Ford brings Formula 1 tech to NASCAR with massive simulator

Justin Hyde

Today, Ford inaugurated a new racing tech center in Charlotte, N.C., the heart of NASCAR nation, where it will let race teams use a variety of tools and Ford engineers to make their cars go faster. And while some of the toys were already well known, one in particular caught the attention of the race teams nearby: A race simulator larger and more advanced than any in the United States, and equal to the best in use in Formula 1.

Ford executives were excited enough about the simulator that they barred reporters from taking photographs or video. But they did show off its capabilities — with a test driver, in full race suit, in a cockpit mocked up like a Sprint Cup car, doing laps around a virtual Charlotte Motor Speedway. The driver’s field of vision was filled by five projection screens seamlessly visualizing the track, while the hydraulics under the cockpit recreated every bump, dive and slide of a cup car at 180 mph. (It will even tighten the seat belts to mimic g-forces.)

The idea for Ford and its related race teams would be to save time between races setting up cars for different tracks, test upgrades without the expense of renting a real-life asphalt oval and share what they learn.

"When our teams come in, they can pick any track, and we give them the tools to develop and use for familiarity — some of the young drivers have never been to these tracks," said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing.

He added that Ford would use NASCAR drivers to judge how realistic the simulator was: "We want to put the cup drivers in the cars and say, 'Is this Charlotte?'"

Racing simulators are nothing new in professional circles, and even hobbyists willing to spend a few thousand dollars can build a professional-grade rig in their dens with networks like iRacing. But Ford’s simulator has a far broader scope of data — not just laser scans of the various NASCAR tracks, but tire wear, chassis flex and the engine readouts from previous races. The simulator and its 40-foot-tall room has two levels where engineers can watch the drive and the data inputs; testers can even crank up the sound to nearly-lifelike levels.

Ford's simulator only has 10 NASCAR tracks at the moment, but a demo of the Watkins Glen road course showed how it could be used for any series; the cockpit can be swapped for Daytona Prototype or even open-cockpit cars. And while it's the only one of its kind for now, it won't likely stay that way for long, given how close NASCAR teams compete. Going fast on the real track will soon require going fast in the virtual world first.