01 Nov When A Gas Turbine Was Used To Power A Race Winning Car
Most companies require natural gas in some form or another, either as part of a heating system for offices, for industrial kitchens or as a necessary part of industrial processes.
Because of this, industrial gas engineers are always going to be working to either install pipework, repair issues or inspect for potential problems in the future, and often therefore becomes a requirement to doing business without any issues.
It just so happens that sometimes this business involves hurtling around race tracks at over 160 miles per hour.
Throughout the 1960s, many attempts were made to power a car using a natural gas turbine, and whilst the technology was not widely adopted, it won at least one race and nearly won several others.
Why Natural Gas?
The vast majority of cars at the time worked using an internal combustion engine, which uses a complex system of controlled explosions in cylinders that push positions that turn a crankshaft that drives the car, with spark plugs to ignite the mixture and valves to expel exhaust gases safely.
It is exceptionally complex, but is capable of high-speed revolutions, provides a relatively smooth operation when everything is working as it should and allows for versatile performance output.
However, it is not necessarily the most efficient way of driving a crankshaft. For that, you would need a turbine engine.
A gas turbine uses compressed air and a fuel source that is forced into a turbine and then rapidly expands into a second one, with the force of this air driving the turbine that powers the initial compressor as well as powering the car forward.
It is exceptionally simple, compact for its power, lighter, has fewer moving parts, will run on almost anything flammable and from initial ignition it is fully operational and ready to go.
The main problem is that it lacks flexibility in its power delivery, meaning that it could take several seconds before the turbine stopped spinning after taking your foot off of the throttle, meaning that the car needed massive brakes alongside its turbine engine.
It also used a lot of whatever fuel it needed, although regenerator components helped to mitigate this somewhat.
An Unconventional Success
One of the first serious efforts at a gas turbine racing car that managed to achieve a surprising level of success was the STP-Paxton Turbocar, a specially designed machine that was entered into the Indianapolis 500 in 1967.
Inspired by an early, experimental 1,350hp car known as the Jack Adam Aircraft Special, the Turbocar was designed by Andy Granatelli based on an idea by Ken Wallis.
Driven by Parnelli Jones thanks to a $100,000 cash payment, he stormed into an early lead and was winning the 500-mile race for almost all of its running until a transmission failure caused the car to retire just a few laps from the end.
The United States Automobile Club banned turbine engines after the 1968 running of the race saw a very similar result with the Lotus 56 and its unusual wedge design nearly scoring a win for turbine engines once again until technical issues once again forced the car into the pits.
Attempts to adapt the design for Formula 1 in 1971 were far less successful, with the car only finishing one race in eighth place, but it proved that had the design not been banned, it could have been a major contender with extra research.
However, after several near-misses, the Howmet TX managed to reach the heights that neither the Turbocar nor the Lotus could, racing in the 1968 World Sportscar Championship.
During a championship that was characterised by a close competition between the Ford GT40 and the Porsche 907, the Howmet TX managed to remarkably win two feature races as well as two sprint races, although it had the chance to win several more if not for reliability issues
Howmet Aerospace, the company that funded the TX project and manufacturer of turbine engine components, discontinued its foray into motorsport despite the promise of the initial car, although it would manage to break several land speed records for turbine cars in 1969 before being retired for good.
Unfortunately, the concept of turbine cars was outlawed in many racing championships, which eliminated its promise. Since that day, it has been the only gas-turbine car to win a motor race.
This is unfortunate, as it could have become as vital to automobiles as natural gas is to business had the technology had a chance to develop and mature using liquid petroleum gas and other highly suitable fuels.