How Champ Cars Work

Driving a Champ Car
Motorola driver Mark Blundell
Motorola driver Mark Blundell

In Champ Car racing, the car and driver are one. Both must deliver peak performance in order to win.

The driver for the Motorola PacWest Racing Team is Mark Blundell.

Mark has had a long and winning racing career. He was born in England in 1966. At age 14, he began with motocross. He was a Top 36 national rider, winning many regional championships and accumulating 196 trophies. In 1984, Mark won the British Formula Ford 1600 Junior Championship. During the season he had 25 victories, 24 poles and 21 lap records.

In 1985 Mark began his professional driving career. By 1991 he was driving Formula 1 cars in Europe, with 14 Grand Prix starts. In 1992 he won the Le Mans 24-hour race with the Peugeot-Sports Team.

The 1996 season was Mark's rookie year in U.S. Champ Car racing. He finished third in Rookie of the Year points, and has been driving for Motorola ever since.

Listen as Mark talks about his grandfather's influence on his career.
Mark Blundell in the Motorola Champ Car
Mark Blundell talking with the team before a race

The driver's interface to the car is the cockpit. The cockpit environment is customized to the driver, but also has a number of features that are shared by all Champ Cars.

The first thing you notice when you get into a Champ Car is the tight fit -- it feels almost like you are "wearing" the car. The cockpit wraps around the driver and holds him in. The fit is so tight that you have to remove the steering wheel to get in and out of the car. The reclining seat that the driver sits in is custom molded to his body, and the position is more like lying on your back than sitting. The driver is then strapped in with a wide, five-point harness:

You can see how tight the fit is in this photograph -- there's a slot visible on the driver's left specifically sized to hold his elbow!
In front of the driver there is a steering wheel adorned with nine buttons and a display panel.
The steering wheel in the cockpit

As shown in the figure, the buttons give the driver access to the following features:

  • Weight-jacker - The driver uses this device to jack up the spring on one of the wheels, which places more weight on that wheel, changing the balance of the car. This helps to compensate for the changing weight of the fuel, or for wear on the tires during the race
  • Passing - This provides the engine with a little extra horsepower for passing. Teams refer to it as "the button."
  • Push-to-talk on the radio
  • Fuel reset
  • Fuel mixture
  • LCD scrolling
  • Pit area speed limiter
  • Driver drink
  • Turbo boost adjuster

LEDs on the steering wheel indicate:

  • Engine rpm
  • Pop-off valve warning
  • Neutral gear
  • Speed limiter active

The LCD display complements the LCDs on the dash. These displays feed the driver information from the engine and the car's sensors.Champ Cars have sensors everywhere, so there is plenty of information available to the driver.

The gear shift lever is to the driver's right. The car has a sequential six-speed transmission, so instead of the H-pattern seen on a normal manual transmission, the shifter moves in a straight line.
To the driver's left is a pair of levers -- these levers adjust the front and rear suspension. They stiffen and soften the chassis and are used by the driver as the fuel load changes.
On the left side of the dash are several other knobs and buttons. With these, the driver can, for example, activate the fire extinguisher (the large red handle) and change the brake bias (the balance of braking between the front and the rear, which must change as the fuel load does).

At the driver's feet are the accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals, arranged as they are in a normal car.

Driving a Champ Car is nothing like driving a normal automobile. Here are some of the things that you notice:

  • The steering on a Champ Car is extremely tight and precise. In a normal car you may have to turn the wheel two to three times to go from one end of the steering's range to the other (this is often referred to as "lock-to-lock"). In a Champ Car, the total range that a driver uses on the track is only about 180 degrees. The slightest change in the steering wheel has a big effect on the direction of the car. It feels extremely touchy to a person who has never driven a Champ Car before.
  • The acceleration is unbelievable! When you push on the throttle it feels like a rocket taking off instead of a car. As mentioned in the engine section, the car can accelerate to 100 miles per hour in just five seconds.
  • Braking is also unbelievable. From 100 mph, the car can come to a complete stop in about 55 feet -- one-third the distance that it takes a normal car!
  • Shifting is different from a regular car, since the shifter is linear rather than H-pattern.
  • The G forces during acceleration and in the corners are significant. A driver running at 230 mph on an oval track will typically experience about 5 Gs in the corners.
  • Because of the speed of the car and the distance between cars, the amount of visual data that the driver must process is huge. Everything seems to happen instantaneously.

During a race, the driver is constantly thinking about what is coming up. A driver's brain is multi-tasking -- part of it is handling the current situation on the track, keeping spacing, adjusting speed and turning. (This is much different than normal driving -- these race cars are often within inches of one another and the pack is moving at incredible speeds.) The other part of the driver's brain focuses on what will happen in the next section of the track. The driver plans exactly what he will do, and then executes it when he arrives at that section. At that point, he is thinking about the next section of the track, and so on. In all this planning, the driver factors both the car he is trying to catch and the cars that are trying to catch him -- a driver is always trying to pass the car in front and trying to defend against being passed.

Equipment and Training

During a race a driver wears:

  • Nomex driving suit for protection against fire
  • Nomex undergarments
  • Fire-resistant face mask (balaclava)
  • Gloves
  • Driving shoes
  • Helmet

The helmet is one of the most important parts of the ensemble because it becomes a part of the exterior of the car. In an open-cockpit Champ Car, the driver's helmet is out in the 230-mph slipstream of air rushing past the car. In the photo you can see a variety of vents and indentations designed to help cool the driver and prevent buffeting. As the air flows past the helmet, it needs to have smooth flow lines -- any turbulence causes the driver's head to shake in the slipstream (affecting both vision and stamina).

Champ Car driving is a demanding sport that requires precision, incredibly fast reflexes and endurance from the driver. A driver's heart rate typically averages 160 beats per minute throughout the entire race. During a 5-G turn, a driver's arm -- which normally weighs perhaps 20 pounds -- weighs the equivalent of 100 pounds.

One thing that the G forces require is constant training in the weight room. Drivers work especially on muscles in the neck, shoulders, arms and torso so that they have the strength to work against the Gs. Drivers also work a great deal on stamina, because they have to be able to perform throughout a three-hour race without rest.

One thing that is known about Champ Car drivers is that they have extremely quick reflexes and reaction times compared to the norm. They also have extremely good levels of concentration and long attention spans. Training, both on and off the track, can further develop these skills.