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June 2008
Shear Energy
By Janet Kropinak

     Air temperature inside the wind tunnel is set and maintained at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The car is secured on the 10.5 foot by 29.5 foot rolling road. Engineers and aerodynamicists take their seats in the private control room. Doors are sealed; fan is turned on. The 5,100 horsepower motor whirrs, forcing air through a 10 foot by 18 foot nozzle. In under a minute, the rolling road goes from zero to a full 180 miles per hour. The result: the most accurate aerodynamic road simulation testing available in the racing industry and one of the most technically advanced facilities in the world.

     This month Concord is once again affirmed as the heart of racing when Windshear, Inc. opens its doors. Already creating buzz around the region and beyond as the only wind tunnel of its kind in North America, Windshear has positioned itself to change and advance the racing industry.


Blowing into Concord

      Windshear was spawned from a collaborative effort headed and funded by NASCAR team owner Gene Haas of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool manufacturer in the world.

     Once the project got the green light, the search for its home ensued.

     “We knew we wanted to be in the greater Charlotte region—that just made sense for us—but we looked at a few different locations before settling on Concord,” explains Peter Zierhut, Windshear’s business manager. Zierhut sites both proximity to the airport and accessibility to the racing industry as the ultimate decision-making factors. “We are fortunate in that we are right in the middle of the action here,” he says enthusiastically.

     Haas partnered with Jacobs Technology, a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., to build, operate, and provide test services for the wind tunnel, and Choate Construction who completed site work, construction of the control/office building and the test section of the wind tunnel.

     Everyone involved in the project—Haas Automation, Jacobs Engineering and Choate Construction—really came together and became partners to get things done efficiently and quickly,” comments Zierhut. “We have been impressed at every level along the way at how smooth things have run.”

     A two-year process for conception to completion, the $40 million 40,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility now sits on five acres near the Concord Regional Airport.

     With construction finished, the technology tested, and the equipment calibrated, Windshear is ready and anxious to welcome its first customers. “The anticipation has been huge and we are all just excited to get started,” says Zierhut.

     To help stir up business and interest, Zierhut has been spreading the word about Windshear’s capabilities and offerings throughout the industry.

     Windshear’s official introduction was at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show last year in Florida. “This is where we really started promoting the kinds of things we are going to be doing,” explains Zierhut.

      Company representatives also attended the Autosport Exhibition in Birmingham, England, in January where they made their introduction and pitch to the Formula 1 teams.

     “What we are doing is so unique and so high-tech that it has been really easy to promote,” says Jeff Bordner, site manager for the facility. “We have already received so much support; everyone is excited to learn more about us and what we are doing. Few people have ever seen anything like this so the intrigue is already there.”

     Windshear proudly boasts that they were already 85 percent sold out of slots for 2008 even before their official opening. And the fact that they are the only facility of its kind only means the demand is likely to increase.


The Business of Wind

     So what is it about Windshear that is creating such buzz? In laymen’s terms, they are the only commercially available full-scale, single-belt, rolling road wind tunnel in the world.

     But technically speaking: it is Windshear’s capability to offer its clients, who will include top-level motorsports organizations and auto manufacturers, a 180-mph (290 kph) rolling road, one of only three in the world and the largest of its kind in North America that is garnering all the attention. The rolling road can accelerate from zero-to full speed (180 mph) in less than one minute.

      Windshear delivers highly accurate, repeatable data which previously was only available to select Formula 1 teams. Additionally, Windshear provides data to teams previously unavailable at other wind tunnel facilities in the United States while maintaining temperatures to plus or minus one degree Fahrenheit.

     The rolling road technology comes from MTS Systems, a leader in providing innovative engineering solutions. The Single Belt FlatTrac Rolling Road system uses a continuous steel belt, one millimeter thick, running beneath the vehicle, similar to a treadmill, to simulate the road beneath a racecar on the track. This technology provides the most accurate aerodynamic road simulation possible in the motorsports industry today and greatly advances capabilities for motorsports organizations in North America.

     The stainless steel belt has a lifespan of 5,000 operational hours. If one vehicle stayed on the road for that entire time, it could travel between 186,000 and 248,000 miles.

     Inside the wind tunnel, traveling through a closed loop circuit, air flows from the fan, through a highly focused contraction nozzle, then to the test section and across the vehicle. The air then exits the test section and is returned to the fan. Air flows over the car as it sits restrained on the rolling road. The steel belt drives the car’s wheels, accurately simulating motion across a race track. A variety of sensors measure forces during testing and record the data for customer analysis. In addition, customers have the ability to add a variety of customized sensors, tailoring testing to their needs.

