most is referring to Zora Arkus-Duntov as the 'Father' of Corvette!  And that mistake is made a lot by some knowledgable people who should know better.

I get nervous about accuracy when it comes to torque wrench lb/ft settings and other such critical dimensions and data.  Articles and stories that rely on memory and recollection, not so much.

Enjoy a great sports day, except here in MD where it is snowing!

 

4jarlson2
4jarlson2 New Reader
2/22/21 4:16 p.m.

Sorry about that, Mike. I'm in Laguna Beach, CA and it's 75 and sunny.

bkwanab
bkwanab New Reader
2/22/21 4:36 p.m.

It's sad but true that as we get older our short term memory fails us to the point we can't remember what we had for breakfast.  But it seems our long term memory gets better and better to the point we can remember stuff that never happened.  May all our memories be happy ones even if they are not completely true.

 

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