At the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janerio, Brad Cracchiola, an automotive engineer, stayed in the Olympic village with the athletes. He rode the bus to the track with them and went onto the field during practice.
And Cracchiola was in the stands when these athletes – people he worked with and had gotten to know over two years – won seven medals, four of them gold. In fact, it took just one minute and 44.75 seconds for American Tatyana McFadden to set a Paralympic record, winning gold in the women's T54 800m wheelchair race.
What was that like? "Honestly, just relief and elation. Like, oh thank god! You know?" Cracchiola said. "After two years, there's so much on the line in such a short amount of time."
The wheelchairs used by the U.S. team at the games in Rio were unlike anything the sport had seen before. They were made by BMW using technology usually reserved for high-end automotive or aerospace development: computational fluid dynamics, 3-D printing for rapid prototypes, laser scanning for custom fit, wind-tunnels for aerodynamic testing and extensive carbon-fibre manufacturing.
Cracchiola, whose long CV begins with a stint at NASA in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is an associate director at BMW's Designworks studio in Los Angeles. He led the team that created the wheelchairs.
"There are a lot of things that could translate back to the automotive world," he said. But that wasn't the primary goal.
The team at Designworks was accustomed to working on non-automotive projects. The company functions as a consultancy, creating everything from yachts to motorcycles, industrial tractors, first-class airplane cabins, user interface designs and towering gaming PCs – in addition to cars. Designworks did the first concept sketches for BMW's X Series of SUVs, from the X1 to X6, and worked on the i3 electric and i8 sports car.
But racing wheelchairs are different. Each is unique. The Designworks team started by laser-scanning an athlete in her chair and used that as a baseline for simulations and models. From there, it created custom body moulds for each athlete – just as Formula One racing teams do for their drivers. Carbon-fibre, instead of aluminum, was used for the chassis for its favourable strength-to-weight ratio. Every bit of flex in the chassis and wheels wastes athletes' energy and robs them of speed.
Wheelchair racers hit the wheels, punch them, with special gloves.
"A combination of a pistol grip and brass knuckle," Cracchiola said. "Because there's not much money in the sport, athletes would hand-make them out of hobby-putty. But they wouldn't be symmetrical or fit perfectly." They were heavy and could even melt if left in a hot car. So, Designworks scanned them, digitally sculpted them and can print them out in 3-D if an athlete loses or breaks one.
"There's an interesting opportunity for customization of vehicles; there's a lot of potential," Cracchiola said. Some 3-D printed materials are getting so good they offer performance benefits in addition to the custom-printing benefits. "It'll be interesting to see how that catches on in the car industry. I'm certain that it will be leveraged." A steering wheel or seat sculpted to each individual driver? Maybe one day.
Aerodynamics, too, are becoming incredibly important as auto makers try to reduce vehicle fuel and energy consumption.
Wheelchair racers draft off each other, NASCAR-style, letting the person in front cut through the wind. "It was really cool to hear athletes come back and tell us, drafting behind your chair is awful," Cracchiola said. "Because the aerodynamics are so good, there's no dirty air. And that's exactly what you want."
No "dirty" turbulent air coming off the back of your car translates into money saved at the gas pump.
In fact, to hear Cracchiola talk about the Olympic wheelchair project was similar to hearing an engineer talk about the challenges of creating a new SUV or sports car.
"The cross-fertilization – it's one of our goals, but it's never something that's a literal translation," he said. "It's much more like, it all feeds into the soup in your brain. … We're not going back with a report to BMW, but everything we did feeds into our design and development of vehicles, for sure."
This is why Ferrari helped the Italian Olympic team design a new bobsled. McLaren helped the British team do the same and so did BMW for the U.S. team. It's why Jaguar Land Rover got involved in America's Cup Yacht racing and why Bentley designed a hotel room at the St. Regis in Istanbul. These are all marketing ploys, no doubt , but there are also intangible "brain soup" benefits of getting automotive designers and engineers to work outside their four-wheeled comfort zones.
Wheelchair racing, even at the Olympic level, isn't well funded. Unlike other sports, cycling or skiing, there is no big consumer market associated with it that can bring in money to support innovation.
"All of the people at Designworks – designers and engineers – they all wanted to be a part of it," Cracchiola said. "These are the programs that all of us really cherish. I hope we can make positive change beyond just selling things."