     The fan controlling the wind tunnel is 22 feet in diameter and is powered by a 5,100 horsepower motor. Another important feature of the rolling road is its turntable which gives it the capability to yaw plus or minus 8 degrees, which allows teams to test how different yaw angles affect air flow against the car.

     “Because Windshear is a one-of-a-kind facility you can’t simulate the testing we are doing with any other wind tunnel so the teams that are coming are going to have a huge advantage over the teams that aren’t,” Bordner points out. “We are providing more accurate test results and simulating conditions and variables that make the results invaluable to the engineers and aerodynamicists involved.”

     Zierhut confirms Bordner’s excitement: “The teams that are able to make the investment in our technology are really going to see results. They are going to be a step ahead of the competition before the race even begins.”


The Windshear Experience

     Windshear sessions are sold in 10-hour blocks and cost between $35,000 and $40,000. The 10-hour time slot is spent predominantly in the wind tunnel, analyzing the data and processing the numbers. Teams will visit as often as once a week or as little as once a season depending on their objectives and budget.

     At least five Cup series teams are scheduled to visit Windshear and, although Zierhut and Bordner are careful not to disclose any hints at who is on board to visit, they are confident that number will continue to increase as word spreads.

     In addition to NASCAR, Windshear has contracted with several Indy racing teams and just recently contracted with its first Formula 1 team, a trend they expect to continue.

    “We are excited to have our first Formula 1 team on board. Formula 1 represents some of the highest technology racing in the world and it is a tribute to Windshear’s capabilities to be selected by some of the top names in racing worldwide,” says Zierhut.

     Not surprisingly, and precisely for that reason, Windshear maintains a high security environment. Its main building and offices are separate from the work areas and key cards are used to control entry into secure areas. There are three concrete work bays, each with private kitchens and restrooms to ensure complete privacy during a session.

     “We are going to do everything in our power to ensure that our customers have a good experience. And, an important factor in their satisfaction is our ability to guarantee that their information isn’t going to fall into the wrong hands,” says Bordner.

    When their wind tunnel session begins, teams are provided private access to the transfer corridor to move their vehicle to the test section and onto the rolling road. Once inside, test data is securely collected. At the end of the test session, all data is purged under the customer’s supervision.

     During the testing process, Windshear technicians assist with the setup of the equipment and remain on hand for any required help and play as big or small a role in the process as the customer encourages.

     Although so far, no one has had the opportunity to test the facility firsthand, the anticipation is great. “The teams are all really excited to have us here, we’ve been welcomed warmly by the racing community,” says Bordner.

     Although most of the feedback you hear about Windshear is positive, some skeptics say NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow has eliminated the need for such elaborate testing and therefore such a facility. Both Bordner and Zierhut strongly disagree and stress the importance of continued aerodynamic testing.

     “Today teams have to work harder than ever to find that competitive edge and this testing will certainly help them tremendously in producing results,” affirms Bordner.


Blowing Forward

     Although their initial goal was to be operational by March, Zierhut admits that opening this month is still ahead of where some thought they would be.

     “Right now we are focusing our efforts on making sure that once we have teams in here things run smoothly and we are able to provide the best possible experience,” Bordner says.

     Windshear will begin running one 10-hour shift, five days a week and eventually, likely next year, as demand increases, will operate 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

     “Next year we have 6,800 hours to fill, which is a little daunting but we are optimistic that we’ll do it,” says Zierhut. “The fact that we only have 15 percent of our slots left for the year before our opening is an accomplishment in itself and a likely indicator of what is ahead for us.”

     When the facility is running at full capacity Windshear plans to expand its staff to 18 or 20 to ensure they can accommodate the double shift schedule.

      In addition to NASCAR and Formula 1 racing, Windshear is likely to see more business and interest from the new dragway that Bruton Smith is building near Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

     Windshear’s $40 million price tag was hardly a bargain but everyone involved feels the investment in the industry and in the greater Charlotte region is more than worth it. Expectations are to break even in the next five to seven years, but Zierhut admits it will likely be the latter.

     As the racing industry continues to grow and expand internationally and within the greater Charlotte region, finding new ways to stay competitive and advance are crucial. Windshear’s technology is not only able to attract teams from within its own backyard but also on a national and international scale.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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