Motorsports Racing Industry Sees Opportunities in Defense

By Grace V. Jean
At a time when some of the largest defense firms are looking at other industries to weather the worsening economic climate for business, companies ensconced in the North Carolina motorsports racing community increasingly are eyeing opportunities to collaborate with the Defense Department.

As in many business sectors, the downturn in the U.S. economy has negatively impacted the racing world, leaving specialized shops and parts makers seeking ways to diversify their clientele base beyond NASCAR and other motorsports-related work. In parallel, the military services, and in particular, the U.S. Special Operations Command, are looking to improve their existing fleets of vehicles and aircraft with commercial technologies. The qualities that have come to define the racing industry’s automotive and aerodynamic innovations — creating faster, lighter and safer vehicles — match the characteristics that military operators want in their trucks.

A nascent initiative being led by the North Carolina Department of Commerce is helping to connect the two entities in an effort to place more focus on the defense, homeland security and aerospace industries in the state.

North Carolina is home to the largest motorsports community in the country, second only to the Formula One racing industry in the United Kingdom. The industry employs more than 27,000 North Carolinians and its economic impact is $6 billion, said Derek Chen, director of motorsports development at the commerce department. Despite being a cottage industry of niche companies that produce components primarily for racing teams, the technology manufacturing capability resident in many of those firms are sophisticated and have applications in the defense sector. What they have lacked is exposure and connections to the military community.

In partnership with the non-affiliated North Carolina Military Foundation, a private organization founded in 2006 by the state’s then-Lt. Governor Bev Perdue to help grow its defense and homeland security economy, the commerce department began introducing companies to several military commands resident in the state. The effort recently yielded a memorandum of agreement between the motorsports community and U.S. Army Special Operations Command, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The state not too long ago was completely cut out of the loop, said Lance DeSpain, executive director of the North Carolina Military Foundation. Though the state is home to the third largest number of active-duty military personnel in the nation, its national defense industry standing hovers around 28th.

“We’ve historically had this mismatch between a lot of operators — folks using the gear — but not having any of the decision commands,” he said.

That is changing. U.S. Army Forces Command, which determines the missions that soldiers fight as well as the majority of what the service needs to buy, is moving to Fort Bragg from Atlanta. Similarly, U.S. Army Reserve Command is moving there as a result of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure process.

Since the foundation began its work in 2006, it has seen a positive impact on the state’s economy, rising to nearly $24 billion from $18 billion.

With the memorandum of agreement in place, those numbers could grow, said DeSpain.

“We don’t build armored cars to race around the racetrack, but we have a lot of safety technologies that help save lives,” said Chen. Since the fatal racing accident of driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, the community has not seen those kinds of fatalities, he pointed out.

The basic structures of the racecar chassis and frames have not changed much in 40 years. Rather the industry has concentrated on perfecting the art of modifications, said DeSpain. “Their whole focus is not on creating a new race car every year,” he said. “Their whole focus of effort is improving what’s there,” making vehicles lighter, faster, stronger and safer.

That thought process is similar to the thinking in the military services, and especially in the special operations community. “There’s almost a perfect marriage there,” DeSpain said.

There is a cluster of companies located 20 miles north of Charlotte, N.C., that supports the motorsports racing industry. Many of them are eager to help military customers.

“In these North Carolina motorsports companies, that’s what we do every day: Build things to make the car lighter, stronger, faster,” said Hans deBot, president of deBotech Inc., a carbon fiber and advanced composites manufacturer who not only supplies motorsports racing teams, but also supports the U.S. men and women’s Olympic bobsled and skeleton racing teams. “To be able to apply it to the military and defense industries can only help them, because if you can give them a product that’s going to perform better, handle better, go faster, they’re going to spend less time in the red zone. They’ll have less opportunities to get killed,” he said.

Replacing an aluminum part with one made out of carbon fiber can save 30 to 40 percent of the weight in racecars. For military vehicles made out of steel and reinforced with anti-ballistics material, a similar swap to composites in vehicle panels alone can potentially save as much as 70 percent of the weight, he said.  

Some of the most important work being done in the motorsports racing field is computer analysis of vehicle designs. A company called Corvid Technologies employs a 5,000-processor supercomputer for solving complex engineering problems for clients. The firm’s use of high-fidelity physics codes allows it to design and analyze vehicle systems in painstaking detail. The computer models can be applied readily to military tactical vehicles to evaluate designs or simulate blast testing.

“We can test all these things, show them what’s going to happen, before you ever cut the first piece,” said David Robinson, president and founder of the company, which has worked with the Defense Department’s mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles joint program office in that capacity. It wants to do the same for the Army-Marine Corps Humvee recapitalization program.

“Where we have most bang for the buck is leveraging us very early in design cycle before your design is final and locked down,” said Robinson. “It shaves years off of the development cycle.”

The process can save the government millions of dollars by averting blast testing of prototype systems at a proving ground, he said.

Because the motorsports racing industry is so specialized and has limited manufacturing capacity compared to that of traditional defense firms, its offerings often come at a higher cost compared to what military customers might be accustomed.

“Price is what scares them away all the time,” said deBot. “That’s where you run into the most roadblocks: It’s cost.”

But the motorsports industry representatives and their advocates are optimistic that once the collaborations begin and products prove themselves, it will quickly domino.

“North Carolina is on the right track to try to solve the issues at hand,” said deBot. “That’s what these people are trying to do — bring these companies and big military and defense contractors to a realization that they’re tapping into a resource that can really bring them to the next level.”

The hope is that in five or 10 years there is a defense cluster in North Carolina, possibility centered near Fort Bragg, that is as interdependent on the racing industry as it is on the special operations community, officials said.

”All we now need is just the opportunities and we’ll shine like a new penny,” deBot said.  

Topics: Land Forces

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