The Bentley proved to be an interesting piece built locally by the well-known craftsman at SoCal Speedshop. Co-designer Shaw told us that the Goodwood race requires a stout design philosophy, as on-board instrumentation has revealed that the cars reach 62 mph in a straight line and then attain 0.95 g in the long curve at the bottom of the Goodwood hill. The Bentley was very heavy as a result, and the XGR course looked too short to permit driver Dominic Najafi to take advantage of the car's 0.28 Cd.
Meanwhile, General Motors arrived with "The Flying Shoe" strapped in the back of a Chevy SSR. Frank Saucedo, the design director of GM's studio in West Hollywood, reportedly fell in love with the project immediately, and designers Radu Mutean and Alessandro Zessa came up with a slipper-like vehicle that recalled the classic, front-engine Formula 1 cars of the 1950s. Reportedly, there was some science under the car's silver skin, but we were never able to get close enough to find it.
Mazda went for an extreme aerodynamic solution with its "Gravity Series 2004," in which a carbon-fiber shell enclosed the driver. Like some of the deadlier Thompson Trophy air racers of the 1930s, the Mazda's canopy could only be detached from the outside, so a certain amount of bravery was required for the driver to recline feet-first on this aluminum skateboard.
The entry from Nissan Design America proved to be totally high concept, as designer Ray Devers admitted that his team had fallen in love with the constructive look of its racer. The driver sat almost upright in a fuselage made from graphite tubes connected by aluminum bridgework, and the whole business was wrapped in translucent plastic. With its four tall wheels, the Nissan entry had a unique antique charm, something like Wilbur and Orville's original 1904 Wright Flyer.
Porsche brought back the wild, three-wheeled "Soapboard," the car it had designed for the 2003 XGR event. Predictably, Porsche designers Martin Meade, Paul Terry and Siyong Song had done things utterly backwards (very much in the tradition of the Porsche 356 and 911 sports cars), and built a three-wheel device that packaged the driver's nose about six inches from the centerline of the front axle. Although the 2004 XGR rules called for four-wheel vehicles, the Porsche team "declined" the rulebook, and opted to participate on an exhibition basis. The combination of its unique appearance, elaborate fabrication, and rules controversy represented the essence of Porsche.
Surprisingly enough, the Volvo ProSeries looked even wilder than Porsche's entry. Again the driver had been packaged in a prone position, only he rode a very narrow ski attached to a couple of small wheels. Little outrigger wheels helped keep the package upright during the launch (meeting the letter of the rules), but were designed to spin free of the pavement, thereby reducing fiction. Meanwhile, the driver huddled under an aerodynamic canopy. Lead designer Doug Frasher told us his design's team's secret: "We all have experience with Pinewood Derby."
It took about an hour for the ProSeries teams to face off against one another. The Bentley was too heavy to get up to speed, while the Mazda seemed cursed with too much rolling resistance. The Nissan team had the best T-shirts ("Shift_gravity," a play on Nissan's advertising theme), and its racer was very speedy after the launch, but aerodynamics killed its top speed at the finish. The Porsche and Volvo were pretty evenly matched, but the three-wheeler prevailed because it was easier to drive. In the final, GM's surprisingly speedy "Flying Shoe" narrowly edged the Porsche Soapboard by a few inches, although the three-wheeler was running with a flat rear tire. The fastest finishing speed recorded during the day was 22 mph.
At the end of the day, all the design teams paid tribute to Don MacAllister's initiative in organizing this event as a fund-raiser for foster kids. At the same time, it was clear that the designers all relished the opportunity to build the vehicles unencumbered by concerns for bumper heights and airbag packaging. Hot rod designer Chip Foose, former GM design director Chuck Jordan, and a few others in the Southern California car design community even showed up to see what was going on and could be seen sketching ideas of their own afterwards. As Pollard says, "When you build one of these cars, there are no consumer clinics. It's pure design creativity. You don't have some corporate guy looking over your shoulder and asking, 'Do you think this really suits our brand character?'"
There's no telling what will become of this event next year. Now that NASCAR has taken on the All-American Soap Box Derby as part of its youth outreach program, there's more interest than ever in gravity racing. The success of the event at the Goodwood Festival Speed also proves that gravity racing isn't just for kids, either. We found ourselves looking at the XGR cars and wondering what they'd look like in a free-for-all race down the hill from the top of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, maybe as a lunchtime interlude at the Monterey historics.
For more information:
* Extreme Gravity Racing Series, http://www.gravityseries.com
* All-American Soap Box Derby, http://www.allamericansoapboxderby.com
* Pinewood Derby, http://www.maximum-velocity.com
* Soap Box Challenge, Goodwood Festival of Speed, http://www.goodwood.co.uk