images Courtesy GM Racing
I first saw Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) in use for racing in New Mexico at then Indy car powerhouse team Galles Racing in the late ‘80s. They had a state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics (SG) computer workstation running a custom-written CFD program to help design and model their front and rear wings for their Indy cars.
Although I had worked in an R&D section of the old-line Burroughs computer company years before, this real-time aero-evaluation of a racing wing model on-screen was about the coolest use of a computer I had ever seen up to that point. Talk about being blinded by the light – and the big bucks. The SG workstation was at least $30,000 and the CFD programming that much or more.
I wasn’t a computer noob -- I was fortunate to have seen a demo around 1980 on a desktop-sized computer running the Smalltalk computing language with a computer mouse and graphical user interface (GUI) -- when some visiting computer scientists from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) showed us at Burroughs the future years before it came true. PARC – the people who invented the laser printer; Ethernet; LANs; email; GUI; desktop publishing; essentially the first portable workstation computer; Smalltalk (which eventually begat Windows) – really, really, really smart, world-class computing people – most of whom left to build companies like Apple, Adobe, and others.
But aero-modeling of prototype race car parts without a wind tunnel? That was equally amazing. Only a few years before, it would have taken a defense contractor budget and a room the size of a 4-car garage filled with the latest mainframe computer gear to do this – or a hanger stuffed with engineers with greased slide rules. But here was a minicomputer with 3-D graphics and computations to simulate the aero forces on those race body parts. I had seen the beginnings of what I then called “a mini wind tunnel in a can.”
Now, 25 years later the processing and computational power of that very expensive SG computer workstation is available in a desktop; albeit not your father’s desktop, but a modern maximum processor hot-rodded one. And the CFD programming isn’t limited to modeling certain smaller parts of a race car body, but can aero-model the entire assembled body. All this in now possible before you ever have to fire up a multi-million dollar real-word wind tunnel, which is usually reserved for production cars nearly 24-7-365 -- let alone pay for the travel to/from, etc. for your race team.