VIPER benefits from donation of Petty Enterprises race cars

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No. 43 has clout in stock-car racing. That was the number on the cars raced by one of NASCAR’s most famous drivers, Richard Petty.

Petty moved several years ago from behind the wheel to the owner’s box, where he has become an advocate for better and safer racing. Now his company, Petty Enterprises, has donated two cars bearing No. 43 to the Virginia Institute for Performance Engineering and Research (VIPER) at Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County. Driver Bobby
Labonte raced the cars for Petty during the 2007 season.

The cars will give institute researchers real-life test subjects in determining how suspension systems hold up under severe stress — and how they can be improved.

Testing is done at a laboratory on a contraption known as an eight-point shaker rig, a VIPER-designed simulator that mimics racetrack conditions. Test results will be applied to NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow program but can also be used during the design phase of general automotive production to more quickly optimize suspension systems.

“It brings credibility to my program just to have the cars,” says Steve Southward, VIPER’s director and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “Now when I write a proposal for a new grant, I can put a picture of the car in there and say, ‘This is my test asset. We’re doing real things on real cars.’ That’s something that’s looked on very highly when you’re trying to make things really work — instead of being a purely theoretical or simulation test program.”

The former NASCAR racers are already bringing new visibility to the program. Southward says that a major auto manufacturer has begun negotiating with VIPER for testing and research services. The VIPER program also is seeing renewed interest from students — thanks largely to the Petty donation. Southward says that, after years of having
trouble attracting students, he now has too many applications for the four graduate research assistantship positions available for next fall.

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